Much like drinking two cups of coffee in quick succession, this game felt good at the start, then made you restless, then made you wonder if it was worth it. It wasn’t pretty – and not just because Accrington are the dirtiest side we’ve faced this season – and it wasn’t memorable. But hey, by avoiding defeat at home to Stanley for the first time since 2016/17, we stopped any rot before it could set in – which is more than we could say for the run post-Gillingham away last season – and remain third. In a new format – the good and the bad are rarely, if ever, as black and white (dark blue and light blue) as I’ve been making out – let’s reflect.
The Main Talking Points
The Wrong Approach?
For the majority of the game, yes. Much like Lincoln, Accrington like to keep the ball and attack the wings. Where they differ notably is with their long balls from the centre-backs – and that’s where we got it wrong. The approach the Saturday before last was to sit off and give the centre-halves all the time in the world; that plainly didn’t work this time around. Ross Sykes and Mark Hughes sent it long 43 times between them; Lincoln’s Jason Shackell and Michael Bostwick did so 23 times. On accuracy, the two pairings were only one pass apart, but the sheer volume from Stanley’s duo – and the second balls in the box – caused carnage on more than one occasion.
Once Adebayo Akinfenwa came on just after the hour mark, we started playing the visitors at their own game much more effectively, and pressing – thanks to naturally having players playing off the Beast. Previously, we’d largely been pinging long channel balls to Fred Onyedinma – who just couldn’t get into the game, although, in fairness, he was returning from injury – and the quick but not partridge-quick Scott Kashket – or pumping it straight up the middle to centre-forward David Wheeler, who won plenty in the air as per but didn’t excel in an unfamiliar role. Kashket, by the way, put in a man of the match performance for us – not just with his attacking spark and goal threat but also his consistent tracking back.
The champagne football of the Lincoln game seems a far cry away now, but we did turn on the style during the first ten minutes or so. We definitely haven’t lost our touch in that respect! With any luck, it’ll be back when we take on Pompey on Saturday.
Seemingly Small Defensive Changes Have a Big Impact
The thing is, bringing Giles Phillips and Jamie Mascoll in for Darius Charles and Joe Jacobson wasn’t a small change at all. With it, 797 professional appearances made way for ten – and Mascoll was making his professional league debut. Charles’ omission was to be expected – he’s played five straight games since returning, which has come as a surprise – while Jacobson’s was at least understandable given his advancing years. Still, those two experienced campaigners have been our best two defenders so far in 2019/20 – Jacobson our player of the season so far full stop.
Admittedly, the same back four started against Reading in the Carabao Cup and more than coped – especially Phillips on what was his senior debut – so there’s no need for an inquest, but certain individual shortcomings led to a poor performance as a unit last night. Mascoll was our leading player in terms of 50/50s, winning 75% of his duels (3/5 ground and 3/4 aerial), and looked useful offensively, but he tucked inside too much and did little to stop the crosses coming in – the latter of which contributed to Stanley’s goal. Phillips probably fared best out of the four – winning 100% of his tackles and posting the highest passing accuracy (74% – 20/27) of any Wanderers defender in a league game this season*, but his tendency to come for balls he’s unlikely to win were partly to blame for the space we left in behind. At the end of the day, neither is the finished product, but both show signs of developing into solid players.
Perhaps what was most damaging of all, though, was a lack of leadership – especially against a side as ‘in your face’ as Accrington. It follows that disorganisation will ensue, and that’s what we saw out there. In Charles’ absence as the enforcer, Anthony Stewart, who was sound for the most part, really should have stepped up in that sense – but, if that’s not in his character at the age of 28, it’s probably never going to be. Instead, Jack Grimmer looked to be the defensive general out there – he was certainly the most vocal – and, as a result, he tried to do everything, to his and our detriment when it came to their goal. Hopefully we’ll see a refreshed Charles and Jacobson back on Saturday and look less vulnerable.
*Only Anthony Stewart’s ‘Paolo Maldini’ performance against Reading produced a higher passing accuracy (81% – 26/32).
A Mess in Midfield
For the most part, we were. Far too often, the three – Dom Gape, Nick Freeman and Matt Bloomfield – weren’t in position to receive the ball, resulting in some needless losses of possession gifting Accrington chances which more clinical sides will turn into goals. Gape wasn’t his usual, show-running self; Freeman buried the penalty for his first goal in 18 months but appeared indecisive with his passing at times; Blooms looked a bit lost, perhaps still weary from that clash of heads against Lincoln.
It was the kind of contest which could have done with Curtis Thompson‘s battle-hardiness and drive. He wasn’t actually in the squad after making the bench at Gillingham; here’s hoping it was just as a precaution and that we’ll see him back in action imminently. Nnamdi Ofoborh‘s technical prowess and aggression wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Sometimes, I think you’ve just got to fight fire with fire against the more physical, even nasty sides in this division.
The second half showing was more encouraging, but on the whole, we looked in far too much of a hurry when we needed to slow it down a bit, and in not enough of a hurry when we needed to be – which saw some promising-looking counter-attacks break down. Will Gape-Freeman-Bloomfield be our midfield three going forward? I’m not so sure. There’s no reason to believe that Thompson will have regressed from 2018/19, when he broke out and proved himself as our best player. I have no reservations about stating that he’s still our best midfielder. When he’s fully fit again, I reckon we’ll see Gape-Freeman-Thompson, which ought to give Nick more licence to get forward – a Good Thing, I hope you’ll agree.
We’re Still a Work in Progress
How could we not be after signing 13 players? Some, such as Grimmer, Phillips and Wheeler, have fitted in quite obviously and settled in well. Others, like Alex Pattison, Mascoll and Josh Parker may take longer to convince us. Even if our core has remained the same as last season, we’re seeing a fair number of new faces in most line-ups. All in good time. And there’s absolutely no need for the kind of knee-jerk reactive nonsense which was coming out at full-time yesterday, such as the comment – in the replies to the club Twitter, which always provide a laugh or two – that Parker “should not play another game at this club” (yes, really). For the record, I’m not convinced by him and haven’t been since I saw him in pre-season, but it would be stupid to write him off after 120-odd competitive minutes. In fact, the highlights of the recent friendly against Brentford B – in which he looks more suited to a number 10/second striker role – should be cause for optimism, regardless of the calibre of opposition.
We’re in the Right Hands
When the going gets tough and we endure these rough patches, there are two words we have to remember more than anything: Gareth Ainsworth. Evidently, he doesn’t always get it right, but if he didn’t more often that not then we wouldn’t be in arguably the best shape of our League history. All being well with the impending deal and subsequent vote, we should be in great hands off the pitch too. If you’ve not watched the gaffer’s post-match interview yet, you really must. We are blessed.