“I’ve got a group of players that are underperforming and underachieving so I have to look at ways to turn that around.” That was the way that Orient’s interim manager Jobi McAnuff chose to sum up his thoughts speaking after the 1-1 draw with Scunthorpe last Saturday, the second in a mere matter of days against opponents starting the match below us in the table. Coming on the back of a 4-0 thumping at Exeter and an underwhelming 1-0 win at lowly Grimsby, you would have to look long and hard to find anyone amongst the Orient faithful that disagreed.
Anyone expecting changes to the line-up or system going into Saturday’s match was to be left disappointed as we went with exactly the same team and system that had proven so toothless against Stevenage. Like all teams we have injuries at the moment, that is inevitable in any season let alone one that has had to be condensed into a shortened timescale due to a global pandemic which has changed life as we used to know it for almost an entire year now, and they will inevitably limit the options we have available, but surely we have to try something different to shake things up?
At the back I think we are fairly settled on Vigouroux being our best option between the sticks and despite the injuries to Josh Coulson and Adam Thompson, Dan Happe and Jamie Turley remain decent options, but it is the selection of the fullbacks that causes confusion. I have said a few times previously I am sure I am missing something, but I simply just don’t get the logic behind playing Brophy at left-back when we have a perfectly suitable and experienced option on the bench in Joe Widdowson. I am not sure I would go as far as Andrew Butler did on Orient TV and suggest that Brophy has been one of the standout left-backs in the division, I would say adequate at best, but even if his form had been that impressive I still think we lose more not playing him wide on the left than we gain by using him further back. Especially in a side that is struggling so badly for creativity and goals. Equally I am not sure exactly what Tunji Akinola has done to merit losing his place either at right-back or as one of the central defenders.
In the engine room of midfield, the most obvious debate is whether bringing in Hector to replace Ouss would give us more drive and help us to move the ball through midfield more quickly. Ouss came in last year to add much-needed stability in front of the backline but now with two deep-sitting midfielders do we perhaps need something else in there? It may inhibit Craig Clay who would need to be disciplined to cover, but our attackers are almost beyond isolated these days. As young as he still is, every time I have seen Hector play he has got those quick feet to beat the first defender and drive up the pitch, surely that has to be in Jobi’s thinking as we try to reconnect what is essentially a broken team, as the tacticians describe those where the front half of the team looks like it is completely cut off from the rest of it.
However, it is up front where the biggest problem(s) exists, the injury to DJ sustained against Salford at the beginning of the year not only deprived us of our leading goal-scorer for some games but seems to have impacted our attacking play more profoundly. Since DJ’s return it looks very much like we have forgotten how to, or at least are struggling to, create the chances on which the striker thrives. If we also consider that Wilko hasn’t found the net since Southend at home at the end of December some 12 matches ago, that Tristan Abrahams has largely been anonymous and that the new system with 3 attacking midfielders behind the front man hasn’t bedded in yet and the reasons underpinning our attacking woes are plain for all to see. The lack of creativity is exacerbated further by Jobi, our second highest assist-maker understandably confining himself to the dugout while our leading assister continues to be deployed at left-back.
While we all allowed ourselves to build up our hopes for a possible top seven finish and an involvement in the play-offs this season, that looks like a very long shot indeed given how our form and momentum has ground to an unpleasant halt. Personally, I hold out little hope for our trips to Cardiff this weekend to face Newport County or to Carlisle on Tuesday night. Both of those teams look like being involved in the end of season promotion push and look above our level this season.
With twelve games still to go now might be the ideal time to change things and try something different, to assess and evaluate the squad remembering that we have four players in on loan and a whole host out of contract at the end of the season, and look to build for the next campaign. As our cousins across the Pond put it: once you are out of contention all you have left is to start planning for next year.
While we as fans have every right to be frustrated by what is happening on the pitch, especially when there is an inescapable feeling that the squad has undelivered, there was some more heartening news from our chairman at the beginning of this week. In an interview which responded to the release of the 2019/20 accounts Nigel reiterated that while the anticipated loss more than doubled due in the main to the impact of Covid, unlike many other clubs we didn’t take any loans from the Football League and the only money we owe is to Eagle Investments: basically Nigel and Kent.
Of course, the impact of Covid will inevitably be reflected in the 2020-21 accounts with another similar loss being projected, although Nigel was quick to point out that we were seeking new investment and were an attractive proposition for investors given our location in one of the most commercially attractive cities in the world. Despite the losses it seems we are therefore in a relatively strong financial position which may give us what Nigel described as something of a competitive advantage, at least business wise, over many other clubs. Nigel himself highlighted the fact that a potential impact of the virus is that there are likely to be a record number of players looking for a club and contract, which for a financially stable club is a major opportunity to recruit decent quality players.
Given where we found ourselves as a club four years ago it was heartening to hear that things were on a solid financial footing, however to push onto where the Chairman and Board believe we can might require a greater level of experience in the dugout and a playing system that gets the best out of the players. For now though some improved performances and some spark in the team would help.
Up the O’s!