A detailed run through the key takeaways from the league season opener
Welcome to the Championship
There were shades of Paul Smyth v Ipswich about Daryl Horgan’s agonising miss just two minutes in: the same ball; the same position; the same result. The new man busted a gut to get on the end of Scott Kashket’s cross and should have buried it. He’ll know that, and he seems like the kind of character who’ll be determined to make amends at the next possible opportunity, but those chances have to go in at this level and that’s a lesson we have to learn fast. The same goes for Darius Charles, who managed to hit the bar from just as close range.
Over the past five Championship seasons, the team who finished 21st – our aim – have averaged a total xG of 57 (that’s 1.23 xG/game). We recorded an xG of 2.15 on Saturday, the third highest across the league on opening weekend. We won’t sustain that, though, so it’s vital that we’re clinical when it’s on a plate. While we will likely rely more on dead ball situations than any team in the league bar Rotherham (although we were the more reliant of the two teams on the day), we’ve added weapons in that department in the form of Uche Ikpeazu and Ryan Tafazolli – plus, when he’s fit, Adebayo Akinfenwa will pose a challenge few centre-backs at this level will ever have had to contend with. There’s no great cause for concern over that reliance, but we missed 2/2 big chances (Horgan’s and Charles’) on Saturday and we simply must not make a habit of that or we will be punished big time in this division.
On the whole, our performance in our second tier bow was encouragingly solid. Until that late sucker punch, we restricted Rotherham to next to nothing – only Barnsley, Derby and Millwall, none of whom won, created less in the first round of fixtures – by defending our box through our usual extreme organisation and determination and generally packing the central space they like to utilise, which included Alex Pattison impressing in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role in place of the suspended Dom Gape.
Kashket causing chaos
Scott Kashket is a pain in the arse in the best possible way and I think a lot of Championship teams are going to end up sick of the sight of him. It was a first start since December for the 24-year-old, now in his fifth season at Adams Park. Playing the same role as in last season’s win at Rotherham – the lone striker but this time in a 4-2-3-1 system – he caused the Millers no end of problems.
With no target man available and David Wheeler having to play in midfield with Curtis Thompson also out, we had no weapons with which to counteract Rotherham’s aerial prowess mano a mano (well, cabeza a cabeza). So we had to get creative and try something different – and it worked a treat on multiple occasions, starting with our very first (counter) attack of the game, which we sprung after clearing an early free-kick for the visitors at the second time of asking. As the ball evenutally fell to Jack Grimmer, Kashket was already off to the races – with Horgan also on the move. We weren’t going to go any less direct despite the lack of a typical focal point up front; we were going to pump long balls up to the little man.
For once, calling it ‘hit and hope’ would be semi-accurate – although it was more a case of calculated risk. Like a wasp at a picnic, Kashket was just not going to go away, giving his man (in this case right-back Wes Harding, who’d stayed back for the free-kick) more than just a simple 50/50 to think about.
Once Harding had become preoccupied by the Wycombe forward’s presence and it became a foot race, there was only ever going to be one winner, Kashket with an excellent bit of chest control to take the ball away from his opponent.
He might have gone for goal himself from a tight but not impossible angle, but with the ball on his weak side he took the right option, cutting to the byline and squaring it for ‘Flash’ (too tenuous?) Horgan instead…
…but the link-up wasn’t to produce the same result as it had done at Brentford six days earlier.
Getting the better of Harding was one thing, but outwitting Michael Ihiekwe – a dominant presence who won 74% of his aerial duels in League One last season and 6/8 in this game – was quite another. This is where the “hope” comes in, but Kashket was clever. Anticipating David Wheeler’s flick-on (Wheeler won 9/18 aerials although, due to his less advanced role, only one comfortably inside the final third), he darted off again – only he wasn’t quite running into space.
You also get a good idea of our general shape (see also: the average position map) – Alex Pattison, between the full-backs here, was really playing behind Bloomfield rather than alongside him and took 73% of his touches in his own half (where Bloomfield, by comparison, took only 51% of his).
He angled his run towards Ihiekwe instead and, seemingly, forced the Millers skipper into letting the ball bounce…
…before getting goal side of him and trying to draw the foul – only he looked like he was already going down before contact and nothing was given, which was a shame as it would have been a free-kick in prime Joe Jacobson range.
Ever tenacious, Kashket made an equally important contribution to winning the ball back high up the pitch. His energy and the pace of Fred Onyedinma – who had a very quiet afternoon and wasn’t brought into the game enough from a deeper-than-usual role – could prove quite the combination if we continue with the high press we deployed so well against Brentford. We were never going to see that much of it against a side as direct as Rotherham, but there were a couple of moments which could have come to more. Here, Fred initiated the press and forced Harding into an error…
…with Kashket sweeping up.
Unfortunately, he slipped and handled the ball, but it was a glimpse of what to expect if we can effectively accomodate both players in the same system (although I’ll mitigate that slightly by saying other Championship centre-backs will be better in possession).
The Little Genius was also perfectly alert to another David Wheeler flick-on in the second half – this time following our throw-in.
He acrobtaically stole possession just as Rotherham tried to clear, allowing Nick Freeman to play Wheeler in to cross. Jamal Blackman did well to get a glove on it, but Kashket’s tenacity had put us in a good position once again.
Kashket only had one shot himself – a quick-thinking chipped effort in the second half which Rotherham dealt with easily, again from a Wheeler flick-on – but this was an eye-catching all-round performance, following an equally lively cameo at Brentford. After becoming the forgotten man somewhat, he’s reminding everyone what he’s all about and that there’s far more to his game than sticking the ball in the onion bag. It’s early days for him at this level as it is most of the squad, but I firmly believe he’ll be key for us in 2020/21.
The post men-on-the-posts era
I’ll admit I couldn’t have told you this from memory, but a quick look back through games from the last year or so shows that we do tend to have a man on at least Allsop’s left-hand post. Most recently, that’s been Dom Gape, but we don’t always do it and it’s certainly far from the norm these days. We won’t have forgotten to have someone there; it will have been a conscious decision.
We shouldn’t have given away the corner in the first place – Jason McCarthy mistimed his header – but regardless, it was far too easy for Ihiekwe. No one tracked him as he burst into the box from Rotherham’s unusual routine in which six players lined up widthways just outside the D before rushing forwards, and his momentum allowed him to leap higher than Charles with minimal effort. It’s easy to say with hindsight that X goal wouldn’t have occurred a man on the post – and in this instance, that’s probably true – but the main argument against that tactic is that it takes two players out of the game just for the sake of a last resort that’s rarely needed, and you can’t afford to under-commit against a team as strong from set-pieces as Rotherham. If we had defended the initial ball properly, Ihiekwe wouldn’t have enjoyed so much space and – considering the only goal we’d conceded from a corner in the previous 38 league games was Ivan Toney’s sensational side volley for Peterborough last season – we probably would have come away with a point.
Header graphic: Dan Clark