It’s almost laughable at this point. The team is the laughing stock of English football as we bottle another game. Conceding three to a team who’d previously only hit the net seven times in 16 games is beyond a joke - yet, even when we were leading 2-0, I would have snapped your hand off for a draw, and as Salop’s first went in, the writing was on the wall.
Everything about this club seems so horrendously predictable at the moment, from the team selection to the substitutions, to the scorelines, and even to the post-match interviews. Ruben Selles continues to lump the blame onto himself, yet this time with a sprinkling of points-deduction-related excuses, which for me stinks of the comments typical of the back end of Paul Ince’s tenure at the wheel.
For me, the Spaniard’s position as manager is reaching a similar conclusion now. The fat lady may not be singing yet, but she is most certainly warming up backstage.
Let’s see what cost the Royals on Saturday.
In my match analysis of the Bristol Rovers game last Tuesday, I highlighted the team’s lack of awareness surrounding positioning on set-pieces, particularly corners, as we allowed the Gas to have far too much freedom from these situations.
This was especially relevant heading into the Shrewsbury Town match, considering that, over the League One season so far, Salop have the highest proportion of xG that results from set plays in the league, at 0.33.
Both stoppage-time goals came from one of Shrewsbury’s 11 corner kicks throughout the game, with the build-up to the winning goal seen here. The ball was cleared from the corner and Elliott Bennet was afforded far too much space by Harvey Knibbs - he crossed to find the head of Daniel Udoh, but he can only flick it into the back post, where Jason Sraha is waiting.
The Shrewsbury left-back was allowed the time and space to take a touch and shoot before anyone closed him down, and threaded it beyond David Button. As I’ve said time and time again this season, the awareness of our opposition cost us. Lewis Wing, Sam Hutchinson and Harlee Dean all crowded round Chey Dunkley, leaving Sraha free at the back post.
We were far too rigid in our positioning for Shrewsbury’s equaliser too. This is the scene in the box as the corner is taken, and although we have a good amount of men protecting the goal in the centre, none are able to win the first header. As the corner is taken, Dunkley (on the far left) blazes into the box with a late run to bundle the ball in from the line of the six-yard box.
Wing attempts to track his run, but the Salop centre-half’s power is too much to contain.
I think the 4-1-4-1 used in this match was overall far more effective than the 4-2-2-2, mainly because it allowed us to get the ball into the wingers, who were Dom Ballard and Femi Azeez, and gave them the freedom to run with it to progress the ball. That is especially beneficial to Ballard, who had previously been playing a difficult role as a hold-up striker.
The midfield combo of Hutchinson, Wing and Knibbs was a decent balance in terms of allowing the latter two to get forward, and they often provided the option for the knockdown ball/headed pass from Sam Smith after a long ball from Button.
This was the impression I got from watching the game, but the positional report, as shown here, suggests it was almost a 4-1-3-2, with the front pairing being Azeez and Smith.
This would make sense as those two registered the most shots in the game, although I can’t understand the decision to play Azeez so advanced, considering he last scored over two and a half years ago, and against Shrewsbury he missed a fantastic chance to put the game to bed. For me, Paul Mukairu, Caylan Vickers and Mamadi Camara - when he returns from injury - should all start in front of Azeez based on their seasons so far.
Smith however provided a great outlet up top to go long to; his physicality is just what we need in such an unforgiving and brutal league.
It’s easy to say that if we did what we did in the first half in the second too, it would have been a routine win, but this shift is one not necessarily of a footballing nature but a mental one. It’s really the lack of leadership, control and direction that’s lost us so many points this season.
The pressing and tenacity were exactly what we needed in the opening 45, as is shown here.
Smith won the ball after a defensive mistake from the Salop right-back and got a shot off which ended up in the back of the net. However, the flag went up, despite Azeez not touching the ball at all, and I’d argue that he didn’t impede the goalie’s ability to stop it either.
Our performance on Saturday overall was nowhere near good enough obviously, but if this goal stands, it’s 3-0 and the win is surely secured at that point. In League One we can’t expect referees to always get it right of course, but similar goals in other games have stood.
The message after this match is simple: keep on playing like that and we will go down. Sure, it was a refreshing improvement up front, but conceding three is not good enough, and as Fergie said, “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”.
The Pizza Cup match versus Arsenal’s under-21s seems very secondary to everything else that’s going on at this point, and frankly, I for one don’t really care about the result. As good as the Gunners’ youth may be, playing against kids won’t teach the team much about how to go to battle with any League One team.
A win and some squad rotation would be nice, sure, but that won’t get us out of the relegation zone, so I’m looking at it as yet another “pre-season” game for Selles.
These results desperately need to start coming. Turn up the heat Ruben.
Up the Royals.