The comments from Preston manager Ryan Lowe after Saturday’s loss were interesting. He talked about how well his team had coped with the threat from our wingers. After our success last season, it’s no surprise that opponents will have put plans in place to deal with our most potent attackers.
Second season syndrome affects many newly promoted clubs that can spring a surprise in their first season at a higher level. But, without development in both personnel and tactics, opposing teams will soon work out how to neutralise the threat.
Lowe’s comments illustrated what was all too obvious on Saturday - shorn of Amad’s ability to conjure something out of nothing, our play was pedestrian, predictable and we were far too reliant on Roberts and Clarke dancing through Preston’s defence. Unfortunately, their defenders were sufficiently well-drilled and doubled up on both wingers to nullify their threat for much of the game.
So what other options are available to Mowbray?
Our 4-4 draw with Hull last season almost killed off our playoff hopes. At the centre of the disappointment was one player - Pierre Ekwah. He had already had a difficult game and then conceded a last minute penalty, which cost us 2 vital points. It led to the usual outpouring of Twitter vitriol - ‘not good enough to wear the shirt’, ‘shouldn’t be anywhere near the team’, ‘why didn’t we sign an experienced midfielder’, ‘Speakman out’, and so on.
Tony Mowbray didn’t flinch - he put him straight in the team for the Cardiff game just 3 days later. The courage and support Mowbray showed in backing Ekwah was vital, and he became a pivotal figure in our run to the playoff places.
Perhaps now would be a good time for Mowbray to be equally brave with another promising young player, someone who could create more space for Clarke and Roberts to exploit.
I went to the Real Mallorca game, occupying a different seat to my normal spot in the singing zone. From directly behind the goal, I had the perfect position to study our new Portuguese No. 9, Hemir.
What I saw impressed me. Ironically, I was still tucking into my Sticky Korean Chicken & Chips, and was equally caught out by the quick corner as the Mallorca defence, when he nodded home his goal. But for the rest of the first half, Sticky Korean Chicken and Chips digested, I concentrated on Hemir.
He was up against two typically robust Spanish-style defenders, well-schooled in the dark arts. He was pushed, pulled, leaned into, and had his shirt pulled. There were arms around his neck, his chest and his waist, and occasionally in his face. Some of what he was subjected to wouldn’t have looked out of place on a rugby field - the Mallorca defenders were no shy, retiring novices.
His response was impressive for such a young player - he didn’t react to the rough treatment he was receiving, he concentrated on giving as good as he got. At times, he occupied both centre halves.
Of course he didn’t win everything - but he won enough to allow Jobe Bellingham to get into the game, playing alongside him, displayed an ability to win the ball in the air, and showed some deft touches with his back to goal. Even when he didn’t win the ball, often he drew a foul to keep us at the right end of the pitch. This is, after all, a young man who has been playing in the Portuguese 2nd tier, not a youth league.
But it was the variation in tactics that his presence brought that struck me. It has been so long since we played with Ross Stewart that I had almost forgotten the difference having a target man can bring. What I first noticed was how much better Anthony Patterson’s long kicking from the ground had become. I even commented to my son next to me that it was something that he and Alessandro Barcherini must have been working on.
But, on reflection, it was better because Patto had a target to aim who actually had a realistic chance of doing something with the ball, rather than it simply being an automatic opportunity for the other side to launch their own attack. As a keeper, you have to do so much more with the long ball if your target man is 5’10”.
Against Preston, we were one-dimensional - lateral balls across the pitch, before Roberts or Clarke tried their best to pick a way through the disciplined wall of white shirts between them and the goal. Two of our best chances came from the few occasions when we hit longer balls - but neither Neil nor Ba had the composure to finish the opportunities they were presented with.
Against Mallorca, having Hemir as an outlet allowed us to break far more quickly upfield, when the opportunities presented themselves. The pace of our attacking game varied, asking different questions of our opponents.
Mowbray clearly has his concerns about Hemir - his explanation of why he had preferred Dack on Saturday included a reference to Hemir’s fitness and ability to play his part in the pressing game that Mowbray favours. Dack hardly excelled at that.
Against Mallorca, Hemir showed enough presence and ability to occupy one or both centre halves. That creates space for our wingers and No.10 to exploit. Hemir may not yet be able to play at the intensity that Mowbray wants for 90 minutes - but neither does Alex Pritchard.
Imagine being a central defender being dragged around the pitch for 60 minutes in a physical tussle with Hemir, then finding yourself confronted with the guile and trickery of whichever of Pritchard/Dack/Bellingham/Rigg haven’t been playing alongside him.
In my last contribution, I talked about Mowbray trying to bring something different to the team by preferring O’Nien to Batth in defence, and utilising all of the back four as options for stepping into midfield. Now I would like to see him trying something different up front with Hemir. The young lad is pretty much an unknown quantity for us - that should pose a very different problem for our opponents.