And yet the scoreboard still reads 2-0 to the team even more dinged up than us. Nicol is a master at getting the most from what little he has to work with, but he sure had some help. Talking points?
I have a few...
* Five and five makes squat. It took until what, the 65th or 70th minute before we started to see some overlapping play from the fullbacks? We defended with five, attacked with five. Those familiar with the English game would have seen some eerie similarities between this game and the way a similarly stagnant and structured Liverpool struggles against the likes of Stoke. New England were disciplined, United predictable. Our five attackers were able to create little against a compact, organized defense. With neither speed on the front line or width in the attack, it was far too comfortable for the Revs. We had some chances, yes, but considering the possession we enjoyed, we had far too few for my liking.
* The Soehn Plan. The biggest problem I always had with Soehn was how limited he was during the game. He could get the team into leads, but his inability to make tactical adjustments or effective substitutions consistently led to lost leads and predictable collapses. Can we just take a moment to look at what the two coaches achieved with their substitutions? Nicol brought on Mansally and got two goals from him. Onalfo brought on (1) Boyzzz, who did jack all but cut the ball inside and fire balls into masses of bodies. This is the best we can manage off the bench when we need a goal? Followed by (2) a 17-year old kid who, while he did show a couple of moves and (gasp!) made himself available for balls sprayed wide, had about the same effect as Boyzzz. And (3) Julius James, while he got into attacking positions better than any of the other fullbacks in black, didn't close down Tierney quickly enough, allowing the cross that opened the Revs' account. Nicol 2, Onalfo -1.
* The trouble with Tino. Please, please, please, for the love of God, get him wide! Or, baring that, pair him with Pontius up top (yes, I said it, I don't think Moreno should be starting) and let's get some movement to put a little doubt in defenses. In the second half, I noticed him only on free kicks and that one little burst where he actually got a shot on goal. True, he was desperately close to scoring from a free kick in the first half, but he would have been taking that kick as a winger too. But where was he for big stretches when we needed to start generating chances? Get him wide. Get him space. My suggestion? Barklage was pretty average in the second half, but he really started to come on in the second half, notably playing some nice touches in tight spaces along the right flank and hitting a few measured passes to spring attacking players. How about playing Barklage as a deeper central midfielder beside Morsink to mask the latter's pedestrian defensive efforts, thus allowing the wings to play higher and with the freedom to cut inside and confuse defenses?
* A mixed bag. Such are our winter signings. Pena was impressive, both in organizing the defense and distributing. But Castillo was well-nigh invisible, save for when he was playing the ball backward or meandering infield, which wouldn't be so bad if he was doing it higher up the pitch. Perkins had little chance on the goals. Allsopp? I'll stand by the prediction I've made all along: flop, flop, flop.
* What master plan? I generally have no problem with United playing a slightly slower game, particularly when we're controlling possession. But to do so and remain dangerous requires the sort of string-pullers and movement that we lack. This was the heart of my plea yesterday for attacking play that had everybody on the same page and not even needing to think about where to get the ball next. Instead we're treated to the same glacial buildup as last year. Ping, ping, ping, turnover. There is nobody that looks ready to hit the killer ball, and nobody making the runs ahead of him to make such a ball worthwhile in any case. That's not to say that we didn't have good passages of play. Those were certainly on offer. The problem is that they all too often end in either a snatched chance or a loss of possession. Where are the quality chances and the finishers to take advantage? Where are the extra bodies to stretch defenses?
Of course, all of this is made to look much worse by those two late Mansally goals. As the game staggered toward what seemed to be an inevitable 0-0 finish, I did find signs of hope. We controlled the ball, had our moments from set pieces (why is Barklage our danger-man from corners again?), looked pretty assured (though still too casual at times) at the back, and even created a handful of attacking plays that seemed to carry a threat until the finish or final ball eluded us. If this had ended 0-0, my response would have been, "not quite there yet, but building something; let's get a box-to-box bustler who can win balls and distribute, free the wings to push higher with more freedom, and take our chances." But now...
But now I look at our shortcomings on the bench, our lack of pace and movement up top, our inability to stretch play vertically or horizontally, and wonder. Are we just missing that one final stroke that completes the picture of a playoff-bound side? Or are we bearing a palette that lacks depth and variety and a painter without a clue where to begin? Again, those fears for my liver deepen.
Before I send you off to try and enjoy your Easter, I leave you with the observation of my six year old daughter (soon to be seven!) who watched the first half with me as we sat side by side on the couch with a laptop balanced on my knee. She asked me, this veteran player of two youth campaigns that more resemble rugby than soccer, "Daddy, they don't know what to do, do they?"
From the mouths of babes, my friends. Mouths of babes.