On Saturday afternoon just before 5pm, I had that increasingly familiar sinking feeling deep down in the pit of my stomach, as Jake Taylor’s curled effort beat the outstretched arm of Brillo and nestled in the top corner it felt like a crushing blow and the end of Orient’s ‘valiant’ (pardon the pun!) effort against Port Vale. It seemed another bitterly unlucky blow for the O’s as they keep trying to build momentum towards survival back in the League.
Then something amazing happened, midway through the six added minutes Jordan Maguire-Drew, on as a sub, worked space for himself down the right wing, fizzed in a beauty of a cross that the “Essex Exocet” (credit Matt Simpson aka: @West_Stand_O for that one!), Josh Wright, nodded home and a point was rescued cueing scenes of delirium all around Brisbane Road. On the face it a draw at home to one of the teams just ahead of us in the lower reaches of the table is hardly likely to be season-defining or even credible justification for such wild celebrations, but it felt like such an important step in the right direction.
As vice chairman Kent Teague said in Saturday’s matchday programme there is no “playbook” for handling what our club has had to go through since Justin’s tragic passing in the summer. There is no right way for any of us to deal with a loss so deeply felt as that of our beloved title-winning saviour. As much as we have all tried to put a brave face on it, we are every single one of us still trying to come to terms with our new reality of life after Justin.
As I wrote on these pages just last week (An Orient Away Day to Colchester and thoughts on Ross’ decision.), Ross didn’t necessarily want to be Orient’s Head Coach, but felt that he had to “step forward and take responsibility…trying to find stability for the football club again.” By implication his decision to revert to his substantive role after the defeat away at Colchester and the ongoing unwarranted harsh criticism, suggests that he feels he has taken the team as far as he could and for the sake of our League survival, and hopefully future progression, a more experienced man was needed at the helm.
In many ways perhaps the announcement helped to relieve some of the pressure of expectation that was weighing on his and the players’ shoulders. It certainly seemed that way when that man Wright flicked home Conor Wilkinson’s cross less than three minutes into Saturday’s match. To be pegged back to 1-1 and to then go behind 1-2 through two more additions to 2019/20’s ever-expanding catalogue of sloppy goals, before half-time, soon brought us all crashing back down to earth.
I have suggested before that it feels as if things aren’t quite clicking on the pitch at the moment, and it seems that the coaching staff are uncertain as to which players form our best eleven, or indeed in which formation they should be deployed to get the best out of them.
On Saturday we again started with a back five, only to switch back to a four immediately after the break: a move which saw Big Marv, who was in truth having a game up to that point that was serving only to rekindle very much unwelcome memories of his ‘Bambi on Ice’ performance against Salford back at the turn of the year, making way for Matt Harrold to provide much-needed support to Wilkinson up top.
Orient are not alone in being unable to settle on whether three central defenders or just the two is the way to go (Ola Señor Emery!), but the constant chopping and changing between the two systems can’t be doing much to establish stability at the back. As we know from last season’s hugely successful campaign, defensive organisation ultimately lays the foundations on which the rest of the team is built. Last time out we conceded a total of just 35 goals across the entire 46 match campaign, the 21 we have let in in just 11 games this term represents a rate more than double last season’s goals per game ratio. Of course we are facing better quality teams but it is nevertheless a major concern and something that should be top of the new Head Coach’s training ground agenda.
In the centre of the park and up front it also seems equally confused as to what shape and set-up suits us best. We have tried variations of 5-2-1-2/ 3-4-1-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 with switches between systems often coming during the course of a match. A settled formation in midfield and the forward areas with clearly defined roles for each individual is another thing that the new man will need to focus his attention on.
Of course the injury to Lee Angol, a particularly nasty sounding hamstring tear which will most likely rule him out of action for a period of weeks or even months, has deprived us of the man that was brought in to replace the much-missed goals of the departed Macauley Bonne.
Much to the chagrin of some of my neighbours in the East Stand I am yet to be convinced by Conor Wilkinson, despite him having scored two goals in the last two matches, including that highly impressive strike to bring us back to 2-2 against Port Vale. For me his holdup play isn’t there and he seems to be outmuscled by the defenders he comes up against all too often, the consequence being that the ball doesn’t stick up front and we are unable to establish a platform upon which to build pressure in the opposition half. As functional as he is at best, the difference when Matt Harrold comes on is clear for all to see.
For all that, I do truly believe that we aren’t far away at all, a settled line-up and system that plays to the strengths and gets the best out of what seems to me to be a talented squad combined with some graft on the training field should start to tighten things up, to see us picking up better results and starting to climb the table. In that regard Saturday’s late point snatched from the jaws of defeat might just be the tonic we all need.