A game of two halves. That's what it was. The starting line up certainly provided some changes. I have to say I agreed with most of them. McLeod starting was a surprise, but as well as quality and effort we needed (desperately) confidence, and that was going to have to come from outside of the current first team squad.
McLeod and Josh Wright have been playing away from the pressure that the current squad have been experiencing, and Bouazza, Andy Gray and Kelly Youga had been under performing in recent weeks. Clearly there is some debate about all of these players, but they were among the candidates to be replaced in the big shake up that Pardew had been promising for a few weeks and really had to deliver this time out.
When the team was read out I thought it might be 3-5-2 with Basey and Mou2 as wing backs. A new formula indeed. Sadly it was nothing of the sort. Cranie's selection as a left back just went further to reinforce my suspicion that Pardew has to play him. There may be a gentleman's agreement, or the player may have expressed a demand to play. I know we could well claim that the player and his club have no right to demand anything, but if he is going to refuse to stay past December if he doesn't play then I can understand it. Pardew's recent suggestions that we will need to sell in January point to the players on Premier League money who are free to leave in June. As well as ZZ and Ambrose that also includes Jon Fortune, who Pardew has been trying to offload since he got here. On the basis that he is on £9k a week and may be worth a few quid in January we may well need Cranie, and he is actually a good centre back - certainly in this division.
The first half was dire. McLeod looked like he needs a few games under his belt. To be fair he has looked like that every time he's played, but then as he has only had a hand full of games for us in 14 months so it's hardly a surprise. Cranie showed (beyond doubt) that he is not a full back. Other than that the players just looked like they were not as up for the game as Burnley. The first half goal that was disallowed seemed to lift Burnley, and we failed to cope with anything else in the first half.
Second half was very different. Cranie looked better in the middle; Basey looked better than Cranie at left back and Todorov was inspiring. I can understand why he didn't start as he looked knackered after about twenty minutes. I have not seen enough of him to know if he ever did much running, and even if he did he has had a terrible couple of years with injuries. However, he was the difference. Mou2 and Sam are clearly a great partnership, but for me the difference was the space that Todorov seemed to have. Even when he had three men on him he just played past them as though they were not there.
Sadly I don't think that Todorov is the answer to all our problems as I don't think we can realistically expect 90 minutes for a further 33 games, but the over all performance in the second half was much better. I believe that we have found a line up/style of play that suits our strengths. One could argue that with the number of changes Pardew makes he was going to stumble across a decent system in the end, but I think that is irrelevant. There is much debate about the quality of the players and even if you have just the smallest suspicion that they are not good enough then there is little point in changing the manager right now. That does mean, however, that one would also refuse to give Pardew any more money to spend, so at some point something needs to be done.
In the meantime, however, the second half line up should be persevered with. I have no problem swapping Primus for Cranie, and I also suspect that Gray will have to be called upon when Todorov tires, but we are clearly most effective with pacey overlapping full backs, so let's keep them in the side.
We do have an issue with Luke Varney, however. I have a lot of time for the lad. The one thing that we as fans find most disgusting is players that look like they are giving less than 100%. Luke Varney is much, much better at football than I ever was. He is also much fitter than I ever was. However, he plays with the kind of enthusiasm that I would do. He runs and runs and runs. I suspect that he has significantly less talent than Jimmy Floyd hasslebaink, but if I had to choose between them I would choose Varney every time.
However, he is clearly missing chances that a player in the first team of genuine promotion candidates should not. I know we are not looking like promotion candidates right now, but bearing in mind his transfer fee, and presumably the wages to match, he has to deliver more. Had he converted the chances he has missed in the last three games alone we could well have 7 points more. That would put us in 4th place. I guess you can now see where I'm coming from? As much as I like his attitude I fear that New York Addick's assessment might be right.
One of Pardew's worst failings in the last eighteen months has been his transfer policy. Despite some successes I suspect that if we need to off load players to balance the books I doubt that many would refuse to sell Varney, Gray and McLeod for a combined fee of £4.65m - and that was just the guaranteed cost, the figure had the potential to rise by a further £1.4m. If those 'extras' have been reached (unlikely I accept) then we have paid £6.05m for three players that are probably on such high wages that the majority of the Championship clubs cannot afford them, and they don't currently look good enough for this division either.
Still I'm sure that they would all look better with more confidence, and to that end I think Varney could do with a run in the reserves. Not as a punishment, but to help him. Sadly I don't see who we would replace him with. McLeod and Todorov are not up to 90 minutes right now, and if you are going to pick either of them you can't really play them both. Even if you put Andy Gray in there somewhere, that just leaves Chris Dickson. I believe that he might be the real deal, but his few cameos up to now have showed him to be a little short of what it takes. Against Bristol City he looked like a terribly enthusiastic player that didn't really look ready. I know that they need to play to get ready, and I know it's never a good time to drop them in, but I think we are on a knife edge right now. We are still only two wins from sixth, but we are also only two draws in front of the relegation zone.
Anyway to finish on a positive, despite a dire 45 minutes, we looked like potential promotion candidates in the second half, and we nearly won it at the end. It was a better performance than the win over Ipswich, and that must be a good thing. As for Varney, I guess we can take heart from the fact that he is getting into the positions to miss sitters. Surely it must just be a matter of time before he comes good?