As the chant of "You don't know what you're doing" echoed from the away end of Fratton Park, we were 2-0 down to what should have been a fragile Pompey side. With what looked like no chance of getting back into the game, all that was left was time for reflection on what had gone oh so very wrong in our win-less season.
The problem may very well be that Ramos indeed doesn't know what he's doing with the personnel we have. As soon as the team was announced it seemed clear to apparently everyone apart from the manager that there were several strange choices in there. Gilberto back from the wilderness to replace the injured Bale and provide support down the left of midfield? A 5-man midfield with Pavlyuchenko again on his own up front but with no sign of our supporting midfielders? Dawson brought back into the centre of defence in replacement of King with Corluka shifted back to the right and the impressive Gunter missing out yet again.
Does Ramos know what he's doing? All we can analyse is what's put in front of us and that's what I'll attempt to do in this column, taking a look at our season so far, focusing on the squad and the apparent deficiencies which an ultimately poor transfer window has left us with.
As I see it, the problem we have is a complicated one. We certainly have quality players but do we have the right players? Take Zokora for example. In a 2-man midfield he’s poor at best. He often struggles with the simple pass, losing valuable possession carelessly and fails to get into space for his team-mates to pass to so rather than relieving pressure we get forced into mistakes.
Contrast this with his performances in a 3-man midfield and he’s like a completely different player (and maybe the one we thought we were buying). With more time to sit back and read the play, his positioning in front of the defence is superb. He’s always there to receive the short pass back from his midfield team-mates when they’re under pressure and with more options in midfield in front of him to play the pass to he looks calm on the ball. When he picks the ball up from deep and surges forward with it, not only does he relieve pressure on us, he makes a significant attacking contribution.
Sound great doesn’t it, so what’s the problem? With a 5-man midfield as we’ve put out in the last few games it means playing 1 up front and unfortunately we just don’t seem to be getting the system right. I’ll start off by saying I’m fast becoming a huge fan of Pavlychenko. He’s worked tirelessly on his own up front with shockingly bad support and shown real heart, a complete contrast to a certain sulking Bulgarian. He may not have the class of Berbatov but he’s certainly an accomplished striker as his record shows and if we manage to get things right I think he could have a far bigger impact for us than he did and become dare I saw prolific. So how do we go about getting it right?
If we’re going to play with only 1 striker as it seems our midfield setup almost deems necessary then it’s up to the rest of the midfield to support but that’s just not happening. We have two direct players, GDS and Lennon, who despite turning around every performance when introduced Ramos seems intent on not playing and instead it takes a poor first half before they’re brought on and allowed to influence our play. Is the problem here that we have too many midfielders without having the right ones?
Bentley and Lennon both clearly prefer the right side of midfield but are very different players. Bentley, although not showing it recently, can put in a great cross from deep and it was really expected that out front two would feed on those crosses all day. Of course our “front two” are now playing for Liverpool and Manchester United and instead we’re left with Bentley playing poorly in a system where he’s not necessarily suited. When he does put in a good cross (and these will get better as he settles and his confidence returns), there’s only the lone figure of Pavlychenko fighting a losing battle against strong defensive partnerships trying to make space for himself to get any chance at goal. In contrast, Lennon’s major weakness is his poor crossing and despite some recent improvement in this area, it’s really his pace and direct play that’s his major benefit, especially in a system where the striker needs this support running from deep. Similarly, the direct play of GDS is often a welcome addition to a side that’s simply struggling to get further forward and fill the space between midfield and attack. Thankfully, unlike Tarrabt who his style does have a passing resemblance too and despite his small frame, GDS is certainly not just a “luxury” player. He works hard for the ball, when he gets it it takes a lot to get him off it and when that does happen he isn’t afraid to come back and make amends by tacking and fighting for it. If it wasn’t for this I would be really worried that we have 3 players with only 1 position to accommodate but because of GDS’s versatility and with Lennon looking more comfortable on the left then it may not be so bad after all.
I’m not so sure if the same can be said about our other midfield options, namely Jena and Modric). It would seem to be an easy choice between the two. While still acclimatising to the pace of the premiership, Modric is by the far the more accomplished midfielder and with a touch of the Ossie Ardiles about him, our midfield and whole system should be built around getting the best from who’s going to prove to be one of the best midfielders we’ve seen for years. The problem here is vice-captain Jenas who Ramos clearly sees something in that many fans don’t. It may just be a case of once Modric is fully fit that Jenas will play less and less of a part but for years now we’ve waited for him to reach his potential and to be fair in some games we have seen glimpses of the player he could have been for us but in my opinion it’s now time to cut our losses with him. If he was going to step up to the next level he would have done it by now and persisting with him means we can’t settle on a system or style of play that works.
I’m trying to base my opinions here on more than the typical knee-jerk response and on the back of an absolutely awful performance against Portsmouth it might not be the right time to be critical of Jenas whilst praising O’Hara but the latter has shown far more fight and spirit befitting a captain of our club and if we do persist with a 3-man midfield I’d be more than happy for those 3 to consist of Modric, Zokora and O’Hara with Jenas being moved on.
It’s coming to the stage of this column now where I just put all my cards on the table and name my first choice 11 but a few comments on our defence is maybe in order first. Gomes, superb. I was worried that we might be signing the “Brazilian David James” (and that’s the “dodgy” David James, not the one who just kept another clean sheet against us) and while he’s already shown a few eccentricities such as a penchant for punching rather than taking the easy catch I’m confident in saying that he’s the best keeper I’ve seen play for us (which admittedly only goes back as far as Thorstvedt or so). In front of him Woodgate is a rock and alongside King (oh Ledley, where forth art though?) forms possibly the best defensive partnership in the premiership. Unfortunately despite repeated assurances from the club with regards to his fitness, King still looks to have problems and the last thing we need now is an unsettled defence to accompany the chopping and changing with the rest of the team. Having said that, Corluka looks an adequate replacement at least in the short term and with Hutton and Bale that completes one of the strongest defences in the league. Unfortunately, and some people may forget this, we’ve been missing 3 of our first choice back 4 for much of the season with Bale and Hutton joining King on the treatment table. However, with Corluka and Gunter we have adequate backup with the only weak-link at left back where BAE still isn’t convincing many fans that he really has a future at WHL.
So time to pick my team. I honestly feel that the team below should still be capable of finishing in the top 6 this season.
Gunter as a temporary replacement for Hutton doesn’t weaken that line-up significantly and leaves a strong bench. GDS can replace any of Bentley, Lennon or even O’Hara in that midfield depending on the opposition but it’s vital that Modric provides the link between midfield and attack that we’ve been sorely lacking so far this season. As I explained above, whilst I dislike playing 1 up front as it leaves Pavlychenko isolated, with the personnel available in our midfield, it’s extremely understandable why Ramos is persisting with it. If we moved to 4-4-2, while the front line improves significantly with Bent and Pavlychenko both capable of running the channels and dragging defences apart, the midfield just doesn’t work. If we had a defensive midfielder who was more comfortable than Zokora (Veloso or even Diarra may be the answer) then we could revert to 4-4-2 without too many problems and whether that happens in January is something we’ll have to wait in see.Gomes
Hutton Woodgate Corluka Bale
Bentley Zokora Modric O’Hara Lennon