I wasn’t looking forward to next Saturday. If the atmosphere was ugly a fortnight ago, what would it have been like against Ebbsfleet, having lost twice against sides that leap-frogged us to get out of the bottom four, leaving us in the relegation mire in the process?
Both defeats were galling too: at Aldershot we missed chances and conceded in the 94th minute, having collapsed in added time; at AFC Fylde we took the lead twice, only to hand them two equalisers, and failed to respond to a half time tactical shift by the home team.
We played two very different formations in those matches, neither of which we’ve deployed so far this season. The shift to 4-3-3 at Aldershot was something I’d been crying out for, and up to a point it worked: we certainly had more possession than in any other away game this season, although I’d have to add the condition that The Shots’ game plan was predicated upon the ability of their swift forwards to break on us, so perhaps they were happy to allow us to set up camp in their half.
The issue was more to do with the personnel than the shape, and once we abandoned the holding midfielder to switch to a 4-4-2 we lost control of midfield and were clinging on for dear life in the five added minutes.
Having said that, if we hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of leaving one man marking one at the back while we took a 94th minute corner, we surely would have survived the late counter-attack which led to their goal. To leave one on one is unforgivable in normal circumstances; to do so against a side which consistently hit us on the break from our set pieces was remarkable.
We switched to three at the back in midweek, when perhaps using Akil Wright or Mark Carrington as our midfield anchor and sticking to Saturday’s plan would have tempted me more.
It felt like a desperate gambit, turning to a formation we hadn’t started with in any league game this season in a match we couldn’t afford to lose. It wasn’t just that decision which was startling. Bobby Grant and Carrington, two of our better performers at Aldershot, were dropped to the bench, while Wright and Ben Tollitt were left out of the squad altogether. Tollitt would have enjoyed the stretched second half which ensued.
To be fair, the shift might have led to an away win were it not for two calamitous errors. You can’t throw the ball into your own net twice and expect to emerge with much, after all.
Let’s not crucify Christian Dibble though. He’s filled in for Rob Lainton well on the whole, and his commitment can’t be doubted for a moment. Goalkeepers make mistakes, which tend to be punished: that’s the cruel truth of an exposed job.
It wasn’t all down to his mistakes either. I knew AFC Fylde had started the season unusually poorly, simply by looking at the league table. That didn’t prepare me for how awful they were in the first half though.
Unfortunately, they addressed matters at the break with a double substitution and change of shape which completely out-maneuvered us. We failed to respond and were punished, as the three scorers exploited the space our formation left in front of the back three time and time again. We failed to threaten in the last half hour, and made substitutions too late.
Despite some positive signs, both matches made for uncomfortable viewing. Hughes wasn’t the only one to make those decisions, but he was the one whose head was on the chopping block. A week earlier his tenure was insecure but those defeats sealed his fate. Losing against relegation rivals was bad enough; the nature of the losses was fatal.