After what can be described as a relatively successful start to the season with only two undeserved defeats from the first twelve games it would be easy to fall into the trap of complacency because that kind of return means that safety and a top half finish would be pretty much guaranteed. But with just over a quarter of the season gone the most important statistic is that those twelve games have only included four wins which is obviously nowhere near enough to be able to mount a realistic promotion challenge.
Neil Warnock’s pre-match press conference for the Norwich game suggested that this is a situation we should all be happy with and once again pointed to the thinness of the squad as a reason for ‘Boro fans not to get too ambitious with regards to the top two places. “I think it’s a little bit too early for us,” he said. “I think the main men are still the teams that came down and the ones with the big squads. I think there’s five or six above us really.”
Having already played those ‘five or six’ I think it’s fair to say that we have more than matched every one of them and have – on no occasion this season – looked second best to anyone. That means we have now reached the crossroads where decisions have to be made and changes to the current format implemented if we are to demonstrate any kind of real ambition. It’s all very well to point to the thinness of the squad if alternatives don’t exist, but what’s the point of having your most creative player sitting on the bench and – if his previous history is anything to go by – your quickest player, sitting with him. I can understand Neil Warnock wanting to play safety first against a very good team like Norwich, and had the unfortunate Marcus Tavernier not completely messed up his penalty the result might have been so different, but the reliance on soaking up pressure and hoping to get the odd goal from a breakaway is not going to get the goals that are so obviously lacking.
Patrick Roberts was brought back from Manchester City with something of a Warnock fanfare, lauding him as the creative talent that the side needed. Five games on and he has yet to make any kind of contribution with a paltry ten minutes at the end of the Norwich game surely a sign of desperation. We have also signed Duncan Watmore with Warnock saying “he has been a breath of fresh air around the place, he’s quick and direct and has fitted in well. It’s a short term contract but he doesn’t have to do much to impress me if he carries on.” What he is going to have to do is play games, Neil, and that’s obviously up to you to give him the chance. While his Sunderland history was extremely fragmented thanks to a succession of injuries, Watmore proved with England under twenty one selection that he had something to offer. That ‘something’ was actually lightening pace, the attribute that no defender wants to come up against.
Neil Warnock’s loyalty to the players who have so far performed admirably is understandable, and the likes of Tavernier and Johnston have performed to the best of their ability, but despite having played every game of the season Tavernier’s actual contribution has been a single assist in twelve games. As I write, however, Warnock has the perfect opportunity to change things around. Our next two games are against Derby and Huddersfield, neither of whom have had a particularly auspicious start to the season. Derby actually sit bottom with only one win and seventeen goals conceded. Huddersfield have already lost six games and have also conceded seventeen goals so surely a much more attacking approach and the inclusion of both pace and inventiveness should be a no-brainer. We’ve just seen that the players are there to use, though having had little game time so far they need to be given a run regardless of what happens. Counter-attacking with the hope of snatching a goal is all very well, but when you have two centre forwards who have already proved they can’t be relied on to take those few and far between chances it is a markedly flawed policy.
So let’s go for it for a while because the current return isn’t going to get us into the top two, but in giving it a try we’d have nothing to lose. The tried and trusted method of ‘not losing games’ can always be re-instated should we find we still can’t win, but at least let’s give it a try. Otherwise the season is going to turn into a pretty uneventful bore! Goals are the lifeblood of the game and in our position we shouldn’t be the lowest scorers outside the bottom three teams. We are, though, and that has to change – and quickly!