Saturday’s win over Wimbledon could end up being one of the most important victories of the season.
Yes, we didn’t see as much of the flowing football we have done in previous weeks, and it wasn’t a comprehensive win by any stretch of the imagination – but a clean sheet and a win after the disappointment of the game at Burton will have been a huge confidence boost to the team and the club as a whole.
The Burton game was just ‘one of those days’. We play that game 100 times and we win 99 of them – it was one of those bizarre games in which we didn’t get what we deserved; add to that the disappointment of Flanagan’s last-second equaliser that was controversially (but correctly) rubbed out, and it would have been easy to understand the team carrying a significant hangover into that game on Saturday.
Last season, that’s the type of game we would have drawn – or lost. I think nerves would have gotten the better of the ‘more experienced’ League One players we had last season.
Then we’d have heard the cliches about our ‘expectations’ trotted out.
I know it’s early in the season, and nothing’s been proven at all as yet, but the way in which the team took the game to Wimbledon and saw it through demonstrates to me that we have a different mentality this season.
We have a team that is willing to take a challenge head-on, rather than panic and hide behind a bunch of ready-made excuses about the expectation of the supporters, and the pressure of playing for such a big club.
Is that the exuberance of youth shining through – that no-fear attitude that comes with having few scars of the past?
Or is it because we’ve simply got better players now?
As the game progressed on Saturday, despite being goalless, the team maintained their composure, kept calm, and prodded and poked until we found a way through. Yes, it was fortunate, but we chanced our arm and got the rewards. In the end it could – should – have been more.
As well as the win itself, the fact we kept a clean sheet – our first since March – is potentially huge from a psychological perspective. I think we’ve been unfortunate to not keep a clean sheet so far this season, but the fact we hadn’t kept the opposition out for so long would have been weighing on the subconscious of all concerned.
The confidence that can breed is enormous. The team can trust the defence, the defence can keep the opposition out. Of course, we want to score more than one, but if we do just bag the single goal it’s reassuring to know it can mean three points.
Another reason that Saturday’s win could be an important one is that will give the players increased confidence in Lee Johnson’s tactical management of the game. I thought Johnson handled the post-Burton stuff well – he was balanced, measured and praised his team’s performance. That won’t have gone unnoticed in the dressing room.
After Wimbledon, Johnson spoke about the fact we were getting overloaded in midfield in the first half, due to Wimbledon’s interesting tactic that seemed to be to play total football in defence and then launch it long once they got near the halfway line. It worked to an extent, too, and it’s likely something we’re going to have to encounter more this season as teams look to combat our high press.
Johnson said that, at half-time, he’d made some tweaks to negate Wimbledon’s tactic and give us a numerical advantage in midfield. The fact it worked will give the players confidence in Johnson’s tactics; those small changes will be increasingly believed and for a manager that’s hugely important.
We’ve got a few tough fixtures coming up – Blackpool in the cup, then Wycombe at home and Sheffield Wednesday away (although this game could be in doubt due to international call ups). While the league cup isn’t as important as the league fixtures, it will give players such as Alves, Huggins and Wright, among others, some crucial game time – we’re getting there in terms of squad depth, and it’s important that the players who aren’t starting in the league are getting minutes into their legs.
The Wycombe and Sheffield Wednesday games, however, are huge. They will be a great marker as to where we are as a team so far this season, and one thing’s for certain – I’d much rather be going into that game next Saturday off the back of a home league win.