I’m not even going to consider Tuesday night’s team selection in the sham of a game against Stoke U21s, so with that in mind, Jack Ross made four changes from the side which drew with Oxford United last weekend.
For the full information on the line-up, check out our Talking Tactics piece up on the side.
Three changes to the defence was a massive risk. But after Don Love’s continued struggles (I am genuinely perplexed how we have been relegated twice in two years but he looks even more out of his depth now) and Ozturk’s unreliability, the return of Loovens and Matthews made sense. Unfortunately, Bryan Oviedo was unavailable due to international commitments.
Further forward, one hard decision was whether or not to start summer signing Charlie Wyke, and choosing who would replace the suspended Max Power. Josh Maja and Dylan McGeouch got the nod in the end, as expected.
On paper, this is a mix of our strongest team and players right in form. You can’t really pick too much wrong with the line-up, Wyke and Sinclair are clearly not match fit just yet - and Denver Hume had a solid game at left-back.
The issues over selection of the side who started are in equilibrium with fitness issues over who would replace them - Adam Matthews and Tom Flanagan, for example. Jerome Sinclair and Charlie Wyke too lack game time, while a few others like Aiden McGeady and Duncan Watmore are still missing.
Verdict: I’d have personally started Tom Flanagan for his physicality, but it is always easy to say in hindsight.
Last week, Jack Ross was bettered tactically for the first time since his arrival at the club. Karl Robinson (aye, him) identified our narrow left-hand side as a potential weakness and lined his side up very wide, aiming to switch play to the flanks as quickly as possible. Ricky Holmes had a field day and it only changed at half-time when the erratic Maguire was replaced by Wyke, and Josh Maja performed well in a disciplined role on the left.
As a result, we started in a much more balanced and defensive 4-2-3-1 instead of the asymmetric formation we have seen recently. McGeouch lined-up alongside Cattermole in a definitive midfield double pivot, and Maguire was much wider and deeper on the left from the outset.
Clearly Ross was aware of our slow start and worried over the repeat tactic from Barton. However, I think he got this one wrong.
Fleetwood play exactly how you’d expect a Joey Barton side to play. They’re dirty, tricky and fight for every ball. In defence they lined up in a very well-organised and rigid double bank of four. They stayed narrow and instead of marking the man, marked the space and cut out our passing lanes from midfield. Then when on the ball would go immediately direct into some great running into the channels from Ched Evans and Paddy Madden.
In truth, they hardly challenged us in open play. But, for the majority of the first-half, we hardly troubled them either. Ironically, we needed Maguire popping up in those central areas, as the gap between the double-pivot in midfield and George Honeyman was incredibly large. Honeyman (whether or not under Ross’ instructions) pushed way too high in the first-half and struggled up until his excellent assist for the goal.
The lads tried to constantly get in behind a very deep back line as our poor starts to games continued. This is a worry, but in time it will come. The mistakes that cost us - along with the poor starts - seem generally down to a lack of team cohesion. Errors are via mistimed runs, individual mistakes in marking, and, at times, a lack of communication. Over time, with so many new players still hardly even bedded in to the side, this should improve.
The goal itself was the first time Honeyman dropped deep then ran with the ball down the left-hand side, moving around to receive the ball nicely in the build-up. Prior, he just kept looking for the run in behind. This was also not aided by Dylan McGeouch suffering his worst game yet in red and white. He didn’t really put a foot wrong, because he quite simply didn’t do much at all in midfield.
Verdict: Ross outwitted himself. He played into Fleetwood’s hands for the first-half and the start of the second.
One thing Ross once again got bang-on were his substitutions. While our side itself is naive at times and needs to improve in game management, Ross clearly doesn’t. He knows exactly when to make a change, who to replace and who to bring on.
Sinclair, Wyke and Flanagan all came on in the second half for Maguire, Maja and McGeouch respectively, and they added a real physical threat to our arsenal. From the moment all were on the pitch we dominated in both defensive and attacking set pieces for the first time in what feels like an age.
Our sheer inability to defend the set piece is much more worrying than the slow starts. However, this could be one route to solving it. Our early side has played some excellent attacking football at times, but we are quite clearly dwarfed by some of the teams of giants we have faced this season. Tom Flanagan - despite seeming incredibly skinny - is actually very physical and excellent in the air. He forced an utterly fantastic save from the away ‘keeper late-on from a close range header.
I think he has to play from now on. He is a skilled defender who can play across the back four, is strong in the tackle, composed on the ball and has some vital added height. Matthews likewise struggled all game, in giving away a penalty - which was excellently saved by McLaughlin - and losing Paddy Madden for their early goal.
Ross’ substitutions not only added some much-needed physicality, but we also shifted tactics. The ball was forced up the pitch much earlier and wider, really stretching the home side’s once compact defence. Gooch found freedom down the right-hand side, and the striker pairing up top both linked up well and dragged the whole side arguably 10-15 yards up-field.
Verdict: Ross deserves huge credit again for turning the game on its head with three quality substitutions.
I don’t think we started the game poorly today, that’s important. People will focus on it but I think we started it well.
What is more concerning for me is that we’ve only conceded one goal from open play in the league. There’s a penalty and a direct free-kick in there which skews it of course but if we defend set pieces better, then we’ll win some of these games and improve results again.
We need to get better at that, and I think generally we need to get better at the messy side of the game. By that I mean everybody, players, staff and myself.
Agreed. The slow-ish starts will come, but we need to sorted set pieces out urgently before it becomes too much of a target and psychological burden. We are too naive and need to wisen up as soon as possible.
We do work on it and we’ll keep doing it until we get better at that. That way we’ll keep clean sheets, and we’re scoring in every game.
I think both teams could have won it. I’ve no issue with Joey saying his team could have won it because they missed a penalty, but my team hit the post, their keeper pulled off a couple of very good saves.
It was a good, competitive game, but both teams could have won it. I think Fleetwood will stay in the upper echelons of the table, they’re a good team and they made it difficult for us today.
Barton deserves credit. Fleetwood were awful last season but he has them bang in form and are a proper League One side. We could learn a thing or two from them on the dirty side, how to dominate physically without receiving a cacophony of bookings (like last week).
To remain undefeated at this stage of the season, given that we’ve played some tough teams, is pleasing for us. We have to be careful that we don’t think we a have a divine right to be at the top of the table, we have to rebuild and we’re coming up against teams that are not only competitive but good teams, with good individual players.
I’m happy with where we’re at, I’d like to have won every game, there’s things we can get better at, but given everything that’s happened it has been a solid, not spectacular start. I think we’ll get better.
Agreed. Ross doesn't leave his players out to pasture, he has defended them but leaves a stern reminder that they need to improve.