City travelled to London yesterday and deservedly returned with nothing to show for our efforts.
I usually look forward to dissecting a game, and since early September, I’ve always felt positive about the direction we’re heading in. After yesterday’s showing, I’m not so sure that belief is well placed, or rather, I have allowed the positives of decent performances to mask some pretty harsh facts. Like Boxing Day, and Cambridge away, and Peterborough away, we had an abject first half which left us chasing shadows, and whilst yesterday we did perk up in the second and perhaps could have snatched a draw, but it would have been a Dick Turpin-Esque robbery we barely deserved, had we pulled it off.
However, our mask lay unused, our bag lay empty, and we returned from another away trip with nothing but recriminations and the usual social media hyperbole. I read one thread last night, just one, (literally, a whole thread) saying Mark Kennedy had to go and we should bring he-who-must-not-be-named back (Danny Cowley, a man who did great things for the club but is now going to be mentioned every time we lose a game), the usual knee-jerk reaction to poor performance. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t Burton poor, not by a long way, but it did have plenty lacking.
For instance, it lacked Ben House and Sean Roughan, who were injured in training. It lacked Matty Virtue, injured for ten weeks or so. It lacked Jacob Davenport, who we can only assume has left the club, as he would be the perfect Virtue replacement. It lacked intensity and belief after the first fifteen minutes and quality and guile throughout.
I’m going to confess, the pessimist in me called a defeat as soon as the team was announced. In my opinion, and I’m not a football coach, merely a layman who thinks he knows football, but a 3-4-3 with Sorensen and Sanders as the two midfielders is not going to win many League One matches. Likewise, an attack with 2022/23 Tom Hopper, a shadow of the player we had 18 months ago, will not cause enough problems. I’m not scapegoating them – Lasse works in a three, just as McGrandles used to, whilst Tom has been a decent servant to the club, but neither instils me with confidence when I see their names on a team sheet. I recall a similar feeling about Elliot Whitehouse and Ollie Palmer a few years back.
First ten or fifteen minutes, I thought we looked ok. We’ve had a bit of a go against a side clearly on a slump. On the replay of the game, there is no atmosphere at all from the home support until their goal, and I thought they looked really shakey at the back. Someone like Diamond running at them should have caused problems – I can’t help but think Ben House might have been a menace had he been fit. At the other end, Rak-Sakyi is clearly a top player, and he’s one we looked at in the summer. Harsh truth now – we haven’t got a winger like him or even a wide player as unpredictable as Brooke Norton-Cuffy was last season. I like Jack Diamond, I do, but he isn’t the terrier in the wide areas I hoped we’d have. People tell me his return is good, but if you take penalties out, the return in the league is more modest. I like Charles Vernam; he’s a similar sort of player, just without as much end product. Had we signed Rak-Sakyi in August, as we were rumoured to be hoping to do, it might be a different story in the attacking third.
Sadly, we didn’t make the most of us being marginally the better side for the opening exchanges, and eventually, Scott Fraser began to get the run of the midfield. He’s a top player at this level, and exactly what we lack without Virtue. We desperately need someone in the centre of the park to have a bit of control; before Virtue, we haven’t really had it since Liam Bridcutt 2020/21. When you play two in midfield one needs to be experienced and intelligent enough to give orders and organise. Yesterday, neither Sanders nor Lasse did that, and it’s why we lost the game. You can point to other things if you wish, individual errors, lack of goals, but had we organised in the middle, even with the two, we’d not have conceded against what I think is a weak Charlton team.
The first goal is all about Fraser and Soresen. The latter loses out in the middle of the park, Fraser feeds Leaburn and we’re nowhere when the cross comes in. I thought the header looked relatively savable as well, but if we put a decent challenge in midfield, the chance doesn’t happen. Also, who is meant to track the runner? He’s come half the length of the pitch, having been covered by Lasse for the initial ball; why does he then have a free header? Poole is watching Blackett-Taylor; why does Fraser get that freedom? It’s so frustrating after a decent start.
After that, we went to pieces, and it became almost as tough to watch as Burton/Peterborough/Cambridge/Port Vale (delete as applicable). For the second, let me ask, what on earth was Rushworth doing? I like Carl Rishworth, I think he’s on par with Josh Griffiths, but he turns away from the ball, as if he’s afraid of getting smashed in the mouth. He’s there to block it, Roy Keane would have kittens if he saw that (it’s his job, getting in the way of the ball) and rightly so. However, there are fundamental problems with the goal again – a missed challenge by Lasse in Charlton’s defensive half, and a weak stab at a challenge by Tom. That lets Fraser (again) get free and run thirty yards before a ball splits TJ and Regan like an axe splitting wood. The only player who gets back and does his job, an attempted block, in the whole move is Paudie O’Connor, in my opinion, the only player to come out of the first half with a whole lot of credit on his name.
Here’s the thing – we’re talking about a rubbish outcome in the first half, but looking objectively, we started the better of the two sides, and they’ve scored with their only two shots on target. It’s not a good thing; we shouldn’t have been beaten by that Charlton side yesterday, we shouldn’t have been 2-0 down at half time – they weren’t in the same class as Ipswich and we defended there. My fear, certainly at half time, was that we’re once again unable to break teams down we’re on a par with, and if that’s the case, we’re going to be looking over our shoulder for the next four months. I know it sounds harsh, but yesterday was the most fearful I’ve felt since the Cambridge defeat. The only saving grace is we have 23 days to strengthen the squad, whereas against Cambridge the window was closed.