That defeat came a little sooner than I expected. Nobody’s mad enough to think their team will go a full season unbeaten, but you can’t help but secretly hope for something inexplicable. I’m a Coventry City fan and desperate for success. It’s not my fault.
After a solid and comfortable start to the season, I’m not too sure how our entire team all managed to freeze on the same day. On second viewing, Rod McDonald really is the only player to come out of the game with a performance that matched my expectations. The rest offered either benign contributions, or were actively poor in a game that really showcased the horrible side of League Two life.
Newport are evidently an organised and well-structured team, but put in a fairly run-of-the-mill performance against our own inadequacies. This resulted in an abject spectacle, where individual moments of quality were sporadic and even these were only partial aspects of ultimately fruitless attacks. Passes were sloppy, crosses were tame and shots lacked conviction.
Truth be told, McDonald and Willis put up a reasonably solid defensive resistance, limiting direct chances and keeping an attack that included the notoriously quiet Nouble, mostly quiet. While his defending was acceptable, Willis once again demonstrated his wildness in distribution, not only over-hitting passes, but actively rocketing them beyond their intended target. I like him as a player – I really do – but he can be tiring.
Flanking the defence were two nervy full-backs. Grimmer has grown nicely into the team in the opening games, but started in a shaky manner and never really recovered from an early (and sustained) bollocking from Doyle. Now, you’d think the players will be growing used to Doyle’s ‘ways’ and will start to tune him out, but Grimmer is young and took one hell of a screaming for a fairly innocuous decision to head the ball to Kelly. I’m not saying players don’t need a kick up the arse and I want Doyle to be the guy to do that, but that moment struck me as excessive and detrimental to improving Grimmer’s performance.
On the left we really struggled, with Stokes regressing to a non-league version of himself, offering very little resistance and a lack of consistency or conviction with the ball at his feet. He’s obviously still coming back to match sharpness, but he performed noticeably below his usual levels. He’s a worker who throws everything into his game, but was off the pace and incapable of even doing that.
Ahead of him Peter Vincenti did little to quell the growing discontent about his performances. Personally I’m still happy to offer him the benefit of that building doubt simply because Robins clearly sees something in him. He’s not got into his stride yet, but Mark Robins isn’t an idiot. There is a reason why he is playing him on the left and it can’t just be for his extendable neck.
The most disappointing aspect of the match, and possibly the critical issue affecting the overall nature of the performance, was that our dependable midfield tough guys endured mistake-laden afternoons. Liam Kelly was my man of the match against Grimsby after a strong second half, but he was unable to replicate that. It shouldn’t be a broader issue as we’ve long since realised that players are capable of quite sizeable drops in quality when they’re not on their game, but his passing was regularly wayward and his decision-making was erratic. It became such a recurring theme that Robins replaced him with Stevenson after an hour. The game was getting away from him and needed addressing.
Doyle too found himself the wrong side of his default level. He never hides – he’s too experienced to let bad passes get the better of him, and he gets credit for always making himself available. But in a game where the onus was on us to force the issue, he was short of ideas.
Coming a close second in the big gob stakes is keeper Liam O’Brien, who to this point has played solidly and proved himself a worthy occupant of the position. However, with the return of Lee Burge, the pressure on him has increased. Saturday was the day he needed to assert himself. While his handling and basic performance was fine, his kicking and distribution was unreliable, and his mistake for the goal was dreadful. He knows that as well as anyone. Mistakes happen (just ask Hugo Lloris) so this doesn’t alter my current assessment of him too much, but he plays in a position where unforced errors like that simply can’t happen more than once. It appeared to be a drop in concentration, but the one hope is that we’ll now see a concerted and almost exaggerated focus on ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
The biggest question that came after the game was the decision to introduce Biamou ahead of Nazon. Robins has access to a week’s worth of training sessions to fully assess our players, meaning he has far more to base his decisions on than we do. I’m sure he has plenty of mental references of Biamou in training but unfortunately our only experiences of Biamou so far have been mostly unmemorable ones, while Duckens Nazon has displayed attributes befitting the description “game-changer”. We were devoid of any real dynamism up front, and while this briefly improved with the introduction of Andreu, you have to feel that the manic nature of Nazon was the one with the highest probability of creating goal-scoring chances. Sure, I accept he’s a bit rogue and would have potentially contradicted the considered styles of Stevenson, Andreu and McNulty, but his unpredictability may just have been the distraction we needed to open up the game for others.
One positive I’d like to highlight was the influence of Tony Andreu. He looks good – technically competent and clearly a creator – and seems well suited to a number 10 role. One minor flaw to that is we don’t currently play with a number 10. If we’re looking to introduce one it will almost certainly come at the expense of another striker. I’m not sure how I feel about that, especially in League Two, but given the confidence Andreu appears to have in himself (and his teammates in him) you have to expect Robins to find a way to merge him into the starting lineup against Yeovil.
Let’s be honest, it was disappointing to lose so early on. I think we all wanted to see a concerted run of form to vindicate the optimism that’s been growing over the past fortnight, but in a way this defeat may go some way to developing a pragmatic mindset to the season. The ambition doesn’t change – it’s only been three games – but it’s an early reminder of what is required to achieve success this year, which is no bad thing.
In the same way that most of us guarded against going over-the-top after the opening two league wins, a defeat doesn’t drastically alter things. We have a long history of panicking and treating minor blips as terminal issues far earlier than is necessary. Losing your third game certainly isn’t a crisis or an indicator of what’s to come; it’s simply football. Chelsea lost at home to Burnley and they’re just as likely to win the Premier League now as they were before that game. Money-bags Wolves lost on Saturday and they think they’re fucking brilliant nowadays. Each game has its own dynamic and Saturday’s match was one where we were unable to shake off some early mistakes and let that nervousness dictate our 90 minute performance.
What’s necessary now is a strong, resolute response against Yeovil. We have to re-assert ourselves and make absolutely clear that Saturday was an aberration. A minor blip, but one that we use to fuel our desire to get back on track immediately.