Sunday, 24 February 2013

Too quick on the draw

DURING yesterday's radio commentary, I said it was hard to fathom how Accrington were where they are in League Two, given their performance.
A texter then replied by saying it is equally hard, on our performances lately, to fathom out how we are in the top seven... and it is getting harder to argue with that as every week goes on.
If you are a promotion-chasing side, games against teams in the bottom half, at places like Dagenham and Accrington, and at home to Aldershot, have to be won.
That is where teams show their superiority, show their class and show why they deserve to be in the top echelons of the division.
We have taken two points out of nine from those games - and that, in a nutshell, is why our top three bid is faltering, if it hasn't already disappeared.
Since the turn of the year, we have won two games out of 10, lost two and drawn six. Those six draws have been a mix of us losing points after being in front and gaining them from falling behind.
Saturday's game at the Crown was a case of doing both - being in front, falling behind, then coming back to grab a draw. Not promotion form.
Those 10 games in 2013 have seen us score nine goals, and concede nine, and we have become a difficult side to watch - at no time have we looked like going out and imposing our authority on any side, be they at the top or the bottom.
Those nine goals have been shared by four players - Harrad and Pack have three each, Benson two and Lowe one. Hardly prolific!
Let's not kid ourselves. Over the 90 minutes yesterday, we were lucky to get a point.
Scott Brown made three excellent saves in the first half, Stanley missed another great chance and plenty of dangerous crosses went into our box.
At the other end, we got a fortunate penalty but Paul Rachubka did not have a save to make in the 90 minutes as our two shots on target in the game both went in. Not promotion form.
As with several other games recently, we seemed incapable of producing any concerted threat in the final third, while coming under a lot of pressure ourselves. Unless this is rectified, we are going nowhere.
There has been criticism since the end of the game for the decision to leave Shaun Harrad on the bench, and play Byron Harrison - but we could have had Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao up front and they would have been passengers yesterday.
Forwards thrive on service, and different forwards like varying forms of service. Some want crosses in the box to get on the end of, others want to play off the shoulder of the last defender.
At the moment, our forwards are getting nothing. They are being short-changed. Most of the time they are being asked to make something of balls slung down the channels, asking them to chase and create something themselves, or throat-high 'deliveries' aimed at them, as they have a centre-half breathing down their throat.
I was critical of Jermaine McGlashan's end product last week, and both he and Kaid Mohamed were nothing but passengers for their time on the field yesterday.
McGlashan had two early runs, both of which ended with crosses, and  a shot over the bar early in the second half, but that was that from him. He got an early knock, and Sam Deering was ready to come on - and to be honest the change should have happened.
McGlashan was not in the game at all after that, and offered nothing, with Mohamed equally anonymous, so when they came off on the hour it was hardly the biggest shock. In hindsight, I would have removed them at half-time.
As well as offering nothing in attack, they also failed to offer any help or protection to the full backs, Leaving Keith Lowe and Sido Jombati hung out to dry on the flanks.
Rommy Boco and Laurence Wilson had licence to attack at will, with full-backs Michael Liddle and Nicky Hunt doubling up, so constantly Keith and Sido found themselves with a losing two-on-one battle to fight.
In addition, James Beattie was using his experience to work across the line, popping up on the left or right at will to make life even harder four our overworked back four.
So it was no surprise to see cross after cross coming into our box, and Steve Elliott and Michael Hector did a sterling job to clear most of them, and the usual three versus two discrepancy in central midfield was also leaving them with a spare man, who could almost shoot on will.
An Accrington fan told us at half-time that it was the best 45 minutes they had produced all season. Good for them, but it shows how much we had let them play, and not imposed ourselves at all.
Bar the penalty, which came when Harrison did well to control a diagonal ball and saw the run of Jason Taylor, who was challenged, the only other first half chance we created was when a Brown clearance was flicked on by Benson for Harrison, who shot wide when he should at least have hit the target.
That was it as far as a threat on the Stanley goal went in the first half. Not promotion form.
The second half started the same way, and the introduction of Darren Carter and Deering made us look a better side, as we went to a diamond.
Soon after the changes were made we conceded a second goal from a set-piece with Beattie's deflected shot, and so it really was roll your sleeves up time.
It is not promotion form to play for 25 minutes, and scrape a point against a side with one win in 2013, and Pack's close-range header was welcome, as a point was better than nothing as it was more than we deserved over the whole game
Deering's introduction gave us a bit more energy. He made some good runs into the channels and looked to get behind the full-backs.
Deering also set up the disallowed offside goal which Benson finished superbly well, and he managed to find pockets of space, and it will only add to the clamour for some fans bemused at his lack of games to see him in the starting line-up on Tuesday night.
The same will go for Carter, whose free-kick  (won by Deering) led to Pack's equaliser, and the other thing he did was show a willingness to have a shot, which seemed sadly lacking elsewhere.
As well as poor service, we seem to have a mental block on having a shot. 
A look at our shots stats this season shows Pack and Harrad top with 37 shots on goal apiece. McGlashan and Mo have had 32 each and Carter 31. Harrad tops the on-target shots list with 20.
But put that into context with the rest of League Two. Bobby Grant of Rochdale tops the list with 95 shots, Tom Pope and Britt Assombalonga have both had 77. 
Grant, Pope and Jamie Cureton have hit the target more than 50 times, while Assombalonga nd Nakhi Wells have hit the target more than our top shot-taker.
It's not hard to see, therefore, why we are struggling to score goals and put teams away.
The draw also takes to 21 the number of points we have lost from winning positions, the highest tally in the division.
We have lost from winning positions three times, at Rotherham, when Lowe scored in the first minute and we  conceded straight away, at Bradford with Pack's penalty and at home to Southend, when McGlashan put us in front before we forgot how to defend from set-pieces.
Leads have become draws at home to Fleetwood (last minute goal), Bristol Rovers (last minute goal), York (late goal), Port Vale (we led for six minutes) and away at Torquay and now Accrington. In both of those games, we led 1-0 and trailed 2-1 before equalising.
That can be tempered slightly by the 11 points we have gained from losing positions. Twice we have won from behind, at Northampton and at home to Plymouth, while draws have been gained at Wycombe (should have won...), Aldershot at home, and the games against Torquay away, Fleetwood at home (one down, 2-1 up before their leveller) and Accrington.
But that is still a net loss of 10 points overall - if we had them, we would be a point off top spot, so there have been plenty of missed opportunities. All ifs and buts, could haves and should haves though.
A contrast to last season shows how costly the draws have been. At this point 12 months ago, we had played two games less, yet had six more points and sat in second place.
Our home and away records were identical - both reading won nine, drawn three, lost four - so we had lost the same number of games then as we have now, eight, but drawn six times compared to this season's 12.
So what now?
Well, You can forget Gillingham and Port Vale I think - they are away and gone for the top two places and are showing no signs of any chinks in their armour.
So, we are in a mini-league of, I would say, seven or eight clubs. Ourselves, Burton, Rotherham, Northampton, Southend, Exeter and Fleetwood for one automatic and four play-off spots - and, with games in hand, Bradford are out of it either.
I cannot see anyone doing a Crewe from last season and emerging out of the pack into the play-offs. I think the teams I have mentioned above will be fighting it out.
Bar Southend, we have all those sides to play, Rotherham, Northampton and Bradford at home, and Burton, Exeter and Fleetwood away. Last season we fell short in late season games against the teams around us, We cannot afford to do the same again.
The current form table does not bode well for us, as over the last eight games we are 11th, and only Southend and Fleetwood of our rivals are in a worse trot than us.
I desperately want to be positive, but it is difficult at the moment. We need a complete sea change in our approach to games and Yatesy needs to find the right formula to make us a threat to teams. Fast.
The first of our 'mini-league' games is on Tuesday at Fleetwood, and Yatesy has some decisions to make.
He is caught between the desire to give us a goal threat by playing two up front, and the need to keep us solid and secure at the back.
In addition, if we were to play the 4-2-3-1, then McGlashan and Mohamed would nominally provide the width and the pace, but neither, in my view, currently justify their place in the side on form.
Harrison is the only one of our forwards who is happy in a lone striker role, yet Benson and Harrad are the two with goals in recent games, so would logically pose the bigger threat.
Defensively, I would restore the usual status quo with Sido at right back and Billy Jones on the left. Nothing against Keith Lowe, but I just feel we look better with that, the players seem more comfortable with it and we get Billy's set-pieces back.
I would play a diamond, with Taylor sitting deep, Marlon and either Penn, and Deering behind Benson and Harrad.
Fleetwood have two players banned, including the niggly Jamie McGuire, who got Alan Bennett sent off at Whaddon.
But they have a decent squad - yesterday at Aldershot they had their £250,000 signing Jamille Matt, Steve Gillespie and Jon Parkin on the bench, while there was no Junior Brown, a massive threat at Whaddon Road earlier in the season, not even in the 18.
We followed a disappointing result at Dagenham with a fine win at Southend - let's hope we can do it again...