Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
It’s been seven games and six weeks since we last shut out the opposition, and it’s killing us.
In the classic Seattle sit-com “Frasier”, it is suggested that the perfect meal is one with a tiny flaw which you can pick away at for the whole evening. Football is the opposite. A perfect defensive performance is rendered completely redundant if that single, tiny error occurs. We’ve been discovering this the hard way as we find increasingly exotic ways to soil our clean sheets.
Saturday’s failure to close the game out defensively was the most frustrating of them all because we defended so well apart from the one time that mattered.
In those circumstances, there was plenty of defending to do, and we did it well. The back four was solid, both individually and as a unit. Mark Carrington, played at right back for the first time since Gary Mills took over, was solid, Sean Newton made some excellent defensive interventions and was threateningly direct going forward, both in open play and from set pieces. In between them, the two centre backs were rock solid.
And that’s where the frustration lay. For eighty minutes Manny Smith and Jamal Fyfield battled successfully with a Torquay forward line which posed a genuine threat. By playing with a midfield diamond, with Arman Verma at the sharp end pushing on to join the strikers regularly, and the two pacy forwards splitting to run the channels, there was a real danger of our centre backs being exposed. Those two forwards were constantly looking to run in behind our defensive line, hoping the presence of Verma would mean Smith and Fyfield would be forced to step up to meet him and leave inviting space in behind.
Yet the experienced duo handled them well. As the game wore on, an increasing amount of the service to the forwards was long and hopeful, which played straight into Smith and Fyfield’s hands. Torquay were forced to reshuffle, with Verma dropping deeper, a tacit admission that their tactic wasn’t working. Until the 80th minute they had created just one decent opportunity in open play, a stretching half volley from fifteen yards which Rhys Taylor parried.
So how frustrating that we then conceded in the least likely manner you’d expect! A hopeful long punt by the keeper, the sort of thing you’d expect us to deal with all day, the centre backs both get drawn to it, and a flick-on leaves us completely exposed.
Defending isn’t just about eliminating the obvious error: it’s about doing the repetitive things time and again, a hundred times out of a hundred. Football is a punishing game, and defending is the most testing element of it: in a low-scoring sport one small mistake, no matter how understandable, can be decisive. Until we can eliminate that one small flaw, we will continue to struggle to keep clean sheets.