Not really sure whether this is a good idea or not, but I’m going to attempt to analyse two games at once. Not just that, two horrendously terrible events, they can barely be referred to as “games”. In the preview of the Chivas match, I was relatively optimistic. Mainly because they were a team, like us, in poor form and sporting a roster bereft of mercurial talent. FC Dallas also looked like a winnable prospect, a very meh team, having a very meh season. Really, we should’ve been looking at picking up 2 points on the road. Even those standards are disappointing, but to come out conceding six, scoring none and getting played off the park in both games really smarts.
To go from a team in bad form, to a team in deep trouble, you have to be looking at things aside from player ability.
“Self belief and confidence makes or breaks an athlete. I think when you start to look at why teams going on runs when they are unbeaten, the team, or quite often the dynamic of the team, doesn’t change, what changes is self belief and confidence.”
Gavin Wilkinson, 23/07/12
I didn’t want to jump on the anti-Wilkinson bandwagon (honestly). I think the above quote is correct, to some extent. I absolutely agree that belief and confidence attributes a large portion to a players form. Those players who are able to generate that from within invariably become the best in the world. If you look at the technical ability of a player in the English Premier League, compared to one in the Championship, only the top 2 or 3% of players are actually technically better. The rest are predominantly built through hard-work, being in the right place, confidence, attitude and self-belief. A multitude of components to juggle, managed by… surprise, the manager and coaching staff of a club. How many potential “World Class” players have never made it at the level the promised *cough* Freddy Adu *cough*?
We see Wilkinson making personnel changes, even a formation change against Dallas. But what he hasn’t done is change his own tact. Change the way he deals with the media and the locker room spirit he projects. At least with Spencer you got the impression the dressing room was locked down, the players were unified. Wilkinson drove a wedge between himself and the players, from the moment he walked in. Please bear in mind that he is the one is first to remind us that he brought this roster to Portland…
13th July 2012 – after taking his first session
“It is just a matter of grinding through it at this point in time.”
“The players are good professionals and with I’ve asked them to mentally prepare themselves and get over what had happened as quickly as possible while still reflecting on it and if we are all accountable we should all give a little bit more.”
“…every player has their own personality and we have got a lot of different nationalities, a lot of different personalities within the team and trying to get to know all of those within one week has been difficult. Trying to get them all tuned in has been very difficult.”
Bar the first quote, standard stuff. I have to mention the “grinding through” quote, as I think this was such a mistake on Wilkinson’s part. Usually, when a new manager (interim or otherwise) comes in, there’s a bounce about the team. There’s an element of proving yourself for your new boss, a new wind underneath your wings. Grinding. Through. It. Hardly the Sir Bobby Robson-esque inspiration the already downtrodden squad were looking for. My initial reaction (as someone with next to no inclination towards Wilkinson) was… well… I was speechless. Psychologically, off on the wrong foot entirely, even though he mentions trying to shift attitudes and understand players. I’d have thought as, presumably, part of the scouting staff, GW would’ve been aware of these players personalities. Mere detail…
17th July 2012 – Post-LA defeat
“I think that we are at a stage now where we really need the players to get a lot of self belief, especially after conceding a lot of goals against LA.”
“…there is only one way to get that confidence and that is by working a little bit harder, in my mind.”
Get a lot of self belief. I’m starting to get the measure of how Wilkinson operates. “I’m confident, why aren’t you?” One positive, is that he at least understands that confidence must be bred in this Timbers team. Confidence is lacking.
“…against LA you could say that by and large, everybody apart from the back four did their job and maybe the back four didn’t plus one or two others.”
So, 5 or 6 didn’t do their jobs. So not “by and large”. Okay, pedantic tendencies aside, we know the back four didn’t have a great game against the Galaxy, but is singling them out really helping matters? 3 of the 5 goals were the fault of Lovel Palmer (Beck’s first) and two stupid mistakes by Kosuke Kimura. Yes, the 2 Robbie Keane goals were horrendously defended by the back 4 as a whole, but in a time where unity and team ethics are imperative, shoving a stake through the chest of the team is hardly productive. I’m starting to get the impression that beneath his quick-flapping gums, the stench from the dung-pile situated in the pit of stomach is starting to escape.
23rd July 2012 – Post-Dallas defeat
“Failure gets you feedback. That is the one good thing about it. It is how you deal with that feedback and how you move forward. For us as a group it is an important time.”
“I think we are a little bit short on [confidence] right now, so maybe as a coaching staff we have to find a way to manufacture that, but also as a group we are asking for a lot of reflection, we are asking for them to analyze what they did or what they didn’t do and see if they can make improvements as players.”
“There is always somebody else. Everybody is replaceable in any position. With athletes there is always somebody else that is willing to work a little bit harder and it is whether you can stay ahead of the curve and continue to work harder than that player, continue to produce more on the field.”
“Do I want to be in this position? No. That is the honest truth.”
I won’t go on and hammer the point any further. Why would any player positively react after being told to reflect on and analyse their poor performances by a man they cannot relate to. Herein lies the problem. Wilkinson doesn’t want to be in the Coach’s chair (allegedly). An underperforming albeit popular Coach has been chucked out of the front door by Merrit Paulson, Wilkinson there in case things get ugly. So, down the lofty Front Office stairs trudges Wilkinson, onto the pitch. The manager’s job he helped vacate is apparently beneath him. Pandering to any confidence issues, and considering that it may be HIM causing the issue, is too much for the ‘Red’ haired Kiwi. To come in and attempt to forcibly “manufacture” a confidence in these players is absurd and lacks any self-awareness and undermines everybody at the club.
Wilkinson wouldn’t have gone far wrong in taking a leaf from Newcastle boss Alan Pardew’s book. On one popular fanblog (US-based NufcBlog.com), Pardew had an approval rating of 2% when he took over from Chris Hughton. Not only that, Hughton was hugely popular in the dressing room, and had in fact moulded (which was possibly the cause of his dismissal) a group of Senior Players to preside over the locker room – Steve Harper, Joey Barton, and Kevin Nolan. In his first game, Newcastle beat Liverpool 3-1 at St James’ Park. Nolan and Barton had a huge influence on the game. In the post-game interview, Barton and Nolan both dedicated the win to Chris Hughton. Pardew just rolled with the punches, praised the two senior players, also made his own dedication to Hughton and got about his job.
Fast forward to now – Alan Pardew can do no wrong. I’d love to see what his approval rating is, but it’s be in the high 90’s. There’s no doubt who the manager is, and there’s no doubt where the praise in NUFC’s fantastic 5th placed finish is aimed. Barton and Nolan’s careers are not with Newcastle, but they’re floundering with QPR and West Ham. Pardew didn’t boot them out of the club, they simply moved on.
My point is this. Pardew had the sense, the awareness, the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to take on the “poisoned chalice”, weigh up the feeling of the Newcastle supporters and (more importantly) his squad. Gavin Wilkinson has gone the opposite way. Denied any interest in the job, ignored the fans, put the onus of improvement on the players alone, and not once has he looked in the mirror and seen the elephant in the room. Look at the case of Nowak and his unfair dismissal if you want a closer to home example of his archaic management style. You cannot be a one-dimensional, hardened manager anymore. You need to be part-tactician, part-coach, part-media face, part-psychologist. /rant
Look, I don’t want to hack into this anymore than anyone else. But I’m going to peel away some of the skin.
The first thing that completely rocked any theories about “ball retention” or “not moving the ball amount enough” was our pass success rate. Yes, since the LA game, we’ve attempted a decreasing number of passes. But, our success rate has actually got better. Against LA we attempted 630 passes at a success rate of 80.8%. Against Chivas we attempted 526, but retained the ball at a rate of 83.3. At Dallas, we attempted 404 at a rate of 83.7%. It’d be misleading to assume that’s a good thing, if we look at the shape of our successful passes against Dallas in particular…
I’d go as far as saying that our passing rate increased as our amount of passes decreased because of one intangible element – creativity. We seem to be devoid of it. One thing to back this up is the amount of successful crosses in each match – 6 v LA, 4 v Chivas, 0 v Dallas. The amount of attempts on goal also dropped dramatically against Dallas – 15 v LA, 14 v Chivas, 6 v Dallas.
To be honest, we could rake through statistics all day. In fact, during down time at work, I’ve tried to. I didn’t really find anything that was shocking, or anything that you’d not expect to see. Against Dallas, we were steamrollered in every department. The only column on my spreadsheet that doesn’t show a negative in variance is that of clearances – we made more clearances than they did. Because we invited them to have a go.
The most worrying statistic the most depressing of spreadsheets on my computer shows, is that of goals conceded. Over the past 3 games, we’ve conceded an absolutely unforgivable amount of goals. 11 in total. In fact, in the last 10 games, we’ve conceded 22 goals. Half our goals conceded in the last 10 games have come in the 3 games presided over by Gavin Wilkinson. I fucking love my statistics. But fuck your slightly improved pass success rates when you’ve got a number like that burnt into the screen of your laptop. We’ve only scored 10 goals in the last 10 games – another worrying stat. 3 of which have come in the Gavin Wilkinson-era games – all 3 against LA.
Space, the final frontier.
The same mistakes have been happening time and time again. If you were an opposing manager, you’d know exactly how to exploit our back four. Stretch the center backs by pulling the full-backs out of position, put the ball onto the near post – that’s it. Where I berated Horst and Futty – at least they had some chemistry. It seems Mosquera and Futty have never even conversed with one an other.
If you compare the above goals to the two Robbie Keane goals scored a few days before, then at first glance they look almost identical. The difference, for me at least, is that for the goal at Chivas USA – Mosquera is attempting to get back in front of his man on the near post. It wasn’t his man who scored, nor was he really at fault for the goal (take a bow Steven Smith), but he did let his man get goal side. This must’ve caught the eye of Kosuke Kimura, who’s gravitated towards the obvious danger. Mosquera’s OG against Dallas is also symptomatic of a man trying just too hard. He’s fully aware that he’s ballsed up in this position before, this time he gets in front of his man, but the next hurdle is to effectively clear the ball – which he doesn’t do. Then, the second goal against Dallas was just a defence lacking in confidence, lacking in trust, getting pushed away from the ball because they’re too scared to leave their markers. Gavin Wilkinson seems to be at least talking about the right things. But he’s being reactive. He saw the problem – in this case conceding on the near post or losing your man – and he’s decided to deal with that. What he doesn’t take into consideration is what man-to-man marking does to the shape of a back four, but he also hasn’t explored the most important requirement of a back four – trust. They’re all preempting the other making a mistake.
Should we have kept John Spencer? Or is consolidating with Gavin Wilkinson actually the right thing to do? To be fair to Wilkinson, there’s an argument to be had in his favour. It could be that he’s weeding out the shit. His job was to walk into the team, pick the whole thing up and shake it and see what sticks. To be fair to him, Lovel Palmer has nowhere to hide now. We’ve all known that he’s not good enough; previously he was able to hide behind John Spencer. Jewsbury is another example – he cannot perform alongside Chara, and he’s not good enough in the Colombian’s absence. He has to go.
For me, John Spencer’s biggest problem was his inability to communicate, to the players, exactly what each and every individual’s role in the team was. This came to the boil against Real Salt Lake where his line-up looked like the workings of a mad man. Or Steve Bruce. What we did express under Spencer was a togetherness and more of a willingness to work for each other. You didn’t see the submission in Dallas. Wilkinson seems to have communicated his tactical plan much better, players are sticking to their roles. What he’s devoid of though, is any personality, any leadership ability, and moreover in this testing time, an arm around his players in need. Silly mistakes are being made and players are just not listening to what’s being said.
Come on. Let’s be ‘avin yooou! Rant away. Have I got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to Wilkinson? Is it the players that should be blamed? John Spencer… all is forgiven? Who’s the best man to take over the worst team in the MLS?