So another game where the O’s take the lead and another game where they get pegged back. Perhaps the most galling thing about last Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Oldham was that we appeared to be in control of the game and took the lead after just eleven minutes through either Ouss Cissé or an own goal depending on your perspective, but then allowed two sloppy and ultimately avoidable goals, both from corners, through some questionable defending and found ourselves behind just seven minutes later.
Certainly, Mrs Football Nerd made it abundantly clear that she was far from impressed with our ‘defending’ on both Oldham goals! Although the weather conditions, while not being quite at the named-storm level of the previous couple of weekends, nevertheless didn’t exactly help our defenders to judge the flight of the ball on both occasions.
Maybe we should have taken the hint that this was going to be something of a frustrating afternoon when we rocked up at the Star only to find it was standing room only. The combination of Chelsea v Tottenham in the early kick-off, the build up to the afternoon’s Six Nations games and a seemingly sizeable travelling support down from the North West all combining to bolster the numbers. In our infinite wisdom we decided to decamp first to the Technical which was even worse, and then to the Coach & Horses where we not only managed to get served in a matter of minutes but also managed to find a small area of free space to stand in out in the garden.
Orient find themselves in a strange kind of almost limbo at the moment, barring a collapse of quite frankly ridiculous proportions combined with the extremely unlikely event that Stevenage, who have still won just three matches all season, actually start to pick up maximum points from here on in, we are all but 100% safe and will survive in the League. However, at the same time we are not winning, and have not throughout the season, enough matches to contemplate a late run at the top half of the table. In many ways we are the very epitome of what they tend to term in American sports as: “planning for next year.”
In essence, it seems that since January and the completion of our transfer window activities, we have at long last settled on a formation and system of play that serves to make us more of a solid unit and works more effectively to suit the different skill sets of the players at our disposal.
The 4-3-3 with the midfield anchored by the solid and impressive Cissé, first deployed in the 1-1 draw at home to Northampton, allows both Craig Clay and Josh Wright to play closer to the front three which not only supports our forward players more effectively than we had been pre-Christmas, but also better suits their natural abilities. Hell the latter was even seen in and around the opposition penalty area on several occasions on Saturday!
Since the establishment of the new, settled formation we have lost just twice, (away at Crewe and Cheltenham both of whom reside in the top five) in eight games garnering a highly respectable 12 points out of a possible 24 and effectively securing our survival with that run of games. The frustration is that it could have been even better but for the goals conceded at home to Macclesfield and Oldham.
At the back we have looked more vulnerable than we were last year, somewhat understandable given the higher quality of opposition we are obviously facing. Injuries haven’t helped, specifically the ongoing necessity to deploy two midfielders in the full back positions and the general lack of availability of the experienced Jamie Turley, but there is seemingly a need for work on the training ground to make us more organised and resilient on crosses into the box to stop us conceding such sloppy goals.
Up front Jordan Maguire-Drew seems to have secured the wide left spot, at least over recent months, despite ongoing question marks over his contribution over a full ninety minutes and the calls from a significant number of supporters to restore James Brophy to a more natural attacking role and bring back a proper left back in the form of Joe Widdowson. A move the missus has been calling for ever since our number 3 regained fitness, apparently not solely because he is her favourite player!
If we are brutally honest we have struggled in front of goal throughout the campaign to date, scoring just 45 in the 35 games we have played. It was never going to be easy to replace Macauley Bonne’s and to a lesser extent Josh Koroma’s output which accounted for just under half the goals we scored last season, but whatever we have tried hasn’t seemed to work for us.
We have opted for a number of different set-ups and arrangements up front ranging from: two up top, a pair supported by a number 10, a lone striker either with three behind or flanked by two wingers etc. but nothing has really sparked us in an attacking sense.
Lee Angol seemed to promise much from the start of the season, but his progress was hampered by an injury in the autumn that kept him out for a significant period and he then struggled as a single striker left too isolated on too many occasions. Since his return to fitness it is difficult to see where he slots best into the front three. Danny Johnson joined in January and got himself off the mark on Saturday but struggled to hold the ball up or make too much of an impact otherwise.
Loan signing Kazaiah Sterling from Tottenham hasn’t managed a minute for us yet as he was injured when he signed in January; and if anyone has any information as to the whereabouts of Louis Dennis I am sure it would be gratefully received by the club!
All of which brings us to the ongoing enigma that is Conor Wilkinson. Standing at 6 foot 3 the lazy/ underdeveloped conclusion, (one that your author has most definitely been guilty of!) is that he should perform as some kind of target man, a tall central striker capable of operating on his own, holding the ball up and bringing onrushing midfielders into play. Yet whenever he has been deployed in a central role he hasn’t looked at all comfortable.
Where Wilkson has seemingly been at his best has been when positioned on the right of a front three, against Mansfield the other week he looked like a player completely transformed, full of intent and threat most noticeable when cutting in from the right with the ball at his feet. Admittedly he took a knock on Saturday before eventually being replaced, but he didn’t seem the same player.
The one player who has shown that he has real firepower and a genuine attacking threat is the youngster recalled from his loan at Dover, Ruel Sotiriou. The Cyprus Under-21 international has already scored 6 goals in 9 appearances since re-joining despite being largely deployed from a wide right position. Might now be the time to see what he can do with a central brief?
With eleven more games to go might the best use of the remainder of our matches be to try out some different things towards getting the balance right for next season. It might also be that we need to start evaluating who we want to keep and who should be allowed to leave as we look to better mould the squad for a promotion push next time, especially given that fourteen of our recognised first team squad will reach the end of their contracts come June.
I have stressed throughout this season that the primary mission was always and only about survival and staying in the Football League, having achieved that it is now time to start planning towards a potential second promotion and a return to League One for the first time in six years.