A 1-1 draw against Derby County at Pride Park is no reason to be downbeat or crestfallen as our unbeaten record on Friday evenings is still very much intact. A small triumph, you could say, and amongst the Wayne Rooney rectum sniffing fest, the Whites managed to restore face, kind of, after last Saturday’s gale force flogging.
Scott Parker, toe-to-toe with another former great of the game, Phillip Cocu, somehow managed to wring a bead of bravery from his dampened squad to salvage a point, but from his Dutch adversary’s perspective, I’d imagine sharing the spoils feels every bit like a smash and grab robbery, with your club being the victim jewellers on the corner.
It wasn’t overly pleasant viewing and we’re certainly not out of the woods just yet but, looking at the result in another light, I’ll settle for it. Ahead of us is Swansea City, who are also within touching distance of the play-off berth, so anticipate more drama under the lights Wednesday night as the plot thickens.
Predictable Patterns Persist
After Barnsley, I’d said that Fulham were in deep trouble due to their uninspired, flat offensive strategy and I still stand by that statement. You can’t deny it, the Whites made very hard work of simple passing sequences and couldn’t split Derby’s stubborn defensive shape. With very little invention, even with Tom Cairney and Stefan in the middle, there’s nothing to suggest, at all, that we’ve resurrected the lingering issues that have beset our free-flowing regard. Predictable patterns suppressed our approach and Derby were quite happy to let us dab the ball tamely across the back four, with no penetration.
I don’t want to dig him out repeatedly, but Cairney slowed the game down and couldn’t influence the game in a progressive sense. I can’t even clearly remember an instance where he actually fed the ball forwards but he and Bobby Decordova-Reid did alternate. When the Jamaican dropped deeper to collect possession, our rhythm did increase slightly although we were still blunt and pedestrian in the final third. TC has is undoubtedly ruined in this system and that in itself is a reprehensible offence. To put it into basic context, the Whites racked up 570 passes overall with 60% possession but, of the 17 shots we registered, only 5 were on target. I’m not a statistician, a George Singer, if you will, but I’d say with the attacking powerhouses we have at our disposal, that’s pretty discouraging. What do we have to do to get the likes of BDR and Ivan Cavaleiro firing again? All we seem to do on the ball is pick up uniformed positions and shuffle from one flank to the other. We’re reserved and shy of incision.
The game opened up towards the latter stages and both camps had credible chances to lodge a winner, though. The desire to slam home a winner stimulated the hosts but Fulham were still markedly sterile whilst countering. In order to relieve pressure, Fulham pumped long balls out of their 18-yard area. Aboubakar Kamara and Cav’ chased the ball as it skipped off the surface but Derby mopped up comfortably and if that’s genuinely what we have to resort to, we are stuffed as a cohesive unit. We’re awful at hitting teams on the break and we’ve only netted a tiny pinch of goals after retrieving possession. Rather than surging out, we’re now programmed to brush the ball about in a docile manner, which allowed Derby to regroup for the next incoming wave of regulated, lobotomised ‘Parker ball’. Let the handbrake off, take a few risks and please, please play to our personnel’s strengths. We need a fast, sharp, devastating outlook, not this dull, lifeless, exhausting nonsense we’ve surrendered to.
Rodak’s Reactive Redemption
I wanted good, honest answers and Marek Rodak supplied them in abundance. His performance against Barnsley was nothing short of a disservice to the club and himself, but the agile 23-year-old proved his worth in Derbyshire with an extensive album of top-shelf saves, forget top drawer. We’re talking x-rated debauchery between the sticks, not Mills and Boon softly-softly blather. There’s no real in between with Rodak, he’s either outstanding or abysmal but we’ve only seen the latter twice this term. He’s a man that ultimately takes his standing in the squad extremely seriously and we benefit of his dedication, more often than not. Last week was so far out of character for the young stopper and he atoned for his calamitous errors superbly.
Alert at every given instance, or when Wayne Rooney weighed up a pinpoint cross into the 18-yard box, the Slovakian thwarted the Rams with his palms and fingertips to ensure a point. Parrying driven efforts away from danger, batting swirling corners out from under the crossbar, clawing Curtis Davies’ shinned stumble off the line in the 89th minute, Rodak was on hand, quite literally, to deny the Rams on a series of separate occasions, testament to his vigilance and attentiveness. We gazed upon something truly special from the aspiring stopper, and I’ve never had more faith in a first-choice stopper since Mark Schwarzer, and in terms of his optimum capabilities and understanding of his duties, Rodak is still developing.
Still earning his stripes, Rodak exhibited a strong-willed professionalism, coming back stronger than ever after blemishing his judgement against the Tykes. Rodak was Man of the Match by some distance and is just as valuable as Aleksandar Mitrovic. A loss would have been detrimental but Rodak ensured a point away from home with virtually no support from his defensive colleagues. Having a dependable, sturdy ‘keeper is so important and I’m made up for him – Rodak could have dropped off the face of the earth following last week’s debacle, but his courageous exploits in his place of work verified his credentials as our undisputed starting stopper. Like we were in any doubt.
Arter’s Actually Annoying
I’ll try to keep this short and sweet as possible, but I’m not entirely sure what Harry Arter really brings to the fold other than reckless challenges, punchable facial expressions and needless yellow cards. Paired alongside TC and StefJo – a versed master of the dark arts – the Republic of Ireland international tore around the middle of the park without actually doing anything worthwhile. Basically, Arter doesn’t fit the bill for me, and when you have Kevin McDonald on the bench, who eventually replaced him in the 81st minute, it feels like an injustice that he’s getting anywhere near our matchday XI.
Our midfield’s needed intensity, a competitive edge, although Arter gets far too invested in the physical battle and also gets sucked into mind games and handbags. I get it, a nasty element is usually favourable, but the 30-year-old only antagonises himself. Opposing players smirk at his petulant gesticulations and protests and once he reaches that point, there is no turning back. Head’s gone, he’s a burden.
I miss Harrison Reed. He does everything Arter should do with a composure and he’s actually a constant driving force throughout. The AFC Bournemouth loanee misplaced routine passes, had a little moan and allowed the game to pass him by because he couldn’t hold his position. Do not let his banger against Aston Villa fool you, he’s an bang average midfielder with a temper. If KMac’s going to be involved, start him. In the 10-14 minutes he was on, he effected the game so much more than Arter did at both ends and he’s a leader, not liability.
Super Serb’s Supremacy
It’s been said before, numerously, but all Mitrovic ever requires is one opportunity to beat the keeper and, other than his harmless header in the first half, the Serb restored parity with a volley of supreme quality in the 71st minute. The technique was exquisite and his movement was even better. Certain things are promised to us, such as death and taxes and if our wide components get their heads up and float a tempting ball into the penalty area, Mitro’ will score. In a game where he was handled by Davies and Matthew Clarke with limited time and space to make his presence known, the prolific 25-year-old left his mark.
That’s now 22 for the season and counting. There’s nothing intricate or complex about Mitro’s game, he’s just an old-school taget man that thrives on shoulder-to-shoulders and crosses of all varieties. Wedge it behind him, he’ll still find a way to defy the laws of biomechanics and he did as he rattled the equaliser past Ben Hamer. Feeding off scraps has now become part of Mitro’s hunting ritual, but just imagine if we offered him endless service from both channels? We’ve the players to do so and the man that found Mitro’ was Kamara, an erratic attacker with finite vision and footballing intelligence. Just goes to show, he isn’t picky about where and who it comes from, as long as it’s there to be hit, it’s all the same.
Mitro’ is the exact reason why we’re still vaguely in the hunt for automatic promotion. We’d be woeful, middle of the road and nowhere near the company we currently keep if he wasn’t on our books, even in the Championship. We heavily rely on his deadly expertise and yet again, after bamboozling our way into a very troublesome predicament, the productive striker bailed us out. You only get one phone call, and we know just the person. He is our get out of jail free card, that final Who Wants to Be a Millionaire lifeline, and I dread to think what hole we’d be in without him fighting our corner. Sharks will be circling in the summer, so best make the most out of him while we can.
Justly Judging Joe
I’ve seen enough and made up my mind, Joe Bryan is a left winger, not a left back. This war of positioning has rumbled on and the adventurous fullback much more comfortable and effective in higher reaches. All he wants to do is skim tantalising crosses into the danger area for Mitro’ to lunge upon, he doesn’t want to be wasting his and our time by tracking Jason Knight of all people. Bryan’s been active on social media, jesting with the fans and mocking his defensive capability but it’s true, he can’t defend and I say we cut that leash loose. ‘BuT He StiLl CanT DefENd.’ You said it, Joe.
Thrashing at the ball led to Derby’s penalty and, of course, Rooney’s opener. It should have been a common, everyday clearance but he just looks so unnatural whilst attempting to shield possession at the back. Whilst attempting to dispossess Knight, Bryan would fizz into the 19-year-old and be left high and dry because he didn’t read the situation. Tim Ream wasn’t covering, so all he had to do was stunt Knight’s movement. He was bypassed smoothly along the left, leaving acres for Derby to appropriate. Not convincing in the slightest.
Get him in advances areas, though, you’ve got yourself a different animal. He springs into life with overlapping runs and instantaneous 1-2 combinations but if he is to accommodate a spot at left wing, are we really going to sacrifice Ivan Cavaleiro or BDR for that matter? He’s being played at left-back out of necessity, because on paper he’s a defender, although Denis Odoi can fill that void if he is to graduate to an offensive locality. His persuasive connection with Mitro’ may suggest he’s a worthy candidate, after all, but it means upsetting the apple cart, and I’d rather keep that particular wagon happy for the time being at least. Maybe he’s at danger of becoming surplus – I don’t want it to be the case but perhaps a complete transformation, at the expense of a few weeks on the bench, would be a beneficial route for the Whites to consider.