A week ago, after the Hull debacle, I worked out the team for the Palace game. Vito and the back four were simple enough, as were Bridcutt and Ki, plus Jonno and Borini. Who else in midfield? Jack, I thought, as Catts needed to be grounded to save a possible early bath and Larsson just isn’t doing it for me. That left a space up front. Fletcher, on balance. But what if someone wasn’t fit? I wouldn’t play Giaccherini and Johnson in the same team, which pointed to Gardner as a potential starter. I think Gardner has served the club well and I think he’s a decent bloke. But he’s not what we need right now. He’s not someone to dig us out of trouble. That I have him in the frame for a start is not a good omen for the rest of the season.
I nearly got it right but given the depth of our squad and the cup performance who could have got it wrong? Larsson took Jack’s place but the rest of the team I’d picked were there at the kickoff and they gave us a smart start, leading to optimism which seemed well founded. After 15 minutes Palace had had two players booked and hadn’t been out of their half. Borini was getting stuck in, and getting clattered for his trouble, and Jonno was doing OK.
However, we weren’t killing them in front of goal. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was a lack of communication between midfield and the front line. Maybe it was just the front line. It’s just over a year since Fletcher scored a brace and played a hero’s part as we took Wigan apart. That Fletcher is long gone. I was at the far end so perhaps I missed something but he was largely anonymous, with little movement between him and the wings as well as midfield, who can get the ball but don’t always use it well. (In that respect someone with the physical presence and legs of Alfie is needed in the centre of the park and I think he could have made a difference on Saturday).
As it was, while Larsson didn’t seem get stuck in, Bridcutt, just in front of a solid back four, had a safe, quiet game. He never came forward much, tending to leave it to Ki to advance with the ball. However, although Ki did advance he never came as far upfield as I would have liked, which often led to Jonno picking up passes with two men around him. He could usually beat the first but found himself going backwards in trying to beat the second, and while he attempted to come in from the wing and did get some crosses in it was often too much for anyone to get on the end of them.
And so the win drifted away. Palace were dire but we couldn’t break them down. Second half changes saw Altidore on for Fletcher. He did OK in winning possession – as well as Fletcher, anyway – but that he got in only one shot in 45 minutes tells its own story. Gardner came on for Larsson and made a multitude of poor decisions which didn’t help our increasingly frustrated forwards and then Scocco demonstrated in his few minutes as a replacement for Jonno that he really isn’t up to Premiership speed. Will he get there in time to replace Borini at Anfield? No chance, matey. It was Borini who almost did get the winner and there’s no-one on the books (or in the squad) who comes close to him. I hope he stays fit for the rest of the season.
What can we draw from this game? Firstly, that we’re going to stay firmly in the mire until the bitter end. We have three forwards out on loan and another three who have represented their country but couldn’t hit a barn door between them. In the six matches I’ve seen this season we’ve always struggled in front of goal and that’s not going to change. We depend on someone we borrowed. Luckily, that person wants to impress his parent club and he wants to go to the World Cup so he’s trying and that, plus the fact that he’s top class, might be enough.
Secondly, despite this poor show, Gus is building a good team. The back four work well together; I like the look of Alonso and Bardlsey has been successfully rehabilitated. Midfield is coming along with Bridcutt proving to be a good buy. Whether Gus can keep Ki is debatable but he’s using him well while we have him. As I’ve said previously, I think Alfie could slot in there and lend them some power going forward and I’d even consider Catts for judicious use during some games within that kind of set-up. It’s at the front that things aren’t working and I don’t have an answer to that other than a wholesale clearout.
So will we stay up? I don’t know. I just don’t know. I am optimistic, however. It was only a point against a very poor team but it stopped the rot of successive defeats. We hit the woodwork and we had a couple of efforts saved – nowhere near enough, you might argue, but more than some of the teams around us can usually manage, despite Saturday’s scorelines. Norwich will give us a much clearer idea of whether or not we have enough quality to avoid the drop.
Keep the faith
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