Thursday, 26 September 2013

Wanting a Pair of Strikers and Perestroika

A Pair of Strikers?
When David Weir was appointed I preached for patience, eight games in and that seems in short supply amongst many Blades fans at the moment. Short-termism abounds in football these days, not least driven by financial pressures and media focus on the game, but when preaching for patience pre-season, no one anticipated one win and four points from eight games, and a failure to beat two League Two teams over 90 minutes in the cup competitions. Consolidation maybe, but not struggling to stay out of the bottom four.
Whilst Weir has clearly instilled a passing philosophy in his team, the fact it breaks down in the final third means goals are at a premium and there is further pressure on a defence seemingly capable of making mistakes we rarely saw over the last two seasons. A failure to get players into the box, a failure to put meaningful balls into the box and a failure to shoot are borne in the statistics below. They are now 2 games old, but little has changed. - Thanks to Ben Mayhew - Thanks to Ben Mayhew
Weir's case is hardly helped by his post-match comments. Too often bemoaning luck, too stubborn to admit his failings - failings that are laid out for all to see, too protective of players who look mentally shot when they go a goal behind.
As the saying goes, "You can fool some of the people, some of the time……." Saturday reached a new disappointing low, with the manager claiming in his post-match interview that we had had 24 chances. The stats reported widely in the media said 12 shots, with 3 on target. I recall only one meaningful save by Declan Rudd and most of those chances came from set-pieces and shots from outside the penalty area. In that context, Weir's comments were like throwing a match on tinder dry emotions and anger.
Many Blades fans have taken on the mantle of Mike Bassett impersonators, demanding a switch to 4-4-2 (or Four, Four, F***ing Two in true Mike Bassett fashion); yet that isn't necessarily the panacea that some may think. We hardly looked effective when switching to that formation against Preston, although heads had dropped and we were chasing the game by then. 4-2-3-1 can work successfully in the lower divisions; it has taken Chesterfield to the top of League 2, but that has followed a season of consolidation in League 2 and 12 months of Paul Cook bringing in his players and moulding his team. The key is having players suited to its demands, time to gel and with 11 new arrivals at Bramall Lane, the jigsaw remains incomplete.
This idea of a huge footballing transition taking place at Bramall Lane is over-emphasised and this idea that passing football is the panacea isn't wholly correct. The primary purpose is to win and some of the most exciting times I have had watching United were under Dave Bassett and Neil Warnock's stewardship - classed as direct football, but effective with goalmouth action and still good to watch as a spectator.
Fans want to see exciting matches. Danny Wilson's passing football had become slightly more direct at the end of last season, but was boring and had no end product. I didn't agree with sacking him and rather like that decision, a minor change was required, not a seismic shift. What is happening at United is not a significant change in football culture. It is a change in tactics and has rapidly become a significant change in personnel. Both of which have made Weir's job all the harder and that summarises the transition we are seeing.
Not all is lost. Teams can recover from this position; Bournemouth gained automatic promotion from this division last season after finding themselves 20th after ten games and with just 8 points. Having said that, it took the removal of Paul Groves as manager and the re-appointment of Eddie Howe to kick start their season.
In a bizarre similarity Groves was sacked after a 4-1 defeat to Crawley, United's tenth league opponents a week on Friday. The parallels are even more intriguing when you read the statement Cherries' then chairman Eddie Mitchell made to the BBC.
"I would urge our supporters to recognise the time and effort that Paul and Shaun (Brooks - Groves' assistant) invested in the first team and their unwavering determination to produce an attractive brand of football.
"As chairman of AFC Bournemouth, I have personally recognised the direction in which they were trying to take the team in terms of tactics and style of play, and throughout their time in charge they have had my full support.
"However, I believe that luck has not been on their side during their short period at the helm.
"As we know, football is a results business, but most people will be unaware of the hard work and dedication that they put in behind the scenes to help this club move forward."
In a newly minted club a new manager was given an objective of producing an attractive brand of football, there was recognition of what they were trying (but failing) to achieve, there was a lack of luck, despite the hard work and dedication. This all seems very familiar, doesn't it?
So why don't I think a change is required at Bramall Lane right now? Fans point to the successful start of Leyton Orient, but Russell Slade has been given time to build a team, including a spell at the bottom of the division. Time he wouldn't be afforded at a bigger club with greater expectations, like United. Another key aspect was highlighted in the post-match interview when Kevin Lisbie explained how his strike partnership with David Mooney had been given time to develop and gel.
With a combination of incoming players, many of whom fans would expect to be pushing for the first team, still being integrated and injuries, Weir is yet to play the same starting eleven from one game to the next. You could argue that he is yet to find the right combination, but we have to back him and the team for the foreseeable future. One win, one sneaky 1-0 win, one sneaky 1-0 win with a scruffy bundled in goal would lift confidence and might just be the re-start to the season we need.
We are not part of an experiment, as some have suggested. We are a club where a manager is learning and learning the hard way. Weir could help himself with a bit more openness and honesty post match. Weir could help himself by showing a little flexibility and a little adventure - not dragging all the players back to defend a corner when one down late in a game, altering the game plan and player roles when chasing a game. Weir could look at some of his man-management - having a non-playing member of the squad tell fans post-match that he doesn't know when he will be playing next as "the manager isn't talking to me" is only going to cause more concern and dis-quiet. And the players could help him by playing with the tempo and energy, both in and out of possession, that the manager advocates and show a bit of bottle and fight. Maybe we need more than one leader on the pitch? Maybe we need a new leader on the pitch?
If Weir remains in charge I think things will improve over the season. It will be by no means a successful season, but the season many of us said we expected in the Summer. The thing is; it is okay saying that it is a season of consolidation (pre-investment), but how many would truly accept it if that was the outcome? The "investment" is a game changer in many people's eyes, probably more of a short term changer to them than the reality. Maybe some fans need to be as realistic as they claim to be.
On Saturday I had the pleasure of chatting to new United Director James (Jim) Phipps - Principal Advisor to HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Stood outside the Directors' Entrance post-match, along with a couple of fellow Blades fans, we talked for around 25 minutes on various Blades related topics from the investment, to the players, the manager and the performances.  
I had seen his tweets (@JamesDPhipps)  in the days leading up to the match and I was impressed with the way he responded to fans expressing their concerns regarding the team's performance, the signing of Marlon King and the state of the club. After an exchange of tweets I had arranged to meet him.
I am not going to repeat here all that was said whilst Jim leant on the railing in the South Stand Car Park, but I can give an overview and why it re-affirmed my view that we have to back David Weir and the team for now.
Jim was positive about the clear improvements that could be seen in the first half, when compared with recent games, and suggested it was a sign that plans were coming together. He had already been down to see the manager and players in the dressing room and felt that the increase in chances created was a positive sign, although he acknowledged my reservations about where the shots were coming in from.
He highlighted how the timing of the investment was not the best for the manager, suddenly placing greater expectations on him, perhaps perceived expectations rather than directly emanating from the boardroom. The money coming in led to an influx of players both at the start of the season and in the loan window that are going to take a while to fit in and gel with the existing squad. Obviously we wall want that as soon as possible, but we need to be realistic and recognise incremental improvement.
He re-enforced his belief that we had a man who will be a great manager and that he had the full support and time to put this right. The board had placed a lot of faith in Weir, his presentation to the incoming board members on his plans had impressed them greatly, but Jim recognised that fans had concerns and a right to express them. In acknowledging that fans have opinions that deserve to be heard he wanted to know about the reaction of the fans in other parts of the ground, asking where we were sat and the feelings being expressed.
Along with the other fans present I offered our opinion on a few aspects of the playing squad and he offered candid opinions regarding a couple of issues that I wouldn’t repeat here. He did however, recognise a need for mental toughness and the need for leaders on the pitch. The players have as big a role to play as the manager.
I asked him of his previous football experience, did he follow any MLS teams? He said not, but he mentioned his previous role with the Prince at Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia's biggest club and six times Asian champions), but highlighted the short term nature of football business in Middle East, with a high managerial turnover and focus on overseas coaches. He rightly highlighted that this is very different to football over here.
Jim seems keen to understand and learn what Blades fans think - not just the impassioned heat of the moment comments - but more reflective thought as well. He wants to embrace English football culture and understand what it means to be a supporter; what it means to be a Blade. I have no doubt that all this is subsequently shared with the Prince.
I know I was not the only Blades fan he spoke with that day. This wasn't some privileged meeting. I didn't share this on Saturday night, when challenged to do so, as I didn't think that everything that was said needed broadcasting on twitter, where 140 character limits means things can be taken out of context. The fact that many of these views have been stressed repeatedly since in his interaction on twitter means I am more comfortable sharing them here than I would have been otherwise.
Jim expects to be over at least twice a month for the foreseeable future and when the Prince isn't over, he immediately gets a call at the final whistle for a report and update. It strikes me that he is an accessible face of the boardroom and shares his views in a thoughtful and considered manner; with an occasional bluntness that most Sheffielders would heartily appreciate.
Since speaking it is pleasing to see the continued interaction on twitter. You could argue that by picking up on fans queries on kit manufacture, ticket office phone lines etc. that he is being dragged into the minutiae, but these are the little things that matter to the fans, aside from results on the pitch. In each instance he has taken the comments on board and returned later with feedback from the relevant department head. You cannot say fairer than that. He was also honest enough to say we have "sucked for two months"!
The club have held frequent Meet the Board and Meet the Manager meetings in recent months. Open and honest opinion from the boardroom is much welcomed by United fans. Maybe we can have a bit of the same from the dressing room and coaching staff. That might just Unite us a little bit more.

1 comment:

  1. Another good article Ian, but I've got another couple of points I want to ask your opinion on. As well as the obvious problems which may get better over time, I get the impression that there are three major areas where the managerial staff are failing and I see no signs of ability or inclination to fix them.

    SUFC Vs MK Dons at the end of August, half time... Adam Owen spends 5 minutes meticulously (laboriously) measuring out 4 cones for another game of piggy-in-the-middle with the subs. The subs continue their keep-ups 40 yards away despite Owen clearly shouting them over. Owen gets their attention by pinging a ball which hits a sub (McGinn?) who looks up, sees Owen summoning and quickly looks back to his team-mates and they continue their game (having obviously seen and ignored him). Eventually Owen trudges the 40 yards over to them (getting a dousing from the sprinkler) and the subs slowly follow him back to the cones. Before the game begins, Callum McFadzean jumps on Owen's back for a few moments more horsing around. With about 5 mins of half time left, they get underway. 7 players (8 including Owen) playing with one ball, a game where it seems the majority of exercise is had by the one fetching the ball.

    In that one scenario, it highlighted the strongest of all issues facing United at this time. 1: Discipline & Respect, 2: Fitness, 3: Motivation

    The complete lack of respect for Adam Owen (he commanded none, demanded none and received none) being displayed in front of 15,000 fans made me look initially at his role - fitness coach. Fitness... of course, it's bloody obvious why we start well and fall away in 2nd halves, and why Harry Maguire looks nothing like the marauding figure we saw giving Craig Bellamy the run-around but more like a lumbering old-boy at the end of his career (with many fans now laughing at suggestions we could get more than a couple of million for him - what a fall when you look back at how his debut and that of the Kyles evoked much the same excitement). Surely a lad his age would be... motivated to reach his peak. Where would you look at Bramall Lane for motivation? I don't like saying it but I haven't seen any evidence that David Weir can do any other personality than "dour Scotsman". Can you picture him lifting a team with an inspiring half-time team-talk? If he is a different character behind closed doors then ok, but personally I can't even imagine it, and certainly haven't seen any evidence of anything but downward trends (whether it be over 90 minutes or since the Notts County game).

    Once respect has gone, how do you get it back? If you fail to recognise failures of your staff, or address poor discipline, how can people improve their performance in their roles? If you're not a natural character and leader, and continue to blame results on "luck", how do you motivate players? So that's it for me, and that's why I'm firmly in the "Weir Out" camp. Those three things, I don't see as being fixable.

    One last thing, recounting a trip to Bradford with my Dad in 2002, the pre-match regime, the half-time drills, the clear, obvious fire and desire shown by the team and management staff alike and the inevitable steam-rolling of the opposition, we compared it to what we'd seen in the first couple of months of this "campaign". We look beaten before we've even kicked (or fetched) a ball.