There is an air of inevitability about our performances at the moment. Is it a worrying air? It’s hard to say, but I can feel a divide opening, like in the later days of Michael Appleton.
It’s bound to happen – if the Leyton Orient result stands, we’ve now lost five of our last six matches. Okay, that includes a visit from West Ham and a second-string visiting a near full-strength Derby County, but defeats are defeats. Four of the last six have been away, the disproportionate number of away games putting us at a further disadvantage, and we’ve played play-off contenders Peterborough and Portsmouth, games we traditionally don’t do well in. What’s inevitable is that despite not being overawed in any of those matches (bar West Ham), we’re just not quite clicking.
It’s really easy to point to circumstance, and there’s a safety net there for people who, like me, always err on the side of the team rather than negativity. We don’t have fit strikers, and whilst the ‘why haven’t we signed a number nine brigade‘ will keep going on until January, the fact is we really can’t. The free agent list is not littered with number nines who are fit and raring to go, and we can’t recall Freddie from his impressive loan spell at Walsall. The situation is what it is, a saying I despise but that is factual. We have to make do, and by bringing in Mide, I think we’re moving towards dropping Haks, shifting Reeco into the middle and having Mide and Danny Mandroiu on the flanks. It’s a band-aid over an amputated arm, but it’s better than nothing. Besides, I really liked Mide when he was here last season, and he is certainly fresh legs and an extra body when we need it.
That’s the two paragraphs on our woes, but here’s a fact that I believe to be 100% true. We didn’t lose yesterday’s game because we didn’t have any strikers. We lost yesterday’s game because of issues that I believe would have occurred if Tyler Walker, Ben House or the elusive Jack Vale were present, and that is a mild cause for concern. We lost because of bad decisions.
First things first – zero surprises in the team selection. Lasse wasn’t mentioned in the press conference, which is becoming a solid way of knowing if a player is going to feature or not. I felt it gave us a bit of an imbalance – Sean Roughan is far more comfortable as a left-sided centre-back, but Jaden Brown’s patchy recent form meant we preferred Jack Burroughs over on the right, necessitating a change on the left. It meant a new-look back five, and whilst I have absolute trust in Jackson, Mitchell and O’Connor as a three, I felt it did take away from our wide areas. That’s where Posh are dangerous; the likes of Mason-Clark love to run at full-backs and get in behind, and we’d have much preferred to have Lasse playing for his energy in coping with that threat.
I really enjoyed the first half. There’s no doubt Posh have good players throughout the squad, but there’s something about them I find a bit unsettling. I think if I were a Posh fan, I’d wonder what direction my team are going in – trying to sell Clarke-Harris on deadline day, starting him up top a month later. I suppose it’s not hugely different to us with Haks, but that’s enforced. I feel that they’re going around in circles a bit, and I do think it will soon be time for some new ideas at London Road.
Ideas are something they lacked a huge amount of in the first half. They did miss a sitter, a header which should have tested Jensen, and whilst they had the better of the possession, I never felt like we’d been let off the hook. Their build-up play was fine, but we looked well-organised and capable of repelling their threat. We were a little sloppy at times, but it felt like the narrative we’d woven over the last few weeks was being played out again – great in two-thirds of the pitch but cobbled together in the final third.
That said, we had the better chances, and if you doubt that, I know xG won’t change your mind. However, in the first half, our xG was 2.1, and Peterborough’s was 0.18. The numbers suggest we could, and should have been 2-0 up at half time, so Mark Kennedy’s assessment afterwards was correct. However, the Imps had ten shots on goal in the first half, none on target.
The majority of that xG came around the half-hour mark. Firstly, Adam Jackson nodded wide from a corner despite rising highest. Not long after, a sloppy bit of play from Posh saw Ethan Hamilton loft a ball over to Danny Mandroiu. His touch was exquisite as he beat a defender, then lifted a lovely effort over the keeper, only for it to bounce back off the bar. The resulting melee in the area saw both Haks and Reeco have efforts blocked, both of which were (in my eyes at least) efforts on target but were blocked before reaching the keeper.
Five minutes later, Reeco hesitated a couple of times after breaking into the box, and ended up having a shot deflected wide. From that corner, Sean Roughan had a free header which he powered over. For a ten-minute spell, we took the game to Posh, and had multiple good chances to score. Had we scored, the game might have been different.
I felt we coped well up top, Mandroiu being back in the side was a huge boost in the first half, and whilst the Haks fairytale is beginning to look like it’s not going to happen, Reeco Hackett was once again a threat. Kelan, a Posh fan who writes for The Real EFL, messaged me about how impressive Reeco looked. He carried a real threat on the ball, but at times it was an isolated threat. I admire Haks for what he has done in terms of coming back in, applying himself well and such like, but he was virtually anonymous in the first half. That’s perhaps what you’d expect from a winger who was surplus to requirements six weeks ago playing centre forward, but it really did show in the first half.
Other than that, I felt we had a degree of control out of possession. Their breaks came when we had committed men forward, but our chances had certainly been better than theres. I thought if we came out and did the same in the second half, shooting towards our fans, we’d get something from the game. I genuinely felt that, convinced that we’d do what was needed to break the Posh hoodoo and, maybe, get our first win at London Road in 17 years.
How wrong I was.