Pitbulls Or Chihuahas? The Midfield Dilemma – 23/2/16

I could barely take my eyes off Bradley Johnson on Saturday as he rampaged unchallenged across the Griffin Park turf, and woe betide anyone, friend or foe, who got in his way. A massively built man, he totally dominated the entire midfield area with an unstoppable combination of brain and brawn.

If he could not beat you with his subtlety and skill, and undoubtedly, he is a massively talented footballer with a howitzer of a shot who can really play the game, he would simply run through you and leave you dazed, beaten, bruised and helpless.

He is a veritable behemoth of a man who reminds me of the description of the Norman leader Bohemond:

The sight of him inspired admiration, the mention of his name terror.

His stature was such that he towered almost a full cubit over the tallest men.

There was a hard, savage quality in his whole aspect, even his laugh sounded like a threat to others.

That’s what you get for a mere six million pounds – a colossus who bestrides the entire midfield and stops the opposition from playing as well as scoring and making goals for his own team.

He it was who almost singlehandedly rallied his Derby team mates when their heads went down after we scored and by sheer force of personality raised them off the floor and inspired them to their late victory.

Watching him, I was green with envy as he exemplified exactly what it is we are missing from our squad – a leader who by force of personal example will make things happen and grab his team mates literally and figuratively by the scruff of their neck and inspire, cajole, or even terrify them and make them play to the very best of their ability – and even beyond.

Our team of lightweights and midgets tried their hardest and did their best but simply bounced off him and the likes of Josh McEachran and Konstantin Kerschbaumer wisely gave him a wide berth and kept their distance as they were all totally outmatched, outclassed and outmuscled – it looked more like men against boys than a competitive and even midfield battle.

With Alan McCormack currently sidelined with a lingering and frustrating calf injury we have nobody capable of fighting fire with fire and for all his vim, growl, tough tackling, energy and ability to manage the referee, Alan is not in the same class as Johnson, and nor should he be expected to be, but he is easily the best that we have and his example is sadly missed as we currently find ourselves on a run of demoralising defeats and badly lack the type of leadership and inspiration on the pitch that Alan can provide.

Jonathan Douglas performed a similar role exceptionally well for four years.

He is unfairly described on Wikipedia as a tenacious midfielder, whose strengths are focused on energy and aggression rather than technical skill, as in my opinion he greatly improved as a footballer last season developing a subtle and imaginative touch with his passing as well as the ability to ghost late and unseen into the penalty area, and he scored a career high of eight goals in a season.

Douglas it was who fought and won the majority of the midfield battles and his menacing presence enabled the likes of Pritchard, Jota and Judge to weave their magic safe in the knowledge that there was somebody around to protect them and exact retribution should an opponent take it upon himself to attempt to stop them playing by fair means or foul.

Even more importantly, Douglas, along with Toumani Diagouraga, acted as a shield and protector to the back four and helped keep opponents at a safe distance from our goal.

In order to describe how much we currently miss his influence I will simply provide the following shocking statistic – no Championship side has faced more shots on target this season than Brentford (one hundred and sixty-eight).

Proof indeed that as a team, we are not doing nearly a good enough job of defending from the front, pressing properly, winning the ball back and, of course, preventing the opposition from getting within shooting range.

Jonathan Douglas was an exceptional on-pitch leader who led by example and only slowed up and became tired and less influential when he was overplayed by Mark Warburton and only once rested last season when he was fit or available for selection. Not the most sensible policy for a player in his early thirties who would have benefited from the odd day off.

For reasons probably linked to his influence within the dressing room, Douglas outstayed his welcome at Brentford, his face didn’t fit and he became toxic and persona non grata and was released in the preseason, and it has come as little surprise that he has since flourished at Ipswich Town where he has played an important part in their efforts to reach the playoffs again at the end of the season.

It would seem that our current manager and Co-Directors of Football have not recognised the urgent, and to us fans, patently obvious, need to replace him with a similar type of player and we have certainly seen the results of that totally misguided policy in terms of the sheer number of goals and shots conceded at one end allied to the lack of creativity at the other.

To be fair to them, it might well be that they recognise that such a player able to compete at Championship level and combine skill with strength would cost far more than we are able to afford and there is no point in buying a second rate bruiser who will only give the ball away once he has won it.

George Evans might have done the job had we managed to get his transfer over the line but we seem to hold the naive belief that pure football will always win the day and appear to disregard the indisputable fact that sometimes you have first to battle in order to win the right to play.

Ryan Woods is certainly an excellent box to box footballer but is not a ball winner and he is currently paired with Josh McEachran who, for all his skill on the ball, vision and passing ability, is a non-tackler and does not pay anywhere near sufficient attention to the defensive side of his game.

A total recipe for disaster.

This season we have lacked a focal point, an on-field leader and inspiration, and someone with the ability to drive us forward and pick us up when things are going badly.

The time was, not so long ago, when we scored late goals as if by rote and never knew when we were beaten. Now the boot is on the other foot and it is rare that we recover from going a goal down and we have now conceded late goals in each of our last four matches.

Tony Cascarino hit the nail on the head the other day when he discussed the Championship and what you need to come out on top in that division and remarked:

It’s dog-eat-dog in that league and you need a few pitbulls. 

Players like Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton at Middlesbrough who ride roughshod over us whenever we come up against them, Darren Pratley, Hope Akpan, Dale Stephens, Joey Barton, Jacob Butterfield, George Thorne, Henri Lansbury and Kevin McDonald all combine the qualities that we so sadly lack and so desperately need.

Unfortunately all we have at the moment, apart of course from Macca, are chihuahuas.

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20 thoughts on “Pitbulls Or Chihuahas? The Midfield Dilemma – 23/2/16

  1. Perhaps the side could do a lot worse than go into the Braemer Road stand, as I still think of it, and ask Peter Gelson, who wasn’t the biggest package you ever saw, how to time a tackle and how to time a jump so you take the ball away from a man and how to make him.stop and look for options instead of running in on goal. The small men need to time their intervention to get a touch on the ball. Anything that breaks the momentum.

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  2. It’s a good piece and right to remind us all what a decent job JD & Toums did for us, JD for several years and Toums last term. always used to say when JD played well, we did – end of. To progress after the play offs we needed better though, instead we’ve gone the other way, Woods is a great little player & does compete but needs help from an enforcer – other than the injured Alan Mac we just don’t have one.

    I think the blue print was for us not to go after big physical players, perhaps only if they also happened to be exceptional ball players too. This may need to be revised, either temporarily with loans, or altogether.

    The poorer teams in the division still have plenty of “lumps” which is my main worry if we don’t pick up some points soon. .

    Having said all of that the reason we lost the game on Saturday was through the poor substitutions and our defensive errors. Watch the goals again and you’ll see this very clearly. I’m hoping Barbet can step in and help Harlee to keep them out tonight.

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  3. An excellent piece but a blinding flash of the obvious once again, Greville.
    Are we, as mere fans, not permitted to know what efforts have been made to plug this obvious gap? We don’t need names and figures but we don’t even get “we’re trying, for heavens sake, but we’ve been thwarted because ….”
    from the DoFs. It surely can’t be that at least one of them is spending too much time looking towards the (currently) sexier matches currently enjoyed by our Danish cousins, can it?

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      • As an afterthought to my earlier comment, one follower has asked why MB should be expected to give a brief update on progress made since the”change of direction” a year ago? If he has got the time I could give him approx 10,000 reasons why !!

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  4. Well put Greville. As I said in previous posts every team needs and enforcer, someone who does not back away from a 50:50 challenge, and if necessary frighten the opposition, and where necessary, the ref.

    Pure football is great, but even the purest teams have one or two such players.

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  5. “Nail on head” sums up this article for me.Whilst agreeing with your summary of the pony tailed destroyer Johnson I would say that you don’t have to be built like a brick outhouse.Just ask anyone who saw Messrs Bremner & Giles in their pomp.For me it’s about something the stats approach doesent measure & that’s “bottle”or “heart” if you prefer.
    Players that irrespective of size committ to tackles,fight for every ball & above all give 100% .Unfortunately we don’t have that anymore & as such are a soft touch.Having watched the performance of Josh Mc Eachran on Saturday it sums up our current problem.Good technically,nice touches but no commitment,physicality or desire to win at all costs.He wasn’t alone either add KK & Vibe (first half especially) & therein lies the problem.
    As you say in this article ,we can all see it so the so called Footballing people at the club must be able too.They obviously feel they don’t need to address matters this season given their lack of activity in current loan market.I wrote to Phil Giles on this very subject 2 weeks ago & have yet to get the courtesy of a reply. Perhaps FCMidjyland are diverting half of their attention,or maybe they just don’t see it as a problem ? I hope they are right because at present the majority if not all of the teams in the Championship must be rubbing their hands together when they know they are playing us.

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  6. I doubt any fans will disagree with that, Greville. What is mystifying is why whoever is in charge seems to have some other view. The Rossler pressing game, coupled with ‘passing them to death’, and developed by Warburton has also been abandoned (although briefly revived by Lee Carsley). Does someone decide to make these changes? Is it leadership or is it just serendipity?

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  7. Agree with all of that – we were told constantly at the start of the season by the directors of football that stats weren’t everything, and that attention would be paid to those intangible qualities you mentioned – leadership, bravery etc.

    None of our signings indicate that Ankersen and Giles truly understand how important these things are. And, for me, that means they are in the wrong job.

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  8. Been saying this for ages. I fear that if we do not find someone to replace JD and very soon, we will end up going down, and that would simply undo all the good work that has been done on the pitch and, turn away all the new converts, if they haven’t already started to leave.

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  9. I have not yet made up my mind about Dean Smith, but I am starting to get worried by his tactics and substitutions. In several of his recent pre-match conferences he has talked about game plans and on saturday in the first half it was obvious that players were playing to instructions and those instructions were to maintain the shape at all costs. We saw Yennaris and McEachran visibly undecided about whether they were allowed to chase the ball and Derby players outside of their alloted 20 yards of space they were to guard. We saw Vibe holding a position on the shoulder of a giant centre half waiting for a ball that he had no chance of getting because there was no-one in a position to give it.

    Then something was obviously changed at half-time because for 25 minutes we chased, we harried, we took defenders on. It looked like we had gone from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 (or possibly 4-4-1-1) and we took control of the game and actually started looking good. McEachran and Yennaris started to look like decent midfield players and were able to pick out passes. Woods and even KK were pressurising Derby on the flanks and stopping their full backs from going forward. we looked solid at the back and Judge & vibe were causing all sorts of problems for Derby’s defence – and we scored!. Admittedly we didnt create too much else, apart from a KK screamer that just cleared the bar, but we were playing the game in the right areas and Derby didnt look a threat at all. Then with 20 mins or so left, DS tinkered big-time – McEachran off, Woods into the middle and Swift wide right (is there a clause in his loan agreement that says he has to play if fit?). From the moment the first ball was played to Swift and he refused to chase for it, it seemed that instructions had been sent out with him to play deeper and keep a shape again to defent the lead. Of course, as Martin Allen found out 10 years ago, if you try to defend a lead by just going deeper with no real outlets, players will get in each others way, mistakes will be made and games will be lost.

    How many times did we exploit such negative tactics under Rosler & Warburton? Many games were recovered form a lost cause because the oppo just went deeper and deeper – now we seem to be trying the same. Toumani said that the secret of MW’s success was that he reoved the fear of making mistakes from players, he encouraged them to use their instincts and natural talent and he had no game plan for any oppositions – let them worry about us if they want but we will just go out and play football at a high tempo. We wanted to have possession of the football and if we didnt have it, we would get it back. At the time Judgey got injured last season, he was top of the stats for winning clean tackles and gaining possession in the whole Championship.

    We can get it back, but DS has to trust his players and give them some freedom.

    One final point – last season we made a lot of our fitness levels and it is blindly obvious that we are nowhere near that level of fitness this season. Is that just because Marinus had no control on the training pitch? Or could the loss of our head of fitness and conditioning actually be the biggest loss of all at the end of last season?

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  10. We seem to be standing around waiting for a pass. No movement no losing your marker, no swapping positions, or crossing over – just static. As a result, when a player has the ball the only option will be to pass back. The way we have matched these teams under Warburton and Carsley is to confuse the markers with lots of movement, whilst somehow our players knew exactly where they were. Dean Smith needs to look into this, how it is done because it seems to me since he took over there has been a gradual bleeding away of this skill to the point now where we are just standing about. That and as you say a hard but skilful midfielder could do wonders.

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  11. Agree with all this. But I would add that poor work rate has nothing to do with size. There is no excuse for the feeble midfield wanderings of for example Yennaris. I do think he might be a wide midfield player one day but he was in grave danger of taking root in Saturday. Swift gets criticised but for me he has skill and potential and like Canos should always start.
    The real question is why do we not sign a striker. No one in the universe believes Vibe or Hoffmann to be strikers . Vibe is a midfield player and Hoffmann…. Well ….

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  12. I do not believe there’s a problem at all it’s all down to bad luck and moaning disloyal fans with there campaign of miss information (no, I’m not talking about Vibe, Hoffman and Djuricins scoring stats here by the way) the midfields fine as is whoever plays as loan striker (if only they were, with option to get rid) if instead of constant bed wetting you try getting behind the team inspirational DOFs and our faultless owner everything will magically come good. Amen.

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