As we approached Saturday’s game against Ipswich, it felt more like a cup final than the run-of-the-mill league game it actually was.
Whether Lee Johnson’s future would have been in serious doubt or not if we’d lost we’ll never know – I think (hope) that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman are far less reactionary than some of their predecessors, but when push comes to shove actions speak louder than anything else.
Johnson’s team selection had a ‘one-off-game’ feel to it, too.
The inclusion of Bailey Wright was a ‘trusted’ choice, and the centre back added some much-needed solidity to the backline. The change in shape to 4-4-2 to accommodate the fit-again Nathan Broadhead isn’t something I expect we’ll see too often – and as it turned out just didn’t work.
The footballing performance we turned in wasn’t great, there’s no arguing that, but the team showed tremendous resolve and character, and Johnson demonstrated a willingness to proactively change things during the game.
Some managers would have stuck with the 4-4-2 out of stubbornness, but after 25 minutes or so Johnson saw it wasn’t working, and changed back to the 4-2-3-1 which has been preferred so far this season.
Midway through the second half, he went for broke – threw the dice and brought on an attacking trio of subs. The withdrawal of Corry Evans was the one that took me a little by surprise. It wasn’t that Evans was playing particularly well, but in a midfield three he anchors it well and Pritchard’s introduction in his place was a brave decision by Johnson.
Previous managers – certainly Phil Parkinson and Jack Ross – would have happily taken a point. It would have been spun as the end to a run of losses, a good point against a team likely to be ‘up there’ at the end of the season. And in some respects, it would have been.
But Johnson gambled and, fortunately, it paid off.
How this sets us up for this next run of games will only be proven in time. We’ve got some eminently winnable games and a victory tomorrow at Shrewsbury will see us once again tracking at over 2 points per game – the standard for promotion.
Crisis? What crisis.
Yes the performance on Saturday wasn’t the best and there’s certainly much that can be improved upon, but it wasn’t as if Ipswich battered us.
They had the lion’s share of possession – due, in part, with us conceding it to them in the hope of springing them on the counter. In the first half we should have had at least one penalty, and Ross Stewart probably should have connected with Luke O’Nien’s sublime cross – two of those incidents came from us counter-attacking.
It wasn’t until O’Nien’s goal on 85 that we registered a shot on target, however, and that’s a concern. We simply need to be testing the goalkeeper more. Of course, we ended up with two out of two by the time the full-time whistle went – Ipswich had four shots on target in the whole game, three of them coming in the same incident.
Ultimately, as the adage goes, the three points were the only thing that matters, and hopefully, they set us up nicely for the coming weeks. It will give Johnson – who’s still learning as a manager – and the players a huge boost and an incredibly valuable experience to learn from.
The manner of those three consecutive league defeats are still a concern, and one less-than-convincing win doesn’t mask that. But neither do those three defeats overwrite what went on in the weeks before that. At home, we’ve won seven out of eight, which is a marked improvement on last season, and a sign we’re heading in the right direction.
It’s often said that the attribute that makes good players great is consistency. We all know from the experience of watching football that consistency is what young players generally lack. So it’s no surprise that this team, made up of promising youngsters and championship/League One players lacks some consistency.
We’re not going to win every week and Lee Johnson’s not going to change this squad into a League One version of the invincibles.
Yes, we need to improve, and yes we need some reinforcements come January. But if, over every 16-17 games of the season we’re tracking at around two points per game, come May we’ll be fine.
And ultimately, the performance of the course of a season, not over three weeks, is all that matters.