Let me start by saying that I am massively disappointed with our poor showing in the first few games of this season. After the great promise of Slaven Bilic’s first year in charge when we came tantalisingly close to finishing in a Champions League qualifying position, it appears to have all gone pear-shaped. So why has it happened?
Firstly, we are defending very poorly and at the back we appear to have lost confidence. But don’t believe that this is a new thing. In thirteen of our last sixteen Premier League games (that is the six of this, and the final ten of last season) we conceded two or more goals. That is not a good record. For me, the manager can’t seem to pick a right back. Yesterday we had Arbeloa filling in at left back and Byram was not selected. Instead he preferred a defensive midfielder in that position. The game was fairly even until we conceded the first goal, inevitably via the right back position, and of course inevitably scored by Charlie Austin. Didn’t you just know that would happen?
Reid and Ogbonna are international defenders but I don’t believe that they make a good pairing. Both to me are old-fashioned number sixes that play better alongside a commanding number five, like Oxford for example? Like Bobby Moore playing alongside Jack Charlton, or even Tommy Taylor.
And the loss of Cresswell has proved more important than many believed it would. Kouyate seems a shadow of the player we saw last season, Noble just isn’t doing it, and Lanzini isn’t yet up to speed. Payet still seems to be suffering a hangover from the Euros, and his body language didn’t look good; it was almost as if he wanted to be elsewhere. Zaza did more running off the ball than people give him credit for, but does not look like an international forward on the evidence so far. Antonio cannot be expected to carry the team on his own and the look on his face when he was moved to right back was priceless.
If it was my team then I’d be looking for more youthful energy and pace. Based on the current fit players then I would play Byram at right back, Reid and Oxford in the middle, and Ogbonna at left back. I would have Obiang as a defensive midfielder with Fernandes and Kouyate in midfield. Can nobody else see the promise, pace and energy in Fernandes in just the few minutes he has been given? Up front I’d have Antonio and Payet wide, and persevere with Zaza for the time being. Apart from left back it would be all players playing in their natural positions, and even Ogbonna does have experience in the left back berth.
My bench would be selected from Arbeloa to cover either of the full back berths, Collins for the central positions, Nordtveit as cover for Obiang, Lanzini, Noble and Feghouli for the midfield positions and Fletcher up front. I’d also be hoping for the quick return to fitness of Cresswell, Ayew and Carroll which would enable greater choice.
Southampton have received a lot of plaudits for their performance, and yes, they deserved to win. But until they scored it was an even game. The worrying thing was how our heads appeared to drop once we were behind. A lot of confidence has gone in a defending sense, in fact it is at rock bottom, and we lack creativity. We don’t look like we have a plan as to how we are going to score goals.
I wonder if there are other behind-the-scenes issues? Are there problems off the pitch that we are not aware of? Are there perhaps cliques developing? That is my suspicion after seeing the body language, especially when goals are conceded. When things are going wrong players need to stand together. We need to win together and lose together. But we are losing as individuals. The support can’t even seem to stick together. It was great until the second goal went in. But after that the stadium emptied at a faster rate than ever before.
Slaven Bilic described our situation in his press conference as “the Perfect Storm”. The move to a new stadium? Rubbish – I’ve seen plenty of poor performances at Upton Park. The injuries? We’ve had injuries before. Thirteen new players? Poor summer recruitment? We’ve improved the squad but not the team? Perhaps this is true – we’ve bought a lot of second hand Mondeos when we needed a couple of Rolls Royces or Bentleys. Bad luck? Last season’s performances over-hyped? Poor defending?
We’ve got to stop making excuses. We have players of sufficient quality to be at least a mid-table team. I’ve described how I would tinker with the team but I’m not in charge. Bilic has to prove his managerial qualities now. The players must get together, stick together, and play as a team. We have only played six games. There is no need to press the panic button yet. We’ve been in this position before. Let’s see where we are at the end of October when four more league games have been played.