Played: 4 Won: 2 Drawn: 2 Lost: 0 Goals For: 7 Goals Against: 2 Points: 8
As I am sure you are all more than fully aware, the above is how Orient’s record reads since Richie Wellens walked through the door at Brisbane Road and with very limited time to work on the training ground set about turning around the team’s performances and results. Not only that, but in the last week alone he and the squad have delivered our first win at home since early December and the first win on our travels since mid-September.
More than that though, our new gaffer has brought a positivity and energy to the club and fanbase that has been like a complete breath of fresh air through the whole place. Without wanting to be too critical of KJ, and to be fair most of us thought an experienced and proven manager was exactly the right approach in the summer, things had gone very stale towards the end of his tenure. The performances on the pitch were largely uninspiring, the results not good enough, and it really did feel that slowly but surely we were sleepwalking towards another relegation from the Football League, with the very real concern that this time we might not be able to bounce back so quickly, if at all.
Fast forward just a single month from that woeful Tuesday night performance against Bristol Rovers that brought about Jackett’s dismissal, and the 206 hardy souls that made the return to Harrogate for the re-arranged match were treated to a performance that had us all buzzing about where our new boss might take us. Of course it’s very early days I realise, and there were some impressive performances earlier on in the season, but it really feels as if we are starting to overcome the stagnation from which we have been suffering since the win over Swindon in December. So what has changed?
At Hartlepool in Richie’s first game in charge the style of play was noticeably different. Whereas previously we had largely persevered with the three centre backs and wing backs system, despite the loss to injury of Tom James and the stubborn refusal to use Connor Wood, that simply wasn’t working any longer, now we find ourselves deploying a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 set-up, which is simply more conducive to possession football. As the late great Johan Cruyff (Ed’s note: with apologies for the gratuitous use of football geekery but Cruyff is one of my all-time heroes and this is an Orient Nerd piece after all!) said of this approach: it creates natural triangles between the players which allows much better retention of the ball while in possession. A factor so important in the modern interpretation of the game.
It was clear watching from behind the goal up at Victoria Park that not only had the players been briefed to keep the ball on the deck, but that they were actively moving to make the team shape as wide as possible when in possession and then condensing it without the ball.
As radical as it may seem after watching players shoehorned into positions for which they didn’t seem to be best equipped (Archie at left back anyone?), Wellens’ approach seems to be to put the players in the slots in the system where their natural abilities can be used to the maximum effect. In the second half against Rochdale last Saturday, it was interesting that when Otis Khan came on for Hector, he slotted into central midfield rather than taking up one of the wide positions and forcing a rejig of the line-up. He may have only been on the pitch for 20 minutes or so but his sensible positioning without the ball and ability to get forward, especially down the left flank, and create something was clearly evident. A role he then reprised to great effect for the full 90 minutes up in Yorkshire in midweek.
Speaking of Tuesday night, most Orient fans were probably in agreement (shock horror!) that our much-maligned skipper Darren Pratley gave his best performance in an Orient shirt to date. Playing as part of a midfield three with Hector filling the anchor role, he looked much more like the player we expected when he was signed. It is certainly no coincidence that the other performance in which he caught the eye was up at Bradford at the start of February when, yep you guessed it, he played a similar role with Ethan Coleman playing the holding role.
Beyond the tactical tweaks however, what has been most noticeable has been the way that Richie has engaged with the fans, reconnected with us and in many ways regalvanised us all. As referenced in the post a couple of weeks ago (Orient Nerd Weekly Ramblings- The Dawn of a New Era? Welcome to the Orient Richie Wellens!) in his introductory press conference our new coach came across as both confident and convincing in the way he spoke, and his interviews since have been much more inspiring than our previous manager’s. Anyone who has watched the most recent one after the win at Wetherby Road surely can’t help but be inspired. Not only has he seemingly sorted out the playing squad, but he is now turning his attention to the fans. When asked about us singing “How sh*t must you be we’re winning away?”, he said: “We don’t need to hear that, just be positive…let’s everybody at the club just be positive”. As the lads on the LO Down podcast suggested last week, whisper it quietly but aren’t there echoes of Justin and the impact he made?
The most dangerous feeling in football is to start to get carried away after a couple of promising performances and results, but given how woeful things had felt since December, surely we can allow ourselves just a small smidgen of optimism going forward. In the space of just 4 weeks, and let’s not forget the job that Matt Harrold did in steadying the ship in testing circumstances, we have pulled away from the relegation places and are starting to climb the table bit by bit. The play-offs were out of the question a good while ago but if we can finish as high as possible while continuing to play some attractive and entertaining football then we can all start to look forward to next season and what that might bring.
Up the O’s