A 2-1 defeat to start the campaign feels deflating, especially having taken the lead via an excellent free-kick in the second-half from the impressive Tony Andreu. Getting those first three points on the opening day would have been an important boost to the side following promotion, demonstrating that we can compete at this level. Having come out of the game with nothing, there is going to be a level of anxiety about what is in store for us this season until we start winning games.
The Bayliss-Andreu Axis
Having showed signs of promise in the pre-season friendly defeat to West Bromwich Albion, it was clear that the creative talents of Tom Bayliss and Tony Andreu would be an important element of our attacking threat this season. Bayliss was his usual quick-footed, quick-thinking self, while Andreu’s excellent touch and desire to play quick one-twos in the final third threatened to carve a physical Scunthorpe United side to shreds in the first-half – even if the final option lacked execution.
The pace of Dujon Sterling, Brandon Mason and Jordy Hiwula gave Bayliss and Andreu options in possession and should make us a threatening side on the counter-attack. Our best football came when Bayliss floated away from the right-hand side of the pitch, allowing Sterling room to push up from right-back, with Jordy Hiwula pushing closer to Maxime Biamou and Brandon Mason providing another useful attacking outlet from left-back. The best chance of the first-half was a one-on-one for Hiwula, who fluffed his lines slightly, but there is promise there that with more time on the training pitch, those attacking combinations will become more fluid.
Only five of the starting XI from the Play-Off Final lined-up against Scunthorpe United, while a combination of injuries and player sales reduced the continuity, Jack Grimmer and Jordan Shipley might well feel they were harshly excluded from this game by Robins. As a result, it was a disjointed performance from a side still learning to play together, whereas we should have had an advantage as a newly-promoted team playing to a formula that had brought success.
Grimmer’s replacement, Dujon Sterling, looked bright at times, but both the goals conceded came in his zone of the pitch. Shipley’s replacement, Hiwula, had two excellent chances to score but didn’t quite seem sure what was expected of him on the left side of our attack and too often stuck to his wing when he probably would have been better-off coming inside and making runs beyond Maxime Biamou.
To exacerbate the disjointedness of the side, Mark Robins made a curious decision to field a triple substitution with around 20 minutes to go with the game at 1-1. This included taking Jordan Willis off in central defence and replacing him with the inexperienced Jordon Thompson – who was lucky not to concede a penalty during Scunthorpe’s winner – while Jordan Shipley and Jonson Clarke-Harris were more-or-less like-for-like replacements who did little to change the pattern of the game.
For much of the game, Dominic Hyam and Jordan Willis dealt relatively well with Scunthorpe’s Lee Novak, taking it in turns to mark him while the other covered behind for any flick-ons. The issue was in the full-back positions, where Dujon Sterling and Brandon Mason had a combined three senior league appearances under their belts, and it showed.
Brandon Mason has the potential to go on to be an excellent signing for us, after putting in an industrious performance where he supported the attacks with energy and showed great strength and determination in the tackle. He looks like he can defend well in one-on-one situations, however, his poor positional play and lack of height were clearly targeted by the opposition – as can be seen during the second Scunthorpe goal.
Dujon Sterling offered less in an attacking and defensive sense than Mason, and had by no means a terrible performance, however, he was caught out-of-position somewhat for Scunthorpe’s first goal and probably needed to be more aggressive in defending the second.
Defending is as much about shape as it is about individuals though, a 4-2-3-1 system tends to leave the full-backs exposed as the forward wide players have fewer defensive responsibilities which requires discipline and force from the central midfielders. Abu Ogogo put in a solid debut as a midfield screen, Michael Doyle couldn’t quite impose himself on the game in the same manner as he often did in League Two last season.
Perhaps it was the sitting presence of Abu Ogogo alongside him, but Doyle was too eager to close opponents down, especially after we had taken the lead. 37 next week, Doyle doesn’t have the mobility to play in that fashion, especially if he isn’t able to win the ball back. A little more discipline in his performance would have gone a long way to helping us see out the victory.
The ‘Early Days’ Caveat
I know it’s a cliche, but it is the earliest of days. It felt like Mark Robins made too many changes for this game, however, some of the players who were preferred for this game over continuity options are potentially improvements and would have to have been blooded into the side at some point, why not the opening day?
There are plenty of options with this squad and we can play a number of different ways, if it takes five or six games to find a formula that can last the next 40, that might be better over the longer-run. While this opening game has exposed potential deficiencies in the side, there are signs that we can be a very threatening counter-attacking side once things fall into place.
Will they? Well, it’s ‘Early Days’.