After three straight defeats on the road, the slide was arrested with a draw at a soggy Kenilworth Road. Should it have been three points, though? A point seems fairly fair against a Luton side that flattered to deceive. With Reading having to make some enforced changes (shocker!) with the loss of suspended Mamadou Loum and Tom McIntyre from his injury sustained at the weekend, the defence took on yet another new look.
Replete with Andy Yiadom, Tom Holmes and the Senegalese Army Knife that is Amadou Mbengue, they performed admirably, clearing balls time and time again, limiting Luton to just a few shots on target. That’s a big plus.
Special praise does go to Mbengue who not only got away with a stonewall penalty, but for his sheer adept adaptability since making himself a fixture in the side. He’s played at right back, right central defence, left central defence and I’m absolutely certain at some point he’ll be deployed in central midfield (which could possibly be his best position of all).
He has waited a while to get his chance but claim it he has. His versatility has proven to be invaluable and if the club have any sense or, if the coffers can be stretched enough, he should be signed up for at least the remainder of the season or beyond. He has proven that he can be play anywhere and perform very well, we just have to hope that nobody else is watching as he is the type of player we need to keep, develop and see thrive.
Whilst the core of the defence worked like a charm, the wider areas alas did not. The flanks flunked and therefore starved the forwards of better service. Paul Ince belied that Baba Rahman is still to find full fitness and Junior Hoilett had one of those games where he’d been swapped out for a very convincing tribute act. Nothing stuck with him, the ball seemed to be the enemy with stray passes and awful first touches. But, in fairness, he wasn’t alone there. At times it was like watching toddlers control the ball, i.e. badly.
As we saw against West Brom at home, when the wing-backs aren’t able to get forward properly and contribute then the team plays in distinct thirds. The defenders are stuck being too deep, the midfield isn’t able to push and the attack is isolated. This game was no different with only Tom Ince (who else!) to drive the ball forward.
However, there is the danger of isolating the centre backs if the wing-backs push forward, and that is understandable to a point as our rotating door of a defensive unit needs protecting, but the risk and reward is missing. If we played with more endeavour in wide positions, we could be looking at a tidy three points instead of one, but equally leaving the defence exposed (with also an attacking midfield not best set up to assist them) that could have led to another defeat. Fine margins, as a manager once said.
Then we come to the curious case of Ovie Ejaria. The man who once lit up the field with mesmerising skills now reduced to a shadow of his former self. Oh, to see the flair that we knew and loved again. Where art thou, Ovie?
That’s not to say that Ejaria isn’t trying or functioning, he certainly puts a shift in, but it’s just not the same player that we know can do absolute bits with the ball at his feet. He did pull off a couple of very decent blocks and his work-rate is absolutely fine, but not a lot worked for him going forward. Maybe he is (still) playing out of position and not as the number 10 that he should be in, but he now seems unadventurous and timid.
Maybe Ince has advised him to be more of a tugboat than showboat and morph into a more well-rounded player? Maybe he’s still finding his mojo again after several bouts of illness and injury? Who knows, but we do know that we want our old playful green tipped booted wizard return with his fully functioning flair.
All in all, it was a bit of a clunky performance. Some bits worked a treat, others spluttered a tad, some just never really gelled. But, and it’s easy to lose sight of it, we still have a very small unit with players that have either played a hell of a lot of minutes or some with not enough. We were still without a raft of first-team players and a defence derived from broken biscuits. A point at Luton isn’t the worst thing in the world.
With three games left before some big competition starts somewhere, all points will be gratefully received. In the madness that is the Championship, we find ourselves two points from the play-offs but only seven to the relegation zone. Winning at home to in-form Preston, who are tighter at the back than the duck’s proverbial, isn’t vital, but would maintain momentum at the SCL.
We will need to foil the clunky flunky-ness and find some fluidity going forward. Being clinical in front of goal is something Ince Snr craves and that will be essential to beat our next visitors from the north.