Both Dean Saunders and Andy Morrell have illustrated, through their handling of the goalkeeping position this season, that if they believe a player has done well, he should keep his shirt. It’s a stance I understand, but don’t necessarily subscribe to fully; I can’t help feeling that Alex Ferguson, faced with such a dilemma, would ultimately take the hard-nosed decision that the better man should play. However, it’s an understandable principle, designed to motivate, and if the squad is happy then there’s clearly justification for the stance
Partly I question the policy as a matter of consistency; if a good performance earns you a run, how must Johnny Hunt have felt after an impressive first start of the season in the cup against York? He’s not started since. However, as I suggested above, my biggest concern is that, especially at the level we’re playing, you have to go with the percentages and get your quality players on the pitch for as much of the season as is possible. Which leads me to Lee Fowler.
Fowler is, for me, part of the indispensible spine of the team, he and Jay Harris crucial in front of Mark Creighton and Nat Knight-Percival. In a side built on solid foundations and excellent organisation rather than flair, he is the player whose subtle, incisive use of the ball provides a cutting edge of a quality rarely seen below the top couple of divisions.
Don’t get me wrong; I think our midfield is strong both in quality and depth. But Fowler is the one true player-maker, if we accept that the excellent Dean Keates’ ability on the ball has a slightly different emphasis, and that Glen Little probably isn’t going to be given a run. Without Fowler we create fewer chances, and sides can sit deep against us with more comfort.
Fowler’s key characteristic, apart from his accurate passing, is his terrific composure on the ball. The way Saunders had us playing at the start of the season, with Fowler very deep, drawing opponents to him before initiating moves, thrilled me. It’s Fowler’s confidence in possession which makes this possible; his ability to keep his cool when opponents swarm around him and back his ability to be patient, keep the ball under pressure, and not release it until the correct opportunity comes along.
Without that attribute in our midfield, opposing midfields are in a more comfortable place, and we have to resort to earlier, longer service to our strikers. It’s a situation Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox flagged up in an article on the problems Ghana face through a lack of midfield creativity:
So, what can be done? First, the side has to be clever with the ball in deep positions. As Andre Villas-Boas puts it, against a side sitting deep and controlling space in behind, you have to ‘provoke’ the opposition with the ball. “It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them, using the ball as a carrot.” Ghana are not good enough at doing this. Their holding midfielders are decent on the ball, but they lack the technical quality or imagination to cause the opposition problems. In a counter-attacking side they simply break up play, or play direct forward passes. There is no thought of having to help unlock defences themselves.
Like Wrexham, it’s not as if Ghana have no good midfielders; quite the opposite, as their rise in world football has been attributed to their strength in that department. It’s just that they lack a certain type of midfielder. We’ve got that sort of playmaker in Fowler, and it’s crucial he returns swiftly to the heart of what we do.
Fowler has proved, since his return from injury, to be a highly effective substitute. Coming on against tiring midfields, his ability to play the telling pass is complemented by the fact that he finds it much easier to burst past ragged opponents and carry the ball into dangerous areas himself. Against Cambridge in particular it was striking how much the quality of service to the strikers improved once he came on with twenty minutes left. Indeed, it fell to me to select the man of the match for the Supporters Association podcast, and I was tempted to reward his compelling cameo with the award!
However, common sense must prevail. If we’re going to win this thing, Fowler needs to be on the pitch from the start.