To me, the problem is obvious; Peter Leven is a liability when he’s facing our goal. He needs someone like Paul McLaren to mop up when someone nicks the ball off his toe or an audacious cross-field pass ricochets off an oncoming striker’s shin.
The reason he’s a liability in that position, is that he has magic in his boots going forward, he’s a passer and passers don’t have the ball for long. That means it can easily fall into the hands of the enemy.
The longer a game goes on, the less effective he is, perhaps it’s tiredness, maybe he gets sussed, whatever, he is just more susceptible to losing the ball.
So Leven’s protector needs to be on his money, particularly later in the game. Chris Wilder is concerned that McLaren doesn’t have the fitness he needs at this point in his career to put in 50 90-minute games in a season. It’s not an unreasonable assessment.
The impact is particularly acute at home. When you’re the home side, there is pressure to attack and chase the game. The away side with no expectations when behind, can more easily counter-attack and play a risky and devil-may-care game. As the home side, it is not advisable to sit on a lead when your opponents are prepared to pile forward recklessly.
Away from home, once you’re in the lead, there is no need to attack. You can sit and absorb and hang onto a lead. You’re not expected to win, let alone attack, so sitting on a lead away is OK.
At home, Leven is susceptible to giving the ball away to opponents who are prepared to risk all to attack. Without McLaren mopping up, and in the case of Saturday, with a makeshift centre of defence, we get put under a lot of pressure.
Wilder’s response at home, understandably, is to try and inject energy into the midfield when it appears to flag. In trying to go onto the offensive – replacing McLaren with Payne – we become more open.
If we tightening things up with Andy Whing, then everything becomes a bit sludgy. If you don’t play with Leven, then nobody is feeding the strikers, Batt and Davis and everything grinds to a halt. That leaves Heslop without the space he’s currently enjoying that allows him to use his prodigious shooting skills.
The answer, of course, is that McLaren should be able to last 90 minutes and Leven shouldn’t give the ball away. But, a bit like Neil Warnock said of Joey Barton; if they were that good, then wouldn’t be here.
I don’t know the answer – perhaps we should switch to 4-4-2 as the game progresses offering a bit more protection to Leven. It’s not the universal answer to all our problems, though. Neither should we get carried away that the problem is a deep and unsolvable one.
The bigger picture is that we are in an excellent position. If we were leading the table we would be salivating and taking our eye off the prize of promotion. For me, we are always at our best when chasing, not leading.