You know, it’s easy to get carried away by what we saw here when you look at the quality of the opposition, who weren’t great, and then the quality of your own football and the scoreline.
We can often jump to conclusions about the state of the team if all of that isn’t up to scratch, but these matches are often difficult to deal with when you’re in the thick of pre-season training and it’s just an exercise and a work out.
So how do we analyse the performance and what did we get out of the game? I always look for little indicators at times like these to see if I can learn something about the team.
I learned a few things and overall the players that came out in the first half were stronger than the ones that showed for the second.
You want your players at this stage of the season to get a good feel of the ball, and we had plenty of touches and time in the opening forty-five minutes and we dictated the play from the base of the team.
The defence held onto the ball well, they showed decent depth, and the central midfielders all came and picked up the ball in sensible positions to give us authority and control. So the first and second phases were fine.
The problems all appeared when we entered the third phase; what to do next? We didn’t have the cutting egde, the movement or the desire from that point to penetrate the opposition and the play often broke down or we lacked ideas and inspiration.
This can sometimes be about fitness levels, so you have to keep that in mind, but we didn’t see any wide men able to beat their markers and we didn’t really have any successful overlaps from the full-backs either. Any time we did break away it was quite forced, and then when we did manage to get in an area to deliver from wide, the crosses were rather tame and flat.
So there was nothing really going for us in the final third, but prior to that, our shape and application looked more like a Harry Redknapp team. The play went side to side and was very square, and it was often patient and probing before eventually finding its way wide. We just couldn’t capitalise from that point, so with this team, we’d want to see if they can progress from here in the next match and take it one step further.
While we held a lot of possession, we won’t do that in every game we play in the Championship, so at some point, you want to keep your eye on what happens when your team loses the ball. After holding possession and play for lengthy periods, the first time we lost it, we looked a little bit shaky. Esteban Granero was the culprit, giving the ball away and from there you look at the reaction of your players. Robert Green made a decent save from this counter attack and that was probably the best effort on goal of the game. So that’s another area you want to see your team work on, because they will make mistakes and lose the ball, and they will come up against teams that are better, quicker and stronger on the counter attack and able to punish any gifts. Preparation and expectation of what you want the team to do in these situations is critical. We were rubbish in these areas last season and that would be one of my main priorities to sort out if it were me.
The other thing to look at is the first touch of your players. It’s normal that some of them might be heavy at this stage, but it’s still a tell tale sign of where players are at in terms of their fitness and sharpness, and whether any of the players are any further on than last season.
Shaun Wright-Phillips and Junior Hoilett were both blighted by their first-touch last season and they were here in this game also. There’s work for them to do on the training ground and similarly we saw some clumsy touches from Bobby Zamora in terms of his technical execution on simple passes. This stuff can be rectified and improved in training – so go and work on them.
I did see one aspect that worried me as well, and this is what I mean by spotting the signs. Robert Green did one long throw out and it was wild and dangerous and put Armand Traore in trouble – who did really well to recover the situation. Green had a habit of throwing the ball out in dangerous situations last season, where no player would reasonably want the ball because of the amount of effort it would take to get their first and second touches right under pressure. The staff need to also work on this kind of stuff to ensure the decision making and selection are improved.
I was pleased to see Stephané Mbia play the sort of game he did though, which was shorter and simpler and with a lot more discipline than what we’ve been used to seeing – the kind of performance he put in once or twice last season that made you think that he could take it up another level. I hope the staff are working on him to play in that mould much more than his all action wild displays. A little control and composure would do Mbia wonders.
The second half the team that came out were weaker at the base, but busier at the top end of the pitch. The play felt a bit more forced and ragged, but the formation and style was also different too.
Jamie Mackie and Andy Johnson however worked hard and were immediately more involved than Zamora or Hoilett. This is all about desire and application, and both those showed considerably more effort than those who played in the first half.
Johnson in fact looked the fittest, sharpest and hungriest of all the players. Perhaps that’s normal because he’s been out for so long – but it’s a yard stick to measure the others against as well. Zamora barely touched the ball in the first half, but when Johnson couldn’t find it, he stuck in and helped his team defensively as he went in search for it, and Mackie did similar.
For the rest of the players, you look for little signs. Ji-Sung Park looked the same as he did last season, struggling with the pace, his touch and generally anything to do with acquiring good rhythm and flow. That’s a worry because he looked out of sorts last season and like he didn’t have the legs, but you hope with a solid pre-season and more familiarity that he can find his feet.
Yun Suk-Young looked a little out of his depth and if the pace of the game was too fast, which is a worry considering it’s a pre-season friendly and he struggled badly to deal with the physicality of the game. Eyes need to watch and monitor his performances in the upcoming games to see if it was nerves and that he’s still adjusting – but there was a timidness about the approach to his work that to me, suggests he’s some way away and needs to be sent out on loan.
I had hoped to see a sharper Anton Ferdinand as well, but he was as laboured as he was last season and that also makes you wonder whether he’s really capable of sorting himself out? He needs to work on his agility because it affects his technique and ability to react to situations that unfold quickly around him.
It was good to see Alejandro Faurlin back mind, and he did some good work both further up the field and coming deep to collect the ball, even if he gave it away once or twice when he shouldn’t have. He took some of the play by the scruff of the neck and that was good to see.
Overall – it’s a starting point and a stepping stone. I’m pleased we had the majority of the possession and were able to get a feel for the ball and our shape again. We can take that as a positive and that there’s something to work with in terms of structure and shape and the way we want to play.
The big question mark is whether we can play forwards or not, and whether we can create chances. There’s lots of work to do here. We got the ball wide okay at times, even if it wasn’t always that well worked in terms of giving those players great opportunities and areas to deliver from. But, when those players get in those areas, they need a couple of things up their sleeve; knowing when to play it safe, having a great delivery from deep or the byline, the ability to one-two and overlap and more importantly (and what we lack) the confidence to take on and beat a man and then do something good with the pass or cross afterwards. That’s the key to unlocking the door and if we get that bit right, we then need to find the answers to whether our front men are good enough to get on the end of things, and whether the support from behind the strike force is ready to impose themselves and react to any counters from there.
The other point of attack when you don’t go wide is playing it directly into the striker and we didn’t do a great job of this. In the first half it was non existent, and Zamora didn’t get involved, and in the second, we just didn’t get anywhere with it. Quite often we saw through balls go out of play or through to the keeper, but even when we did manage to find someone they were often too crowded out and the movement and knowhow on where other players should spring and move to in order to pop the ball off into wasn’t quite there.
The combination of all of this was a lack of chances created of any note, and that will always lead to anybody watching asking questions and wondering about the state of the team. But it’s all fixable, and it’s just a friendly and these are just observations. I had no real problems with the attitude of any of the players or the work they did, but we have to make sure we ask the questions and give them no chance to hide or shirk the responsibility they have to the team and each other.
It’s important to wipe the slate clean and give everybody a fresh chance. Last season is still fresh in the memory for a lot of people, but it’s gone and in the past. It’s what we do today and tomorrow that matters.