…Barnet vs Cambridge

Today we played the league leaders in the late kick-off at The Hive. While I wasn’t at the game I did manage to watch the whole thing on TV, gutted that I didn’t get myself a free ticket having gone on Tuesday. Since when were late kick-offs a thing in the Conference?!

The Team

It’s very telling that both Money (Cambridge’s manager) and their Director of Football made direct references towards how they changed their style for this game. Our style scares teams in this league. For the first two minutes and 15 seconds of today’s game I’m not entirely sure they touched the ball. When the league leaders admit that their game plan was to absorb the pressure and try to sneak something on the counter you can be sure you’re doing it right. Alternatively, however, it’s important that we admit that this also means that teams are gambling on us making an error at some point — something we’re doing all too readily at the moment.

In the first half of the first half I felt our approach was perfect. We retained possession, prodded them a bit to let them know we could sting if necessary and yet fell back patiently if we had to. On Tuesday we tried to play the same way but it felt a bit too safe, like it was lacking in courage. Today, however, it felt like we were boxing clever, always sitting at an arm’s length of Cambridge’s punch.

And what a punch it was. Two chances, two excellent finishes. It’s always important to appreciate good football and the no-look squared assist into curled finish was a very skillful little play which turned the game around in seconds. Cambridge were rocked by our possession but, given the chance, showed they had the guts for a fight and took the game from nowhere.

From our perspective though, it’s disappointing. Having passed with such ease we decided to give the ball to Davids while under pressure. It was probably the first pass we rushed all game and, exacerbated by a poor touch (irrespective of the pressure Davids was under), it was devastating. We then tried to be a bit too cute at the back, Johnson failing a deft touch on the volley, allowing them a second goal. Two sucker punches, two excellent pieces of poaching and finishing from their striker but two examples of how the only team that can take us apart in this league is Barnet.

We showed great faith in our game to continue to pass it and look backwards when necessary and we got our reward when Luisma drifted inside, Davids threaded a neat ball through and a lovely shot got us kind-of-almost-back-in-it… possibly. Surreal at the time having been so dominant, one goal still felt like a mere consolation. If there is a criticism to be had of our team, it’s that we don’t really play with venom until the chips are down. Usually that means sterile domination for a while followed by a mad rush to score before we time out, this time it was a mad rush to score and give us a fighting chance. Score we did.

Twice. Crawford showing that he’s no moron in the box flicked the ball on to Weston who tucked it away neatly. We have an irritating ability to dominate without dominating but in those two goals we proved that we aren’t all bark and no bite. Hopefully those two passages of play can prove to be catalysts for our players as they realise that sometimes a risk in the final third is what needs to be taken. Two risks taken, two goals.

With Cambridge visibly flattened — the tides had turned so much that they went from being outclassed but tight to outclassed but somehow ahead to outclassed and rattled — the second half was more interesting than usual. We changed formation — something we’ve not seen out of the team a lot and something I felt was a much needed improvement — into a more attacking 4-3-3 and started to play our passing game but with a bit more emphasis on results. More balls into the box, more dribbles when 1-on-1 and more movement off the ball. Our style of play is going to be a huge asset for us and today felt like a large step in its development.

Suddenly we were happy to switch the ball aerially to exploit space quicker and it really showed. Unfortunately, we still have a nasty habit of shooting ourselves in the foot and the larger volume of crosses was nothing more than a larger volume of goal-kicks. A couple of sloppy touches here and there were punished by the Cambridge defence, who stuck to their guns, leading to some counter-attacks that made our defence look a bit disorganised. It’s odd but despite our recent run of clean sheets I must admit I felt our defence was still a weak point. Stats are hard to come by for this league but it feels like we conceded less because we gave less chances for the other teams to score — but they probably had high conversion rates against us.

Why is this important to the team? It shows, in my opinion, how our ability to retain the ball is our best form of defence at the moment. When we lose it it looks like we could concede most of the time, like losing the ball in and of itself is the creation of an opportunity for the opposition.

Ultimately, while we played well, we didn’t play well enough and failed to show a cutting edge. A huge improvement on Tuesday, yes, a huge step forward in terms of performances, yes, but still not quite what we need. It was very revealing that post-game our interviews were dominated by us ruing our lacklustre performance in the final third. We simultaneously outclassed Cambridge and made them look good. What a paradox. Encouragingly, our players and manager were aware of this and will probably work on it on the training field. I look forward to seeing the fruits of their labour.

One final point, about the game and not the team, was “the goal” at the end. While we dropped two points thanks to our own failings in front of goal and not just one decision, it was truly one of the worst decisions I’ve seen from an official in ages. How the linesman has worked out the physics of that decision I don’t know. The options I’ve thought are: a) the ball circumnavigated the globe once, allowing it to essentially go so far backward it came forward again; b) a gust of wind somehow had a marked effect on the flight of the ball without showing such a recognisable effect on the smoke and c) the ball did go out of play, hit an invisible structure above the terrace and rebounded off of that. Needless to say, none of these are particularly credible. I can actually genuinely understand the linesman making a mistake in thinking the ball was out due to the smoke (irrespective of the 100% certainty thing) but, for the life of me, I cannot understand how arrogant a man must be to see that ball come back into play and refuse to alter his decision. You were wrong bud, that’s fine, reverse the decision so we can laugh about it and celebrate our win. It’s not too far from a child being adamant they never farted when they were the only person in the room. It ruining a promising display from Sykes made it even more unfortunate. Equally, the fact that the smoke came from our terrace makes it all the more galling. Great support, whoever you were. What a stupid way to learn that lesson.

The Players

Stack – 7. That’s the Stack I know, equipped with comedy facial hair! Almost saved both goals despite being left to fend for himself by our defence. The save he made against the volley where he caught the ball was the sort of save that makes you turn to a mate and say “that’s Stack, by the way”. I do wish he came out for corners a bit more, however. We seem to give opposition corners no effort and Stack could’ve punched two, if not collected them, at the very least.

Johnson – 4. I don’t want to rag on at Johnson at all, he’s young and I think he’s an exciting prospect. However, his performance today was poor once again. He was at fault for the second goal and is still clearly feeling his way back to match fitness. The issue, in my humble opinion, is that I can’t see what he’s doing well right now. He’s not doing badly per se but nor is he doing well. In the past he’s been all-action, bombing up and down the left flank but in this game and the last he’s been quite muted. If I may theorise, his partnership with Gambin was probably more important than any of us factored in at the time.

Stephens – 5. Average performance from him, I felt. He kept our goal safe except for the two times his own teammates betrayed him but I still feel he should be doing more at corners. We’re susceptible at set pieces and that’s mainly on him and Saville. His switched ball to the left wing in the second half reminded me of Rio Ferdinand’s old switched balls to Ryan Giggs.

Saville – 5. A decent performance alongside Stephens and today showed why they work so well together. Stephens is the no-nonsense defender while Saville is a bit of a footballer too, at the cost of his defensive nous. I think it’s fair to say that Saville isn’t as natural a defender as Stephens but he’s still no slouch, while his ability to play the ball is much more developed than Stephens’. Much like Stephens, it’d be great to see Saville making more of an impact on aerial deliveries into our box.

Acheampong – 4. He never fails to deliver that one dodgy moment, does he? At one point in the first half he was caught on entirely the wrong side of his player, tried to foul him and we have a dodgy advantage call to thank for him not conceding a free kick in a good position. However, it’s important to note that he’s not a right-back and the improvement he’s made since he first joined is monumental. He looks a lot more reserved on the ball now, not as twitchy as he was before, and is starting to bully opposition players without giving away obvious free kicks. It’s important to note that he’s training full time for the first season in his career and Ricky Holmes said that was a difficult change for him to undergo, all the while playing matches and maintaining performance levels.

Cadogan – 7. Once again, very impressive display from him. He’s probably our best mover off the ball and the amount of space he creates against rigid defensive banks is really underrated. If we had another player like him, who would work in tandem with him to stretch defences and create space in crucial areas I really do believe we’d start to score easy goals. At the moment we’re a bit too predictable and Cadogan’s one of the only players who could pop up anywhere on that front line and then do anything with the ball — not in the Lionel Messi way, but in the sense that you can’t tell whether he wants to open up a shot, lay the ball back, lay it across or simply dribble down the line and cross.

Weston – 4. A tidy performance from Weston but he wasn’t as commanding as he usually is. While he wasn’t at fault for either of their goals it could perhaps be argued that his job as a holding midfielder is to ensure that situations like those develop into goals conceded. Perhaps that’s harsh though. Towards the end he was the player most notable for the amount of switched plays he attempted and, while I would normally applaud that, it seemed like the range of his passing was a bit off. He popped up in the correct space at the correct time once to score which, while fantastic, was actually less frequent than usual with him.

Luisma – 6. Scored a delightful goal but otherwise was a bit starved of service, once again. This could be harsh on him as well but I feel like when you’re starved of service in such a big game the onus is on you to get yourself involved. Wayne Rooney starts to hunt the ball down with a real fire in his belly and, while Luisma is never going to be judged on the same set of criteria, that sort of hunger scales to all levels of the game. While very talented, he doesn’t impose himself on the game as much as he should. If Davids and the other coaches can instill that work ethic into Luisma then he’ll become a hero in this team.

Davids – 3. I am not one to hate on Edgar Davids. I do not want him out of the club. I think it’s heresy to do anything other than pinch myself every time I remember that he plays for our club. All of that said, he was poor today. Granted, the ball into him for the first goal was ill-advised, he should still deal with it better. His touch was a bit heavy all over the pitch (most notably when he lead-footed it into their defence when he was teed up for a shot on the edge of the box) and I only really saw the terrier in him towards the end of the second half, when the entire team was starting to fight. He was still class in the attacking third but no more so than Luisma could have been, say. A disappointing game, something I doubt he isn’t aware of, such is his class. A nod to his assist for Luisma, which was a lovely ball into a pocket of space. Unfortunately, it was one of his only moments in this game.

Yiadom – 5. Surprisingly ineffectual on the wing, albeit with all of our play going down the left. Today was an opportunity for him to show why we signed him as a winger but I honestly can’t say I remember much from him. When he switched to right-back the situation was similar — he was there, existing, in neither a positive nor a negative light. After Crawford was put on the right Yiadom started to be a bit more effective but as a winger he really didn’t terrorise the defence enough, which was disappointing.

Crawford – 7. To my memory, he came out of this game with a real fire in this belly and gave the entire backline (and their deep-lying midfield markers) a lot of trouble with his movement. Despite technically being against three players at any given time he still found space to collect the ball and lay it back off. His instinctive left-footed shot was a good effort and Weston’s goal came from Crawford’s positive intent, followed by a flick he had shouldn’t have been allowed to make. Playing the lone striker role in our system is a far cry from being getting the goals and the glory, like it was in the playground, and Crawford was a real unsung hero up top for a long period of that game. When he was switched onto the right he was effective once again. I haven’t seen a lot of him but I really do struggle to see why the crowd dislike him — he seems like a very talented player to me.

Subs: Byrne – 5. A bit ineffective, really. He had ten minutes on the pitch, according to the stats, but I can’t remember anything he did?! Sykes – 7. Really encouraging debut with him winning the ball, showing strength and — most importantly of all — enabling us to vary our style a bit. It’s great to see a young player come on with an intend to aggressively showcase himself instead of passively get through his first game safely. Deserved his goal. Deserves a decent barber too, did he pay to have someone molest his head?

No MotM because I think it was a solid team performance but no-one did anything remarkable. Their two-goal striker had two chances and changed the outlook of the game, a sign of real ruthlessness and quality. A lot of our brilliance today was in our team play and our system, none of our players truly stood up to be counted beyond that, hence the low ratings.

The Coverage

Second game I’ve seen from BT Sport’s Skrill coverage this season and it was much, much better than last time. I’m apologetic I’ve never heard of Adam Virgo before because he was actually a solid commentator who was positive and generally pleasant to listen to. You could tell he hadn’t seen us play much this season but had tried to cover for that by doing his homework (little things like this belief that Crawford wasn’t a native striker were the hints at this) instead of trying to rely on his ego and cliche to get through it like Beattie did in that first farcical commentary.

Davids was oddly frosty before the game with “Clem”, which I can only attribute to him being stand-offish against “Clem’s” really weird patronising/friendly hybrid interview style. Both he and his female co-presenter really lacked polish in the interviews, randomly stumbling through questions and asking really stupid ones at times. The interview with the Cambridge player at the end was an odd one — half a question was asked, the player was ready to jump in with his thoughts but the question would continue (and somehow become less interesting, despite more being added to the question!) and then the player would just give a short answer. It was nice to see the in-game elements although I get the feeling the Dutch contingent told them in no uncertain terms that they had no access during the game as the only “in-game” interview I remember was Weston’s on his way off at HT.

Overall, great to see us on TV and hopefully making some money off the back of it but non-league football doesn’t have to be broadcast as the chummy, cuddly alternative to “proper” football, which is how it felt: “Ok there’s no Premier League action but here’s little old Barnet taking on plucky Cambridge and here’s all the gimmicks we can get away with because it isn’t proper football”. Conference football is often billed as honest football so why make the coverage as honest as it can be? Get one Cambridge man, get one Barnet man, let them be biased (so long as they’re respectful and aren’t irritating with it) and showcase the opinions that Premier League football is too self-aware to show. Let’s be honest, this game has a limited scope of appeal, so why not try to bring in a wider football audience by offering something different?

As a side note, during half time “Clem” interviewed a fan, which I only just saw the end of. Someone said something which made him say “now that’s not the spirit of things” or something — what happened there?

The Opposition

You can see why Cambridge are top. Champions can play badly and pull out a 1-0 win or a point and they did the latter today. It was really encouraging to see such a strong side talk so respectfully of us and show the respect that they did on the pitch. Seeing them so scared of our system was a real source of encouragement for me.

Their striking options, even excluding the loanee up top, were varied and good players in their own right while their defence was quite efficient. They were good at the gritty side of the game in the sense that they held their shape well and soaked up a lot of pressure with the sort of mental strength you’d expect from a top side, ready to pounce on the counter at a moment’s notice. Something they did, twice. Overall they didn’t offer much but they didn’t have to. Barnet is the only known Barnet counter in the league and we did it again today.