I’m not going to trot out the three-word phrase that begins with an A and ends with a H. That would feel like making light of a situation that’s anything but.
Everything about yesterday’s surrender at Millwall was predictable. Everything. And that includes a full legion clad in yellow and green who made their way to south London to roar on their heroes. They rarely fail to deliver.
But what occurred on the green stuff took the Norwich City myth – the one that begins with A and ends with H – up a level. The Villa fiasco was excused because it was still ‘early days’ and Steve Bruce’s men, despite a rocky start, do have a squad that’s laden with expensively acquired. Millwall on the other hand apparently have no such strength, depth or Championship quality.
Yet the Lions were easy winners. They coasted. Time for a cuppa and a fag. And now we have two weeks to mull over an away-day debacle that bears too many hallmarks of too many away-day disasters of the last decade.
We kid ourselves these are blips and it’s all going to be okay. But we’ve been here before. One year ago today, Alex Neil took an XI to play a Birmingham side that had not won at St Andrews since the preceding March. City had 66 per cent of possession. They lost 3-0.
It was a starting XI that included just one of the New Den Brethren – just one. Wes. Yet here we are, one year later, with a new team, a new management team, a club with a new direction and philosophy, almost everything different except from the colour of the shirts, and nothing changes.
And that’s the bit that hurts.
The Webberlution – a phrase I suspect the man himself is no fan of – has been a breath of fresh air, with fresh being the operative word. Fresh ideas, a fresh approach, fresh faces. Yet still the same inability to defend collectively as a unit and also as individuals is still there for all to see.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
And for all the pretty patterns, the aesthetically pleasing toing and froing across the pitch (occasionally up and down) and the silky smooth inter-changing, if it’s supported by a defensive set-up with all the menace, power and grit of Jacob Rees-Mogg then it’s unfit for purpose.
Soft goals courtesy of individual errors are painful enough, but when there are question marks over the solidity of the starting XI even before a ball has been kicked then it’s perfectly reasonable to question the current direction of travel.
The most obvious raised eye brow was of course the decision to slot Russell Martin in alongside Marcel Franke – and more on that in a minute – but arguably an even bigger issue was around the make-up and lack of balance in that midfield.
Millwall away is, in soccer parlance, the original away-day scrap. It’ll be rough, tough, raucous and not for the faint-hearted. Everyone knows it. There are yet undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who know that. Yet we enter the Lion’s Den with a midfield that’s laden with skill and flair but which – with the best will in the world – is powder puff.
And powder puff v Millwall is only going to end one way.
That Harrison Reed was given sole responsibility for providing the ballast in that midfield looks like an error of judgement now just as it did at 2pm yesterday. Wes, James Maddison and Mario Vrancic can play – skillful, creative players, who’ll weave the aforementioned pretty patterns – but don’t expect any of them to offer unyielding support to a back-four that’s already creaking.
I’m loathe to do the Russ thing because 1) he’s already top of the scapegoat chart and 2) he’s already had unhealthy levels of flak heading in his direction, but I will just say one of the great plusses of the summer overhaul was that there appeared to be an acceptance that his days at centre-back were behind him. In fact, one of my barometers of a successful summer was that we wouldn’t have Russ at centre-back again.
I disagree with those who claim he’s a good reader of the game. I consider him slow to spot danger.
Therefore to see him slotted in alongside an already under-pressure and struggling Marcel Franke with a fired up Steve Morison to contend was another cause for the alarm bells to ring before a ball had been kicked. Christopher Zimmermann, for all his own travails, would surely have been a better physical match-up with Morison.
As it transpired, everyone’s worst fears came to fruition and to concede two goals in such quick succession effectively killed the game stone dead right there. And, as I seem to write in every piece, I’m not convinced the new style/philosophy is really geared up to chasing a game.
The naysayers have naturally been out in force but the very loud calls for change just five games into the season are plainly ridiculous. What is needed over the next two weeks however is an appraisal of where, with no tweaks or changes, this current course is taking us.
Because I’m not sure it’s the direction we all want.