…Barnet vs Aldershot

10.30pm, 21st Jan. I finally got home, brainfrozen, and contemplated what I’d just paid £20 to see. More accurately, mulling over the entire experience that, over the course of the previous four hours, had left me about £30 out of pocket. Admittedly, I was a bit miffed that I’d turned up late and missed the first goal (owing to the lack of screen at The Hive I spent the entire first half thinking it was 0-0, thought Vilhete had put us in the lead out of nowhere and was comically/tragically confused/crushed when the announcer described it as the “equaliser”) and that I’d had to go to the game alone because Tuesday was the busiest period of the lives of everyone I knew, ever.

Here are some of my thoughts on what I witnessed yesterday, based upon a constructive reality as opposed to simply having a self-entitled moan.

The Obvious Changes

I really like Paul Fairclough. I think he’s a “football man”, someone who’s been in and around the game long enough to have forgotten more about it than I can currently comprehend. In fact, when I met him last Thursday for the first time, I was a bit of a pathetic schoolgirl — something made all the more baffling by the fact that I couldn’t care less for celebrity culture.

All of that said, his managerial skills looked very rusty last night. Somewhat understandable in many ways but also not so much when you factor in his close proximity to the team in recent seasons, irrespective of his role. Having previously spoken of the drive to make us the southern Crewe I was really disappointed to find us hoofing it long last night. In truth, I had expected Fairclough to take Davids’ blueprint and give it some teeth. Take the aesthetically pleasing Dutch style and add some English nouse; you’re left with a promising concept.

Instead, we received a regression that I find really hard to stomach. I have no misgivings about Fairclough’s role at this club — I hope he literally has the “job for life” that he so infamously (and figuratively) said Robson did — but a poor call of judgement must be labelled as such. You cannot trash the idea of God over Science but call for your Lord and Saviour in times of crisis. You’ve nailed your colours to a mast, preach them accordingly. For the rest of Fairclough’s games in charge I’d love to see him devoting his energy into getting this team to play the way they should. The way that, quite simply, they’ve been coached to play for over a year now. If anyone could take the now rounded-squares we have as players and the circular holes of Davids’ system and sand them down further, I have the utmost faith in Fairclough being that man.

It was encouraging to see some fresh faces in the team and I hope that will inspire some players to train harder over the next month to try to break into the new regime. While Fairclough has always been around, a timely “new manager” boost wouldn’t go amiss. Any catalyst would be welcome, of course, but this one is staring us in the face.

The Team

There were two faults in our play last night which struck me in the first half. Well, that’s actually not true, there were many faults with our play last night but two of them were worryingly obvious and went unfixed.

Firstly, we attacked almost exclusively down the left hand side. Now, call me out on being too simplistic but I see it as thus: we have one of the best wingers in this league in our squad. Incredibly, he’s playing. Incidentally, he’s playing on our right wing. Why, I plead of you, did we decide to attack down the left time and time again? I’m sure I’m the idiot here because this makes no sense to me — why on earth would you have arguably your best attacking player frozen out on the opposite side of the pitch? Can you imagine the hours of analysis that Aldershot would’ve put in regarding KMB? Can you imagine the amount of time they’d have dedicated towards preparing to deal with him? Can you imagine their delight when we dealt with him for them? What. On. Earth. Were. We. Thinking. I’m an idiot, I probably possess 2% of the tactical brainpower of any one of our backroom staff and yet that was allowed to happen last night? Jesus wept. KMB himself probably wept. The worst part is that we then have to deal with the ‘fans’ of this club who seem intent on tearing us down from the inside calling open season on the “lazy” and “ineffective” KMB.

Secondly, probably not quite as stupidly, we played the ball in the air a lot. I touched on this before in regards to Fairclough’s abandonment of our playing blueprint but actually want to reference this from a different perspective. The odd ball through the air would’ve taken Davids’ system to the next level, in my humble opinion. A switched aerial ball on the counter would’ve helped us in countless situations. With the pace we possess up front, a ball in behind with a bit of backspin having been played over the top sounds like a dream. A bit specific, sure, but a dream nonetheless. Last night it was more of the “pop it up in the air” type of long ball which, while not a brand of football that excites me, is something I can appreciate the efficacy of. What baffled me in that first half, however, was how stubborn we were in regards to forcing the ball into the air when we must’ve won less than a quarter of the headers.

I don’t have the stats so that could be well off but my gut feeling every time the ball went into the air was that we were gambling (standard long ball tactic: you gamble on the header and second ball) and that we were losing chips as a result. Very rarely did the aerial ball find its target in a constructive way. It’s one thing to have Hyde flicking balls on for a second striker to tuck away, quite another to have Hyde expend all the energy of a nuclear reactor just to bring a ball down and then get swamped by the entire Aldershot defence, sans escape route. Surely at some point someone in the team should realise that Aldershot are actually much better than us in the air and that we should stop feeding them the ball? A bit of vocal leadership (“lads this isn’t working, let’s try something else”) or responsibility (“lads this service isn’t working for me personally, give it to me on the floor or in space”) would’ve been an easy remedy, I feel.

One thing I remain mindful of at all times is that these players are essentially the same as most of us. They don’t earn much more, they don’t live in mansions, they don’t drive supercars and they most certainly don’t earn enough money to smugly disregard our opinions. If I was getting the abuse our team was getting from those three morons in block B on a conference player’s wage I don’t think I’d perform that well either. It’s something I’ve never understood and will never agree with.

The reason I mention this is because I find it no small coincidence that once those three idiots went to the bar we played somewhat better and grabbed the goal. Confidence and direction are things this team is lacking at the moment: confidence in the obvious sense that the players don’t look like they believe how good they are and direction in the sense that none of them are willing to grab a game by the nuts and lift the entire team, stadium, game, etc. Hearing three idiots hurl abuse at our players after 20 minutes of game time is not conducive to a positive performance and the last thing 11 working class men need to perform well. As has been the case at this club for as long as I can remember, it’s not going to be the crowd to lift the players unless situations are absolutely dire (the last five games in a relegation battle, for example) so a possible solution could be a couple of battling players or working on the mental side of the game in training time. This team needs some on-field leadership sooner than yesterday (literally).

Other notes regarding our performance were also little puzzlers that could be easily patched up in time for our next game. For example, Aldershot proved how useful pressing is by shutting our players down. Why don’t we press? I’m sure there’s a good reason, to be honest, but I’d still like to see us try it. Weston being forced into his customary back and ankle tap to let the other team know that at least one of us isn’t going to give them all the time in the world shouldn’t be the summary of our defensive game outside the box.

Equally, it’s become abundantly clear that opposition goalkeepers at this level aren’t particularly good. I don’t mean that disrespectfully but it really feels like the standard of goalkeeping, in football in general, is one of the quickest and easiest ways to analyse the division. Talented outfield players tend to be somewhat interchangeable in the league system in England outside of some notable exceptions (Premier League Top Four, for example) but the goalkeepers not so much.

Dwight Gayle went from Arsenal’s youth academy to non-league, to lower league, to Premier League starting XI player, for example. None of his career moves have been particularly remarkable except his transfer to Palace purely in terms of fee paid. Alas, I disgress, my point being that goalkeeping further down the leagues seems to have a real diminishing return. Why don’t we try shooting more? Of the three goals I saw last night, two were from outside the box and were scored because, quite simply, they had decent placement and pace behind them. Neither shot would make a Premier League fan flinch. The other goal was from a goalkeeper failing to shut down an angle properly and allowing the striker to roll it into the far post, as well. Instead of trying to smash every shot from outside the area, let’s just place them into the corners and ask the goalkeepers to save them. It certainly feels like the goalkeepers won’t be able to answer, from what I’ve seen.

Overall it was a very subdued, tired performance from the team. The words “forgettable 90 minutes” were at the fore of my thinking and probably the only way to describe the performance. Given that the players allegedly hated Davids you’d have expected a ‘shackles off’ performance but if anything the performance suggested the opposite. Barring three players (individual comments below), the entire team can only improve from here and I look forward to them doing so. After games like last night’s I wish I could talk to every player individually for ten minutes as a coach, not a mere fan, and just shake into them that, yes, they are better than this league and they can perform much better than what they’re showing.

Games like last night’s are inexcusable from a squad like ours but I don’t want the players to perform better out of pressure — I want them to play better because they can stomp this league if they play the football their talents lend themselves to. It’s a shame not because we lost or because we played poorly or because the fans were cheated last night but because the players are capable of so much more. That genuinely depresses me. The regression of talented, expansive footballers to what was I witnessed is frustrating and leaves a sour taste.

The Players

Note: These ratings might seem harsh but that’s because I award an average performance a five. It’s a minor bugbear of mine that people seem to think ratings out of 10 start at seven. On an 11-point scale five is the median value, why is this not blatant? Grrr.

Jupp – 4. Dodgy passing, two complete “what the–?” moments in the first half and, if I’m honest regarding my biggest criticism, just not Stackie. His handling was solid for the most part and he pulled off a cracking position-based save late on to prevent a 4-1 embarassment , which were all encouraging signs. Often times in a defeat like this one, the ‘keeper can actually emerge with credit because it was the opponent vs him but I can’t say Jupp did much either way. The goals weren’t his fault (well, the two I saw) but nor did he shine in the face of adversity. I think a huge step forward for him would be to have Stack’s aura. Stack just looks scary in goal, he looks in control and threatens you to endanger his goal. Jupp doesn’t have that yet but that’ll come with experience. Overall, I thought he was alright.

Brown – 4. When my mate texted me to say Brown was starting I was disappointed. I don’t even have an opinion on the bloke but I’ve read so much about him that I was expecting a useless tub of lard/muscle at left back. However, I thought he performed at roughly the same standard as the others around him. Worryingly, I’d have expected more of someone given a second chance but, then again, it was a horrible game within which to be offered that chance. I was a bit disappointed by his aerial ability, I do expect a greater leap/challenge from a defender but that was exceeded by how tidy his link-up play was down the left. I can’t remember him being the breakdown of any of our attacks down the left.

Stephens – 3. Maybe I expect too much from Stephens and that’s tainted this rating but I don’t think he had a good game. For someone who defends with so much power yet such ease he looked completely non-league average, which is about two leagues lower than his personal average performance. He lost far too many headers in a game where we needed them won more than ever and just didn’t look like the rock our defence was built around. I know the formation change left our defence open but that’s all the more reason for him to shine, in my opinion. Disappointing overall but he’s still my defensive hero.

Saville – 3. I just can’t remember what Jack did last night. I obviously didn’t take notes at the game and am relying on my memory as I write this all up and… well… I’ve got two memories of Jack. One was a lovely drop of the shoulder to start a charge out of the back and another was him telling Jupp to pick up the pace from a goal kick in the first half. That’s it. Every defensive flashpoint was Stephens (which is why I’ve given Saville a 3 — Stephens may have been poor but at least I remember him doing some defending!) and we didn’t do much attacking last night. Basically, Saville is a metaphor for the entire game: A very confused and lacklustre shrug.

Yiadom – 6. Someone who cares. I hate the English footballing mentality that you can make up for skill or ability with hard work and sweat. Fan favourites crowned as such because they work hard off the ball; the notion that Tevez and Rooney were equals on a pitch when Rooney was twice the footballer Tevez was despite their similar workrates. So when I say that it was refreshing to see Yiadom give a hoot last night, I mean that as high praise. I don’t go to games expecting to be entertained these days but I do expect to see players at work. Yiadom did that. Football-wise, he beat his man to join the attack well and was the solid, reliable right-back he usually is. I applaud all the players at the end of the game but Yiadom’s clap I actually meant, as horrifically pathetic as that sounds.

KMB – 5. Absurdly frozen out in the first half. I will defend him in that sense but I do think he should take matters into his own hands a bit too. The handful of times he broke through the middle he at least forced Aldershot to think a little bit. In the second half I felt excited when he received the ball in space but was a bit disappointed when it came to nothing over and over again. He’s still disgustingly talented and I think a switch to the left flank, alongside the licence to roam, would see him star again.

Byrne – 4. Jesus. Mark Byrne must be the most frustrating footballer I’ve seen at Barnet. He’s anonymous for most of the game and then, suddenly, he’ll charge down a nothing ball, win it, fly down the left wing and create a ‘fans-out-of-their-seats-with-held-breath’ chance. Which he actually did, in the first half, by the way. The entire game will be winding down and then he’ll start demanding the ball and exploding into pockets of space or upping the entire tempo. Why don’t you do this for 90 minutes every week, Mark? Why don’t you see how good you are? Why are you equally as anonymous in both League Two and the Conference? Why are you equally as brilliant in both League Two and the Conference? The. Most. Frustrating. Footballer. At. Barnet.

Weston – 5. A pretty poor performance by his standard (I’ve said this a lot because… well, anyone who was at the game yesterday understands) but he still offered something resembling protection for our defence (which was otherwise anathema to us last night) and tried to build play. Probably guilty of being one of the most aerial players last night, constantly putting it in the air to hit the wing when he was about 20 yards away.

Vilhete – 6. First of all, what a goal. Out of nowhere and from what looked like a stupidly taken set piece we score. What a lovely finish in terms of technique it was. Secondly, Vilhete was one of the only players to look like he cared last night. In the first half he made a neat little left-wing trio with Gambin and Brown although it could be argued that his constant gravitation toward the wing (when he should’ve been behind Hyde, I think) caused our system to collapse a little bit. Either way, it was pleasant to see a youth prospect turn up the goods.

Gambin – 5. I really respect Gambin because he was getting dog’s abuse off the aforementioned three idiots but was also the one being most forceful with our attacking play. Granted, it was fruitless the majority of the time. He played neat balls with Brown and Vilhete and was usually the player who tried to take on a man or push the ball into space. I hope the idiots he has to play in front of don’t ruin his confidence or turn him into a ‘safe’ player — if he gets the rub of the green he’s going to be monstrous for us. We really lack a player who’s willing to ask questions of the other team, forcing them to deal with him and Gambin does both those things. He’s young and it doesn’t work out a lot but the fact that he does it is enough for me alone.

Hyde – 8. Fantastic performance. Held the ball up constantly, caused their defence more trouble than the other nine outfielders put together and, for prolonged periods, looked like the only person who had the ability to bring us back in. At one point, neatly summarising his entire game, he held off a centre-back as the only Barnet player in a fairly crowded Aldershot box and then somehow hit a spectacular turning half-volley thing that forced a save. Hugely impressive last night and I think it speaks volumes that he wanted out in the summer and doesn’t care about our fans — he’s the only player with enough professional pride to know he’s too good, give it 100% but ultimately realise he’s above this mess. I feel sorry for him.

Subs: Acheampong – 5. I remember us looking a bit tidier at the back when he came on. He talked which felt like the sort of thing valued at Sunday League, let alone semi-professional level. Crawford – 4. Not his fault but his substitution also saw us change formation and we looked really imbalanced. He challenge for the aerial balls but he’s a poacher in a team that doesn’t create much. Awful cross/shot thing! Nurse – 4. He came on and tried, popping up all over the final third. Unfortunately, he had a really annoying habit of standing next to our own players and neither of them, on virtue of it being illegal for us, talked to each other to utilise space more effectively.

The Opposition

Sat in Block B I have to admit that the Aldershot fans impressed me. I don’t think they stopped singing and it looked fun in their terrace. Sat next to three idiots (I keep coming back to this point because they were three absolute mouth-breathers who thought they were funny) I was looking over at the away end slightly longingly. That’s why I want to go to football: for the atmoshere and the fun. Maximum respect to them.

I’ve intentionally avoided looking at the table since last week so that I don’t know where Aldershot are in the league or their form, so as to avoid corrupting my opinion with anything other than what I witnessed last night. With that said:

I thought Aldershot in the Conference were a blonde with blue eyes in Sweden. I didn’t see anything special and I don’t mean that as a sleight, they managed to beat us 3-1 (almost four) without offering anything worth writing home about. Their number 8 was efficient and sprayed one really lovely switched ball but otherwise their passing was fairly lateral and/or aerial. Their striker was an odd one. He looked great until it came to pulling the trigger. Many times he’d bully whoever challenged him (sadly enough, Stephens too) and then look like he had a shot on before… doing nothing with it. He was the best worst number 9 I’ve seen in a while. What an oddity.

Their manager was impressive, constantly barking orders and actually managing from the touchline. It does feel like a shamefully long time since I saw that sort of dominance from our box but I must confess I don’t really do much manager-spotting.

Their style of play didn’t really show itself much, or at least I was too preoccupied to spot it, the game was sort of passively played out with them winning and us not contesting the victory too hard. When we put them under the kosh a couple of times they had nothing other than hoofed clearances to rely on and it does beg the question of how the game would’ve gone if we’d pressure them from the off.

Ultimately, I imagine they turned up, were chuffed to bits to see us take KMB out of the game, even happier to see us constantly play into their hands by putting it in the air and just coasted to an easy win from there.