Thursday 28 February 2013

Fleetwood frustration

IF you are looking for something to take your frustration out on after a point at Highbury which should have been three, don't blame Mark Yates, or the player who didn't track Junior Brown's run for their undeserved equaliser.
Blame the motorway network of England, notably the M6, M1 and M42. It's all their fault.
Because, for the past 13 months, since we won 3-1 at Macclesfield to go top of League Two on January 28, 2012, once we have negotiated the obligatory queue near Walsall's Banks's Stadium, or driven past Birmingham Airport on the M42, we can wave goodbye to a three-point haul.
Since that day at the Moss Rose, we have gone past the second city 12 times, and not come back down again with a win.
We lost at the end of last season at Morecambe, Shrewsbury, Rotherham and Crewe, and this season we came home empty-handed from Bradford, Chesterfield, Rotherham and Rochdale, and last night's point is added to draws at York, Morecambe and Accrington.
We still have Burton and Port Vale to go to this season...
In the same period, when we have gone to away games in the south, east or west, we have won at Dagenham and Plymouth last season, and this time around at Aldershot, Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Northampton and Southend - that's seven wins, and you can add a play-off semi win at Torquay to that.
We have drawn four times, at Hereford last season and this campaign at Wycombe, Torquay and Gillingham, with defeats in the south at Crawley, Swindon,Southend last season and Dagenham and Oxford this time. You can add Wembley to that if you like...
But in contrast to those last 11 trips north of the second city, we could not have done much more to take the much-needed victory, however yet again the performance and outcome once again summed up the curate's egg of a team we are.
At Accrington, we were largely sterile and came away fortunate to take a point at a side fighting for their lives. Three days later, we have gone to play a side sitting just below us in the table, turned in, I feel, our most complete display of the campaign, and came home with the same reward.
After the game last weekend, and given the performances from some players in most of the games since the turn of the year, Mark Yates had no alternative but to shake up the side.
There have been players on the bench who deserved their chance to start simply because they could not have done any worse than those who had started in recent games.
Both of the wide players had done a fine job to play themselves out of the side, while Sam Deering, Russ Penn and Darren Carter had to come in.
Yates also saved himself the problem of which of his five central midfielders to drop by simply playing all of them - and reverting to the 4-2-3-1 system which served us well for most of last term (except we went north of Birmingham late in the campaign... ok, you've got the picture).
Since the arrival of Paul Benson and Byron Harrison, and with Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy also at his disposal, he had been more keen than ever to play two up front, the theory being that it would maximise the goalscoring potential of this quartet.
But in recent games with two up front (bar the games we won, against Southend and Torquay) we have looked toothless - I grant that has not always been the fault of the forwards, but also down to the lack of service and support they have had from the midfield, and especially the wide men.
Benson was chosen as the one up front, and I was also pleased to see Billy Jones back in the starting line-up, both for the balance his natural left-footedness gives us and also for the added threat of his set-pieces.
Keith Lowe kept his place at right-back, and this wasn't a total surprise to me - although subsequently it seems Sido missed the bus, and would have started otherwise. Silly Sido!
Despite that, and I can't put my finger on why, but I don't think Sido has been the same player this season as the one who burst on the scene so well last season.
He doesn't seem as confident as he was, looks more prone to errors and his body language is not what it was. I am not blaming it on him growing his hair - whether it is the hernia op still bothering him, or there are other factors, I am not sure, but something doesn't seem right to me.
Keith has overall been more solid and reliable when he has been in the side, so I think Mark made the right call with playing Billy and the Bilston Beckenbauer - whatever the mitigating circumstances were.
So would the system work? Would we look more dangerous, more fluent, more cohesive, more compact and most crucially of all, would we carry more of a goal threat despite only fielding Benson up front?
The answer was yes in all cases - and that is why only coming away with a draw was so frustrating, and ultimately felt like a defeat.
On paper, a draw at a Fleetwood side who, like us, have been up there challenging all season and have a strong, powerful squad looks a decent result.
But in the position we find ourselves in looking at the table, and when you have gone up there, dominated, gone in front and then only come away with yet another draw, it is maddening.
Right from the off, we were on the front foot. Fleetwood never had time to settle, and were into our stride straight away.
The catalyst for the performance, especially in the first half, was Deering. He was like a little dynamo, a non-stop bundle of energy, and Fleetwood's midfield and back four did not know how to handle him.
He was playing in the role we have seen him be so effective for in his Barnet days against us - the performances which made me so pleased when we signed him.
Sam would pop up in the middle, then burst down the right, then the left. He was always available and all of his touches were telling. He didn't waste much possession throughout.
He gave Benson the support he needed, and linked up well constantly with Penn, Pack, Carter and Taylor to leave Fleetwood chasing shadows.
It was testament to our dominance that Steven Gillespie, after about 20 minutes, was pulled back to play as a midfielder to try and quell our superiority in that area. It didn't work.
We carried on in the same vein, and Pack got the goal we deserved, a superb volley after Lowe's long throw came out to him, about 20 yards out.
It makes it four goals in four games for Marlon, and maintains the monopoly he and Benson have on our goals in recent matches - they have scored our last six between them.
We could have been out of sight by half-time. Scott Davies saved from Deering and Taylor shot over, while we had a couple of close squeaks from corners, with Lowe getting on the end of a couple as he has done to good effect all season.
Scott Brown was a spectator, bar a shot from Gillespie right at the end of the half, and it was no surprise when Jon 'The Beast' Parkin came on at the break, replacing Jean-Michel Fontaine, who rivals Gary Kenneth of Bristol Rovers for the 'Worst Player To Play Against Us This Season' award.
But the pattern did not really change noticeably after the break. We were still making the running, winning the second balls, passing the ball well and creating opportunities. Nothing clear-cut, but still opportunities.
While Deering had been our star of the first half, that mantle passed to Taylor in the second. Possibly realising the lack of threat from their midfield, he took the bull by the horns and showed that he can play a bit, and that he is not just a 'break it up and give it to the passer' type of player.
Fleetwood threatened a bit more when Junior Brown came on, and he gave Carter and Jones down our left-hand side a bit more to think about.
One of them, and my money is on Carter, lost him at the crucial moment from a short corner (needlessly given away after a poor ball out of defence by Lowe) - and that few slack seconds was all it took to undo the other 94 minutes and 55 seconds of good work and endeavour.
It did allow us to hear the strains of Captain Pugwash and watch a large dancing cod on the big screen, but I would happily have forgone that 'pleasure' for the three points we deserved.
Their tails were up after that, and I was surprised not to see Jamille Matt come on. I was expecting a direct assault with balls slung into our box, but after a five-minute wobble we settled back to how we were and would have won it but for a superb reflex save from Davies from Benson, after he was set up by, yes, Deering.
But we had to 'settle' for a draw, and so we sit seventh, and are, for the first time in a while, more than one win away from the automatic slot, but the same number of points clear of the side now in eighth - Fleetwood. 23 points gone from winning positions. Grrrrr...
I maintain my earlier feeling that the top two are out of reach, despite their defeats this midweek. If we want to get into that third slot, I feel (for starters) that we have to take six points from AFC Wimbledon and Chesterfield at home in the next two games, and then get at least a draw at Burton - who have won their last eight home games, and seem to be the form side of the top half.
But now Yatesy has yet another dilemma.
He played 4-4-2 to try to get us more of a goal threat. It hasn't worked. He then went back to his tried and tested, with the 4-2-3-1 which did so well last year, and got our best performance of the season.
It sounds perverse to say we were more dangerous and threatening with no orthodox wide players and one out-and-out striker on the pitch, than we had been with two wingers and two forwards with tried and tested records at this level, but that was the case.
Now we come home again, and face a side battling for their lives at the bottom, like Aldershot were. Against them, we played 4-4-2 and struggled as they were happy to sit deep and forced us to go direct, playing into their hands.
If he sticks with the same formation from Tuesday, I can hear the moans already, which, if we don't win, will only get louder.
'We have to play two strikers at home'.
'Playing 4-5-1 at home is negative.'
'We need to play wingers and get at them down the flanks.'
'Shaun Harrad is our top scorer, why is he sat on the bench.'
All valid arguments. However, fielding two strikers at home hasn't worked by and large, and the wingers have largely been ineffective in recent games, home and away. They have been nullified far too easily, and had little effect on the game - at Accrington, we may as well have had nine men.
With 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1, whatever you want to call it) we were far from negative on Tuesday, and some of our best displays at home last season used that very formation.
Shaun Harrad hasn't scored for five games - but in mitigation he hasn't started in those games as he paid for the price for the Dagenham debacle.
Harrad has been the 'scapegoat' for a few inept team displays this season. But Benson did nothing wrong on Tuesday, and showed he can play that lone role effectively - given the right support.
Of the midfield five, Carter was the weakest link, but he still had a very effective game going forward, the downside being his set-piece marking. Along with the other four, he doesn't deserve to be dropped.
Defensively, we were sound. The full-backs were good going forward and provided the support and some good crosses on Tuesday, while Michael Hector and Steve Elliott were very solid. I would say Tuesday was Hector's best game.
They deserved the clean sheet, but didn't get it, and we have still not had a shut-out since Hector joined us - his seven games has seen us let in one goal six times, and the two at Accrington - I am not solely blaming him for that by the way!
It is difficult to make a case for any of the 11 which started on Tuesday to lose their place - and of those sat on the bench, only Harrad or Byron Harrison (against his old club) possibly have a strong case to come back in, not necessarily on their own form or the lack of form of those ahead of them in the side, but more for the inclination to play two forwards at home.
Some will note that I have not included Darryl Duffy in that equation. That is simply because it seems at the moment that Darryl is (rightly or wrongly) fourth in line in the manager's thinking, and would not get in ahead of Harrad or Harrison alongside Benson.
Personally, I would resist the thoughts of a change and give the vote of confidence to those who gave us a new vitality and spark on Tuesday night. For the first time this season, we rediscovered the style of last season.
I would urge people to take the blinkers off, and look beyond the number of strikers. Focus instead on the tempo we played at, and the quality we showed on Tuesday, and hope that we could replicate it.
I know that replicating it has been the problem. Frequently when Yatesy has kept the same side, a good performance has been followed up by a mediocre one. This lack of consistency has to change, or our season will peter out.
It's now, or never.

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