This weekend, the squad will have completed their well-earned week off from regular duties and be on their way to Dubai for winter training.
There is a lot of debate going on just now about the friendly that we have scheduled and whether that is a good idea, and I will allow my esteemed fellow award-winning colleagues to play that discussion out.
As the Lads head for the plane to warmer climes, I have some questions regarding the trip, such as, what is Tony Mowbray hoping to get out of this trip and will the intended return on investment be worth the great expense of the whole jamboree?
There are a few more obvious things that we all know the trip will focus on, but I am hoping there are a few more subtle aims of the trip too. If we can start with the stuff outlined below, I’ll be a happy Mackem, albeit stuck in a cold and wet England.
Tony Mowbray (and I will say reluctantly, his predecessor too) has made great strides with this aspect of our club and squad, and the whole club need to be applauded for that.
The last time we were in this league we were bloody awful, as eloquently commented on by our Phil in the pod reflecting on the Birmingham win. None of the lads back then gave a shit, and we got what they deserved.
In Dubai though, I’d really like to see the coaching staff focus on building that team spirit and togetherness further, establishing stronger bonds with the cohorts in the team.
That needs to include the new generation too, who Mowbray has mentioned in recent interviews are starting to come more out of their shells by chipping in on the banter and laughs behind the scenes.
Hopefully an improved spirit within the squad can help us grind out a few more points when we return to action in December.
Improving Our Weaknesses
The hope here is to see some tangible results on our return around specific parts of our game that we’ve showed weakness in during the opening twenty league fixtures under our belts so far.
Set pieces immediately spring to mind and considering we have done fantastically well to be mid-table having been striker-less for more than half of the twenty games, it is a wonder to think where we might sit currently if we were better at set pieces.
We need to win more penalties too but not sure what Mowbray and the squad can work on regarding that statistical anomaly, since it has mainly down to dodgy officiating during the opening period of the season.
We have some of the best running attackers in this league in Roberts, Clarke, Amad, Stewart and others. We need to convert way more free kicks too when those runs earn something around the box rather than inside it (the frustration with this is clear across most of the fan base).
Tony didn’t have a five-year tenure at Blackburn (much of it at this level) without knowing this aspect of the game, and the likes of Batth, Wright, Alese, Simms and the hopefully soon-to-return Stewart, all have plenty of height to attack corners and put pressure on defenders and goalies.
Our stats regarding set-pieces simply must improve, and this trip is a great time to focus on it, although we want to maintain the standard of this lovely flowing football played on the break.
Some of our footy since the end of July has been an absolute joy to watch. We have had poor spells too, but the attacking flair has at times been a huge step up from what we have seen in recent years.
This one is a more obvious one, and the timing of the World Cup break has been a major bonus for us to get important players out of the treatment room.
I’m not just talking about Stewart here though, we have a number still needing to build up fitness and sharpness, including those who have recently made their way back over the chalk such as Simms, Hume, and Huggins.
If we can get the returning injured lads back it would add so many options for the manager to work with going into the festive period and give our squad a different look to it going into the transfer window.
In recent weeks the bench has been sorely thin on options and even more so experience, to the point where promising youths travelled to the West Midlands last Friday. If that was deserved on merit, good for them, but we need to have options for both staff and shape, and we are already a very young side without adding in lads who are either side of their GCSEs.
Hopefully we have a squad of physios on the plane to Dubai too, so we can get all these aches and niggles ironed out on location.
Once we start to see bodies back from the medical tent, we need to work out how we react when we lose key players, which we will again at points through the rest of the season. It’s a matter of when not if, but preparation can make all the difference.
The Cardiff home game is a prime advert for this - we rested a couple of midfielders and gave others a chance, and it didn’t work. We were poor and probably played our worst 90 minutes of the season that day.
We need to be able to switch to a different plan without skipping a beat if we lose the likes of Evans or Pritchard from the middle, be that if they need a rest or get injured/suspended. We need to confirm what are our defensive formations if big Batth gets a knock, and where do people fit in with the “plan a, b and c”.
I don’t want any more throwaway comments about us losing points due to certain players coming into the side and not being clear of their role. Okay, we have really struggled with player numbers but in a way, that should make things easier to plan.
This is the first long stretch Tony Mowbray has had to really work with the squad, he is a proven coach, and has had limited time to really put his stamp on how this team operates.
One of the main reasons this is doubly important for me is this can also hugely influence what we go for in the transfer market in January. We can fully assess what is missing when Mowbray determines a path forward that isn’t dictated by missing players.
If the lads come back from Dubai with an improvement in some of the areas above, our chances of not only consolidating in this league but putting us in a good place to build once again next summer will be greatly improved.
Please... please... no more injuries, and already looking forward to getting this rude interruption in our league campaign out of the way.