The tough fixtures were coming thick and fast. Next up, a cup tie against North Solihull... unbeaten and top of Division 5 with a goal difference of +19. We had beaten a Division 5 and even a Division 4 side in pre season so we were not feeling intimidated going into this tie.
In terms of pre match selection issues, a few days before the game - Jakob had to pull out and on the morning of the game, Thomas confirmed that he had failed to recover from a hamstring injury. Grady was still out with an ankle injury but other than that the squad was in decent shape. I did not select Lamar as he had been late to the last 4 matches and he had earned himself a suspension.
With Jamie being available for selection, I had three centre backs available - a luxury I have never enjoyed since taking charge. I decided to push him into midfield, hoping he could mirror the performance he put in against Wake Green E during preseason. With no Thomas, I was short of a wide player so decided to move Badri wide and reunite Kurt and Mikey up front. This was a big test for the duo... a test to see if they could lead the line for the rest of the season.
Mo who had been excellent against Bournville was benched as the information I had received about North Solihull was that they are a physical side. Thus I did not want a repeat of Village E, where Mo ended up being targeted and injured himself. I was also nervous about Louis' vulnerability in the air and though Faraaz and Daniel who are solid in the air at full back would give him better protection.
In the warm up, we had worked on patterns of play in possession but once the game started - quite frankly, it seemed these just flew out the window. We were really disjointed in possession and there was no link up play between the midfield and forwards. North Solihull were winning the loose balls and kept playing diagonal long balls over Louis and behind Faraaz, getting in on goal a couple of occasions.
Eventually their pressure told and they scored using that route of goal. Ryan then decided to switch places with Louis and I tried to instruct Faraaz to stop bombing forward and act as a third centre back. The other issue we had was that Jamie and Emad were both pressing and neither was sitting in front of the defence. This left a gaping hole, until I told Jamie to sit deeper. This did make an impact as we stopped conceding as many chances and began to get a foothold in the game.
Whilst we now looked more stable, there was still a lot of frustrating moments in attack. The forwards were not making the ball stick, Badri was slowing it down on the wings and Emad was too keen on playing the long ball, rather than playing it to feet.
Half-Time Score 0-1
I was very tempted to make changes at half time as I just was not happy with the performance of the attack. For all the hype about the opposition, I genuinely thought we had faced stiffer opposition during pre season but there just didn't seem to be any belief in the side when we had the ball.
I decided to give them 15 more minutes but tried to emphasise the fact there was nothing to fear, they just needed to put together some of the moves we worked on in the warm up. I gave a stern talking to in respect of the midfield and told them to communicate with each other as to who is pressing and who is sitting.
Within 10 minutes of the second half started, we conceded the most frustrating of goals. We had started quite well but a soft shot from the edge of the box which was a routine save, was caught by Ash and then thrown into the back of the net. In his defence, the weather conditions were atrocious and the ball was very wet but it just took the air out of the team to lose a goal like that.
Within minutes, Badri ran out to a loose ball and charged through their defence. Mikey followed up inside the box and was tackled from behind and we had earned a penalty. Mikey took it and planted it into the top right corner. I was hoping that would spark our side into life but it proved to be a false dawn.
North Solihull once again got down the right side of our defence with Faraaz beginning to feel the pace of the game. When their winger cut the ball back, their forward took a shot which was blocked by several of our players. Suddenly we heard a whistle and the referee pointed to the spot. It was an outrageous decision. The shot was taken at such close range there was no reaction time and there was no hands away from the body as the players had their backs turned.
3-1 down. It was time to be ruthless and ring the changes. I had seen enough. Whilst the goals had been desperately unlucky, I still did not feel confident that the side had what it took to come back as things currently stood. I shifted Badri up top, and brought George in at number 10. I then moved Emad to right back, brought Mo in at left back and shifted Jamie back to centre back - taking off Louis, and moving Daniel to right wing. We had a brand new midfield pairing of Rauri and Meb. It was now a 4-2-3-1.
Within 5 minutes, the entire game seemed to turn upside down. We sparked into life. Mo, who was a man possessed - aggrieved at being benched, nutmegged their winger and played in Bash - who cut in and fired a shot via a deflection from just inside the box. It was now 3-2.
Rauri, Meb and George just began to run the show. Rauri had the discipline to mark the area in front of the defence and his passing was simple and crisp - along the floor. This linked the defence and the midfield. Meb made some wonderful runs into the half spaces and put in some dangerous crosses from wide areas... his first touch was just beautiful and it allowed us to keep the ball under pressure.
As for George, it was nice to see an attacking midfielder who tried to get back and support the midfield. His tackling was weak but his heart was in the right place. On the ball however, he was magic... constantly finding Badri and producing some wonderful combinations of possession play with Bash. We were creating chances galore but whenever we got in front of goal - the referee would blow for ridiculous offside calls or bring things back for a foul when he should have played on.
With a few seconds left on the clock, we put together our best passing sequence of the game. Most of the side seemed to get a touch of the ball and through lots of one touch play, Meb now found himself wide... he put in an outstanding cross to the far post, Badri slide in, but the ball was heading towards Daniel who stretched out and got a shot off. Only to see it very narrowly go over the right hand corner... agonisingly close. The ref then blew the final whistle.
Full Time Score: KHR 'B' 2-3 North Solihull
For the first 65 minutes, I was concerned about the potential of this squad. Had we flattered to deceive in preseason? But the last 25 minutes was of such high quality that it restored my faith in the potential of this side. Some ruthless decisions would need to be made before the next game, but it was now clear to me what direction the side needed to take.
We needed to become a front foot possession side but building patterns of play relies on more than just coaching. You need to have players with the right level of technique, intelligence, confidence and willingness to want to play that style of football. If the ball is never in control, or the wrong passes keep being made - the pattern of play you wanted to execute is just never going to happen.
Key lessons learned
Rauri is our only natural CDM outside of Grady
Unless you are coaching Man City, it is very hard to get out of your own half consistently unless you have forwards who can stretch and protect the ball under the severest of pressure.
Brain triumphs over brawn in midfield. We had less physically able players in midfield towards the end of the game but they had better positional sense, better use of the ball and this helped us to consistently progress the ball through the thirds.