After the Arsenal game, I went out for dinner. Driving back home I had The Late Tackle on from Talk Sport, listening to an interesting interview with Olivier Bernard, former Newcastle and France defender. He was being interviewed as someone who’s investing his time in grass roots football up in Durham. (He bought non league Durham City back in 2013, and has been passionately developing the teams, both youth and adults for 3 years).

But it wasn’t the main subject of the interview that caught my attention. It was something that came up about his time making his mark into the Newcastle first team in early 2000s. He was asked about how he felt from starting life at Newcastle as a winger to then being moved to play at left back after several games. His answer: “I just wanted to play football, I was happy wherever the gaffer felt I should play”. (unofficially quoted…it was the car radio, I couldn’t write it down…)

When asked how he was able to adapt, or did he find that difficult from effectively an attacker to a defender his reaction was similar. He loved playing, and just wanted to play football. Just wanted to help his team win. And win they did… Bobby Robson era… finished fourth, third and fifth as well as knockout rounds of the Champions League and the semi-final of the UEFA Cup…

Olivier Bernard

“One of the biggest things we’re missing right now, is passion, drive, determination. I mentioned this loosely in my first guest post.

It’s been mentioned and noted significantly this past week by many both on here, in the media and even by Slaven himself.

Now, the phrase “I just want to play football” could be a bit of a throwaway one. It could mean very little. But lets have a think for a minute.

Imagine a 9 year old with dreams of scoring every game, they cannot wait for the day to come, dreams of being scouted by the local professional team, or even bigger teams. For me, that kid’s dreams centre around one huge statement. They just want to play football. Get better, win games, score goals, make amazing saves, play football.

The same is throughout grass roots football, of all ages, from the 9 year old’s school friendly, to the adults Sunday league pub team. We love the game. We love the excitement of pulling on our boots on a Sunday morning. We love (weirdly) the smell of deep heat around the dressing room, bits of tape wrapped around your ankles and the top of your socks, downing Lucozade sport and running around on Wanstead flats, Hackney Marshes or your local park, wondering if that amazing player from last time you played this lot is still on their team…

We just love playing football. That’s what Olivier meant. That’s what helped him adapt. That’s what allowed him to contribute to the team and be part of such a success in the mid-2000s with the Magpies.

Watching us today was awful, painful even. It was the peak of what we’ve seen of the past few games.

We’re making poor mistakes, simple footballing strategy is non existent. Not tracking back, not playing as a unit, no strategy, no evident game plan, or if there is, we’re forgetting it the minute we get past the white line and the whistle goes. I can’t see the Olivier Bernard vibe anywhere in the team at the moment, apart from Fletcher. He’s grabbing his opportunity. I bet if you asked him, one of his replies would be “I just want to play football”. Reid, occasionally Obiang and a bit with Lanzini are the only others I think of who seem to have flashes of passion.

A bunch of grapes

The other problem we need to find is the consistent shape of how we play moves. In American Football they create tactics and plays in a playbook…maybe we need to think a little more like that.

Back in October I watched my daughter play her first school game, brand new girls team for the school, only one girl had ever played before? – it was all new to the rest of them. First game of the season they literally all ran like headless chickens at the ball, following it round the pitch wherever it went.
Their teacher kept shouting “stop bunching girls!” “Remember we’re not grapes, girls!”

They lost 7-0.

In recent weeks, a few of the Dads and a couple of the teachers have tried to unpack to the girls some basic tactics, positioning, set plays, general understanding of core tactics of the game. Since their 7-0 drubbing they’ve gone on to be unbeaten in 6 and come joint 2nd in a district 5-a-side tournament.

Today, in mid week, last weekend, and multiple previous games this season, I’ve been so appalled at the lack of shape in play. Even my daughter who watched the game with me on BT Sport against The Gooners said “Daddy, they’re bunching up like we used to aren’t they”.

The 3 at the back worked as we created options, chances, but it worked against teams who weren’t set up to play against it, plus with Cresswell back and Antonio able to fly forward without the absolute requirement to get back to defend, it allowed us to use more space.

Against Manchester United in the league, we were kept a bit quiet, and similar in the cup, but lets just park the midweek game in the past. One of the things we must crack is a strong backbone through the team, we need leadership on the pitch. Reid could be an answer there? – he’s solid. I’m a huge fan of Noble over the years but I’m missing his leadership at the moment? – I can’t find it.

Errors leading to goals

Defensive errors, or is it the style of play?

Defence starts in attack, not on the 18 yard line. We all know that. We have had some bad defensive injuries and throughout the season, and too many of them across the team, plus there’s been some interesting decisions on our right back from Slav, as well as interesting additions who whilst they’ve had moments, they haven’t consistently performed at the level we need/expect.

A lot has been made this past two weeks, and again today, of defensive issues at West Ham, particularly issues where defensive mistakes have led to goals. The problem is, this isn’t a new issue for us.

So far this season, we’re top of the worst performers, with 6 defensive errors leading to a goal. Thats 50% more than both Crystal Palace and Liverpool on 3.

The reality is though we ended last season top of that same table, despite a 7th position finish and one of our most exciting seasons for years in terms of quality of football and great results. Last season we finished in that table with 14 defensive errors leading to a goal, just one more than Aston Villa, and we all know what happened to them…

Interestingly, the pre-Slaven era, looking at data from the same tables, we only had 6,6 and 4 defensive errors leading to goals respectively for 2014–15, 13–14 and 12–13 years. Not that tells us too much, but could suggest the style of play over the past 2 years has been too geared towards attacking that we’ve ignored building from the back.
However, I don’t believe this is a defensive problem at its core – its a bigger problem around the overall shape of the team, the passion to play football and the vision of what style of play Slaven is wanting us to play. I like the vision, but its got to have the right balance.

Last year we setup as a very attacking team. And we bought more in those areas over the summer, Ayew, Feghouli, Fletcher, Lanzini, Fernandes. The only defensive purchase over the summer was Masuaku, and the Arbeloa August addition, both of the latter more in reaction to losing players than a visionary purchase.

I honestly don’t have an opinion on what we need to do next, but we need to do something that solidifies our shape, finds ways of plugging the gaps that we have throughout the team and reignites the desire “to want to play football”. I do believe we need to find someone to get us 15–20 goals a season… That might be a post for another time.

Is this a defensive issue at its core? Or is it a wider team-shape problem?

What do you all think?