Sunday, 30 November 2014

Small steps...

IF Paul Buckle wasn't aware that he had a pretty big job on when he flew across the pond late on Tuesday night to become our eighth Football League manager, he knows it now.
He has inherited a squad with their confidence on the floor after four successive defeats, and has the task of lifting it pretty quickly with Sunday's FA Cup tie and the run-in to Christmas coming up.
As an opening match, a game with Oxford United, a team who have been underachieving this season, represented an interesting first assignment, and it would be decent barometer for him to see exactly what he has on his plate.
It could have gone either way. A decent performance and a convincing win might have papered over the cracks - persuaded him maybe that Mark Yates had left the squad in decent nick, and maybe there wasn't much surgery to be done.
But that wasn't the case. We took a point, which I (was was Buckle) was happy enough with overall, but which we probably didn't deserve, and that result represented a small step up from the heavy defeats we have suffered in our last two outings.
Rome wasn't built in a day. A new manager coming on was not suddenly going to solve all our problems in the space of 90 minutes - we know it is going to take much longer than that.
The main intrigue pre-match surrounded his team sheet and the formation - would he ditch the 3-5-2 and would any players who we haven't seen much of be given an immediate opportunity?
The suspension of Lee Vaughan and the injury to Steve Elliott which ruled him out more or less forced his hand defensively, and it was a good job he had Matt Taylor back or he would have really been struggling.
With the personnel available, he really had little option but to play 4-4-2, and after the match he did say he thought that was the way forward for us - so no 3-5-2, and not even the bearest mention of a diamond...
Jack Deaman was deployed at right back, and Taylor was alongside Troy Brown, who has been in the spotlight over the last two weeks with some costly errors, and Craig Braham-Barrett at left-back.
He would have been under some pressure as well, as his displays last season in a flat back four were not exactly convincing, and he, more than anyone, had come into his own in the wing-back role - so how would he cope with a return to a four?
All in all, I thought we were better defensively. Taylor's return was a big bonus, and he and Brown had their hands full with Tyrone Barnett, who was very lively, and along with Deaman and CBB had a tough task with the movement of Danny Hylton and Alfie Potter.
There were a few blocks, interceptions and we were indebted to Trevor Carson for two or three (and one unbelievable) saves - but after letting in nine goals in two games, it was step forward - granted a small one.
The goal was conceded was a poor one, a diagonal ball going from back to front, catching us a bit square and playing offside, and Barnett going through to finish it well.
Deaman, considering it was his first League game as a right back, did okay - as well as we could have expected - and provided a great cross for Byron Harrison's well-taken goal, while I thought CBB had a decent-enough game overall and still tried to get forward when he could.
The 4-4-2 system also provided another quandary. Could Buckle solve the Yates problem of being unable to make that system work with our midfield two?
No was the answer - well, not immediately anyway, but it seems that we are going to keep trying to find the key to that riddle.
Our midfield four did plenty of pressing, but I felt we were passed through all too easily and all too often, and this is definitely an area for scrutiny for the new gaffer.
He deployed Jason Taylor and Matt Richards centrally, with Raffa de Vita on the left and Kane Ferdinand right, and I thought Taylor was the pick of the quartet.
This was my first look at Ferdinand, and I felt he struggled to get into the game bar coming to life with the odd little flash of inspiration with a run or pass - he would clearly be happier in the centre, and he was when we changed the formation later on in the game.
I thought de Vita was also a peripheral figure, and was taken off. He has to try to impress more than most with his contract coming up for renewal soon, and I have to confess I wouldn't be rushing to renew it.
Bar the Swindon game, he hasn't shown enough for me, whether that be in a position down the left, or centrally or even up front, so he needs to improve swiftly in my eyes.
When we had the ball in midfield, I thought it was all too one-paced. Oxford's passing was quicker, their movement was sharp - but we were too slow, there was no tempo and I felt we were just too static.
We are crying out for an energetic box-to-box midfielder - someone with energy to make decent runs and get beyond the front two into goalscoring positions. Whether Asa Hall is that player we don't know yet as unfortunately we've not seen him.
The only time we really had any spark to our passing and movement was the move which brought the goal, and it was a great finish from Byron - really out of character with much of the rest of our display.
The front two of Byron and Terry Gornell picked themselves really after John Marquis' departure, and they had a tough time against a pretty resolute Oxford back-line.
Byron tried to compete and give as good as he got, but poor Terry had an off day. It was one of those where nothing went right for him, with neither his first touch, hold-up play or passing all going astray.
Another forward will also be something that Buckle will be looking for - a different type to Terry and Byron, and in my view we need a poacher, a six-yard box player, someone to try to get centre-halves turning towards their own goal, and with a bit of pace.
Buckle said afterwards that he knew that with Terry and Byron we were not going to get in behind them and would have to rely on crosses - which we didn't see enough of, so that comment might be good news for our previously under-used wingers.
De Vita and Gornell were the players taken off with Zack Kotwica and Joe Hanks coming on as we tried a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 towards the end, but they weren't able to nick a victory.
Their introduction, along with Harry Williams finally being on the bench for the first time this season, was a good sign for our young players and their future under the new manager.
Post-match, Buckle said he wants the players to be fitter - and we did seem to be flagging towards the end, but I think that showed to me that they had put in a good shift, and I certainly felt there was a lot of effort there.
But there was not much quality. In January, I feel the manager has to address the lack of pace and mobility in the side, especially in the final third, as a matter of urgency.
While players like Jermaine McGlashan and Kaid Mohamed were not everyone's cup of tea, they had pace - they could break quickly on to teams and get us up the field (even if they didn't always deliver when they got there) but at present we lack players who can give us that outlet.
Koby Arthur did it, and that's why he made such an impact. At this level, pace is a massive asset and teams with that and players with good movement and mobility can cause problems.
We don't have that, so our passing is slower and we struggle to cut through sides as Oxford were able to cut through us too easily - like Stevenage and Wycombe did before them.
Regarding the manager, I watched him carefully before and during the game, and noticed a few interesting things.
Firstly, he was out there before the game right in the middle of the pre-match warm-up, with lots of talking and passing on instructions, and was deep in conversation with Russ Milton and also got all his substitutes together at one point.
Then during the game,  he was often animated, and in regular conversations with Shaun North, Steve Elliott and Steve Book, with all four often passing on messages and information.
Much of his reaction during the game was to encourage - thumbs up for players even if things went astray - but there was the odd admonishment and the head-shaking after the Oxford goal spoke volumes.
The draw made him the third CTFC manager to avoid defeat in his first league game in charge. Only one has won his (Martin Allen against Bristol Rovers), Buckle joins Bobby Gould in drawing his opener, while Steve Cotterill, Graham Allner, John Ward, Keith Downing and Mark Yates all lost their first League games.
Resilience was the keyword of his post-match interview, and we did show that. He said he feels 4-4-2 is the way forward, and also mentioned his desire to strengthen the squad in January.
The key to the latter will be next Sunday, and the visit of Dover in the FA Cup - and this is a match the importance of which cannot be understated.
A win and a decent third round draw will give the whole club a shot in the arm both financially and from a confidence point of view.
A win would allow the board to give their new manager some leeway to undergo a bit of surgery on the squad, and try to put his own imprint on it.
But Dover will not be a pushover. Their win at Gateshead on Saturday took their unbeaten run to nine games in all competitions and so they, unlike us, will go into the game with confidence.
They will be tough nut to crack. I expect them to come with a 5-4-1 or 4-5-1 and ask us to break them down. It will be a tight affair and I have to be honest and say I would not rule out us having to make that midweek trip to France Kent at some point between the Mansfield and Portsmouth games.
So it's another big week coming up to follow the at times traumatic one we have have just had - and this one may well define our season.