After a strong display last week, we received an additional boost with the return of 3 key players. Grady - our star CDM, Emad our vice captain and Jamie - one of our leading defenders. On the flip side, we lost Isaac to the A team and our captain Ryan was on his jollies - so there would be an untested partnership at centre back. Nevertheless there was a lot of confidence going into the game based on the strength of the squad on paper.
Rauri had to pull out of the game last minute and that opened up a spot on the squad. Elliot did not want to take the opportunity of being a substitute which was disappointing but understandable considering his commitments off the pitch and a player who had returned to the club, George was given his chance to be part of the squad.
I had some tough calls to make with the strength of the squad but in my head it was too early to be thinking who is my first choice XI. I wanted to experiment with combinations I had not seen in action yet. The initial line-up had Grady and Emad in midfield, and Callum and Lamar on the wings. As I anticipated, Grady, Lamar and Callum all arrived late and I had to bench them for the first half.
Reluctantly I went with a formation which was essentially a 4-2-2-2 and lacked natural width. George played as a left sided CAM and Badris as a inverted right winger. Kurt and Mikey played as a duo up top. Mo and Dan were our full backs and Louis, a new player from the A team partnered Jamie at centre back. Ash completed the lineup in goal.
We started the game full of confidence and pressed Village inside their own area who were going short with every goal kick. We kept nicking the ball of them with relative ease and moving the ball around in their third. Badris was making inroads down the right and they were really struggling to keep him quiet. He could have been a bit more direct but there was numerous lay offs around the edge of the box which were not taken.
Against the run of play, Village hit a long diagonal ball over the head of Jamie and Mo into the right sided channel. Their best player was a tall powerful left winger and he outmuscled Mo and outpaced Jamie. I told them both to drop off but the defence was not really listening to the instructions and eventually we were punished with Village beginning to target this side of the pitch repeatedly. They ran in on goal and we were 1-0 down.
Mo asked to come off having taken a knock to the chest and I brought on Grady and shifted Emad to right back. We then started to look stable defensively but we still were not really firing in attack. The build up was laboured and Kurt and George were dropping deep but not really moving sharply with the ball. Emad got caught a few times dawdling on the ball and it was only really Badris who looked a genuine threat.
Just before half time, Kurt got the ball around 25 yards out and took a pop. He has a devastatingly accurate shot and it thundered off the crossbar and went over the line. Mikey tapped in the rebound just in case... but despite Village's protestations, the goal was given and we were back in the game...
Half-Time Score 1-1
I tore into the players at half time for being overexcited by the team sheet on paper and not really demonstrating their superiority on the pitch. Football is won by effort on the pitch and I believe the lack of respect shown to the opposition before the game filtered through into the way the players approached the first half.
I was also unhappy with the way that the team failed to adapt to Village's shift to a long ball strategy. We did not drop off to give ourselves a chance to deal with it and neither did we shift across as a side to help Mo who was facing a very difficult marking assignment. If he had more support, he may not have overexerted himself physically. We needed to be less tactically naïve.
I made some half time substitutes, with Callum and Lamarr coming on half time for Kurt and George. This allowed Badris to go back into CAM, as well as give us a genuine wing threat. I also switched Louis and Jamie, so that Louis' recovery pace could be used to chase any long balls sent into the right channel.
We started the second half really well. Lamar terrorised their left back and scored fairly early on to put us 2-1 up. Ash then hit a wonderful long kick from out of his hands and played in Mikey who rounded the keeper and scored to put us 3-1 lead. I was tempted to make the subs then, but remembered what happened against Wake Green and decided against it.
We then had a sustained period where we were working their goal but then we began to run out of steam. Village then began to expose Emad's overexuberant positioning and I decided it was time to bring on some fresh legs. Grady asked to be switched with Emad at right back so he could shore up the right flank. Thomas came on for Mikey up front - he had only featured as a winger in previous games - and Bash came on for Badris as a CAM.
Up to this point, the game had been played fairly competitively and whilst the referee had been poor - the opposition had played the game in the right spirit. This suddenly began to change and we were on the receiving end of some hefty challenges. At times it was clear they were not even interested in the ball and the referee was failing to take any notice. Grady took a lot of knocks to his ankle and had to come off. He wanted to be subbed but with all the subs used up, he had to come back on.
Unable to run, he asked to be put back in midfield. I switched the formation to a 4-3-3 with Bash and Jakob either side of him, doing all the doggywork whilst Grady sat centrally. During this period of upheaval, Village managed to squeeze a through ball in between the space where Emad and Louis were situated and they had someone run onto it and put it away with an excellent finish. It was now 3-2 and the spectre of Wake Green was hanging over us once again.
To my surprise we responded instantly. Their goalkeeper mishandled the ball after a long ball from Emad and Thomas latched on to it, and like an assassin put it away. He then just came alive and started tormenting the opposition backline, giving me Greenwood vibes with his fleet footed ambidextrous dribbling style albeit favouring his left foot ever so slightly. The game was getting more and more physical at this stage and we were fortunate to avoid injury although our players were bravely going in hard and riding the challenges.
Once again Village came down the left side and punished us. I had urged Daniel to get back and be more defensive in his positioning but he took too long to respond and by failing to tuck in, he was unable to use his recovery pace to get back in time to clean up. Emad and Louis had conceded two goals from play down their flank and this was something I would need to address for future games.
4-3... the nerves were fully kicking in and the thought of once again throwing away a result was making me feel sick. Fortunately the lads kept their heads and we once again went on the attack. We had a number of long shots from Jakob which went over... he lacked the power to drive through the ball properly but his heart was in the right place. We were going for goal number 5 rather than just holding on for dear life. Nevertheless I did tell the boys to be smarter in possession and not force their passes. We needed to wait for openings.
Our next goal came from pressing their keeper and in the ensuing scramble, Thomas smashed it bottom left and we were back to a 2 goal cushion. Finally we saw out the game from thereon in and secured a much needed 3 points to send us to the top of the table. Playing against Village E has not been easy ever since our first pre season friendly but I was glad the lads had come through a physical battle and held their nerve.
Full Time Score: KHR 'B' 5-3 Village E
Not much to say after this game. Just told the lads it was important to remember football is not won on paper but by proving yourself on the pitch. Never think the game is won based on the strength of your lineup. Be prepared to battle.
Key lessons learned
Confidence is good but arrogance can kill a team. Always watch out for complacency.
Players need to make tactical adjustments throughout a game, as a manager you can help with this but they must also have the awareness and IQ to execute this.