In September 2018, before we played Manchester City in the League Cup, the Guardian interviewed Cameron Norman, tracking his redemption story from rejection at Norwich to Oxford United via King’s Lynn in the seventh tier. That evening, Norman didn’t make the bench and only played one more league game before being shipped out on loan to Walsall the following January.
This isn’t an unusual September media story; devoid of much else to talk about, they’ll find a club, manager or player who has appeared to rise like a phoenix over the course of the opening games of the season. Accrington top of the table? Yes please.
If you track those stories over the longer-term, their subjects invariably sink back to obscurity as the natural order takes over. These stories fill gaps in the schedules while the real narratives figure themselves itself out.
Everyone is trying to find a signal in the noise; to find the thread, it’s like trying to work out whether a 600 page novel is worth the investment from the opening paragraphs. This season has been our best start under Karl Robinson, our second best at this level for 27 years and yet we’ve one point from nine on the road despite leading in each of the three games.
It’s very easy to draw a grand conclusion from the capitulation against Wimbledon; to question the substitutions which seemed to turn the game on its head, but whether this is the story of the season or of the moment is still to be understood.
There are lessons to learn and adjustments to make. The most obvious is addressing our ability to give away leads. We’ve lost two and drawn one from winning positions; add the late equaliser by Burton in the League Cup and even the late pre-season defeat to Bristol Rovers and you’ve got yourself a trend.
Our four centre-backs have an average age of twenty-six, which sounds OK until you consider that without John Mousinho – who’s unlikely to play much – the average drops to twenty-three. Jordan Thornily is the most experienced centre-back Karl Robinson has ever signed and he’s only 24 with less than 100 games experience. Robinson’s strategy (gamble?) seems to rely on finding stability over experience at the back, something he got with Rob Atkinson and Elliott Moore last season and John Mousinho and Rob Dickie the year before. In 2018/19, when we struggled, we switched around Dickie, Mousinho and Curtis Nelson, who all three played over 30 games. Ever-present Thornily has partnered Moore and Luke McNally for three games each so far. Add into the mix our new full-back combinations and we’ve got a new and unstable back-four.
Is this a new story? The risk has been there for a couple of seasons. What isn’t clear is whether this is a blind spot or deliberate strategy, a club of our size can’t cover all its risks; some things you just go with, but we’ve flooded the squad in midfield and have experience in Gorrin and Henry to steady the ship if we need it, upfront we have Matty Taylor and Sam Winnall, who are both over-30. We’ve never really sought to add experience at the back, relying on the ageing Mousinho.
Earlier this year, when covid restrictions were lifted and we were registering 65,000 cases a day, there were predictions that they would sky rocket past 100,000 within weeks. Then cases actually went down to about 30,000, one epidemiologist suggested that the 65,000 could contain two waves; a short-term one based on unusual behaviours during the Euros and a longer-term wave reflecting more ‘typical’ behaviour and therefore transmissibility. Only close analysis will tell which is the equivalent of the short-term ‘September media story’ and which is the longer-term narrative.
Likewise, for all we know, even though its the best start under Karl Robinson, this might be the slow start we’ve seen in previous years while the team get to know each other. Perhaps these wrinkles will iron themselves out and we’ll see momentum build, but it looks like, this time, we’ll be doing it from a higher base. This the shape we’ve seen in previous seasons; start slow and build. It might be that this is just a short-term ‘September story’; it’s worked in the past and has, broadly, worked so far this season, tactical errors but a strategic success? Perhaps.