After an extended break, we returned to fixtures this weekend and were away at Wake Green, a well established club with origins dating back to 1925! Pre match issues included the fact that our main central midfielder Sean was caught up with work and had to pull out of the game last minute. On the flip side we were able to welcome Jack, the captain of the 'A' team who was unable to make the senior team fixture.
Prior to the game, Jack was put at left back as I felt we needed to prioritise minutes in midfield for regular 'B' team players in Faz and Hamza (who had expressed an interest in playing there). We also had some new players in Mo, a full back and Abul, a winger - neither of whom I had seen play before as I was unable to attend training.
Formation wise the plan was to field a 4-3-3 but after Sean pulled out, we went with a 4-2-3-1. It was Amman's first game in a while so I was eager to see him make runs off Kurtis and come off the left flank. Mohsin was brought in to replace the absent Sean, and give us some creative influence at CAM.
Within minutes of the game starting, you could tell that the team did not look right. We were struggling to make any meaningful challenges in midfield, and they were making inroads into our back 4 repeatedly. We lacked a mixture of legs and heart in that midfield area. Hamza had not played for a month and it showed in his reaction speed, and Faz does not quite have the fitness to get around the pitch. If Sean had played, as a 3 it may have worked but as a double pivot, neither could control their side of the pitch.
As much as I wanted to make changes immediately, in the long term it is better to let such scenarios play out. Why? well if I pre-emptively made changes, the players would feel betrayed that I did not trust them to put things right or let them feel their way into the game. There is also the risk that you make the changes and the situation worsens, so you end up destroying the bond with the players and they lose respect for you.
Unsurprisingly we soon conceded from a corner. I still did not make any changes. We still were not responding however - if anything we were getting worse and there was a series of near misses for them. 10 minutes later, Ash then hit a poor goal kick, it was won by them in midfield and hit over our defence. Their striker muscled off Jamie and bam, it was 2-0.
At this stage, I felt the timing was right for some tactical tweaks - If I made some changes now, the players would appreciate it rather than feel victimised. I did not want to sub anyone off in the first half - that is a major confidence killer - so I just changed a position around. I moved Faz to left back and pushed Jack into the midfield.
We looked more solid already, but we were still struggling to progress up the pitch. Kurtis and Mohsin were not making the ball stick at all. Amman kept cutting in and was just being pushed towards congestion in the centre. There was no penetration to the attack. Against the run of play, Kurtis managed to cling on to a long ball, run at their defence and earn us a penalty - which he duly converted.
Half-Time Score 1-2
I did not go into the half time team talk with the intention of giving the hair dryer but the more I spoke about the first half performance and memories came flashing back of what went wrong, I could not help it. 'Strolling Around' in midfield - utterly unacceptable, 'jumping out of tackles' where the ball is there to be won - unforgivable. Acting like superstars in training sessions but playing like cowards on a match day - that is not going to cut it, even at this level.
I emphasised the fact that the result was irrelevant. We were in the game yes, but the first half performance was so shambolic, I would not be happy even if we were leading. The main thing for the club is watching these players develop and become better players. This first half was a regression in terms of performance level, so I took that personally. The base expectation for the second half was, show them that you care about this result, have some self pride and just do not be as bad as you were in the first half.
Tactically we carried out some major restructuring. We were still not competing with them enough in central midfield, they were bullying us in particular aerially. The attack was dysfunctional, there was no presence at CAM and they were shutting us down in wide areas. Balls over the top were affecting us and we needed some composure and recovery pace in there. So Hamza was switched with Jamie, Bashed into CAM, Amman onto the right so he can go down the line and cut in and Abul brought in for some natural width down the left.
Within the first 10 minutes, we had got into their half and scored from a corner. Jamie, who was now a midfielder - headed in to bring us to 2-2. We then had a period of sustained pressure and Kurtis hit a Van Bastenesque volley from the edge of the 6 yard area to make it 3-2. We were now full of confidence and the attack was sizzling. Bashed was tremendous at holding the ball in the CAM area and because of his pace and nimbleness, if they tried to get too tight - he wriggled away and if they stood off... he found the wide men.
One of those wide men was Abul who despite struggling with the defensive side of the game was able to hold the width, collect the ball and plant a superb finish from just outside the box into the bottom corner. We were 4-2 up and threatening at this stage to run riot. As happens with most teams, once we got into this period of the game, we became too casual with our finishing and they began to pile forward - trying to claw their way back into the game.
For a period of 10 minutes, they held our goal under siege and we were struggling to get out. They then scored from a corner 4-3. I then subbed off Kurtis, much to his dismay (he has not completed a 90 minutes yet and he was on a hat trick) to get more pace in the attack. The key here was that I was not looking to be more defensive just because we were struggling but to give them something to think about and push them back somehow. I moved the pacier Amman to striker, Abul onto the right and a nippy but wet-eared youngster Abdul at left wing.
Abdul scored within minutes, getting on the end of a well hit long ball and leaving their defence for dead as he slotted it past the keeper 1 v 1. Just as I had hoped, their defence was pressing too high in search of the equaliser which left massive gaps to run into. By strengthening our ability on the counter, we were able to take full advantage. 5-3 to us. This is how it remained until the last few moments of injury time, when they managed to grab another goal from some sloppy play by us.
Full Time Score: KHR 'B' 5-4 Wake Green 'E'
The players were understandably cock-a-hoop with the result and I was pretty proud of how we masterminded that come back. It did not feel lucky, it felt well thought-out and that we had deserved to get back into the game. Nevertheless, it was important that the players realised there was still so much to learn in terms of their general attitude of how to approach games from the start and the fact that their game management was inexplicably poor - they conceded twice despite having a 2 goal lead.
Key lessons learned
- Do not make substitutes or changes straight away - give players time to correct their mistakes
- There is limits to this - at some stage you will need to act before the game runs away from you
- Playing in midfield is not just about playing pretty passes. Being able to compete and protect that defence is a prerequisite.