The Guest Blog - Season 4 Episode 6
Our regular blogger, Adam Guest, gives his half term report.
It`s been a while since I wrote one of these but, as we have no game now until a week on Saturday, the season has just passed its midway point, and the transfer window is opening it seemed like as good a time as any to try and objectively assess the season so far.
Despite the unrest among the supporters suggesting otherwise, we actually find ourselves sat comfortably in mid table. We`re 9 points off the playoffs and 9 points clear of relegation, whilst our form from the last 6 games reads W2, D2, L2, meaning we are as mid table as mid table can be. I`m sure we can all agree it is all rather dull and uninspiring. We`re as unlikely to threaten the playoffs this season as we are to nosedive towards the relegation zone. Rochdale, a side that look nailed on to make the playoffs, have comprehensively thumped us twice in recent weeks suggesting we`re nowhere near that level, whilst Bury have taken just 2 points from their last 15 league games and still can`t manage to get into the bottom four, therefore the chances of our form tailing off so drastically that we get sucked into it appears quite remote. Putting it another way; we have 31 points from 25 games averaging what my A-level in Maths tells me is 1.24 points per game. Assuming you need 75 points to make the playoffs, or less than 50 to go down, we`d either need to get 44 points from the final 21 games (so 2.1 points per game) to make the top six, or only secure 18 (about 0.85 points per game) to go down. Us being in League One next season must surely be the safest bet in the history of betting.
Which brings me on to the performance of manager Jon Whitney. If you were rating him out of 10, with anything 8 or over meaning we risked him being poached by another club, and anything 4 or below meaning he was at risk of the sack, then you`d probably rate him somewhere about 5.5, having spent much of the season bobbing around between 5 and 6. We all have our own opinions on whether that is good enough at the moment. My own view is it`s only good enough if you see signs of improvement and I do think, despite yesterday`s no-show, there are signs of progress there. There are certainly less reasons to sack him now than there was after the previous Rochdale defeat at the end of November. However, they do need to continue and there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Let`s take the Sheffield United away game as a case in point. We were coming off the back of both that Rochdale hammering and the goalless draw against Southend which deeply divided opinion amongst the Saddlers faithful. We changed shape and personnel, and went into the game playing what appeared to be a bizarre 3-5-2 formation with Kieron Morris at left wing back. To be honest, it looked the last act of a desperate man, a line-up that couldn`t be explained and had we been heavily beaten again that night the writing would have certainly been on the wall. However, against the odds Whitney got it right and we walked away from the game with a much needed, if somewhat fortunate victory.
His next mistake however was sticking with it for the next game at Fleetwood. He`d implemented a game plan to work against one team and, when it had, opted to use it again immediately after. Naturally it didn`t work because it wasn`t an approach designed for that opposition.
He rectified this against Bradford; Oztumer was dropped, Flo came in and we set up in an almost 4-2-2-2 formation for the visit of Bradford. Again, the approach worked for that opposition, and by all accounts we played reasonably well and got a good result. Again, we stuck with this new plan, and took 4 points from the next two away games as a result. However, yesterday we again came unstuck by again blindly sticking to a game plan until it doesn`t work anymore, rather than changing it to one that might. I very much doubt we`ll play the same shape in the next game at home to Sheffield United.
But this is the problem. We are not currently good enough to have the mindset "This is what we do, let the opposition worry about us", because the opposition don`t worry about us most of the time. I believe Whitney has realised this, and that sometimes we need to change shape for certain oppositions. However, we still need our own Plan A for the majority of matches. Our current plan is to keep whatever worked last until it stops working and then change it again, that`s just not a viable strategy. It leaves us going into January without really knowing either our best 11 or our best formation.
What else does Whitney need to learn? One of my personal bugbears is in his media quotes, his insistence on referring to himself rather than the club collectively. Quotes that begin "I need to make sure…" rather than "We need to make sure…" for example. He also needs better foresight and stop appearing so exasperated when we turn in a stinker of a performance. "I didn`t see that coming", is a line that`s been wheeled out at least 4 times so far this season, and that also can`t happen again. He has to spot our potential weaknesses before opposition managers do and correct them before they are so ruthlessly exploited.
But on that note, he also needs to learn he`s not going to please everyone all of the time. Publicly slating the side after both the Scunthorpe defeat at home and Rochdale away earned him some criticism from those who think Smith would never have done such a thing and would have kept comments like that internal. They`re right, he would have done, but then the biggest criticism of Smith in the media is his insistence on making excuses and not being honest enough in his assessments. Naturally, you can`t have it both ways.
Given all of this, we`re actually still not in too bad a place in terms of league position. Personally I`d written this season off before it had begun as a season of transition, one to give Whitney time to learn on the job and rebuild after last seasons exodus. Given our seemingly safe position in the league table then they should really be able to do that over the course of the second half of the season in a relatively pressure free environment. However, for that to happen there has to be signs of progress, we have to be seen as improving as the season progresses. That means from here we really need to be looking at a top half finish; if we finish below where we currently are with a lower points per game tally than we currently have then that`s not progress and that`s not showing improvement. If we can get a top half finish then, boring or not, I`d still class this season as successful in relative terms. Whitney will have earned the right to attempt to push on next season when we must be challenging the top six. Being where we are now this time next year wouldn`t be acceptable, but this year, with the scale of change over the last 7 months, it is, just about.
I appreciate that some supporters will disagree with that. However, given the turn in form it would need to reach the playoffs, replacing the manager now would be self-defeating. We still won`t have gone up last season, we still won`t have all of our old players back, and Dean Smith will have still jumped ship to Brentford; a series of facts us as a fan base have collectively struggled to accept this year. A new manager would again need time to rebuild, and if that takes any longer than a couple of games then the same voices will again be calling for that person to be sacked, and the cycle repeats itself.
So am I looking forward to the second half of the season? Not really, we may have the occasional exciting game but I do think it will be generally quite dull as we look to build for next season. I do think in the long run however, that it will be worth it.