You know, I absolutely love going to the match. I loved it on Saturday too.
It wasn’t the result of course, or the flags, it was the bloke six seats along who knew the words and sang along to every song, all with his booming Brian Blessed voice, all half a second behind everyone else. It was a bit like watching Donald Trump’s Presidency, perplexing, amusing, off-putting and entertaining all at the same time. Kept me going all match, reminded me of The Flying Pickets Christmas number one ‘Only You’.
Another thing I enjoyed was playing with two strikers, Rafa’s continued unexpected foray into the world of light entertainment does at least give us a greater goal threat. We scored two goals and created another handful of chances on Saturday because we got Newcastle players forward into the box.
That attacking intent may also have given Leicester the space to operate in their favoured quick and potent manner but after seeing us win 1-0 against Palace without having a shot, draw 1-1 with Liverpool without having a shot and lose 1-0 to Burnley without even trying to have a shot, a bit of attacking is always welcome in the Cooper household. Maybe Rafa has changed and now believes we should be out-scoring the opposition, maybe he’s the new Kevin Keegan.
The next thing he can work on in training is possession. It surprised me that they had 62% possession and us 38%, it surprised me that normally counter-attacking Leicester looked just as happy with the ball for long periods of time. Just as well really seeing as we looked happy to give it to them. The 38% possession we had must have included taking the ball to the changing rooms at half time.
‘Just the two up front? You must be joking.’
I said before the game that two years ago a good Leicester team annihilated us 3-0 at SJP because we had a coach who obviously hadn’t seen them play and there was no way we could possibly be as under-prepared as we were that day.
Me and my big mouth? Not exactly, Leicester have a lot of pace and they have been playing together long enough to know when and where to play balls up to Vardy, it’s not easy to stop. Even so, I am not sure we gave it our best shot, at times we did fall into the same trap as we did two years ago, giving their good players too much time to play, giving their quick players too much easy space to run into.
So what was the difference? Well, perhaps last time we lost because we had a coach who didn’t know what he was doing and this time we lost despite having a coach who does. Much criticism has come Rafa’s way before and after this defeat but perhaps the problem isn’t that he doesn’t know what he is doing, the problem is that we don’t know what he is doing.
I berated Pardew and McClaren for being clueless because they had managed for two decades and always been hopeless. I can’t say the same of Benitez. His management at the moment is a long way from a Champions League winner, but history tells me to believe that he is doing something good.
I do appreciate the sentiment from many commentators on this site that in the world of tumble-down responsibility it is all Ashley’s fault for not giving Rafa more money to spend, or partly Rafa’s fault for not picking Mitrovic, Mbemba and Shelvey. I get it, but at the end of the day there wasn’t a single player on our team who earns less than 40k a week (50k, 60k however much it is that our heroes get for doing what they do). Once a player gets to the level of taking that kind of money, then each and every one of them should be able to do the basics that a game at this level requires.
Or perhaps they should be told that they have the potential to take home their painfully unwarranted salaries and until they can consistently prove they are up to it they can take home mine instead. That might help them “learn from their mistakes”.
They should all be able to control and pass the ball, remain in the position which the team requires them to be in and the manager has told them to be in, prevent their opponent from playing to their strengths.
Isaac Hayden was awful on Saturday, totally out of his depth against a player like Mahrez but a part of me expects that a player who has played 15 Premier League games, is 22 years old and cost a million quid (however much it was) isn’t going to be able to stop players in their prime for 90 minutes. Not £50million players like Mahrez, like he didn’t track £90million Pogba’s run for Manyoo’s third goal, like he didn’t stop £125million Coutinho scoring earlier in the season. Leicester’s first goal wasn’t just Hayden’s fault, Merino gave the ball away terribly, Hayden gave Mahrez the chance to run and shoot, Darlow tried to stop it the way a four year old girl would have done – but they are all inexperienced players.
When Rafa says we have to “stop making the same mistakes”, I hope he is talking about Isaac Hayden and I am fine with him getting another 80 games over the next three years to see if he can become a decent PL player. He has shown enough promise for me to think he can step up.
‘Isaac Hayden: not as good as Eden Hazard.’
Ayoze Perez is different. At 24 he is coming into his prime. Nearing a century of PL appearances for NUFC, he is a player who is at the position Hayden will be in 2019/20. If an experienced player is still making the same mistakes week in week out, then he needs to go, he’s never going to make the grade.
For Leicester’s third goal on Saturday, anyone who thinks Perez was unlucky is having a laugh. When the ball was played up to Vardy in our penalty area, Perez was standing next to Okazaki, two seconds later Okazaki had made his run and Perez was still jogging back. Having realised that a player was now running into our penalty area unmarked, Perez reacted and ended up scoring an own goal and probably costing us a point. Perez isn’t a young player any more. If Rafa was talking about players like Ayoze learning from their mistakes then we are in trouble. That won’t happen now, this is what Perez will be like for the rest of his career.
We can talk all day about where Manquillo was for that third goal, or whether Clark could have been a yard or two nearer the centre of the goal to prevent Vardy passing rather than trying to cover Lejeune but Perez could have prevented that goal and he didn’t do it. I understand that he isn’t a defender, but he is a footballer so he knows how the game works, or at least he should. Maybe Perez was put off his task by Okazaki thinking it was a fancy dress party and coming dressed as a Samurai. When Leicester sent him back on with that headband, he should have been wearing a black robe, a sword and followed by four human sized turtles. After the game Leicester manager Claude Puel said Okazaki was a little “kamikaze”. An unfortunate way to describe one of your players, but not as unfortunate as the way I described Ayoze Perez.
I said at the start of the season that our fate rested on a handful of players who I thought were either good enough to play in a mid-table PL team or had the potential to step up over the course of the season. I thought that those handful of players all had to play as many of the 38 games as they could and had to play well in at least two thirds of them. The other players selected just had to be professional, give 100% and fight for everything, they had to muck in and give the good players the chance to get us enough points to survive.
Those players were Lascelles, Yedlin, Shelvey, Ritchie, Merino and Atsu, I had seen Merino play before and knew he had the potential, I had reservations about Atsu but thought he had the ability to step up. I haven’t seen anything to change that pre-season thought but what we have at the moment is that those good players are not playing well and the support players are not mucking in, the worst of both worlds.
How do we get out of it? For me, those six players have to play every week. None of them are Messi, they are not going to play well every week but I think they all have to play every week because they have the ability to win us the points to get to safety. The others don’t. The others have to have the commitment to help those players to win us the points to get to safety.
That’s all. I understand Rafa dropping / resting players and playing players that I don’t think are very good but when he doesn’t play those six players when they are fit, it alarms me. It makes me think conspiracy theories, makes me think something is up. Please Rafa, play those players every week. They might play badly for 80 minutes, they might play badly a whole game, a whole month but they are the ones who will get us out of trouble. The only ones who can do it. Overall against Leicester we lost because we gave the ball away far too much in bad areas and we did it with such ease it looked like a tactic. The likes of Merino and Ritchie did it as much as anyone on Saturday but we have so few good players that leaving them out of the team or taking them off seems like suicide.
‘Jonjo Shelvey: Unfortunately the best that we have.’
Lastly, you will be pleased to know, we come to Dwight Gayle and his fellow Musketeers. I am delighted Gayle is starting to look like a PL player, I didn’t think he could do it but perhaps he can. What is clear already is that we have three forwards, none of whom can play up front on their own. I would prefer Mitrenstein to play ahead of Joselu but neither can do it on their own, Mitro doesn’t have the legs, Joselu the ability. Gayle has both but he lacks presence. Will he get it over time?
Probably not, he’s 28 and has played less PL games than Ayoze. In a nutshell, I think that is Rafa’s main problem halfway through the season. If we are to score goals and play more attacking, threatening football then we have to play two up front because none of our strikers can play solo and our midfielders don’t seem to have the legs to support and over-run whoever plays up front. If we play 4-4-2 our midfield gets over-run by the better teams (and Bournemouth). So what does Rafa do?
Official Premier League endorsed Christmas formation 3-5-2 isn’t a quick fix, footballers aren’t like us, you can’t ask them to do something and they do it, you can’t show them how to do it and they do it, you have to coach them for weeks before it starts to sink in.
So Rafa has a choice, 4-2-3-1, bore the pants off us, win some 1-0, lose some 1-0. Or 4-4-2, better games, more goals, so far we’ve lost the lot. It’s a hard one for our stout leader, harder given he probably won’t get much money to spend in January.
I’m not a European Cup winning coach so I’m not going to try and tell him what to do but what I would hope for is that the potentially good players, and the players who play well and the players who put the effort in, are the ones who have the chance to learn from their mistakes.
The ones who do none of that shouldn’t get anywhere near the pitch. There were too many of them playing on Saturday. And we nearly got a point. There is hope after all.