Sunday, 25 November 2007

Little's First Report Card

We were all bound to try to judge Brian Little following his first game in charge. I think it's fair to say he passed scrutiny. The drastic changes he made to the side showed that he isn't one to toe a conservative line, and that sort of approach can backfire horribly. Remember last Wednesday? Steve McClaren was bold in his selection for the match against Croatia, and look where it got him. However, Little was more astute, his rejig of the side born of a measured boldness rather than being the hopeful actions of a desperate man. While McClaren's England careered towards oblivion, we took a first baby step towards survival today, I think.

There are still flaws, and we faded worryingly out of the game for a quarter of an hour after our initial bluster wore out at the start of the second half. However, Little got the team working for him, and the reformed line-up looked a lot better than we have done for some time.

It was a more high tempo style than we've been used to, although maybe we shouldn't rush to judgement on that front until we've seen Little's side perform in a game which doesn't also happen to be a derby.

If that is the road we're going down, though, it might just address what many feel is one of the main reasons for our demise. We tried to continue playing patient football through midfield last season after Darren Ferguson had gone, and the loss of a playmaker hit us hard, although I admit I didn't notice it so much at the time as Ferguson's talents had waned with time.

Watching us pound hopeful long balls to short strikers this season has illustrated how much we'd missed a midfield creator though, and today we addressed the issue in two interesting ways.

Firstly, we carried the ball through the centre of the field rather than pinging it long, with Sam Aiston most impressive. He's technically good, and holds the ball well. Sometimes he looked like he was running into a cul-de-sac, but he only started to lose the ball in the closing stages when he was naturally tiring.

Secondly, we found a playmaker of sorts in the most surprising of places. Brian Little showed a great eye for a player in putting Neil Roberts in midfield. It was a remarkable thing to do, and it worked beautifully. Not only did Roberts fight with typical commitment, but some of his passing was exemplary, not least his assist for Proctor's first goal. He's no Darren Ferguson, but then I suspect Ferguson might well have been swamped in the pace of that match.

So Little's redeployment of Neil Roberts worked a treat. So did the promotion of Wes Baynes, who had an excellent debut, and his recall of players like Proctor, Taylor and Pejic, who had all fallen out of favour under Carey, but all made big contributions. With his sole signing Aiston also doing well, Little got most things right with his selections.

He was sharp tactically too. In that spell I mentioned earlier when Chester got a grip of midfield he responded by switching from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2. The result? We regained out equilibrium, equalised and nearly won it.

However, perhaps the greatest impact Little might have made was in the players heads. When did we last fighting back from going behind twice in a game? The players have been used to things going wrong this season, and their usual response has been capitulation. Not so today. To fight back from a thunderbolt after making a good start, then to fight back from a goal in the 50th minute of the first half, the worst time to concede according to the pundits, was not what we've been doing over the last year or so.

Of course these are early days for Little, but it was a debut which will bring hope against a decent Chester side. Three away games now follow, all winnable, which might just go a long way to shaping our season. If we can play like we did today in all three, we should be in more optimistic mood by the time we return to The Racecourse.

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