Penalties. Hello Darkness, my old friend. We met again and, once more - and much like before - it was not a pleasant experience. But, all things considered, it wasn’t a half bad showing from a team with the average age of just 20 and a smidge. Tom McIntyre, who captained the side, is only 24. Take him out of the equation and the average age was 19.6 by my dreadful maths.
Factor in where Ipswich Town are in their own trajectory compared to us, and losing on penalties is not that bad at all. On paper, we should have been mauled, but despite the visitors having a huge amount of possession the lads stuck to the task admirably and, on another day, could have won the shoot-out.
That said, it’s becoming very familiar territory to be losing by a narrow margin; it’s becoming a bit of a habit. I’m sure it’s one that manager Ruben Selles would want to reverse as soon as possible. As we’ve known all too well in recent seasons, losing becomes a pattern and a negative mindset can be suffered easily. We can well do without that.
But it was only a Carabao Cup game. Nobody performed particularly badly, progression in the competition would have meant another game we can really do without, and all sorts of fitness facets have to be taken into consideration, too, (yes, BBC Berkshire, they really do!).
To get all the negatives out of the way, we have to talk about the left-back position. Not necessarily Matty Carson himself, though - it’s more the system that’s the issue. Yes, Carson had a torrid time against Omari Hutchinson (a one-time target for us in previous summers). That’s not in any doubt - most left backs would have a bit of a problem with Hutchinson, in fairness.
The problem lies with the 4-2-2-2 itself. As the system is very narrow it does not lend itself to having coverage for the left-back. In theory, Ben Elliott, who played as the most left-sided of the second bank of two, should be covering to help Carson out. But his role is to remain narrow as to congest midfield, and he did that job very well, but it left Carson out to dry.
I don’t think it matters who the left-back is, whether he is experienced or not, if he’s not got anyone else helping out consistently to cut out supply or to make the space smaller for the winger to work in, we’re going to have a bad time. It could be that the (young) players need more time to understand the system better, but at what point does a 4-2-2-2 have to become more of a 4-4-2 or a hybrid 4-3-3 to stop the full-backs getting rinsed on the regular?
It’s a headache that Selles will have to find a solution for, as most of our troubles (and not just this season), is stopping crosses that lead to goals.
What we do have to commend, however, was the performance of Michael Craig, who made his first ever start as a Royal. He put in a colossal shift in defensive midfield. Much like the other youngsters, he played with no fear or heed to the stature of the opposition. Challenges flew in left, right and centre. He wasn’t too bad in possession either, knowing his role is not to create or provide but just to do the dirty work and let the ball-players play.
Next to him, Jay Senga was quieter but still effective. Maybe he didn’t stand out so much because Craig was so eye-catching, but Senga had some nifty moments on the ball nonetheless. If he could be a bit more tenacious in his play, as he’s a pretty big lad, he could be quite dangerous, but at the moment he’s just a little too elegant and a little too ‘nice’.
Another who was easy on the eye was Ben Elliott. That kid has got something pretty special going on, always wanting the ball, regardless of the situation around him. Seeing events unfold before they’ve actually happened, making on-the-ball decisions that far more experienced players don’t even see.
At times, his movement in tight spaces was a joy. In one moment in the first half, he received the ball in the air with four Ipswich players around him, almost cajoling them to try and take the ball from him; they couldn’t and didn’t. He’s got so much natural confidence in his game that can only be a good thing as he settles in and gains more fitness.
What was also pleasing, despite the loss, was seeing the togetherness and camaraderie in the team. Even though this was yet another team cobbled together to give players more minutes, debuts and even to rest others, they still played for each other. Nobody was a passenger; everyone kept going until they ran out of gas.
Even during the penalties, and subsequent misses, the support from the group was good to see. They all want to play for each other and want to help their teammates. Their identity as a unit is yet to come into focus as it’s still the early days of what they can do, but the progression is there. They’re a loveable bunch and they will, undoubtedly, learn from these (narrow) losses of late.
Despite the loss, the SJM Stand gave the boys a good ovation as it was really deserved. We have to appreciate what such a young team almost achieved on the night and how they are progressing as a team. The direction is encouraging and exciting, there’s so much more hope than despair these days.
As we head into the final knockings of the summer transfer window, we do still need some more bodies. Don’t we always? On Tuesday night, rumours surfaced of a possible return of Andy Rinomhota from Cardiff City. He would certainly fit into the ‘no dickheads’ category, knows exactly what the club is about and has bags of experience to boot. In central midfield where we have plenty of ballers but not enough steel, he could be a decent signing on loan.
Outbound, Andy Carroll could be waving adieu et bonne chance mon ami, and heading to Ligue 2 with Amiens. That would be the end of a pretty stormy love affair that most would agree needs to finish (apart from the girl with the Carroll banner who wanted him to stay AND play, the poor love).
On top of that, we obviously do need a left-back and another striker to complement the young bunch that are still doing us proud. It’s a group that nobody can knock for their effort and tenacity, as exhibited by Kelvin Ehibatiomhan’s fine solo equaliser. The sky’s the limit, much like our penalties. Ouch.