What The Gaffer Said
I spoke to Paolo DI Canio and Martin O'Neill recently who warned me that the players would pull the wool over my eyes; lead me to believe that they could raise their performance levels and sustain it; that they were professional, talented and motivated enough to take on board new strategies and ideas, and ultimately, play every game with desire, commitment and give all they possibly could from first minute 'til last - only to then plateau at a very worrying level.
Wow, they were right.
Okay, he didn't say that, Here's what he really said;
It was one of the worst starts we've had, maybe comparable with the Cardiff game. I wasn't expecting it - we were ready and the team was strong enough to compete, but we didn't for half an hour. When you don't play well and the opposition does something they don't usually do [for the second goal], you find yourself in a very difficult situation.
I had to make a decision I don't like - I don't like changing players in the first half. Today it was Jack and Ki, but they paid the price because of the team performance, not their own personal performance. We needed to sort it out. Seb and Lee brought something and the team recovered a little bit. If we'd scored with Wes's header in the second half the game changes, but it was a bad day.
I stayed outside [afterwards] to check which players went over to the fans, because they backed us really well.
We need to keep believing - it is the only way.
What an opportunity on Wednesday - to play against one of the most in-form teams in England in their own stadium. I want them to go there and have a really good go, without any regrets.
I feel for Gus. I really do. This is driving him as crackers as the rest of us. He isn't immune from criticism, of course, he's getting certain things wrong. Every man and his dog thinks Borini should play centrally, for example. He's made a few team selections that have backfired and made some serious errors of judgement. But this isn't uncommon. In fact, it's very much the norm for any Premier League manager away from the elite.
It's interesting to see him mention the double substitution before half time. I think it was a good and proactive message to make at that point of the game. People liked Di Canio's initial stance on calling the players out on their attitude and performance levels, and this was Gus making it abundantly clear to fans and players alike that this wasn't acceptable.
The clear difference, of course, is he found it important to then protect the individual players sacrificed. The embarrassment of being withdrawn in the first half should, hopefully, be a good source of motivation to any player. Hearing their manager then call them a disgrace in front of the cameras would be too much. The manager going as far as defending the individuals, yet showing the authority to make this substitution, shows impressive man management qualities to me.
The Players Need A Long Hard Look At Themselves
To elaborate on the first paragraph in the previous section, Gus has to take some criticism on the chin. However... come on!!
I've banged the three man midfield drum for a long time now, while others crave the return of a 4-4-2 with direct wingers and purposeful play. We all have our own favored starting line ups and preferred players, and we'll never be in total agreement. But, at times, when it comes down to it, none of this matters in the slightest. We outnumbered Norwich in the middle of the park yesterday yet couldn't dictate play for as long as five minutes in the first half.
That's not down to any system, formation or footballing ideology; it's down to one side wanting it more than the other. And when you play against someone near you in the league table, at this stage of the season, it's simply not on. With the greatest of respect to Norwich, we shouldn't be caving in to relentless pressure birthed by sheer determination rather than talent or ability. Not when we need the points.
We saw this side pull the wool over Martin O'Neill's eyes for a short space of time. Now it could be argued the same has happened with Poyet.
I wasn't a advocate of the Ulsterman's style of football, but again, that's irrelevant to the point. I think reading over my mock quotes at the start of this article cover it sufficiently without the need for me to rant on and on about it.
I have said for weeks on the Wise Men Say podcast that Phil Bardsley could only sustain his form when outside of his comfort zone. There's previous evidence to suggest he needs the reward of a new contract or the fans' trust to produce above average performances on a weekly basis. Now this isn't me singling him out, I just think that this example reflects the whole side at present.
In fact, let's investigate that further.
Ki's performance levels have drastically dropped, too. Why? Because Laudrup isn't at Swansea watching over him anymore? Because he has nothing to prove to Garry Monk? Or because he's perhaps done enough to guarantee another Premier League move on the back of his early form here?
Is Adam Johnson devoid of any blame because he had one outstanding month?
Is the lack of competition to O'Shea and Brown resulting in their collective decision to allow concentration levels to significantly drop?
Will Larsson, Colback, Gardner or Cattermole ever put more than two consecutive performances together? Will this "revolving door" scenario in central midfield ever cease? Who wants to keep their place? Does anyone actually want to keep it?Show us.
Of course the main problem we have within the playing staff is ultimately an ability issue, but the same starting eleven went to St James' and won convincingly, remember. Nobody can convince me that if they took to the Carrow Road field on Saturday with the same desire and willingness to work hard that we'd have lost in the manner that we did.
Thank God For The Weakness Of The Other Sides Around Us
We should be gone. We should be so far out of sight by now that we can start planning for The Championship next season without question. But looking at it when detaching your own personal emotions to the situation, all Saturday may have done is remove Norwich from the relegation equation. When we sat with one point heading into the Wear-Tyne derby on October 27, would we have taken the scenario we're now in? I'd bet we would have, and that's without including a day out at Wembley.
My Wise Men Say companion Gareth Barker made the very good point that, essentially, we gave these sides around us a seven game head start and they've been too weak to take advantage. I'd agree with that. In fact, I'd throw the Swansea game into that, considering Gus had two days to work with this hapless bunch of misfits before that particular horror show. The Hull and Norwich defeats mirrored that performance in truth; an observation worth making to solidify my earlier point about a swift return to our true form.
So eight games, TEN if you include our two games in hand, yet we're amazingly ahead of two sides who were above us at that time. We're also within three and four points of three others. They have simply failed to propel away from us, and all that despite us being bang average ourselves. That has to offer some encouragement. It has to. Hell, we need something and I'll take it.
Be Thankful We Don't Have To Travel To The Three Free-Scoring Sides Involved In The Title Race
Oh wait, that's wrong.