…Barnet vs Grimsby

What an odd, but eventually brilliant, evening this turned out to be. From the euphoria of a fantastic start to the nerves & confusion of the middle right back to the ecstasy of victory, we really went through the full range of emotions tonight. To add to all of that, I must say I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a football game as I did for that free kick.

The Conference

Before I dive into this game I wanted to highlight some notes regarding the Conference as a division overall. Having now seen a fair variety of teams and styles at The Hive I feel ready to unleash the rubbish I deem “my opinion” into the world.

Firstly, winning games in this league. Unlike any other league I’ve ever known, victory in the Conference is attributed as follows more than any other criteria: To the team that makes the least amount of crucial mistakes. All the games I’ve seen have been fairly competitive and close, with victory being sparked not so much by moments of brilliance by the eventual winners but by moments of sheer idiocy from the eventual losers. Games in most other leagues are decided, if I were to generalise, by key passes to unlock defences, spectacular goals and/or other high-quality play. In the conference it feels like the team that’s less bad wins, although that’s not to say that teams are bad per sé. It’s a real oddity and it’s only taken me over half a season(!) to finally put my finger upon it.

Secondly, refereeing at this standard isn’t so much lamentably poor as consistent — just not in a way that we, as Barnet fans, find agreeable. I’d say 90% of aerial challenges that are between a striker and a centre-back have a foul in them with barely any getting called by the referees. My thinking is that the referees aren’t awful to the point where they miss a foul pretty much every time this challenge takes place, it’s just that if they were to blow up every time it happened they’d be lambasted for disrupting the flow of the game. Thus consistency is achieved by consistently allowing centre backs and centre forwards to kick lumps out of each other, grapple each other and push each other. We, as a club, don’t benefit from this as much so we find the refereeing to be awful but I think it’s just a hallmark of this league.

Thirdly, and finally because I want to keep this bit brief, I still stand by my belief that the standard of goalkeeping as this level is the largest disparity on a position basis from the top flight. To clarify what I mean, a Premier League left-back compared to a Conference left-back isn’t as wide a gulf in ability as it is between a PL GK and a Conference GK. Taking this as a given — which I appreciate is a bit of an abrupt step forward — I don’t understand why teams don’t encourage players to shoot from long distances more often. If I were a coach at this level I’d have my forwards and central midfielders practice shooting into the corners from outside the box every session. I really don’t have faith in a conference goalkeeper to save a well-placed shot, even if the power of the shot is sacrificed for the placement.

The Team

It would be far too easy to call this a fantastic team performance when we were the poorer of the two teams for the majority of the game. We started well, made an unspoken vow to let them score even if we had to look like inept idiots to do so and then decided to play again for a bit. Oh, then we stopped playing and let them have a go again. Then we decided to win. What a weird game plan. The fact that we were allowed to get away with it says a lot about the quality of opposition we faced today as well.

Our start was thrilling. I’m usually late to games (because I’m an idiot, not because I have a valid excuse) so it was nice to see my acceptable punctuality rewarded with a goal. From what I saw it was an own goal but I can’t comprehend why the defender headered it down and towards the goal. Irrespective of the goal we pressured well early on, passed quite quickly and caused them trouble with our movement.

Naturally, then, we decided to stop moving, avoid passing through the midfield (electing to hoof it instead) and consciously see how close to our goal line we could pass the ball without them scoring. It was like showboating except done horribly wrong and without being entertaining.

From a commanding position we somehow not only let Grimsby back into the game but gave them the better of the first half. That’s worrying because our style of football should be conducive to retaining and exploiting an early lead. Many fans worry that our style doesn’t work at this level and, while I disagree with that sentiment, it is worrying when we can’t use our ball-retaining style to retain the ball while we hold a lead at home. Given our start we should’ve absolutely loved holding the ball, moving it across the pitch (which was in fantastic shape for mid-Feb, let alone the weather we’ve had so well done to all those concerned!), forcing Grimbsy to chase the game and exploiting any space afforded to us. Even if we don’t create space in that scenario, we tire them out — as an aside, people forget how difficult it is to play football without the ball for prolonged periods, it’s both mentally and physically sapping — and we can hit them once they’re completely drained or force a non-tactical substitution.

Instead, we decided to play nonsense balls and gift them possession time and again. Thankfully our back line was resilient for the majority, despite some heart-in-mouth moments. It shouldn’t be like this though.

Another flaw in our system today was that our midfield failed to link play on a disturbingly frequent basis. There’s been a bit of a fad recently on Twitter as people have discovered triangles in football and, thusly, how Guardiola’s teams constantly have passes available. For anyone who hasn’t seen what I’m talking about, here’s the image that spread like wildfire on Twitter recently:

Lahm9.png

Notice how the ball is in defence but with one pass into the deep midfielder, Lahm, almost every other pass opens up? That’s how our system is supposed to work. Except no-one drops deep and the other players don’t move into positions to receive the ball often enough. The man in the middle should see at least three forward or sideways passes (that’s me realistically adjusting for Conference football) but for us — assuming we even have the ball in the middle of the park — that’s usually two sideways passes, one left and one right.

Alarmingly, that’s the basis of our play. The short-passing game relies on the team to open up mutiple passing routes quickly and efficiently. That’s… not us right now. Interestingly, we’re at our best playing our passing style down the wing when we usually create triangles out of the full-back, winger, central midfielder and striker/forward. It’s a style that should dominate the middle of the pitch (which we sadly don’t do) but we use it to ensure a threatening passage down either flank.

In my amateur, probably laughably wrong, opinion we could remedy this by simply asking Weston to drop back whenever we have possession within the back four. He’s supposed to be our holding player anyway so I’m not entirely sure why he’s never there to collect the ball off of our centrebacks, if I’m honest.

When we played our one-touch football we were completely overrunning Grimsby because they had no answer. Unfortunately, we only seemed to do it in spells and it’d be nice to do so with more conviction and frequency. As a result of us abandoning this style of play we actually spent a lot of the game chasing the ball and giving it back to them. On the flipside, however, it must be noted that our counter-attacks were almost devastating on multiple occasions. KMB gets a lot of stick but any time he has the ball on the break you know the opposition manager’s heart is located below his knees.

Despite all of the seemingly negative stuff I’ve written above it should be noted that Grimsby really weren’t much better. They were gifted possession time and time again but lacked the potency or style of play to punish us for it. I mean this with no disrespect to them at all but they actually looked pretty poor from open play. When they realised this, or so it would appear, they started throwing themselves at the ground to buy free free kicks off the referee. No, that’s not a typo, I couldn’t bring myself to call them “cheap”.

If we can work on keeping our players onside during counter-attacks we’ll punish impotent teams like Grimsby. More poignantly, if we can get our free-flowing style to flow at the appropriate times (ie. counter-attacks and high-tempo situations) I think it’ll be like unlocking an old-school video game “God mode” whereby we’d be untouchable and the game would become easy. In the five minutes after conceding the equaliser we blew them out of the water, it was thoroughly entertaining and satisfying to watch. More of that please lads, you’re certainly capable of doing it!

To tie this rambling up neatly, a few words on the second goal. Never before at a Barnet game have I had such an urge to shout an instruction to the players. Sat in the B Block, I was very close to where our players were on the right wing and I knew they could hear what we shouted. The need to cross was obvious to the point where I was saying “cross it” and having to mentally restrain myself from screaming it out. Why didn’t I? Honestly, I’m a bit pathetic and I feel like shouting instructions to the players is unprofessional and throws them off their game.

We got one cross in and it was cleared before we finally got a second in for Hyde to tuck away. That passage of play was so obvious that it was almost painful to see our players fail to see it too. We had about four or five players in the box and two excellent channels for a right-footer to swing the ball through. If that situation doesn’t instinctively scream “cross” to our players then I must admit, I despair slightly. The ability to make those sorts of decisions with confidence and speed of thought would up our game immeasurably.

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 – 5. I may well be wrong, in which case I’m very disappointed in myself for being negative without just cause, but did Jupp get lobbed by a header from further away than the penalty spot? I was on the other side of the pitch, fairly low to the ground, and thus didn’t get the best view but I’m fairly sure that’s what happened. How does that happen though? It’s a great shame because I thought Jupp was having a really good game until that point. He dealt with our suicidal “you deal with it Juppy” first-half passing fantastically and I was beginning to feel really secure with him until that point. It obviously shook him up as well because his spill a couple of minutes later was completely out of character for the goalkeeper that was so strong early on. More of first half Jupp please!

Vilhete – 6. First time seeing Mauro the left-back. Went beyond my expectation, which was already based upon a high billing. Our defence did well overall but there were some really questionable headers in the first half. Mauro was putting on a heading masterclass by combining a gravity-defying leap with an actual header. I’m tired of this “ball rebounding off forehead” nonsense. Use your neck muscles when you header. Mauro, teach them please. I initially gave him a 7 rating but I remembered his horrific backpass under pressure straight to their striker in the first half. Overall, a very strong performance, much stronger than what I’ve seen from Johnson or Brown this season, combined excellently down the left flank and, probably the ultimate praise for a footballer, not a single soul could comprehend why he was subbed. I imagine it was an injury but I didn’t see anything.

Gjokaj – 6. Very impressive debut. He looks like a reassured ball-playing centre-back and I’m A-O-Freaking-K with that. If he had won a few more headers I’d have been gushing over his performance as he didn’t quite look the part aerially and I fear for how that could impact upon us later on in the season. He carried the ball well, looked classy on the pitch and I really can’t overstate how important it is to have someone who just looks natural on the ball. In addition, his positioning was really strong. It’s something inexplicable but every time I looked at our defensive line in the first half (which was right in front of me) I always felt like he was covering the angles appropriately. It just felt “right”. If he can work on his aerial game I think he has an impressive future ahead of him.

Stephens – 7. Talking of impressive futures, Stephens is going to climb the league ladder with ease. He still doesn’t look as overwhelmingly imperious as he did at points in the early season but today was a return to form after some disappointing performances (in games that I’ve seen). He won a couple of headers, crowded out their striker and was positionally superb. He didn’t need to tackle today so much as place himself and let them dribble the ball into his feet. That type of defending reminds me of Rio Ferdinand who is (was?) a defender I will forever hold in the highest regard. I hurt my shoulder applauding him after the game but it was worth it.

Yiadom – 5. I like Yiadom but he didn’t have the best game. It wasn’t a negative performance by any means, it just wasn’t “good”. He put in some lovely crosses and was instrumental in the passage of play that lead to us scoring the second but otherwise didn’t do much. Worryingly, he looked absolutely spent in the last ten minutes of the first half. KMB looked to get an earful from him and Weston when he didn’t track a run (being unable to hear their shouts on that side of the pitch I don’t know if it actually was KMB’s fault) but it was in the region I’d rubber-stamp as the fullback’s. Granted, it must be tough to defend without help from your winger.

Weston – 4. I feel like a lot of Grimsby’s domination was down to Weston and what he didn’t do. It wasn’t that he was bad, similar to Yiadom in that respect, it was that he didn’t do simple things to enable us to play our game. To use Guardiola’s Barca as an example yet again, teams were using attacking midfielders to man-mark Busquets out the game when they realised he was actually the fulcrum of the side. Balls went from defence to Busquets, from whom they were distributed to the best available playmaker. Weston should be doing this for us, dropping deep to collect and redistribute effectively, a bit like a royal mail sorting office. Today he didn’t do that, therefore failing to alleviate pressure on the back four in possession and forcing us to play scrappy balls out from the back. He would then be instrumental in winning the ball back, which is great, but it’d be nicer if we weren’t in that position to begin with!

Byrne – 7. From a purely neutral perspective, let me tell you this much: If you abused Byrne today then you’re one of the idiots who’s scapegoating him. He was probably the best midfielder on the pitch today and put in an all-action performance. He pressured their possession constantly in the first half, was open to receive passes for most of the game and expanded on this by being the catalyst for most of our attacks during the good spell in the second half. Seriously, if you thought he was to blame for anything that happened today then you’re blinkered. I’ve criticised Byrne before for being a fantastic player who doesn’t show it consistently over 90 minutes but today I thought he put in a strong showing. My MotM because he basically stepped up today, setting the tempo when we needed it most.

Lopez – 6. For a striker (and a poacher of a striker, if we’re honest), I was thoroughly impressed by his defensive work. He worked hard down the left flank and helped Vihete out a lot more than KMB did Yiadom. He had some lovely touches and linked up well with the roaming Villa (insert your own poor cliché about their nationality somehow linking their footballing souls or something equally cheap), which helped us retain possession. He was frozen out of the game for prolonged periods, however, and you can tell he’s an all-out striker because he didn’t really force his way into the game. With the ball at his feet he’s excellent but his impact without the ball (or even a phase of Barnet play, if that makes sense) is very limited. When we were under the kosh in the second half he didn’t really react to the increased pressure and lost the ball sloppily, which highlighted how he doesn’t really think with the defensive mindset of a winger. He did much better defensively than I thought he would though, so huge props to him.

Villa – 7. He lost the ball, to my memory, twice all game. Once when he overran it trying to go through two players in the middle and another time when his pass was intercepted. I’m sure it was more than that but I just felt so secure with him in possession. “He’ll do something with it” I told myself multiple times and he didn’t misplace my faith. I think the roaming role suits him, alongside the formation change in general. What we need to do now is cement this formation and make Villa our out-and-out playmaker. In a 4-2-3-1 any of our advanced three can cause the opposition huge trouble; thus making it worth having opposition fear both our wingplay and our central threaded balls. In addition, what a hero he is for coming back on with a sprained ankle and sprinting more in injury time than the rest of the team combined. I wish he’d looked over at the stand when the whistle blew instead of crouching down in pain because there was a lot of love for him in that moment.

KMB – 6. Before the game I told my friend (a first-timer) that KMB was “too good for this league”, to which my other friend stated that he was “too lazy” (and thus belonged in this league). By the end of the game my friend was agreeing with me — it’s not that KMB is too lazy, it’s that he’s too good for this league. Don’t get me wrong, he frequently chooses the easy way out of defensive situations (ie. not defending them at all) but when it comes to attacking play he never shirks his responsibility. Every time we looked to counter he wasn’t just open but in a position where not passing to him would be criminal. He also had the balls to shoot in the second half when we needed to start turning the screw — although the final shot he took was admittedly greedy and the better option was the square ball to Byrne. Just like the last game I went to, we played predominantly down the left hand side, which I can’t understand given how insanely good KMB is. If we insist on doing this, why not play him down the left?

Hyde – 6. Scrapped and fought for every ball, getting grappled almost every time. It’s no coincidence that he was rumoured to be going to League One in January, irrespective of his somewhat suspect finishing, because the ball sticks to him. His first touch and general hold-up play is insanely good for this level. I say this without meaning to throw meaningless praise at Hyde; you could coach young strikers hold-up play by showing them his replays. It’s truly fantastic and alleviates so much pressure. Put the ball within a fairly large radius of Hyde and he’ll either get it under control or give the defenders absolute hell before they can do so. He deserved his goal in terms of sheer effort for the cause but also because it was a fantastic finish. It’s often underestimated as a skill, the ability to run toward the front post and flick a drilled cross toward goal.

Subs: Adams – 5. I can see the resemblance to Holmes. As an aside, the way he touches the ball with so much of the outside of his foot while dribbling is really odd. His dribbling is excellent but he didn’t pass much. Johnson – 6. One fantastic tackle late on, generally solid. I hope Vilhete’s solid performances are forcing Johnson to pull his finger out because he has potential. Cadogan – 4. Wasn’t really on the pitch long enough to do anything of value. Defended brilliantly with Yiadom for a solid minute or so in the corner. It was nice to see us doing some legitimate defending.

The Opposition

Grimsby weren’t a poor side, they definitely have quality as both a team and individuals. It might sound stupid or belitting but they had central midfielders who can pass and control the area, wingers who can dribble and a striker who can battle with our defence. That, alone, puts them “up there” in this league, if I’m honest about it. They also have a fairly stable, if predictable, direct method of attack. Not to be confused with the long ball, they simply looked to get forward quickly as opposed to hold possession and pull us around. Whether they passed or ran at us, the majority of play was vertical.

All of this means to say that they were good for this level but nothing we should struggle to beat and, ultimately, shouldn’t have found as difficult to beat as we did. They couldn’t answer to our counter-attacking play nor our high-tempo passing, when we chose to deploy it.

Their goalkeeper was rarely called into action but was hardly a beacon of strength for them, fumbling a couple of shots (including one where he palmed it straight back out into the box and was probably relieved to see none of our players had gambled on the rebound) and panicking slightly when kicking under pressure.

Talking of which, today I laughed the hardest I think I ever have at a football match. Again, my view wasn’t the best but I’m fairly sure I saw a cheeky under-the-wall freekick get blocked by the player who was supposed to disrupt the wall. The only player the freekick taker could be absolutely sure wouldn’t jump was the one he hit. Excellent stuff. Equally, they must’ve had about five free kicks from that same area, an area that’s usually really dangerous. Well done to them for routinely missing those chances otherwise we’d have really been in trouble!

All of this goes to say what I highlighted at the start. Teams at this level are solid at a certain standard, comfortable playing a certain style and capable of dealing with certain tactics/formations. We, as a team and project (in the sense that we’re trying a unique brand of football), are capable of playing at a much higher standard (we have players who most certainly don’t belong in this league), against various styles of play (retention-based styles are only truly countered by blisteringly quick counter-attacks) and with a style that most teams will struggle with

Grimsby have beaten us twice this season which, given what I saw tonight, must have been based upon our failings on those occasions as opposed to their successes. With that, I’ve gone full circle. Time to stop writing before I repeat myself, thanks for reading.