The way my timings work for home games I typically see our subs bench before the starting eleven by scrolling through Twitter. When I saw the bench for our game against Bristol Rovers it was clear something was up.
Losing Chris Maguire, Rob Hall, Curtis Nelson and Kane Hemmings, plus Wes Thomas was always going to have a significant impact on the overall quality of the squad. It highlighted other anomalies; Liam Sercombe being too good to be dropped, not quite good enough to oust Ledson and Lundstram from his preferred position. The best defender in the land, Joe Skarz, being somehow less effective than the worst defender in the land, Marvin Johnson. We don’t know whether Conor McAnley is the next Kemar Roofe or the next Jordan Bowery. Add to this Charlie Raglan playing as though he was wearing someone else’s legs and you had dysfunction from the start.
We’re not a team built on a rigid system like an Ian Atkins team where you can take a player out and put another one in without a significant impact. Where players have such a tight brief that as long as you stick to it, you won't go far wrong. Michael Appleton’s teams are more reliant on players playing with freedom and taking responsibility. It makes for a much more entertaining offering, but if you lose some of the talent it’s a real problem.
Rovers exploited the disjointedness by harrying in midfield and pressing on the back-four. Both goals came from Charlie Raglan and Joe Skarz being over-powered. Those positions in recent weeks have gone to Marvin Johnson who doesn’t get put under pressure in the same way because he’s usually on the offensive and Curtis Nelson who is also a ball carrier. Had they been playing, it's possible that Rovers wouldn’t have been given the chances they got.
Michael Appleton seemed to know things were a bit threadbare making only made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half-time. It almost as if he considered it a tactical defeat.
I'm sure he didn't quite throw the game; football teams are like blast furnaces; you can’t just turn them on and off. But with so many games to play, I wonder whether he was trying to keep people fresh by not playing Maguire et al. We have a punishing month ahead of Wembley. With all things being equal, we should go into that game as strong favourites, but with the number of games we’ve got, fatigue and injury could jeopardise that game, plus rob one or two of a Wembley experience. I wonder whether the injuries were as bad as suggested, or did Michael Appleton just turn the furnace down a little?
As if by magic all four returned to the starting line for Sheffield United on Tuesday. Only Chris Maguire showed any after-effects of an injury. There's no doubt Appleton wanted to win this one; we were at home, Sheffield United were top and the spectre of Chris Wilder the club.
The fact is that Wilder is a better manager, and certainly better than many fans are prepared to admit. What he’s good at is taking big failing fishes in small ponds and using their strength as an asset; he did it with us and he’s doing it with Sheffield United. You have to have a very big and belligerent personality to force a change of direction when you take on a beast like Sheffield United. You have to give him some credit because he's done it time and again.
Ultimately Chris Wilder teams are a Nokia 3310 to our Apple iWatch. The Nokia does simple things really well, we’re more sophisticated, but we don't work quite as well. We competed gamely for two-thirds of the game but we fell away while they kept motoring at the same pace. That's fundamentally the difference between the two teams.
Michael Appleton said after the game that we were 3-4 players away from competing consistently at the top of League 1. It might be stretching things to think that Michael Appleton has conceded the season completely, but he must be aware that on and off the pitch we're barely ready for an unlikely ascent into the Championship. With Cup wins, a Wembley appearance and derby double already in the bag you get the feeling he's pacing himself through the rest of the season.