In the past week, we’ve seen two more games, seven goals, a home win, and an away defeat, and, to be honest, we’re no closer to knowing how the season’s going to go.
By Saturday tea-time, we’ll be roughly a quarter of the way through 2017/18. Still a heck of a long way to go, of course, but right about now, ten games and over 20 per cent through the campaign, seems like a good point to take a breath and take stock of what’s gone well and what needs to change.
Starting with the good news: we’ve got a settled, competent, confident goalkeeper. As much as I liked Joe Lumley last year, I think it’s important for a club to have a settled number one. Sam Slocombe has made the position his own, and while this may be in part down to Adam Smith’s injury and his subsequent below-par display at home against Oldham, Slocombe looks easily good enough for us in a position that has dogged Darrell Clarke in recent years.
Secondly, the Goals For column is in healthy shape. We’ve outscored half the league and have troubled the PA announcers as many times as Shrewsbury, who sit unbeaten at the top of the league. Despite playing 4-3-3, a formation that doesn’t suit the players we have well, in my view, and having a few games where chances have been thin on the ground, our return is OK. That’s mainly thanks to one Billy Bodin, of course, who continues to weave his magic, but Rory Gaffney and particularly Ellis Harrison, have chipped in with a few each.
Strikers are, of course, judged on goals, but both men are more suited to the deep-lying roles, linking the front line to the midfield, as opposed to leading said line. Harrison, much maligned in his – gosh – seven years with us, sometimes for good reason but often not, is creating chances, scoring the odd goal (his touch and finish against Blackpool on Saturday was nice, too), and working his absolute socks off.
And I can’t fail to mention, Liam Sercombe. Covers every blade of grass, adds a bit of creativity to the midfield, and scores the occasional long-range beauty. Excellent.
Right, now for the bad news. The defence. My word, the defence. Largely populated by the same four men who looked formidable in the spring, it’s all gone wrong. But why? Is it confidence? Is it inadequate protection given by a three-man midfield? Is it losing Steve Yates, renowned for his defensive shifts in the quarters many moons ago? In the nicest, most respectful way possible, I’ll bet the manager isn’t sure.
Please don’t take that as a criticism; as he alluded to after the Portsmouth game, he’s not had time to breathe during a frantic September. Seven games in a month gives little time to work on tweaks to tactics or cutting out errors. Objectively, both Tom Lockyer and Ryan Sweeney are easily good enough for a top half League One side, but both would probably admit they’ve not hit the heights so far.
Right-back continues to be a puzzle. Leadbitter gives much going forward but is getting caught out at the back, while Partington looks great (though not in the middle, Darrell!) but clearly has an issue where he can’t play all these games. On the left, Marc Bola is so good going forward it’d be tempting to put him in midfield, but is he needed more in defence?
Maybe it’s not just the back four. Top sides defend as a team. Has the midfield done enough? Who knows? I don’t. I’ll bet you don’t either. But as mentioned before, we’ve scored as many as the league leaders but have fewer than half as many points. Oh, and our away form, where defeats are becoming almost a given, must be arrested.
The system being played confuses this amateur Football Manager enthusiast. Now, I have nothing – absolutely nothing – to teach a top manager about tactics, but if we have no opinions about how our team should play, where’s the enjoyment?
We’re clearly playing 4-4-2 due to lack of options on the left of midfield – perhaps Darrell’s lost faith in Byron Moore. This troubles me, as we could have just kept Cristian Montano and it would have been job done. But also, I think having three central midfielders may blur the lines of their roles a bit – in a central midfield two, one goes forward and the other focuses on defending. Additionally, as mentioned last week, we’ve not seen the best of Tom Nichols yet, and I get the feeling that he thrives as the frontman in a two-man strike force, rather than out wide or alone up front. We’ve also missed Stuart Sinclair and his work rate.
Always end on a positive, as a wise person once said, and I agree. Nothing’s been decided yet, there’s a long way to go, the endless run of two-game weeks is over for a bit, balti pies are back, we’re making the Mem a nicer place to be by kicking out and banning those who behave in a racist manner, and hey, it’s nearly Christmas.
Three more positives in this sandwich of a column. Folks will rightly point at the sides in this league whose wage bills surely dwarf ours, and they rightly state that maybe promotion is a tough ask this year. But then look at Shrewsbury, the last unbeaten team in England, riding high on top of the pile. We’re comparable to them as a club, and their placing on top of Wigan, Blackburn et al. shows what a funny thing momentum is.
Secondly, the master of getting that momentum is one Darrell Clarke. I think he’s got at least one more run in him yet, and probably many more.
Finally, Plymouth, visitors on Saturday, haven’t won in six weeks and sit bottom of the league. Now I said Oldham was a home banker, so I”ll stop now before the jinx strikes again.