You know those people, older usually, who come out with the same old comments every time certain topics come up. The warning sign is a sentence beginning, ‘Well of course in my day…’ or ‘Kids today, don’t know they’re born…’. Delivered with deep gravitas, as if this is a totally fresh insight into the ways of the world, they have an effect opposite of that intended. This is signalled typically by groans and synchronised eye-rolling from an audience that has heard this one before.
Sad to say, perhaps I’m becoming one of these old codgers. Seen it all before. Nothing new under the sun. I know because I was going to use my pet line to begin this piece before I checked myself – what am I turning into? But here it is, something I heard once and stayed in the brain, crushingly familiar to colleagues and family:
“For every complex, complicated problem, there is a simple, straight forward answer.
That’s completely wrong.”
After my health warning, you might find it useful. Handy for politicians – there’s an election on the way – or saloon bar bores and know-alls. In my experience their favourite recommendations are national service, castration or sack the lot of them. Perm any one from three and you can’t go far wrong.
It is easy to point the finger at certain individuals (many would include referees here) or formations but there is no single reason why we are not scoring netfuls of goals at the moment. Some of our play has been dazzling, some downright pedestrian, most somewhere in between, but more than good enough to earn more points than we have.
Early in the season I was fretting about our defence but it’s been clear for several months that our fate depends on scoring consistently. Although our defensive record is excellent, we are not able to organise ourselves as well as teams like Villa and so must play to our strengths – we will score one more than you. This season I am reliably informed that in the 13 league games we have drawn or lost, we have had 212 goal attempts, 122 of which were on target, yielding a total of 7 goals. Since Wigan we have scored only 13 times.
Some of this is down to the defensive fortitude of our opponents. Spurs are sussed. Massed ranks in front of goal, little ambition bar a possible sucker punch breakaway. This is one thing at the Lane but I suspect Wolves will try the same tactics at their own ground, emulating Villa’s second half at Villa Park.
A deep back four who stay close means there is no space behind them for Hud’s long passes nor room in the channels. Crouch’s flick-ons are similarly dealt with and JD’s speed is taken out of the equation. The midfield funnel our attacks into the middle where they founder on a mound of flying blocks and determined tackles. It’s hard to hit the byline too, especially without Lennon to keep a couple of defenders busy or left trailing in his wake. Villa, Wolves, Hull, all the same.
At the moment we do not have the wit or patience to break them down, although we tried hard enough on Saturday. The absence of a playmaker able to dictate the game leads to hurried efforts and rash decisions. We must maintain possession far more efficiently and keep both ball and man moving. Be patient, keep probing and something will come out of it. Modric and Huddlestone have the talent to fulfil this role eventually but their inexperience shows when the pressure is on.
One thing we could do more of is to have the midfielders making late runs into the box. Coming from deep or diagonally off either flank, defences cannot easily pick them up. Modric got into those positions early on Saturday but missed the chances and Villa then shut up shop. We could score more from midfield, something in favour of Krancjar’s place in the starting line-up.
Another tactic is more movement up front. We’re better away from home when we start attacks from deeper positions, unless Crouch is left isolated upfield and we hammer the ball forward to him, which is useless most of the time. Leeds left us the space for those through balls or byline crossing, and Defoe profited. Often however, Crouch and Defoe loiter at the edge of the box and move across it. They need to vary this and come deeper sometimes, to move up and down as well as laterally. This unsettles defenders who are uncertain about whether to remain in their comfort zone or follow the man they are supposed to be marking. Insert midfield runners into that space and we have more opportunities. That interchange of personnel up front is crucial. Crouch and Defoe can sometimes play their part by taking opponents away as well as scoring themselves.
Scoring, ah yes…both have decent records, Defoe especially, but frankly I can’t find a ready remedy for another blight that affects us currently – we keep shooting straight at the goalkeeper. Keepers must love playing us; their pre-match preparation includes planning where to drink the MOM bottle of bubbly. We have made it too simple for a succession of them to fly flashily across goal, arms and legs stretching, but the ball has been too close to them and (relatively) easier to save.
I just don’t know what’s happening – shooting practice? Modric needs it. No coincidence that Defoe broke his duck against Leeds with a mishit after striking previous chances hard, true and at the keeper.
Which brings me to Peter Crouch. The fact that he had his best performance for us on Saturday in retrospect highlights his limitations. We will find it extremely hard to be a top four team if he plays regularly. Again, there’s no single element to the equation. Some of it is not his fault. We don’t have to hit long balls to him so often if he plays, but we do. His presence is a refuge for players under pressure. One or two touches, nothing on, so wang and the pressure’s off. That is an option but not the only one. He can contribute to pass and move and is a target for crosses but our success will be founded on football played on the ground.
As an individual, Crouch’s distribution is generally erratic, Saturday being an honourable exception. He wins so much in and out of the box yet so little actually comes from it. It’s a percentage game that takes you so far but not to the very top. In the box, he is eased off-kilter, a little nudge, he’s off balance and the hard-won cross slides just wide. At the far post, he’s static and therefore easier to handle. Not easy, but at the top level defenders can deal with him and his bobbly little knock downs, vaguely directed across goal. Similarly, his reactions are poor and once the message goes all that way from brain to legs, the defender sweeps up the ball in the box just waiting to be hit.
The future requires a centre forward more mobile and versatile than Peter, but until we find one, sorry, make that find another one as Berba has come and sadly departed, just remember that we don’t have to kick it to him all the time and if we play the ball in front of him in the box, as he moves forward onto it rather than loitering at the back post, Crouchie can finish.
Any improvement requires collective resolve, something that has been lacking in the Marshmallow Men but promisingly on Saturday we kept going. I’ve said a lot about this lately (see ‘March of the Marshmallow Men’ in ‘recent posts’, so enough already. Wolves is a good place to test this is action. Try some of the above, add a bit of width and the win will come. Battle at the top is now well and truly joined so we must fight to the limits.