Here are my five talking points from the 1-0 Wanderers win on a cold, windy afternoon in Stoke.
‘Never change a winning team’. It’s a mantra that the majority of footballing fans up and down the country will agree with barring one or two teams with an embarrassment of talent. I genuinely believe a settled squad has been no small part of our amazing form but the stress of this policy reared its head on Saturday. In the 42 days since the 2-0 win against Leyton Orient we have played on average every 4 days (3.8 days to be specific). Ian Evatt had stated pre-game that some players were playing through minor issues but decided to go with the tried and trusted team that has taken us so far. Whilst there are a myriad of reasons to explain our performance, tiredness definitely appeared to be a factor. Our usually intense press, wasn’t and we appeared slower to track back when we lost possession.
The main concern however was the injury to Antoni Sarcevic. The Wanderers captain pulled up with a hamstring issue and had to be taken off in the first half. Ian Evatt stated that he was taken off against Cambridge United because of some tightness in his hamstring, unfortunately it was his other hamstring that ‘went’ on Saturday. Seeing Kieran Lee stretching his groin at the top of the picture in the second half gave me a wave of anxiety that I don’t wish to experience again in hurry but luckily he remained healthy enough to finish the game.
We now have a week off for some much needed R&R but I can’t help but think Saturday would have been the prime opportunity to rotate 2 or so positions. Whilst no games are a given in this league, if the most in-form team in England cannot make 2 changes against a team in free fall at the other end of the table then you’ll never be able to. Wholesale changes would be a recipe for disaster (this isn’t Football Manager) and we sure as hell don’t have the depth to make more than a couple at a time either. We do have decent players on the bench whom, may not be improvements on the current starters, but that can certainly slot in to the squad without disrupting the rest of the team. Andrew Tutte was a highlight of the first half of the season and would be fine to take a game away from Kieran Lee or MJ Williams. Shawn Miller could give Eoin Doyle a week off the tiring pressing for a week and still provide a decent threat. Harry Brockbank could slot in to the right back slot and not impact the quality of the team at all. To reiterate, I don’t believe in making all these changes at once but certainly 1 or 2 every now and then might just keep us healthy for the oh so important run in.
If there was no other incentive to get out of this league, playing on better quality pitches would be enough to motivate me. It was the main culprit in stopping us playing the type of game we’re now capable of playing. Maintaining possession proved impossible when every other pass was jutted off-course by the bobbly surface and even when a pass did reach its target, players struggled to maintain a sure footing.
The finger for exacerbating any injury to Antoni Sarcevic could legitimately be pointed at the playing surface. Port Vale also had to make enforced changes early and their fans seem to also hold the pitch responsible for their injury woes.
A positive thought however is that when we get the chance to play on better pitches, ‘Evatt ball’ becomes more effective. A nice thought should promotion be in our immediate or long term future.
Keep a ‘keeper on the bench
It raised eyebrows when we first saw it and for many it has never sat right. Evatt summed it up best when he said it’s a risk/reward calculation. The thing is I just can’t see how he’s come to the conclusion he has.
Matt Gilks appeared to be injured, thanks to the pitch, early on in to the game yesterday and the entirety of those associated with club (including Evatt) had the same thought - “Why isn’t there a keeper on the bench”?
The risk/reward calculation is so heavily skewed in favour of having a back-up keeper that it does boggle the mind we’ve gotten so far without us biting us on the backside. Having a keeper go off without a replacement is usually a certain loss and whilst keeper injuries are rare, they’re certainly not rare enough to disregard.
On the flip side we get another striker on the bench. Handy? Yes. Ian Evatt is very sparing of his substitutes, however. He rarely uses the full allowance of 5 and tends to bring them on late in the game. So why take the risk if you’re not even going to use the full set?
Hopefully this little scare will result in a policy change next week. Not sure my heart can take seeing Gilks down again. That said Brocky’ seems to play well in every other position, why not goalkeeper?
Elbouzedi earns his spot
I was very surprised to Elbouzedi on the bench ahead of Marcus Maddison. Whilst the latter hasn’t set the world on fire since his introduction, neither had the former.
We have seen a pattern with players under Evatt however, they do seem to get better over time under his management. Ricardo Santos didn’t look half the player he is now when he first signed as an example. This looks like it might be the case with Zack Elbouzedi
Brought in to a more central role than we’re used to seeing him in, he impressed. He used his pace to great effect, getting behind the defence at every opportunity presented to him. He held the ball well and generally caused mischief. It’s a cautious optimism but I’m looking forward to seeing more of him off the bench.
I also believe Maddison will come good. He has talent. He has a bit of time to shake off the rust and he has a bit of time to work with Evatt. Wish them both the best in proving any doubters wrong.
Ignore games in hand
I am buzzing about our position, no two ways about it. Only 4 off the top and safely in the play-off positions. There’s always a twinge of sadness when seeing how many teams around us have games in hand. So I thought I’d write this as a reality check to myself -
- Points on the board are always better than games in hand!
- The table in meaningless until that last day of the season!
What I really have to remember is that old cliche, one game at a time. Looking ahead is fun and we’re all guilty of doing it but we can’t afford to look any further than the next game. If we keep focussed on that then there’s no reason this run can’t continue unabated.