The second international break of the season gives us a first meaningful chance to review the season so far. 12 games in, a quarter of the way through the campaign.
22 points, For 14 Ag 6, 4th in the league, last 16 of Carabao Cup
Karanka’s promotion side of 15/16 had 21 points at this stage. For 17 Ag 8. And were also in the last 16 of the League Cup
So, all looks good
Let’s look in a bit more detail
The transfer and loan windows were underwhelming. We strengthened in central defence and central midfield, both areas where we are well covered.
Of the permanent transfers, Aden Flint seems to have booked himself a permanent berth in the back 3, 4 or 5, whichever we play. Paddy McNair is yet to nail down a position, despite positive noises coming out of the club and being tried in a variety of positions.
Flint is a tried and tested Championship player and looks the part, McNair is only 23 but more is needed especially as he commanded a substantial fee.
George Saville moved on loan with a view to a permanent deal in January. He seems to have slotted into our midfield but needs to find his best position there.
Most supporters seem to want local lad Jordan Hugill to succeed so despite a stuttering start he will be given time. Let’s have another look when he is fully match fit and has again adapted to the pace and pressures of the Championship.
Another one wanted to succeed is Mo Besic. He shows fight, grit and determination much loved by spectators.
Sam McQueen is a left utility player. Given that he is behind George Friend in the pecking order, his best chance is if we play George in a back 3.
Danny Bahht’s opportunities look limited but he does provide useful experienced cover.
Andy Lonergan came as goalkeeping cover.
So where does that leave the team.
We seem to have a glut of similar midfielders and depending on the formation we could have Clayton, Howson, Downing, Saville, Besic, McNair, Leadbitter, Wing and Tavernier vying for 3 positions. Looking at the season so far, Clayton, on form and the fact he fits the managers style, looks a nailed on starter, so the rest could be battling for 2 slots.
My only issue with that is that if we play 3 at the back, as we have been doing, the 3 morphs into 5 as the wing backs drop deep and with Clayton sitting, effectively we have 6 men behind the ball. This shape helps us to be solid and miserly at the back but severely restricts our forward options. As much as they are both whole hearted competitors and team men, neither Friend nor Shotton are natural wing backs.
Going forward we don’t have a naturally creative number 10 or a real pacey wide man. Tony Pulis seemed to identify these positions in his transfer wish list but none were forthcoming. The question of why, is altogether another debate, but the reality is we have to get to January before anything will change.
Because of the lack of a real number 10, Braithwaite seems to be filling that position, with Britt or Hugill ahead of him.
A return of 14 goals in 12 games suggests it’s not working.
Change the names and that could have almost been a review of any of our last 5 seasons.
Tight at the back, solid but slow midfield and not enough goals.
Yet we still sit 4th. 3 points behind the leaders and 4 points clear of 7th. Yes, it’s a congested competitive league. There will be highs and lows.
But we are currently in a play off spot without ever hitting top form. We’ve had a few spells in a few games where we’ve looked good (Sheffield United, Bolton & Ipswich) however there have been games when we’ve bee poor (Millwall, Norwich, Hull & Forest)
But we shouldn’t fear anyone, we can compete with the best. And, under Pulis, we have no need to be worried about lack of effort, fitness or being bullied.
But we do need to score more goals. And to achieve that we need to move the ball quicker. Our slow, predictable build up allows teams to regroup.
On too many occasions in the build up and in front of goal, we take an extra touch and the momentum is lost.
But we have two weeks now to get things right. Starting at Sheffield Wednesday.