This result was never going to be a ‘must win’ or a defining moment in the season, it’s still far too early for that. What is pretty clear is that the impending break for the World Cup cannot come too soon. With a recent record of one win in eight (and in all honesty it’s hard to see where the next win is coming from), the opportunity to rest the heads, hearts and minds cannot be underestimated. However, this is the same for all clubs in the division, so we won’t be the only ones in need of a recharge.
The main issue did not seem to be physical but mental. The mental tiredness manifested itself in many ways.
The basic passing merely utilised whatever spare man there was. Was it the best pass to make though? Very rarely. But we did this time and time again.
The punting ball up to Andy Carroll when the support around him wasn’t there. Yakou Meite did not know where to be or what to do alongside Carroll. He looked confused and frustrated.
The lack of movement in the first half was staggeringly bad. Preston didn’t even need to man mark as we ran towards them rather than making space for ourselves. We could not develop patterns or move the ball via simple triangles. Basic, basic stuff but mind-numbingly frustrating.
Whilst much of this is on the players, the manager has to take some responsibility. The options were there to freshen things up, but we stuck to the plan – the plan that really does not appear to be working. The freshness of Tyrese Fornah, Lucas Joao and Shane Long were a shot in the arm which led to us winning our penalty.
Fornah drove us higher up the pitch, Shane was dropping shorter to move the Preston defence around, Joao was surprisingly spritely and motivated. No sulking on show here. The tempo had improved hugely and, after the equaliser, there only seemed to be one winner…and it wasn’t the visitors from the north. But tired minds switched off, didn’t track the runners and we were behind once more. The momentum was with us for the first time in the game and we blew it.
Why we can’t begin games like this is infuriating. From the start our mode seems to be that we must not lose rather than playing to win. We were more than happy to have tennis rallies with Preston where both defences pinged the ball about between them with brief interjections from the midfield who could not control, pass or move the ball with any kind of adequacy. It was boring.
The distinct lack of intention was another indicator of minds that are running on empty. When the movement isn’t there the only option available was to punt it up top. There was no thought of whether this was the best thing to do but just a default as Carroll would likely win the ball. But to what end? Sure, he’d win the header but Preston would pick up the second ball and start another move. Luckily, they weren’t great with the ball either but they didn’t need to be.
As has been mentioned before in other reports, we have to press higher to get to those second balls, but we can’t really press because Carroll isn’t that mobile. He can’t play that kind of game. We are stuck to using him, because he’s Andy Carroll, but then we don’t play a shape that gets the best out of him.
The insistence by Ince to play five at the back is counter-productive as the wing-backs are not deployed to help the forwards but to protect the defence. This all leads to a disjointed side that doesn’t appear to have a plan beyond hoofing it up front and hoping for the best.
Ince Snr has alluded to the fact that changes will be made for the upcoming games against Watford and Hull City. Maybe this realisation has come too late as we look like we’ve been running on fumes for a while, especially away from home. Amadou Mbengue, who was harshly dropped against Preston, hopefully will get a run out. The trio that came on should also figure as they provided verve and a bit more guile than what they replaced.
But the biggest return would be that of Sam Hutchinson. Having won just once since his departure through a hamstring injury, we have sorely missed his calmness and organisation. Whether in midfield or defence he has slotted in seamlessly. We rarely have looked like a bad side when Sam has played.
The risk is that he is brought back too soon with only two games to go before the break. Is it worth it for just two games? There could be other changes to be made perhaps before the return of Sam, but some changes are absolutely necessary.
As we continue to limp towards the break, there are some positives to look towards. Femi Azeez hit the ground running in some style with a first-half hat-trick for the under-23s against Ipswich Town. (That said, where he would fit in the current system is debatable).
The aforementioned Hutchinson will return. Naby Sarr will surely be back. Even Liam Moore will be available. It’s a scenario that nobody envisaged but here we are. He will be available and no doubt will want to put himself in the shop window as he, among others, will want to impress for their next club. Whether he’ll get the chance in a very congested central defensive area is another story. Oh, and Scott Dann will be back, maybe. Sorry, Scott.
The return of Moore could be the kind of unlikely tale that could, ultimately, help us towards safety. Our tale that needs a different twist as, currently, we’re telling the same old story and the ending does not look to be a happy one.