I switched to a 3-5-2 for this game after a positive response to using it in our last game. With Rob and Adam both natural wing-backs I thought we would be able to use them effectively out wide whilst having more numbers through the middle and perhaps most importantly playing with two up top. I put myself at centre forward alongside Lee in the hope that I could offer more physicality and aerial presence than we have had up there so far, instructing Lee to do as he likes to and play off the shoulder, looking to get in behind when we attacked. I switched Karl into the centre of midfield alongside Johnny, both of whom have bundles of energy, with Rich designated the holding role. Ryan and George were tasked with the wider positions in the back three, covering the wing-backs when necessary and Steve would be operating as sweeper and ball carrier.
We were up against the league leaders so we knew we were going to be in for a game. My pre-match talk revolved around getting into their faces with tough challenges and trying to impose ourselves physically. From sizing them up I could see they weren't particularly big so perhaps we could find an edge in that department and let them know they were in for a battle from kick off.
We started well and were immediately on the front foot. The defence were passing the ball across the line well and using the wing-backs effectively, finding them in the channels at the right times and playing more direct passes up to the forwards when it opened up. Lee was finding lots of success when moving out to the right channel and was threatening to break through nearly every time the ball made it's way up the flank. I was determined to make a nuisance of myself and concentrated on pressing when I was near enough to the ball and blocking the short options when I wasn't. It was clear Hove Park didn't have strong ball players at the back and they would be caught in possession a fair few times throughout the game.
Our first chance came when a ball was clipped in around chest height to me, I got my head to it and it was headed towards goal before taking a blatant deflection off their player. The ref, who was very far away from play (this would turn out to be a common occurrence), gave a goal kick despite Hove Park's linesman giving the corner to us. It makes me wonder why refs choose to ignore assistants, especially when it's the opposing side who are giving the decision your way.
I was having a lot of success in the air, the wind meant the ball was often held up in the air giving me just that bit more time to judge the header. One flick on put Lee clean through but some last gasp defending meant he couldn't quite get his shot away. An excellently placed free kick curled into the back post by Johnny found me unmarked but I couldn't quite get enough on the header back across the box to reach our oncoming players waiting to nod it in.
Unfortunately I wasn't quite so effective on the deck, on a few occasions my final ball wasn't good enough. I found myself apologising to Johnny a few times when a slightly more accurate ball would have put him through. My touch and hold up play was good but that means nothing when you can't seal it with the right pass.
Our movement was causing them a lot of problems, I could hear them discussing amongst themselves who was playing where and trying to cope with our shape. Nearly every time we had the ball we seemed to have at least one good option to pass to, and when we didn't the defenders did not panic and instead maintained possession until space opened up for someone to receive the pass. Ryan in particular was having a commanding game at the back, with some excellent distribution into the channels and smart decision making to not waste possession when there wasn't someone immediately available. The back three were very comfortable spreading the ball across the pitch, always having at least one of them ready to receive the lateral pass and re-focus our point of attack.
Rob and Adam were able to get up the pitch to offer for a wide pass whenever we needed them. Adam was harshly denied being clean through by the ref who blew for me being offside, when I was never less than 10 metres from the ball, which was making its way over to him completely unmarked on the left wing. The ref seemed unable to use a bit of common sense and let play develop, on another occasion blowing for a free kick to us when we maintained possession in an overload situation and could easily have created a goal scoring chance. I was put clean through only to be pulled back cynically by my arm, the ref eventually gave me a free kick but failed to even talk to their player let alone brandish a yellow card.
We continued to dominate the game, Hove Park did have some possession in the middle of the pitch, Johnny was making a lot of forward runs which often meant Karl and Rich were outnumbered in the centre. I was dropping back in to cover when I could but sometimes they managed to have a man advantage. Even so, they couldn't find a way through our back three and any half chances were easily dealt with.
The breakthrough came after around the half hour mark, a ball was fizzed forward to me from the back, think it was Ryan, I controlled and laid off to the oncoming Rich who played a lovely delicate chipped through ball to the ever-ready Lee who powered into the box, and in what was a very similar incident to last week, was mercilessly taken out by the oncoming keeper who was nowhere near the ball as it was pushed past him. Their forward screamed that the keeper had got the ball, hopefully he won't be a ref when he grows up with eyes like that! Lee confirmed he wanted the kick when asked and ran up confidently to slot the ball into the bottom left corner beyond the keeper's reach. One nil up and cruising...
Perhaps our weakest point in the first half was defending corners. The organisation was there, we were marking early and all seemed to have taken up a strong position. I did have to adjust Adam at the near post for one, of course it went right to him and he cleared...George immediately asked for my autograph - it's in the post mate. What was upsetting me was that the smallest player on the pitch managed to get on the end of three successive corners, unmarked, in our box. I don't know who the culprit was for all of them, but Rob was marking him for at least one. There's absolutely no way someone should be getting an unchallenged free header like that, let alone someone that tall. Do whatever you have to do to stop them getting a clear head to the ball. They may have the best movement in the world but you should at least be challenging them and putting them off. We were lucky he couldn't get any good power or direction on the ball.
Half-time came and we were looking good. I brought off Karl who hadn't had a bad half by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to get Darren in the middle with fresh legs to keep hold of the ball for us and put himself about a bit. I could see it had been a slog at points for the midfield, especially Karl who was often doing the running of two people when Johnny was further upfield whilst they attacked through the middle.
To be honest I didn't necessarily want to change it at all, we were playing very well and it was a risk putting Darren in who doesn't have the legs Karl does, he is 73 or something like that so it's understandable. Before we kicked off the second half I asked Johnny to be a bit more aware of his defensive duties, fully aware that we might be a bit weaker defensively in the middle without Karl's ability to cover so much ground.
The game restarted was the much the same as the first half with Hove Park not really looking very dangerous going forward despite having a fair amount of possession. Daz was getting stuck in with some meaty challenges and we were producing some calm, incisive play to play our way around them. Our pressing was still effective, I managed to nick the ball off their centre back to force a 2v1 situation with Lee to my left, I drew their last defender towards me before playing Lee in, unfortunately just as I passed the ball to him he slipped and fell to the floor! A similar thing happened to me late on, where I found myself in the box looking for an opening to shoot only to slip over after a slightly too enthusiastic turn. The ground was quite loose after all the recent rain which was obviously costing us big chances! I had another effort where I controlled and turned swiftly (for my age) before hitting a left footed shot that went wide of the post. Rob was in acres making his way into the box and looking back I should have looked for the pass, sorry mate, sometimes it just sits up nicely and you've got to hit it!
I decided to give Fred a chance in the middle, asking Johnny to come off. I hoped Fred would offer a bit more defensively and I was mindful that we had a lead we needed to protect. Although they hadn't created any goal scoring chances, Hove Park were clawing their way back into the game and I wanted to make us a bit more compact to try and nullify them.
Rob soon indicated to me he needed a rest, once again he had put in a gut-busting display and I appreciated he had the sensibility to make me aware that I should consider taking him off. All too often you see players struggling with tiredness but they decide to carry on whilst not being able to offer their best. The right thing to do is make it known you are struggling so some fresh legs can come on and replace you. It's not going to make me think less of you if you need to come off because you have given everything you've got, on the contrary it's what I expect and have made clear many times this season. You're not going to lose your place for it, that's for sure, and Rob has set an example (and later Adam the same) of how we should be individually approaching games. Luis came on for Rob and put in a solid performance with some strong tackles and involvement in attacking play down the flank, you showed some great versatility there mate and did not look out of place at all.
Not long after that I brought myself and Lee off and put Will and Johnny up front. I was also feeling a bit 'leggy', I've not played a full game so far this season and am lacking full fitness. Lee had run his socks off the whole game and did exactly as he was asked, I just felt injecting some fresh legs up top might be enough to push on and clinch the game. Johnny did have a couple of half chances where he was put in down the flanks after some good movement to find the space, unfortunately he couldn't quite turn them into something but you could see he will be a dangerous asset for us on the break with his pace and movement. Will was looking more comfortable on the ball than he has done and held it well under pressure from a few opponents, it was hard for him at times though as our shape was deteriorating by this point and there often wasn't an easy pass for him to move the ball on.
Adam signalled that he was exhausted so he made way for Karl who slotted in at left wing-back, I was just about to bring him back on in the middle for Rich who was looking tired but was forced into this change instead. He did a good job and like Luis showed excellent versatility and willingness to do a job for the team wherever he plays. We do have a lot of versatility in this squad which can be extremely useful at times!
By this time though, we were on the back foot and Hove Park were applying the pressure looking for the equaliser. There were a couple of occasions where I saw the midfield three trotting back to help out their back three who were facing a counter attack of superior numbers. I have to say I was annoyed at this, especially as two of the midfield three had only been on the field less than 30 minutes. I will go back to my point earlier about giving it everything you've got until you have nothing left to give. It's not acceptable to be half-heartedly jogging back in situations like that. I will give Rich a pass because he had been immense for us in the middle the whole game and getting on the end of everything that came near him and making some strong tackles to break up the play.
They were getting in down our left quite a lot and seemed to be concentrating all of their attacks that way. George made some superb interceptions and perfectly timed tackles to thwart them on a few occasions. Unfortunately as the game was coming to a close and it looked like we had done enough, their wide man got past the back line and was able to hit a seemingly harmless driven cross along the ground, Steve showed excellent positioning to be there to try and clear it but, in a moment he'd like to forget, calmly placed the ball into the bottom corner past the diving Tom who wasn't expecting such a great strike from his own player. Needless to say, it was an absolute kick in the bollocks at that stage of the game and you could see deflated Romans players all over the pitch. I tried to gee the team up from the sideline to get their heads up and throw everything at them but it was too little, too late. We'd have to settle for a point when we had done more than enough to win, again. Gutted.
There is no blame on Steve, these things happen and even to the best players in the world, sometimes you just do something in a reactionary way that 99 times out of 100 you wouldn't. It isn't the first and won't be the last costly mistake this season, how you respond to it is what matters.
One thing I've taken away from this game is that there is a fine line between giving everyone who is there a decent run out and disrupting the balance of the team. In pre-season I made a lot of changes in the Crawley Royals game and we conceded three sloppy goals because of it, but since then I think the substitutions have generally had a positive effect on the team. Unfortunately in this game that wasn't the case and I'm not having a go at the subs at all, it's my fault for changing things up when we were clearly on top and the system was working well.
I've made it clear I find it quite stressful having to ask people to sit out and choose who gets the nod to play. I guess that is part and parcel of what being a football manager is all about and I'm gonna have to deal with it. So far I have tried to give everyone a chance where I can and have avoided being as ruthless with team selection and substitutions as I could have. Looking back I should have waited longer to make some of the substitutions I did and possibly not even made them at all, but then you have people who have turned up to play not even playing or getting on for only a few minutes and I know how shit that's going to feel. Certainly something for me to think about for the future.
Man of the match goes to Ryan who I though had an excellent game at the back. He didn't put a foot wrong all game, positioning, distribution and organisation was top quality and vocally was almost spot on, accusing me of being deaf when mishearing something I had said being the exception, the irony! Rich pushed him close for the award and I thought he had a great game in the middle, imposed himself on them every time they came near, held his position well instead of being dragged out wide unnecessarily and was involved in some incisive attacking play, silver merit badge for you mate.
We've shown to ourselves and most of our opponents that we are good enough to be top of the league, the next step is to raise our performances just that little bit more and get some wins under our belt. UTR