“The start of the rest of the season” those were Carlos Carvalhal's words last week before Friday nights visit from Birmingham, and without wanting to get too carried away with the result I was hoping this was a bit of a turning point in the season and we could all look back in the summer and agree with him.
He decided to start with a whole new strike force by playing both of the new signings in Jordan Rhodes and Sam Winnall and I think overall you would have to agree that it was a great success. I thought they linked up well, their energy and running off the ball was refreshing and Rhodes most definitely gave us a bit more of an aerial threat.
There were a few things that really pleased me on Friday night with our performance.
One was the high tempo start that we made to the game, something that we haven’t seen much of this season and the early pressure could quite easily have seen us hit the back of the net on a couple of occasions. I was delighted that Rhodes notched-up after just nine minutes and his celebration with his father Andy showed just what it meant to him.
Another was our willingness to deliver early balls from wide in to Birmingham’s danger area. That ‘corridor of uncertainty’ in between the defensive line and the goalkeeper is a defender’s nightmare and to be honest, we created three or four half chances by doing this.
I also thought that we looked to play into the two strikers earlier and this helped us play in a more advanced part of the pitch. Some people have said that this is the change of front men but I am not sure I agree. This situation can sometimes become a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. The striker makes a run, or shows for the ball, if he doesn’t receive a pass or cross he’ll get disappointed but the next time he’ll do it again. Eventually, if the ball never gets played and he effectively gets ignored he’ll stop making that run, then the player on the ball will be complaining that he hasn’t ‘shown’ or made the run.
Now do not get me wrong, there were parts of our play that need to be looked at and improved upon and I’m aware that it was far from a perfect performance but it was a vast improvement on what we have seen in the past few weeks and months. Defensively I thought we were a little bit ragged and there looked to be an obvious lack of communication at times. I think you also have to give Birmingham some credit because having just come off an horrendous run of defeats the last thing they needed was to be behind within the first 10 minutes and I thought they showed real character.
When they were on top in the second half I would like to have seen us have more discipline in our play. Teams are nearly always going to have a period of the game where they are pushing on and on top and it’s times like that when you keep your shape, nice and compact and make it difficult for them to play between the lines. At times I felt we were a little reckless with players bombing forward and leaving too many gaps and exposure behind them. The best way of counter-acting a team that is piling on the pressure is to keep possession when you win the ball back. The first two passes are vital, keep the ball moving, take the sting out of the game and weather the storm.
Tuesday saw the arrival of Blackburn Rovers and by omitting last years talisman Forestieri for Adam Reach I think the manager was giving out a signal that you do things his way or not at all. Forestieri showed his unhappiness on Friday night when he was substituted and even when he came off the bench this week I watched Carvalhal screaming at him to do his defensive duties when we had lost possession.
With the arrival of the two new strikers it will be interesting to see his reaction over the next few games. The start of the match against Blackburn couldn’t have been any different form the Birmingham match if they had tried, It was slow, lacking in tempo, most of it played in and around our half and not until we hit the bar and then later scored with a set piece had we threatened the Blackburn goal. We seemed to fall back into the slow pace of play of before and the lack of quality in the middle and final thirds made it that Rhodes and Winall were feeding on scraps all night. I came away with the feeling that we were again fortunate to hang on to the 2-1 lead and yet it was another 3 points gained.
Listening to Carvalhal’s post match interview unfortunately I have to disagree with some of what he said. Yes, I believe that teams in the lower part of the league will throw everything at the game, especially when behind, but, I think we have a naivety about our play at times. We invite teams to push onto us with our slow possession play, and I believe it is possession in the wrong areas of the pitch.
Too many times we play in our defensive third, putting the ball at risk and inviting teams onto us. I have no problem with us playing from the back, I would actually encourage it but it has to be done with a purpose. All too often do we ignore the opportunity to play forward with quality into, say, a strikers’ feet, or into the space in behind the opposition when a striker has made a good run.
We play sideways, backwards and more times than not it ends with a long punt upfield, which in turn gives them the ball back, and then we are camped in our half. We have some very good players, who when they play in a positive way can give most teams in this league a real run for their money, we have seen that already so for me it is a change of mentality. If this happens then I see no reason for us to finish the season with a really strong push.
Jon Newsome is the owner of prestige, sports and performance cars specialists, Automarques Unit 1, Old Barracks, Sheffield. S2 4EE