I didn’t go to the game.
The one sentence that’ll devalue the opinion of a blog writer more than any other (with the obvious exception of “Hello, my name is Robbie Savage”).
But I didn’t go to the game. I was at a wedding, enjoying myself.
I wasn’t at Gresty Road to anticipate a performance from the same players that played so spectacularly well against Birmingham. I wasn’t there to see us approach the game with little gameplan. I wasn’t there to see Kevin Kilbane give the fans some jip at the end. And I definitely wasn’t there to see our fans make a 10 year old ball-boy cry.
I wasn’t there. And thank Christ for that.
We’re still waiting for that first league win, and for a club that should have aspirations of pushing for promotion, we’re certainly making hard work of this start.
By all accounts, we didn’t really deserve anything, which is always difficult to hear. It’s been said that Crewe were technically superior all over the pitch, and we lacked any of the pressing and desire that earned the win against Birmingham and was very noticeable in the first half against Bury.
But why is this? Why does this team of ours struggle to maintain a level of performance beyond a single game? It’s not like it’s a new problem, and while this is an issue that fans of every club will claim to have also, I’m telling you now – ours has been going on for much longer than yours. So zip it.
Carl Baker is a handy player to look at with this inconsistency in mind. First, we best get one thing straight – I’m certainly not about to crucify him. His effort, skill and application over the last few weeks has been immense. Birmingham he was great, and he displayed a level of performance we’ve never seen from him before. But he has his abilities and natural tendencies, and there’s only so much he can do with them.
The issue we have to struggle with as fans, and the reason we get so frustrated, is the gulf between his top performances, and the way he plays when he’s not on his game. People discuss it being his “level”, and in many respects I agree about each player having a level – but I see it much more as a way of defining consistency, rather than how comfortable they feel amongst different company or their potential maximum ability.
That performance against Championship Birmingham was not League One quality – it was far higher. And yet he managed it, because he’s capable. Does that alone make him a Championship player? Probably not.
He has shown he has the ability to perform to a good standard, but what he has not shown is his ability to produce that same standard consistently. That is what defines his ability. He may feel more comfortable in League One, and be able to produce better quality performances more frequently. But because he is unable to apply himself regularly, he’s always going to be a source of annoyance to fans, and a League One kind of player.
And that is just Carl Baker. As I say, that’s not being critical of his recent form or anything – it’s just identifying what we can realistically expect of him (and many other players for that matter). Generally, I’d suggest he is likely to be very good for us this season, but he’s also likely to get on our nerves a bit too. It comes with the territory. The big question we have to ask ourselves is can we really get angry with him for not doing it week in-week out, or are we entitled to expect more of him, and his team mates, both technically, and with regards to work-rate?
It sounds as though Crewe performed decently as a collective and individually, but they too have many players who are likely to be very up and down in their performance – as with the rest of the league. Fortunately for those teams with players who can’t reach the same heights of quality as the best teams (everyone has a maximum), football is a team game and there are ways to negate these natural drops in standards. Especially if your individuals work to a consistent intensity each game, or you’re able to work well as a unit, implementing good tactics. This work on the training ground comes to the fore when nobody is particularly shining for you.
The real problems arise when you don’t do any of the things mentioned above. A high tempo and work rate could (and most probably should) be the norm for these professional athletes. Shaw spoke after the Birmingham game about setting the standard, and making sure they maintain it. They couldn’t manage the same quality on Saturday, but even more annoying for fans is that they couldn’t compensate for this by playing at the same pace we saw during the first half of Bury, and for long periods against Birmingham. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but the obvious suggestion is to put this down to the individual’s motivation and desire – both the self-driven type, and how well they respond to the man-management methods of the coaching team.
Beyond that, you’d imagine having a solid game plan and working well as a unit is the other get-out-jail-free card for a team when your players are having off days. I’ve spoken to a few attendees of the Crewe game, and this would appear to be the biggest failing. We’ve heard lots about how there was no apparent strategy or coherent plan of attack – and if there was, the players certainly struggled with implementing it effectively.
Being one of those swines that didn’t go to match, it’s tricky to commit to some of this without watching the game myself, but it doesn’t strike me as the most ideal combination.
It seems we played the game with many individuals below par, alongside a considerable drop in energy levels, pressing and workrate, and a perceived lack of commitment to (or understanding of) the team approach.
We certainly can’t keep on like that. We need to be able to offer more as a unit when the players are off their game.
Over the years, there’ve been very few periods when you’ve looked at our team and thought “yeah, this plan is really working”. The last line up that I can remember really gelling as a unit was during the brief Jordan Henderson era, with him doing a job on the right, and right-footed David Bell providing an oddly efficient shape to the side on the left. You look back, and do wonder whether it came about more through luck than judgement, but that approach worked consistently for quite a period, and the players worked to it in a very effective manner.
Since then, it’s hard to pinpoint a moment when the coaches have found a method that genuinely works.
If I have one hope for the new management team, it’s that they know what they want from the team, and crucially, they know how to apply it. As we learned with Andy Thorn and Aidy Boothroyd, simply having the ideology or passion for success isn’t usually enough. When you’re working with players of low consistency, setting up a model that’s based on solid and innovative tactics, exerting yourself hard, and doing the fundamentals right, will usually do a good job of masking those poor individual off days.
And that’s not code for “hoof it” by the way. You can still be an attractive and disciplined team. They’re not mutually exclusive.
It’s also not an excuse for players to struggle with the basics. But if players feel at ease and familiar with a system, you’d like to think it’d aid them in their overall performance too.
Step forward Chris Wilder?