Whisper it quietly, very quietly, but this feels like a very small corner has been turned. There are many corners still to be turned on and off the pitch, but it felt like the players were finally beginning to find their feet in this division.
It wasn’t perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination, there’s still much to do defensively to stop conceding goals from crosses like we did here, but going forward we’re a different proposition entirely.
The much maligned 4-2-2-2 seems to be a thing of the past, and rightly so: the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape with a dedicated defensive midfielder makes sense and the players are buying into it. While systems are important, it’s the players themselves that have to adjust and make it work.
To his credit, Ruben Selles has fallen on his sword on this one. He seemed so dead set on making his beloved formation work, but for a whole host of reasons it was never really going to fly in League One with the players available to him here.
The new system doesn’t need too much tinkering for either home or away games, so that comfort level improves with every game and it is beginning to show with a performance where we didn’t blow Carlisle United out of the water from minute one - we just took our chances and took them very well indeed.
Players such as Harvey Knibbs, Lewis Wing and, yes, even Femi Azeez, are benefitting from that comfort and stability. They’ve now got much more of a licence to drift out wide or come inside to assist Sam Smith.
More often than not, Knibbs is now able to play as a 10 and influence play from there in the press. He’s clearly much happier there and it is showing with his goal return. But both he and Azeez can do it while safe in the knowledge that there are enough bodies behind them to deal with any fallout, for the most part anyway.
The same now applies for Azeez who is finally finding some confidence, which will have been helped further by scoring his first goal of the season. This, after being told in no uncertain terms by fans “DON’T SHOOT” after previously shanking an unlikely strike wide, yet again. Minutes later a delicious ball from Ben Elliott was smashed away with aplomb, much to his delight. The relief on his face was palpable.
It’s this aspect of the growing belief of many of the players that we are starting to see the results of. While the play is still a bit frantic, high on drama and action, the signs are there that relationships and patterns are beginning to form. From a back four that nobody would have flung together at the start of the season to a midfield that is solid and yet still creative. To a front three that doesn’t give a defence any rest whatsoever. It’s an unlikely bunch to arrive upon but it’s working.
It’s been a long time coming, but now this team practically picks itself if all are fit. Selles doesn’t feel duty bound to pick Charlie Savage like he did earlier in the season. He doesn’t have to scrabble around trying to find a left-back from his back pocket and see what works. He doesn’t have to try and shoehorn the players into a system that never really suited them or the style of the division. It was too fancy and asked too much of players at this level.
How he arrived at Jeriel Dorsett being our de facto left-back after previously trying and failing with Matty Carson, Nesta Guinness-Walker and even Clinton Mola is something of a mystery, but it’s turning into a masterstroke.
Dorsett provides strength, power and no shortage of pace when he really wants to push on, typified by his hopeful cross to nothing that was turned into Carlisle’s own net for our opener.
He showed the desire to get forward and put in a something-or-nothing ball. It caused enough havoc to contrive a goal; speculate to accumulate! Again, it’s a mentality shift of trying something even if it’s unlikely. The willingness to succeed is there now. It’s a small thing in the great scheme of things, but it all adds up.
But most of all, what is pleasing to see is that we have a spine to the side. Every team needs one: it’s the basis of what makes a team click. The reliance on certain players being in certain positions at certain times, they are beginning to understand what to do and when. There are fewer instances now where everyone is static and waiting for someone to make a move. It’s not perfect, but it is a lot, lot, better.
Even down to Michael Craig, who is playing beyond his years in a very demanding role. He’s calm and mature. He does the simple things simply; it’s what the role of a DM requires. He understands what’s required and doesn’t try anything too flashy. Just win the ball, palm it off to the more technically gifted guys. Understand what you need to do, rinse and repeat.
As the old phrase goes, “football is a simple game made complicated by those who should know better”. We haven’t got the players or talent to make a complicated system work, but when everyone understands their roles and responsibilities and feels comfortable in doing so, good things can happen.
A thumping 5-1 win that wasn’t really a ‘5-1 thumping kind of game’ typifies that. It was a rare occasion where the opposition didn’t do as they were told and made basic errors time and again, but we had to capitalise on that, and we did. Job done.
All in all, it’s been a refreshing couple of wins in the league this week. The elusive clean sheet remains unticked, but we’ve lost just one in five in all competitions. We’ve racked up over 50 goals this season and it’s not even January. We’ve even moved off the basement of the division, too.
Goals are coming from constant sources in Knibbs, Wing and Smith. The tide is beginning to turn. The hard work that Smith typifies resonates throughout the team. Nothing much came off for Smith, but it’s his attitude that is a benchmark for the rest. Keep on working hard and the rewards will come. Our first three goals were good examples of persistence and tenacity, while the last two were bits of individual gorgeousness.
It’s that kind of mix that enables the good times to flow again. All the building blocks now have some mortar to bind them together. We’re a long way from showing off a fine house, but the components are assembling quite nicely.