After the excitement of the youngsters shining in an away win at a Premier League ground on Thursday night, Sunday’s anaemic home defeat to Bristol City felt very much like ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’.
City never really got out of first gear. But was that because the players didn’t deliver or was it because of the formation Michael O’Neill decided to go with?
No one can have a problem with 5-3-2 with defensive-minded wing-backs Morgan Fox and Tommy Smith in tough away games. It worked at both Millwall and Wolves with different personnel and saw us get through with clean sheets in both matches after being under extensive pressure.
Arguably, City got a bit lucky with Jacob Brown’s late winner at Molineux, as his shot was straight at John Ruddy, who then got everything he could get wrong in a flailing attempt to keep it out.
But you always take those breaks when they come your way.
It was completely different scenario against Bristol City, though. Again, another tough fixture against a team in form, with a front three that know where the goal is. And between those three they created and scored the Robins’ two clinching goals.
Meanwhile at the other end Stoke offered very little aside from a 10-minute spell in the first half when situations were created, but not chances. The second half saw little other than huff, puff and frustration.
Jacob Brown made a very good full debut, with pace and movement to set him apart from Stoke’s otherwise insipid attack. But he tired and could well be better used as an impact sub. He’s certainly likely to interchange with Tyrese Campbell for the next few weeks until he can deliver his lung busting runs for a full 90 minutes.
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For me, though, it was the formation as much as the players’ performances that caused the problem on Sunday. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it stifled us going forward, in particular restricting Nick Powell, who always looks better in a 4-2-3-1 set up.
O’Neill opted to keep the same formation as in those grinding away successes, but it just didn’t work in a home game against an opposition essentially playing the same system, just a lot better. The Robins have, after all, been playing it a lot longer than Stoke.
We all know that MON has been forced to go with five at the back to solidify Stoke’s previously porous defence. That is completely understandable.
But perhaps it’s the personnel that are the problem, making him take that option?
Could it be that the main winners this week were the young centre-backs Harry Souttar and Nathan Collins, who were so impressive against Wolves? While Batth and Chester very much undered their whelms on Sunday.
Will O’Neill consider the youngsters’ case and bring them into the team even at this early stage? For me they are ready to be thrown in to see how they cope.
It’s likely they will play against Gillingham on Wednesday night, so perhaps next weekend’s game at Preston is too early. But then if we get through against the Gills either Bristol City or Aston Villa will await in the League Cup fourth round. Either way that’s a very tough tie which could see the youngsters shine again. And if they do then they are clearly ready for the Championship fray.
Meanwhile up front the focus has to be getting Nick Powell more on the ball in the opposition’s half. 5-3-2 starves him a bit, while 4-2-3-1 has been the system in which we’ve seen him really shine.
Again, the question will be if O’Neill is wedded to five at the back for fixtures he feels are tough for that extra solidity. But after Sunday’s fairly dull showing, and just one goal scored in four competitive games thus far this season, he can’t stick with it for too long if it affects us going forward.
Thankfully O’Neill has shown he is both willing to learn and adapt in his short time at the club and I have every confidence he will make us not only into a difficult team to beat, which has been his initial aim, into a far more exciting one.
He has the players, just needs to find the formation to allow them to go out and perform.
Sadly, that wasn’t against Bristol City. But we move on and look forward with so many games coming thick and fast to ‘enjoy’.