Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A slump... or just a blip?

When does a blip become a slump?
That must be the most pressing question for Mark Yates after what was a deeply frustrating defeat against  a Torquay side who drew level on points with us, after their fourth successive 1-0 win.
It's now 41 points from 48 for the Gulls, who are doing to sides what we were about a month ago - grinding out those results even when they may not play at their very best.
They were an efficient unit - they held us for half an hour, got a goal from a set-piece, well-worked by them, poorly defended by us, then showed great resilience to keep us at bay as we were camped in their half after the break.
The game could almost have been defined by two headers from Brian Saah - one in the 34th minute, touched in on the line by Ian Morris, and one in stoppage time, under his own bar as Jeff Goulding looked set to nod in our equaliser.
We had more possession, and more corners (12 to 3) and all that was missing was a goal.
It was not a bad performance from us, and certainly did not deserve the ridiculous pockets of booing I heard at the final whistle, or the assertions in some quarters that the wheels have come off and here comes the 'annual slump'.
Everyone was more than happy to be associated with the team back in October, November time, when Southend, Oxford and Bristol Rovers were being out to the sword, so why not stick with them now?
But yes, it is a concern.
It's one win in our last five games, but surely it is better to have a blip when you have 56 points than with 26 on the board? Remember, that was off the back of one defeat in 16...
After 30 games last season, we were 12th, so to be second on goal difference, even after a small run of indifferent results, isn't bad, now is it?
But having got into this position, the task now will be to try to turn it round in the next few games before that mad March is upon us, with games at three of the other sides in the top six.
We go to Dagenham on Saturday, then have three successive home games against AFC Wimbledon, Burton and Northampton.
Our in-form side of pre-Christmas vintage would have approached them full of confidence, but now we need to  re-create that, and Yatesy needs to find that formula to get us back on track.
Defensively, we have just started to concede a few poor goals, the sort we were letting in last season, but which we thought had been eradicated.
Saturday's at Hereford, the last one of the four at Crawley, and tonight - a set-piece, free header and tap-in on the line - all preventable. Goals we probably would not have conceded a month or so ago.
People then will say ok, let's get Jack Butland back, but it's not all down to Browny. He's not the centre back who should head the ball away, the full-back who didn't prevent the cross or the man stood on the post who watched Morris tap the ball in tonight.
Then there was the ball in which was criminally allowed to bounce TWICE in our box before Morris nearly scored at the far post. If he had a right foot, we would have been two down.
No disrespect to Keith Lowe, but Steve Elliott is a miss. The dominant centre-half in our back four, our version of Brian Saah if you like.
In midfield, we seem to have lost that spark, that zest we had before Christmas, which was seeing our passing look so incisive and cut through teams, but now we can't find that killer ball, or for all of our probing we can't break sides down as we were before.
Russ Penn's return tonight was a boost. He was, I thought, our best player with his drive and energy setting the tone, and Marlon Pack and Luke Summerfield just seem to feed off him and look different players when he is around.
On the subject of Pack, yes, he seems to have gone off the boil a bit. But we need to remember, he is only 20 years old.
How many 20 year olds could play consistently well for a 46-game League Two season without having a few 'off' days? Not many, I would suggest and if they did they wouldn't be in League Two for long.
He will be back.
And our three strikers are all struggling to find the net. Darryl Duffy's goal at Crawley was his first since Barnet in mid-December, Jimmy Spencer hasn't scored since Southend and Jeff Goulding's at Macc was his first in the league since Accrington in October.
But the effort is still there. Spencer (who, let me say as I read on a ridiculous Robins Nest post the other day is quite clearly not 'worse than Tom Denton') clearly needs a break in front of goal.
His hold-up play and effort levels are high, but so is his frustration level - although I sympathise with him tonight as I thought the referee gave him nothing as he was wrestled around by Saah and Mark Ellis.
But once he got wound up and frustrated, the referee was going to give him nothing, and so it turned out.
I am also not going to condemn his reaction to being taken off. He was clearly angry with his own performance (and said as much on Twitter afterwards) and I am happy to see him show that frustration after coming off. The guy clearly cares and wants to do well, he is not another loanee just here for the hell of it.
But they are not scoring, and the goals dry up from elsewhere in the side then we have a problem - and it is noticeable in recent games that we have found it harder to create clear-cut chances.
For all of our second-half pressure at Hereford, Adam Bartlett was not really tested, and tonight Bobby Olejnik made a save from Mo, Russ Penn and Jeff Goulding - despite us almost exclusively being in their half.
So have teams worked us out? Maybe, but we just have to be a bit 'cuter' when they come and park the bus - someone in there needs to take a bit more responsibility by trying that long-range shot or killer pass even if sometimes it does go wrong.
We have to try to keep that tempo high, move the ball quicker, stretch the play and use the flanks - things we were doing early in the season but in the last few games we have stopped doing - or been prevented from doing by our opponents.
We tried everything we could for 40 of the 45 second half minutes then ruined it for the last 5 and injury time by panicking - going too direct and narrow, which was meat and drink for their centre-halves.
Mark Yates is still looking for fresh blood, and maybe that's what it needs - a new face or two may give us the impetus to rediscover that spark and keep us in what is now an incredibly tight-knit pack of six at the top of the table.
I would prioritise a forward, someone with pace and power, and a midfielder to take some of the pressure off that first-choice trio of Pack, Penn and Summerfield - but not a centre-half especially as Steve Elliott will be back soon.
As, so we all hope, will the Cheltenham Town of pre-Christmas vintage...

Player by player
Scott Brown - Had his pipe and slippers on in the second half as I don't think he touched the ball and barely had a save to make in the first half either.
Sido Jombati - Tried to get us going forward and was able to do that throughout the second half as Torquay sat back, but didn't always pick the right choice.
Luke Garbutt - Not his best game. Didn't react after the Saah header for the goal and Morris was allowed to poke the ball in as he stood on the post.
Keith Lowe - Better than Saturday as he coped better with Atieno than he had done with Facey, but still not as dominant as Steve Elliott.
Alan Bennett - Not playing as well as he was five or six games ago, but not the only one. Needs to rediscover that form and leadership.
Marlon Pack - Also having a little dip in form, but at his age not a great surprise.
Luke Summerfield - Better than in recent games, and like Marlon seemed happier to have Russ Penn back.
Russ Penn - Surprise to see him playing but good to have him back. Tried to take the game by the scruff of the neck and nearly scored a couple of times.
Kaid Mohamed - Good chance in the second half and tried to get the ball down and run at them but thwarted by the solid yellow wall.
Jimmy Spencer - Frustrating evening. Hold up play was good but got nothing from the officials and cut a disconsolate figure when taken off.
Darryl Duffy - Usual effort but well dealt with by the two imposing centre-backs, as at Hereford. Needs some help up there.

Substitutes
Jermaine McGlashan (for Darryl Duffy 58) - Set Penn up with a chance. Unable to really impose himself on the game however.
Jeff Goulding (for Jimmy Spencer 75) - Thought Jeff out himself about quite well, Denied a goal by a fabulous save and a goalline header.
Junior Smike (for Russ Penn 86) - His arrival saw us go 4-4-2 but also saw us go direct and start to panic. Barely had a touch.