Matty Hayward – @MattyHayward96
What a difference a long weekend can make. What a difference six points can make. What a difference Danny Wright can make. Two 1-0 wins have breathed new life into a deflated Yellow title bid; the flaky, play-off settling Gulls have been transformed into the robust promotion-chasing Gulls in the blink of an eye.
It’s fair to say we didn’t play at all well across the last two games. Woking (h) was a terrible game of football: neither team really threatened the other or could string two passes together. Then we burgled a goal and we won. Wrexham (a) was a better game, but neither team played well: the home side had one or two excellent chances from which they should have scored, while the Yellows had a bundle of half-chances but barely anything clear-cut. Then we burgled a late late goal and won.
There are two ways to read this. Perhaps United got lucky twice and will eventually come unstuck by playing so poorly. Or, maybe, we can wheel out the “good teams win even when they play badly” cliché and start planning the route of the open top bus. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It’s true that we’ll need to improve in order to beat better teams, and we’ll not often get such a fortunate few bounces in the box from a filthy long throw as we did at Wrexham. It’s also true that our excellent run at the start of the season came after a few scrappy wins, and picking up three points by hook or by crook, by winning disgustingly or beautifully, really is all that matters at this stage of the season.
The Great Wall of Plainmoor
One of the main reasons we can afford to not be an incredibly threatening force on the front foot is that our back line has been solid. In the last five games, United have conceded once (at Dagenham). That run of form has coincided with the return of Lucas Covolan and, arguably more importantly, the same back four and goalkeeper being picked each week.
People who call themselves football ”scouts” and “analysts” talk about something called the “eye test”, which is pretentious parlance for “what a player/team looks like, without consideration of the stats.” It’s probably fair to say that United’s back line haven’t looked especially clean-sheet-y of late. While Ryan Law now looks much more composed, his first game and a half in a Torquay shirt were shaky to say the least; Sam Sherring and Joe Lewis are two good, young defenders, but they don’t exude composure or dominance in or out of possession; Ben Wynter, on his gradual return to full-fitness, was at fault for the goal at Dagenham and has been caught out of position a couple of times recently; and while Lucas Covolan has looked assured since coming back into the side, he appeared to be doing everything he could to get lobbed at Wrexham on Monday.
Of course, the “eye test” doesn’t really matter. The stats – specifically the goals conceded stat – is the only thing that’s important at the moment, and since three of our last four victories have come by a single goal it’s clear that our defence is the thing keeping us in, and winning, games. We can talk of excitement about Moxey, Warren and Cameron being at different stages on the comeback trail, but the lads doing the job at the moment are doing alright, whether they look comfortable or not.
Since Danny Wright got injured on Boxing Day, Gary has picked five different strikers (six if you include the infamous CLE-false-nine-experiment; seven if you include Olaf Koszela cameos). For a team who has regularly lined up in a 4-5-1 formation, that’s quite staggering. What’s more staggering is that they’ve all failed, some to a greater degree than others, to fill the hole left by our number 9.
It was a surprise to many that Wright featured in a friendly before the Woking game, and a further surprise that he was on the bench by Friday. He was thrown on in the 56th minute and, naturally, hearts were in mouths. We’d read this book before: team is in bad form, in desperation a key player is thrust back into the action, twannnnggggg, that’s another six weeks out.
We had no reason to worry about Danny. He probably isn’t looking quite as sharp as earlier in the season, but is still streets ahead of any of the strikers we’ve tried thus far. He’s a backboard off which Yellow midfielders can bounce passes of varying quality and usually expect it returned to them in a better position; his strength and positional intelligence mean even the biggest defensive lumps in this league of big defensive lumps are kept occupied; and his sharp movement and finish for the winner against Woking show he’s still got all the trademarks of a first-rate striker at this level. He is resurrected, he’s turned waters to wine, and it all bodes extremely well.
You’re Twisting My Lemon, Man
Of course, good news on the injury front doesn’t come without cost or divine sacrifice. At Wrexham, the lively-looking Benji Mbunga-Kimpioka hobbled off with what looked like another hamstring injury early on, while The Lemon suffered some sort of contact blow which forced him off in the second half.
None of the substitutes improved the game. In fact, late winner aside, Wrexham looked a lot more comfortable as the match wore on and United’s main threats were replaced by more sedate options (Waters came on for Benji; Andrews for CLE; and Boden for the still-recovering Wright). This speaks to a genuine concern: squad depth. Obviously, having quite a good starting XI is something we’ve failed on since the turn of the year so maybe worrying about the quality of our bench is the footballing equivalent of a first world problem. But Waters was, I think he’d admit, awful on Monday. Andrews, who has been excellent when he’s been given a chance recently, offered very little aside from an excellent chunk of shithousery in the dying moments. And Boden barely got involved throughout his 30 minutes.
BMK and CLE’s injuries are, therefore, a problem. We have to hope that their ailments aren’t as bad as feared, and that whoever comes in to replace them plays better than they did on Monday.
It’s tempting to look back at us dropping points to Dagenham and Redbridge (six), Boreham Wood (four), Maidenhead, Yeovil, Altrincham, Halifax, Hartlepool (three each), Wealdstone, Sutton, Notts County and King’s Lynn (two each) and think about what could have been. With the gap between us and the top just six points, it doesn’t take Alan Turing to work out where we’d be if some of those easier games had gone our way.
But they didn’t, and worrying about that won’t help. Worrying about the future won’t help either, but it feels better to worry forward than backward. Sutton – who have won once in their last five games – don’t play on Saturday, so if we beat Weymouth this weekend we’ll go into the table-topping clash three points behind the Amber and Chocolates.
It’s a big if – we’ve lost to similarly bad teams this season – but suddenly, from a position of hopelessness comes hope. The funny old game’s gonna keep on being funny and old, and there’s plenty of it still to play.
COYY – Matty