Trudging down memory lane

On a day when normalcy became popular again, Town’s return to a state of characterless, doddering ineptitude could not have been less welcome.


None of the style implemented by Corberán was on display and there wasn’t a single consolation to be found in probably the worst performance of the season against a disciplined, barely troubled Millwall side who are unlikely to gain 3 easier points on the road this campaign.


This was a game which needed to be won. There are plenty of excuses to reach out for but all of them should be dismissed and ignored. The injuries have been with the club for enough time to be mitigated, the London team took far greater advantage of the dreadful northern weather and bedding in new faces demands greater care of the ball than the slovenly, inattentive attitude which permeated a dreadful opening 10 minutes which led to an early concession.

Town were a little fortunate that the damage wasn’t even worse.


Though largely determined by player availability, Corberán’s pairing of Campbell and Ward fundamentally unbalanced a largely laughable attacking force and the complete absence of ideas in an unremittingly dreary second half spoke of a team drained of confidence and, perhaps, basic fitness. 


To his credit, Ward had the only shot on target in the 90 minutes, which drew a decent save. The chance was one of three conjured in the only period of the game Town escaped the Lions’ shackles. The first saw Toffolo and O’Brien linking well down the left leading to a push on the latter and the award of a penalty which should have been the game’s turning point, coming just 10 minutes after Millwall’s opener.


Campbell, however, fired the spot kick too high and let the visitors off the hook while simultaneously subduing the struggling hosts, though an O’Brien burst through the middle created a glorious chance for Bacuna which the purple haired midfielder struck wide.


On the half hour, Toffolo and O’Brien created more danger down the left which allowed the full back to square to Ward who did well to swivel and force a save from Bialkowski.


And that, ladies and gentlemen, was that. 


Millwall, who scented blood early in the game, held on to the lead they took in the 4th minute when an excellent ball in by McNamara found the inexplicably unmarked Malone inside the area and the Town old boy swept home.


The goal was the culmination of the visitors taking advantage of the Terriers hesitant and horribly imprecise play from the kick off; sluggishness which lasted a full 10 minutes and was hugely encouraging to the previously out of form Bermondsey outfit.


At their liveliest, for the 15 minutes up to the half hour, Town failed to take advantage of their brief period of dominance and the last hour of the contest was an increasingly turgid trek to deserved defeat.


To describe the second half display as pedestrian would be to imbue it with far more energy than it held. Lacking ideas, movement and any sign of individual moments which may have caused even the mildest of surprise to the opponents, Town stagnated alarmingly.


The merciful substitution of Ward on the hour brought no discernible change in attitude or fortune with Mbenza proving just as ineffective. The returning winger had zero impact though his anonymity may have been the inevitable result of Town implementing not a single change to how they were playing. Which was sideways, backwards and far too deep. 


Throughout the evening, Town looked and played like a team completely overwhelmed by the problems which built up in the frantic schedule towards the end of 2020, and this includes the management team whose project has been upended.

The continuity which seemed to have delivered mid table stability has been usurped by chaos and mounting defeats, carrying none of the soothing consolations of earlier setbacks, and the threat of a debilitating spiral seems very real.


Sympathy for their plight is beginning to wane and will disappear if answers are not found. A home game against moderate opposition was the opportunity to reverse a decline which has hit hard and fast and the manner of the utter failure to grasp it was deeply worrying.


In particular, the Hogg shaped hole was inadequately filled by Vajello. The Spaniard, one of the few who came out with credit at Vicarage Road, could not provide the necessary energy or drive provided by the injured Teessider but was not helped by Bacuna or O’Brien for the most part and the collective failure of imagination throughout was depressing.


A Millwall second looked far more likely than a home equaliser and, indeed, they had a goal disallowed, rightly, following a corner. The offence against Schofield had been preceded by Pipa seemingly wrestling his opponent to the ground, unspotted by officials.


With the visitors mainly sitting deep to comfortably protect their lead, it is difficult to judge the performance of the newly arrived and already condemned Keogh, but he did little wrong. Apart from contributing to the decidedly uncertain start to the game, his central defensive partner Sarr was also largely blameless for the inactivity in front of him.


Many of the problems facing Corberán are not of his making. The inadequacies of the squad when shorn of certain individuals have been painfully exposed and applying band aids to gaping wounds deeply inadequate, but this is the hand he has been dealt and more effective solutions are needed.


The current points tally provides some breathing space but it is difficult to dispel the fear that a precipice is approaching. Campbell’s penalty miss may prove pivotal to Town’s fortunes this season and beyond; averting a deepening crisis must now be Corberán’s priority.

Calamity!

Having been gifted 3 points by Watford a few long weeks ago, Town’s generous reciprocity sealed a hugely predictable defeat in a game of largely uninterrupted banality with few positives for Corberán, who is facing the biggest challenges of his short tenure.

An already meagre squad shorn of experience and continuity faced a Hornets side notably strong at Vicarage Road with several players making rare starts and with the regulars, particularly Pipa and Toffolo, being asked to compensate accordingly, the possibility of a Bournemouth sized disaster loomed ominously.

Unlike the South coast debacle, most of Corberán’s choices were enforced, though perhaps one or two of the omissions had an eye on Millwall in midweek and, to their credit, a solid if uninspiring first half raised hopes of snatching a point against a side rather more frightening on paper than on grass.

The back 3 of Edmonds-Green, Vallejo and Critchlow knitted together well with the Spaniard catching the eye with calm distribution and essential availability while the two youngsters produced authoritative performances against the experience of Deeney and the growing talent of Pedro.

Restricting Watford to a couple of efforts well saved by Schofield, the defensive effort nevertheless emasculated the visitors’ threat. Bar a half decent opportunity which was wasted by Bacuna, Town’s reliance on the willing but rusty Aarons and Rowe rarely looked like troubling the home defence. 

The reluctance to commit was understandable as the alternative of leaving the central defence open to the pace  of the home side, as the potency of Pipa and Toffolo was deliberately restrained, would have been, to put it mildly, rash.
The defensive game plan, given the personnel available, was as forgivable as it was necessary, but the almost total neutering of attacking intent made for a difficult watch.


Things may have been different had an incident on the half hour been adjudicated differently. Troy Deeney’s assault on Bacuna, who had released Aarons some time before being clattered, was as worthy of a red card as his scything down of Quaner in the first Premier League season.

The failure to play advantage was more understandable given the severity and immediacy of the challenge, but not to follow this up with dismissal simply added insult to injury.


A half of football lacking excitement if not endeavour ended, deservedly, goalless and perhaps Watford’s pedestrian display encouraged Town to open up a little in the early stages of the second half as they attempted to impose themselves a little more (it was hard to imagine them being less progressive).

They began to look quite comfortable, even managing a shot by Bacuna following a neat move down the left involving Toffolo who had finally managed to get forward.


On more than one occasion, neat play at the back extricated Town from Watford’s press and the game suddenly held some promise for the visitors until the bright start came crashing down in bizarre circumstances. Perhaps over emboldened by their earlier calm, O’Brien played a simple ball back to Vallejo who, in turn, moved the ball on to his goalkeeper. Inexplicably, Schofield didn’t react and, in fact, took a step backwards which allowed Cleverley to pounce and open the scoring.


The young keeper’s scoresheet remains firmly positive despite the error, but the circumstances of the day demanded diligence if a positive outcome was to be achieved. As it was, defeat seemed inevitable as the second half plan imploded.


Within ten minutes, Watford sewed up the points as Pedro swept the ball out to Femenia who easily beat Pat Jones before finding Pedro on the back post to tap in. That the ball travelled that distance without intervention was disappointing, though the lack of challenge by Jones, who was barely minutes in to his League debut, made life too easy for the hosts.


Watford appeared largely content with a lead which seemed almost certain to be unassailable, while Town changed formation to involve Ward to join Campbell up front. The injury plagued substitute’s cameo was sadly, though not altogether unexpectedly, anaemic and featured a break down the left which he managed to run out of play. 


Scott High, however, had a promising 20 minutes including Town’s one shot on target of the afternoon, comfortably gathered by Bachmann, who rarely if ever had to go in to overdrive. Sadly, it wasn’t a case of him not seeing anything yet as his afternoon continued untroubled.


An expected defeat then with all the problems pervading the club laid out across the field despite a defensively commendable first half. As it stands, there are no January signings which will bring immediate relief; Aarons was energetically ineffective and clearly needs gradual introduction, Grant is injured before even making the bench and Thomas more likely to go out on loan.


Millwall, and the return of Mbenza, perhaps, offers a good opportunity to get back to winning ways which increasingly feels necessary despite the still comfortable gap to the relegation zone. A losing spiral is not exactly far from supporters’ memories.

Running on fumes

Town’s 6 game undefeated home run was ended by a Reading side with too much quality for a mentally fatigued, again unchanged, first eleven with little backing them up as the structural deficiencies of an injury hit squad and lack of depth finally caught up.


This is a mid table outfit, even with its full complement, which is a considerable improvement from the relegation strugglers we assumed as the season got off to a poor start.


Far from being a disastrous defeat, the performance had some redeeming features but lacked the necessary intensity, fluency and attention to detail necessary when facing a play off contender recovering from an injury crisis which had spoked their wheels after a rip roaring start to the season.


An increasingly unconvincing lead established after 5 minutes with the first attack, as Mbenza produced an excellent cross for Campbell to power in, never looked like being built upon and the visitors controlled most of the opening half and would have gone in level but for another outstanding stop by Schofield.


Perhaps the very early lead mitigated against the Terriers. Far too passive in possession, the dynamism of previous home games was largely absent and the opportunity to capitalise on Reading’s shock at going behind was missed. The slow pace made for a dull first half, enlivened by the visitors in injury time as they sought a deserved equaliser.


Having survived one excellent delivery in to the box with Pipa slicing an attempted clearance in to Schofield’s hands, the next one from the excellent Swift reached its target and forced yet another close range stop from the young keeper and the lead was preserved. Precariously.


The Royals took a grip of the game from the start of the second half and looked much the more comfortable and confident side. Town’s control, which was reasonable for a period after the opening goal, had eroded markedly as the visitors’ quality established a dominance which always felt ominous for a squad creaking under the weight of its limitations, not least those sat on the bench which included 3 full backs; possibly our least worrisome positions.


The best chance, however, was created by a trademark O’Brien surge which almost found Mbenza in the six yard box. Perhaps a shot was the better choice for the midfielder but the let off for the visitors proved the turning point.


The equaliser, and the nature of it, came as little surprise as Joao took advantage of Edmonds-Green’s hesitancy in dealing with a ball behind him as the youngster hoped, with little apparent basis for optimism, that Schofield was going to deal with the threat. The keeper was equally convinced, and rightly, that this was a situation entirely the responsibility of the centre back, and the impressive Portuguese took full advantage of the naivety.


It was an error which smacked both of inexperience and hesitancy born of mental fatigue. Edmonds-Green has been, and will continue to be, one of the successes of the season, stepping in to a central defence crisis with a poise and elegance which outstripped the injured alternatives and is surely allowed lapses, particularly at the end of a gruelling schedule.


The leveller spurred the home side a little but only served to make them look even more vulnerable to the counter and a Pipa block was needed to thwart Joao before a strong claim for a handball in the area blocking a Hogg effort was waved away by a referee who had a poor game, though probably right to be unmoved by these appeals.


Less forgivably, the official played an inadvertent but vital part in the lead up to the winning goal, blocking Hogg’s path to an interception of a poor ball. This is not to take away from Joao’s excellent strike; a thunderous shot after making space with a lovely turn. Subsequent criticism of Town defenders’ inability to block the shot rather ignores the skill employed to open up the space with a subtle and decisive feint. If you are going to lose, be beaten by quality.


Town had chances to equalise as Reading failed to press home their advantage despite looking clearly the better of the two sides. Mbenza brought a very good save from Reading’s Brazilian keeper following a good lay off by Campbell and had an even better chance late on when the much improved Bacuna shredded Reading’s back line with an incisive ball. The Belgian tried to manoeuvre the ball on to his right foot rather than taking the chance more quickly with his left, however, and he was forced to stab at the chance and saw his effort go narrowly wide.


Always a threat on the break, the Berkshire outfit hit the bar late on and saw out a deserved victory for their overall superiority.


Corberán’s refusal to blame the defeat on fatigue was admirable though a little credulous. It is not just the mental and physical tiredness which afflicts a team with the same line up for 5 straight matches (and there is an argument that the continuity is beneficial), but also the ability to change things which is severely impacted. 


The paucity of resources, screaming out from the state of the substitutes’ bench, is now well beyond stating the bleeding obvious territory, but capable of at least some rectification before the next league game. When Reading replaced the always excellent Swift – against us, at least – with possibly the best prospect in the Championship, Olise, you could have forgiven Corberán a head in hands moment.


However, and despite being below par for much of the game, Town competed and even had chances to grab an undeserved point. They were a little unfortunate to be playing Reading as they return to strength, though having taken 3 points from a Watford side at probably it’s lowest ebb, these things tend to even out.


Progression from solid mid table will take more time, and the dial is unlikely to be moved this season. This final game of yet another brutal run was one too far, but the effort of the eleven stalwarts couldn’t be faulted and the future is still hopeful.