Written by : Jonathan Lee
We are now 21 games into the season on 22 points (the game in hand is largely illusory given it is Liverpool) which, if replicated to the end of the season could put us on around 38 points – enough to secure safety in each of the last three seasons. But the reality is we are hovering only one point above the drop zone, and we went down with 42 points in 2002/03 (with WBA and Sunderland cut adrift). The only gap currently is down to Norwich, in bottom place on 14 points; they sadly look doomed.
There are a number of games from the 17 left which we could feasibly see no return from – both Liverpool matches; Man City away; Man U, Spurs, Arsenal, Leicester all away, and Chelsea at home. If that should come to pass – albeit we often raise our game against the so called big boys – it would mean having to grab 16 points from the remaining 9 games, which would be a tall order. That means this current squad will have to do what some of them might not have been expecting back in August, which is to roll up their sleeves, sacrifice the beautiful approach and scrap for every second ball, 50/50, set piece and similar, whilst being equally clinical when chances come along. The performances at Gillingham and Sheffield United, whilst not awful, did not suggest we are going to create many over 90 minutes.
Much has been discussed about David Moyes approach – two wins to start with, but then the heartbreak of seeing that late equaliser chalked off last Friday night. It seems he might be leaning towards his favoured 3-5-1-1 formation, which is fine if your team is at the top of their game. The 3 central players at the back sweeping the ball both around and forward with perfect precision, the wing backs charging up and down causing havoc, the midfield triangle scrapping to win the ball back whenever it’s lost, and the two front men making runs inside the channels that opposing defenders just can’t read, followed by finishes that leave the keeper clawing at thin air – if that was the reality we’d be laughing, but the squad we currently have does not play that way.
We have two back up keepers that can fatally lapse in a match. Much as we like David Martin and his family’s connections to the club, his error for the winner last week was simply dreadful. Ogbonna has been a shining light at the back this season but Diop and Balbuena have been too inconsistent (with the former probably puzzled as to why he hasn’t been playing – remember it was Pellegrini that felt ‘sorry’ for Balbuena not getting much match time and reinstated him). Zaba’s best days are behind him but we have little option with Fredericks side-lined whilst both Arthur and Cresswell are too prone to extreme performances, either really at it or shocking. Snodgrass, Noble and Rice can never be faulted for effort but displays, Rice apart, have blown hot and cold. Lanzini has been hugely disappointing since his return, while Fornals has grown into the team. Anderson and Haller, whilst unquestionably both hugely talented players, probably didn’t join the club to slog out a relegation battle but that’s what they now find themselves in.
We have Antonio due back soon which will hopefully help our cause plus, fingers crossed, the return of Fab, while you would hope the club will bring in a couple of players that can have an immediate impact. Remember when Harry was in similar strife at the end of 1996 and drafted in Hartson and Kitson? They immediately changed the mood around the club. Not that it is particularly strikers we necessarily need, Anderson and Haller (and Antonio) appear to be assigned those roles as it stands, while the centre back roles are taken by Ogbonna, Diop and Balbuena.
What we ideally need is legs in the centre of the park and down our right wing (presuming Arthur and Cresswell cover the left). Fornals is maybe a ready-made answer in part, which makes his late appearance at Bramhall Lane all the more questionable, and a fully firing Noble is always a positive — but sadly we have seen that all too infrequently of late. Talk of Fellaini being reunited with Moyes is currently doing the rounds and although it would doubtless prove to be unpopular among a lot of support you can’t argue that his presence in midfield would shake things up, similarly with the likes of Joe Allen, a journeyman in many ways but one who can still cover the yards. The issue is that any really decent player worth his salt is not really going to be interested in joining a relegation scrap at this time of year and, if they do join, the danger is it is wholly motivated by money. If we went down they’d simply be off having taken a nice big fat payday.
This Saturday’s game against Everton will be very interesting. They struggled early season, but are just starting to hit their stride again, and the likes of Richarlison, Bernard, Sigurdsson, Walcott and the in-form Calvert-Lewin will really pose us a test. This is one of those games where we have to replicate our approach against Bournemouth, press from the front and not let them settle. It only needs 2 or 3 players to drop off their game and Everton will hurt us – it’s time to wear the badge with pride and for the players to leave everything out there, that’s all we ask, play with pride, play for the fans, play for each other.
If not, the Championship and all the changes that will entail, awaits.