Wednesday 15 March 2017

Alarm bells

Before heading to Exeter last night, I watched the National League highlights.
It brought back memories of last season - places like Guiseley, Woking and Braintree... but also made me think how much I don't want to go back to that in a hurry.
10 days or so ago, as the final whistle blew on the Mansfield game, it didn't seem that we would have to worry about that.
Three wins and a draw, 10 points from 12 and no goals conceded had lifted us into a position of relative safety - probably the most secure position we had been in for a while.
Then we lost at Doncaster on Saturday - I wasn't there, so have only seen brief highlights and on paper there is no disgrace in that outcome.
Any reward from that trip would have been a bonus, and the main thing was that the gap to the bottom two remained the same.
But the Exeter display got the alarm bells ringing a lot louder. Now we really do have to worry again in earnest about Solihull, Sutton and Maidstone.
They are a good side. Lively, with a quick tempo, two decent forwards - but it was our failure to compete which was the worrying thing.
We started poorly, and could have been behind in the opening seconds, but seemed to stabilise it a bit only to give the penalty away.
At first sight it looked stonewall, and there weren't many complaints and to be honest we deserved to be behind - but Barthram's chance could have thrown us a lifeline.
But it summed the night up. He looked to be on the corner of the six-yard box, in space, chested it down nicely - then hit the corner flag when it seemed certain the net would bulge.
We quickly went two down and then (unluckily) three - and from then on we went downhill. Second best all over the field, no real challenges and no signs at all of getting back into the game.
We showed brief signs of life but it was too little too late and overall it was a throwback to two seasons ago.
It was more surprising as this group of players have rarely let us down in this manner.
Of the 13 outfield players we saw, only Onariase in my view was anywhere near doing himself justice.
Boyle was a miss as the back three had to shuffle around a bit, but they didn't get much protection from those ahead of them.
Cranston had a difficult night from the off. Exeter seemed to target him with two or three combining down his flank at will.
Winchester and O'Shaughnessy tried to help him out but that merely left us short-handed elsewhere and constantly on the back foot.
Last night showed me how costly the Storer red card and suspension are - whether you blame him for the tackle or the referee/Steve Evans/anyone else for the decision
Without him - or any sort of midfield 'enforcer' - there was nothing much in the way of protection to the back three, who were left exposed.
It makes the timing of the decision to send Hall to York for a month more bemusing - I feel he would have been ideal in this situation, but we can't bring him back until just before the Barnet game.
It will be interesting to see what happens there. He has played three games, so could slot in - if the manager decides to go that way. Personally, I'd have him back here and in the team.
Pell, Winchester and Dayton also struggled to get us moving forward, as the final ball to the front two was pretty much non-existent. I felt sorry for Waters and Wootton as they had nothing to go on.
They have not had a sniff for three games - and suddenly we barely look like scoring a goal.
Winchester was the best of the midfield trio in my view, and I was a bit bemused by the decision to take him off and introduce Rowe.
Munns came on and was bright in those last 15 minutes and he might be worth a shot for a start on Saturday.
Our best first half outlet was Barthram, who at times had ridiculous amounts of space down the right - but such was the decision making we failed to give him the ball enough. When we did, he forced a rare save from Bobby Olejnik.
When Exeter came forward, their crossing was dangerous and their set-pieces caused problems. Ours did not - bar one in the 85th minute from Dayton which Wright nearly got on the end of.
Apart from that, when we, albeit rarely, got into a good position, our crosses hit the first defender or didn't even get that far. The corners weren't much better.
Our first three corners were taken by three different players - and we need to improve them, especially with the height we have in the side and the dangers we have posed this season when we get them right.
No matter who the personnel are, we seem to have a tendency to allow sides to get crosses into our box too easily, especially away from home.
We can be a soft touch on the road - last night, Yeovil, Hartlepool, Crewe, Cambridge to name a few - and it needs to be addressed as we can't go to Barnet, Wycombe and Crawley and play like that, or we'll get nothing.
Not just this season, but going back several years. It's something we need to cut out and tighten up on.
I think it is a bit simplistic to say that the absence of the manager for two games has seen the wheels fall off a bit. It won't have helped obviously, but I don't see it as the root cause of the two defeats.
Gary will have been involved somehow in the set up for these last two games. I am sure the team selections, tactics and set-up will have been at least run past him, although Russ will obviously have decided the subs etc as the games went on.
But it's not Russ's fault that Davis switched off for Doncaster's first goal, that Rowe stood and watched after losing the ball for the second, and that we turned in a powder-puff display last night.
That's down to the players and we need to start digging in. Other teams are doing it and they are getting results - Newport, Crewe, Accrington - all picking up points with the latter now in 16th and virtually free of danger.
If complacency has set in, then it needs to be banished again, and fast, as last night's was a 2014-5-style performance, and we will have a 2014-5 result f we carry on like this.
Back then, we thought Hartlepool were doomed but they rose up, rolled their sleeves up and got out of it, sending us down.
Newport were doomed two weeks ago, now after two wins on the road they might be doing a Hartlepool, so we need to sort ourselves out. Fast.

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