It was hard to feel confident about the game in the days beforehand, especially having discussed in meticulous detail the abject performance from Saturday. But oddly with an hour to go before kick off and a first glimpse of the Cardiff line-up, there was a whiff of optimism in the air.
Optimism in football is rarely based on anything concrete – more how the opposition is set up, your form against them, or even the fact that you’re playing in the evening and you have a feeling that you do better in night games. But it’s that optimism all the same which sets you up when you evaluate how the team has matched up to it.
Last night we faced a reduced Cardiff side. They had some decent players on show, but this was very much a second string. We played Cardiff reserves, not Chelsea reserves, so my expectation as the kick off drew closer was that there was a clear opportunity to impress ourselves on them. What I probably should have taken into account was the status of our own squad which is currently desperately trying to get up to speed with what’s being demanded of them.
I’m definitely not saying that we can’t become a good team. You can’t make definitive assessments just yet, and there are so many intangible factors which can contribute to improving a team dynamic the players within it. But what noticeable even at this early stage is a scarceness of individual quality among the player we have around the squad at the moment- you know, those key attributes you look for in players which stand out and give you hope for their potential when fully up to speed.
Losing players like Wilson, Christie and Moussa will leave a dent in the squad, as when they did things well, they were so blistering about it. But it’s the active disposal of the supplementary players around them like Blair Adams and Carl Baker which I’ve yet to shake off my annoyance with. That’s five players who in my mind would (and in Baker’s case, should still) find a valuable place in our team.
I’m not alone in my disappoint with what I’ve seen. Two games in, and Twitter has already lost its shit. Change is fine, but you need to see signs that it’s been done with good intentions and a plan for improvement. There are few indications that this team has been constructed through design, and that’s the most disappointing thing. Good players leaving seemingly for budget reasons, and replacements coming in who lack the same obvious sparks we became so accustomed to last year.
It was the defence which gave us our initial cause for dismay last night with a very “Coventry” goal conceded. The two Jordans seemed intent on causing their own chaos and allowed the Cardiff player a simple opportunity to grab an early foothold in the game. That was naturally and somewhat predictably shambolic, but wasn’t the only moment of defensive weakness in the game. As the senior professional Andy Webster has a remit to take control of the defensive unit, but I just don’t get that sense of authority or discipline from him. We need his presence more than ever when he’s surrounded by such inexperienced players, but he’s yet to show the level of stewardship you’d expect from him.
Before we judge too critically, let’s be fair about a few things. This is a new formation we’re trying and it will take some getting used to – I think we can accept that as the case. But even if that’s not quite there yet, as a group us football fans need to see other things to keep us optimistic. Last season we found out very quickly that we had some devastating attributes to offset any lack of familiarity between the players. Wilson’s pace, Christie’s menacing directness, Leon’s link up, Moussa’s stunning touch, Conor’s work ethic, Jordan Clarke’s confidence in a central position – many of these came as a surprise, and maybe we were spoilt – but they all combined to provide us with enough quality to complete and to be seen as a threat.
So far these outstanding attributes don’t appear to be there in the same manner, if at all. Fleck’s inherent comfort and cultivation of the ball remains, but beyond that it’s hard to pinpoint specific elements of our side which might provide those magic moments.
Jim O’Brien seems to have a decent stride coupled with an Adam Barton/Keith O’Neill awkwardness about him, while Swanson certainly has the touch of a gifted player, but has struggled so far to consolidate that natural technique with anything beyond a Kevin Thornton-ish level of intrigue. Those glints of ability aside, it’s been a pretty uninspiring few days to kick things off.
Fortunately for all for all of this this is football, and there’s always the possibility that things can change, or that we’re just missing a single element which will initiate an upshift in confidence and refocuses the desire and competencies of the team.
We’re waiting for a spark, and one player who showed a willingness to enforce himself on the game last night was young Ryan Haynes. The first time we saw him he was a shy, supremely nervous youngster with an iffy stomach. But you got the sense yesterday that he’s starting to believe in his ability and comfort around the first team. It was noticeable how often he took the ball from his teammates, and also the high level of trust given in him as an outlet on the left by the three midfielders.
This wasn’t blind trust either. He showed great adeptness in one-on-one situations and delivered some wonderfully-shaped balls into our attackers. His most impressive moment came immediately after the own goal, at which point you’d have been forgiven for expecting him to retract into his shell. He didn’t. He picked up the ball on the left and had the focus to maintain his technique and arc a perfect cross into Miller to score. That was certainly the most pleasing aspect of the nigth.
Obviously it meant bugger all for the team in the end, but you could tell from the raised arms after that ball went in that he recognised his own contribution to that move. And I have no problem with that. If you’ve got it, realise your own importance. Callum Wilson did the same last season and look what he achieved.
All told, it was an important game for the players, but maybe not a helpful one when a boost of belief, competency and cohesion is what’s really needed to kick start this already tricky start to the campaign.
We’ll give it another go at the weekend though, of course we will. My overriding hope is that these two games have just been one big misunderstanding, and with a few more sensible choices on the pitch, and a little less lunacy in defence, the performances and players could still start to join the dots a lot more fluently.
P.S. Needless to say getting back to the Ricoh as soon as possible means more to me than any of this. Get a bloody move on you bandits.