Brentford this weekend is the final match of Jonjo Shelvey’s five-match ban and the way the other four games have gone, his return can’t come soon enough.
Have we played well for ninety minutes in his absence? No, me neither. Definitely not Sheffield Wednesday or Blackburn Rovers when we were just the right side of lacklustre. Not quite awful but heading down that path.
The lack of guile and ingenuity from midfield was very evident. Without Shelvey’s influence, we were one-dimensional and not very good at that either. But if we’re truthful – and as football supporters, we are top-notch self-deceivers – this run hasn’t been just through his absence. We were out of sorts when he was in the side.
One defeat in fourteen became four in eight; the Championship proved to be a scorpion with a hefty sting in its tail. No matter what our expectations – and mine were genuinely higher than the play-offs – the season has broken them. We’re good enough to go up automatically on our good days but we’ve been decidedly average too often in recent weeks.
Losing your key player is a problem a lot of clubs struggle to overcome. You can’t fit two Shelvey’s in the team, and if you have a player equally as good, they sure as hell aren’t going to sit on the bench week in, week out, and be happy.
However, we could do with a Plan B. We’re a more than a bit predictable now and quite a few teams have worked out that if they sit deep, we lack the guile and wit to break them down. Plan B must be more than the usual meaning in football parlance which reduces it to slinging on another forward or defender.
Rather than that, we need a genuinely different way of playing. Rafa’s done well to get us into the top two – even if our expectations saw that as a minimum – with a huge churn of players in the summer.
It took a few weeks for it to gel, but this recent patchy form has been an eye-opener in certain respects.
There are two solutions for Plan B: new tactics or new players.
While we play and naturally smooth passing and moving game, there are a lot of variations to use without being overly sophisticated to the point where Rafa should be able to look at the bench and switch mid-game from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 or vice versa. We do it by fitting a series of square pegs into round holes.
I welcome the talk of Tom Ince from Derby but dipping into the market is a double-edged sword for Rafa. He has an immediate problem to solve – getting back to promotion `form – but also looking at players who will improve the side so that we stay up next season rather than becoming a yo-yo club like ‘Boro or the Mackems.
We’re on the cusp at the moment; our season could go either way. Refocus, re-find our form or be dragged back into the chasing pack. It’s about this time of year where one team usually starts to open a gap at the time. For a long time, it looked like it would be us.
Now, we might be vulnerable because of predictability. Time for Plan B to emerge.