|Pragmatism Comes Before a Fall|
Written by obliquewordsmith on Wednesday, 11th Apr 2018 10:08
So, he’s gone and we can all find out what it is we’ve been wishing for.
I came late to the McCarthy out party, for a long, long while I was agnostic, accepting that the football was grim, but looking at injuries, accepting McCarthy’s assertion that it was the results that mattered and, being an optimist, always looking upwards at what a little run of consistency could bring.
Then came Sheffield. I went up and saw us beat Wednesday, a good hard-working away performance, efficient, McCarthyite. Two home games, two wins, on the shoulders of the play-offs, it’s all worth it.
Or not. The failure to go for the win against United – Sears dropped after a bright display against Wednesday in favour of playing Celina out of position, bring Ward on after an hour, bring a striker on before the 81st minute - was the death knell for my support for him, and then the team sheet against Hull confirmed it. I think that team sheet was the cause of the atmosphere against Hull, everyone could see in advance how it would go.
Since he stropped off – or didn’t strop off, but gave an previously orchestrated strop with one last barb at the fans – I’ve been busy ‘discussing’ on social media McCarthy’s merits as a messiah and us fans’ delusions of grandeur, sense of entitlement and teenage lack of gratitude. There just aren’t enough characters available on Twitter, and I get frustrated having to reword things 800 times and lose all nuance, so I’ve been musing at length on McCarthy here.
The team, the squad, the set up that McCarthy leaves is way better than that he inherited. Keane’s volatile approach of alienating everyone then giving them frees to go and play in the Premier League, and then Jewell’s haphazard tactic of signing anyone over the age of 30 and hoping a random selection in a random formation would work meant he took over a chaotic mess.
He has changed that, Waghorn, Garner, Skuse, Knudsen, Webster, Spence, Ward, Huws, the loans (how I’d love to be able to sign Carter-Vickers). The youth, Downes, Folami, Cotter, Nydam, Emmanuel, Kenlock and others just beneath the first team. Then Hyam, Bishop, Chambers. It’s a decent, balanced side (as long as you don’t want to play wingers) with a good spread of ages and more than a dash of flair and potential. So much better than Ingimarsson, Ellington, Bullard and Edwards at right-back. If the manager was judged on squad building, he’d have got a new contract. But.
Favourites. I don’t think he has unfathomable favourites, a charge previously levelled against Magilton. Chambers is his captain, of course he’s in the team, Skuse is underrated and was unfairly tarnished by being paired with the too old Douglas.
My charge would be that he has made continual unnecessary changes, something Carlos Edwards alluded to when interviewed recently. Kenlock has a good game, dropped next week. Sears goes 40 games without scoring, scores twice, missing next week. Spence/Iorfa swapped week by week, Celina in, Celina out, Gleeson/Bru/Douglas not seen for months then suddenly in the starting line up for one game, Hyam plays well then benched again. Surely if you play well, aren’t injured, then that position is yours to lose? You’re only as good as your last game and all that nonsense.
Which leads to youth. McCarthy’s safety-first approach meant that while he talked up youngsters, promoted them to the squad, gave them a game here and there, he didn’t trust them. Kenlock has made mistakes – so have all the defence – but he never holds a place down for a long run. We haven’t scored in 800 years, but no sign of Morris, Drinan, still the sad figure of Sears as a target man covering every blade of grass forlornly as he seeks the chance to create and score, one day.
Downes comes in, looks a good player, sits on the bench, vanishes to Luton, Marriott (of course), Emmanuel – who surely should have been pushing Spence like Kenlock/Knudsen, Michael Crowe – who rather than play McCarthy resurrected the ghost of Gerken for one night only. I don’t think players should be played just because they’re young, don’t think a team of teenagers could suddenly ignite Portman Road into a fortress, but a run of games, trusting them rather than an odd game here or there, and assimilating them into first team regulars should be the way. Caution, caution, caution, everywhere caution.
Then the football. Oh, the football. My suspicion is that he boxed himself in mentally, and I look at the play-off season as when it started. We had the organisation and attrition to escape Jewell’s catastrophic mess, then the rebuild.
Up until the Southampton replay we’d played excellently; we pressed, harried, camped inside the opposition’s socks and counter attacked with pace. We could have beaten, should have beaten, Southampton away, then, for me, the rot set in. We started to sit back, our intensity dropped, we started to grind results out – Murphy stopped scoring every week, McGoldrick had his first long lay-off – and we scraped into the play offs. Since then it’s been attritional, not just the last two seasons, but the seventh placed finish too.
I believe that McCarthy’s pragmatism, which kept us up, which scraped us into the play-offs, then came to dominate his tactical thinking, so that he couldn’t see beyond the expedience of grinding out a result. Grinding them out saved the club from relegation, it heaved us over the line, it became the thing.
In one way I agree with McCarthy about results. If you win you feel good, Leicester fans weren’t complaining when the won the title because they had poor possession stats, I’m sure Liverpool fans don’t care Guardiola’s side saw more of the ball.
I suspect that had McCarthy fashioned a side up there with Wolves and Cardiff much of the criticism would be muted, but not losing isn’t a worthwhile aim in itself, any more than possession is. McClaren’s Derby had wonderful levels of pretty, pointless, possession, and failed. Direct football can be incisive, thrilling and successful. Burley employed it, Salah’s first goal last week was pretty direct, it does need to be more than a hopeful punt to an isolated Sears though.
The matches against Newcastle last season – a beautiful, beautiful surprise – and recently Millwall and Barnsley last night showed what could have been. Imagine if we’d done that against Sheffield United and Hull, gone for it, tried to win, attacked. Even after all the rubbish before, how different the season could look, how McCarthy could even then have rehabilitated himself.
That’s what I find saddest, that McCarthy has done some excellent work, and but for a rigid and increasingly inflexible approach could have tipped himself, and the club, across that fine line of success, but he was permanently hobbled by a stultifying fear of failure.
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