If November’s 4-1 demolition of today’s opponents Gillingham was the zenith of our season, then Tuesday’s defeat to Colchester was its nadir. The indication following that atmospheric win was that - finally - this was to be our season; nothing could or would stop a side who had just embarrassed their promotion rivals.
Fast-forward several months and we sit languishing in tenth place, having embarrassed ourselves over a succession of matches that culminated in an unforgivable loss to a slightly improved, yet undeniably soft-centred Colchester United. The question on everyone’s lips – why? Well it certainly isn’t because the club has a soft underbelly, as one ‘enlightened’ fan quipped on CWR after the game.
“Football is a game of very fine lines and at the moment we aren’t falling on the right side of it.” Sam Ricketts has graced the Premier League, turned out for his nation on 52 occasions and captained Wolves to promotion from this very division two years ago – it’s fair to say his opinion is an informed one.
When you take a step back and look at how our season has played out, you would be hard pressed to disagree with Ricketts' sentiments. There is cause behind most of what occurs in football; it is rare for randomness or luck to be deemed the deciding factor. We haven’t gone from automatic promotion chasers to mid-table stragglers just, you know, because.
At any point in a season you can expect to encounter injuries, suspensions and to a lesser extent the unavailability of players due to international call-ups. The first and most pertinent of these factors is an unforgiving beast. Injuries cannot be pre-empted and in the main cannot be avoided.
The loss of Lee Burge and James Maddison early in the season may pale in significance when compared to the defensive crisis that has plagued us throughout, but both have negatively impacted our season. Burge fell victim to a sickness bug prior to the 3-0 home win over Shrewsbury in October, leaving Mr social media Reice Charles-Cook to deputise in his absence.
Initially we were all impressed by the clean sheets, reflex saves and an on-field and online persona that was endearing. Tony Mowbray too was evidently impressed and at no stage felt the need to sign a loan keeper. As mistakes began to appear in Charles-Cook’s game – which is part and parcel of the developmental stage of any keeper - there wasn’t even a suggestion that a replacement was needed.
We dropped points at the hands of Charles-Cook; the effect his presence has had on the – ever changing - back four is also up for discussion. Mowbray’s blind faith in a promising yet currently flawed keeper prevented Burge from gaining a recall on his return and put paid to any chance of an experienced keeper being signed.
The exquisite through ball for our second goal in the 4-0 rout of Millwall showcased the relative genius of the departing Maddison. A three month lay-off was the result of an ankle injury picked up a week later against Walsall and his development has momentarily stalled. Putting aside the odd flash of brilliance we have seen since his return to fitness, his all round game isn’t befitting of his obvious ability.
He has struggled to influence games in the way a number ten needs to for our system to work. A player who should have been at the forefront of our promotion charge just hasn’t had ample development time to play and consistently perform week in, week out at this level. Those three months may well have offered him much needed exposure to first team football.
A well constructed back four is the stuff of dreams; it brings solidity, reliability and confidence to a team. Game after game after game a defensive unit can replicate their performances, grow tighter and understand each other’s individual game better. Unfortunately, we haven’t been afforded the luxury of a settled back four all season.
As a result, last season’s theme of unforgivable defensive errors has carried over into this one. A defensive unit that is in a constant state of flux is always going to work against you; whether it’s defending set pieces or a fullback’s communication with his winger, inevitably a team will suffer because of this. Had Johnson and Martin or Turner and Martin been able to play together for a sustained period of time, we would have accumulated more points.
Indirectly it has also negatively affected other parts of the team. Swindon fans were very complementary about Jack Stephens’ midfield capabilities when he arrived on transfer deadline day. He exuded calmness on his debut away at Port Vale, managing to both protect the back four and drive forward with ball – thereby adding a new dimension to our midfield.
However, due to injuries and Peter Ramage’s departure he has been stuck at centre half. The freshness and legs he brought to the defensive midfield role – which also offset the tiring Fleck and Vincelot partnership – has so far been seen on a sole occasion. Let’s not forget Baily Cargill’s brief loan spell that was also ended by injury.
I’ll be the first to admit that I thought the play-offs were all but confirmed at several stages this season, and I imagine many others shared my confidence. Such was my belief, I goaded Villa supporting friends by suggesting that we would be meeting them in the Championship next season.
November’s delusional train of thought went: If we can replicate what we are currently doing until April - the run in and our hardest month of fixtures - then we should be well positioned for promotion. It appears that Mowbray had been working along these lines.
For the majority of the season he has kept faith with the 4-2-3-1 system; the correct basis to work off given the type of football we were attempting to play. There is no denying the fact that we’ve had success because of this. Sumptuous football with the results to back it up, something we hadn’t seen for a long time.
Mowbray is a managerial veteran who learnt from the likes of Malcolm Allison, Bruce Rioch and George Burley during a distinguished playing career. He’s had success as a manager, he’s also had his fair share of failure. What I’m reluctant to call naivety, perhaps better expressed as a blind spot, is his disinclination to deploy an alternative system prior or even during a game to combat the opponents we face.
He spent a solid period of time out of the game following his sacking by Middlesbrough. He will have reflected on what went wrong, how much of this stemmed from his ideals and what he personally needed to change when he stepped back into management. The well publicised criticism of Mowbray was that on two successive occasions his Middlesbrough side nosedived after being well placed before January – sound familiar?
Frankly I won’t be drawn into vague comparisons between that then and this now, however there is scope to suggest that Mowbray hasn’t altered his managerial principles during his idleness. Apart from the opening day of the season where we started in a 4-2-4 and effectively pressed Wigan’s back five high up the pitch, we’ve been a one trick pony.
Much like the Real Madrid sides since Jose Mourinho’s departure in 2013, we care not what the opposition do, we are only concerned with attempting to blow teams away with our high tempo, pace dependent, offensive style of football. This worked and worked extremely well, but it cannot be sustained for the entirety of a season – a pragmatic approach is required at times (The second half of Chelsea’s title winning 2014/2015 campaign is the most relevant example of this).
Several teams have sussed us out due to Mowbray’s loyalty to his principles. During games we’ve dropped points because Mowbray’s game management hasn’t been up to scratch. When chasing a game, we aren’t capable of going long; we actually struggle to set the ball, pack the box and launch a long ball. We’ve lost winnable games against the likes of Scunthorpe, Fleetwood and Rochdale by failing to adjust our style.
Tuesday was a prime example of this. We played as we have done for most of the season; playing out from the back, patiently looking for that incisive pass - we actually put together a few examples of beautiful combination play. High up the pitch, we were caught out by one ball – some questionable goalkeeping to boot – and found ourselves a goal down.
We rallied, won and missed a penalty. A strong start to the second half was derailed by the substitutions Mowbray made. He removed the pace of Jacob Murphy and the aerial threat of Marc-Antoine Fortune and we spent the last 30 minutes floundering in a sea of tactical discontent. The fact Romain Vincelot was one of the furthest players up the pitch speaks volumes.
As mentioned above, injuries, suspensions and international duty have at times forced Mowbray’s hand in terms of selection. He is due a degree of sympathy with this, but his inclusion of some players and exclusion of others has directly affected our results. I couldn’t find fault with his selection on Tuesday, but the positioning of two individuals left a lot to be desired.
Pairing the two old stagers of the side (Joe Cole and Sam Ricketts) on the left hand side was a costly error – even more so when Colchester’s quickest player Gavin Massey was playing down the right hand side. Equally questionable was his situating of Murphy in the number ten role; he has neither the vision nor technical ability to perform well behind the striker – something that should have been clear given the past few months.
All this after both players had their best performances in weeks away at Peterborough, playing in their preferred positions. When Murphy – much derided by fans even though he’s been one of our most influential players – has been left out altogether, we’ve struggled with a lack of pace.
Pace at any level of football is vital. We struggled without it last season, but this term it’s been a different story. Our best performances and results have come when the golden triumvirate of Ryan Kent, Jacob Murphy and Adam Armstrong played together. Wins against Chesterfield, Shrewsbury, Peterborough, Barnsley and Gillingham.
Since Liverpool recalled Kent we’ve won four times in 15 games; a startling statistic. The pace and tempo of our performances has slowed and we’ve failed to come to terms with it. It took three defeats on the spin for Mowbray to become aware of this. In a rare display of tactical flexibility, he changed from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 as we drew with Port Vale.
James Maddison played as a false nine with Adam Armstrong and Jacob Murphy on the wings. Andy Rose, Jack Stephens and John Fleck comprised the three behind and for the majority of the game we defended staunchly and counter attacked with pace. A late wonder strike from Sam Kelly prevented us from winning, but Mowbray’s – much needed - change of tack boded well for the rest of the campaign.
Martin Lorentzson’s injury sustained during the draw at Vale Park would set off a chain of events that saw us take several steps backwards, having seemingly move forward for the first time in a month. Peter Ramage replaced the injured Swede and put in his best performance in a City shirt – not quite good enough to be selected by Mowbray in the next game however.
Jack Stephens was given the nod and we duly returned to a 4-2-3-1. The return of pace to both wings was transient with the player formerly known as Joe Cole playing wide - Adam Armstrong once again played as the lone striker. We won 6-0 and the promotion charge was well and truly back on, wasn’t it? – the answer is no.
We met a Bury side who had lost eight of their last nine away games in the league; we played them at just the right time. It papered over our own deficiencies and we subsequently headed into a two week break as content as we’d been all season. The success of the 4-3-3 and requirement of pace on both flanks was forgotten, and we lost the next four games.
Across the season there have been other minor issues put forward as reasoning for our decline - Jim O’Brien’s loan move to Scunthorpe being one of them. His performance levels were very much on the wane as was his mental state. He was another player that benefitted from the pace that surrounded him, making his exit less of a factor.
Mowbray’s inability to prevent the isolation of Adam Armstrong for long periods of games. Relying a little bit too heavily on young players who have struggled with decision making. The strain that the defensive crisis has put on Sam Ricketts’ fitness, having looked lethargic in recent weeks. The debatable commitment of some individuals. Failure to take gilt-edged chances. All of these issues do have an affect on the overall success of a team.
It is extraordinarily frustrating that are chances of promotion have all but gone, given where we were in January. Ultimately, in the 39 games played, we’ve fallen just short of what is required. We’ve seen what we can achieve when all the pieces of the puzzle come together and there’s no reason why we can’t scale those heights again in the future – with Mowbray at the helm.
He finds himself in a similar position to the one Steven Pressley found himself in following the 2013/2014 season. Pressley had masterfully taken us into upper mid-table following a ten-point deduction, but we finished in poor form and he had a summer to try and rebuild the squad and the fans faith in him – he failed to do this and was correctly sacked just before he could take us down.
Failure next season could see Mowbray’s managerial career come to a premature end. Add into the mix a disillusioned fan base who won’t stand for a poor start, results in Mowbray having a huge summer ahead of him. It is essential that much deliberation takes place between now and August if we are to successfully move forward from the bitter disappointment of this season.