A defensive blunder led to the first goal. Not only that but it was committed, in the view of the manager, in a “stupid area”, and from our own throw-in, if you don’t mind. The culprit was Timm Klose and he was full of apologies in the dressing room at half-time. Such individual lapses can’t be legislated for and Alex Neil will have been as frustrated as the fans watching and listening in. Sadly, gaffes have been a feature of this season so far and the defensive jitteriness that so carelessly handed three points to Burton is threatening to write off any chance we have of a top-six finale.
The key to mistakes is you learn from them. And in that respect, the manager and players have singularly failed. It was just six minutes before Ruddy was picking the ball out of the net at Brighton, seven at Rotherham and five at home to Huddersfield. People were still buying pies and making their way to their seats when Newcastle drew first blood after, ahem, 23 seconds. Early lapses of concentration and the sound of battle plans being ripped up in the dugout are nothing new.
On the road, our focus seems to go completely. Only Forest and Rotherham have now conceded more league goals away from home this season and the reason we are seventh and even talking about the play-offs is that we are the second-highest scoring team, behind Newcastle. Learn to defend and we’d be in the top two. So, why can we not keep clean sheets? Is it down to the players or because of the way the team is set up?
I have long believed strong sides are built from the back. Get a solid spine in place and you’ve got a chance, especially if you can do it before the season starts. Rewind to the summer of 2015 and Neil signed young goalkeeper Jake Kean and three midfielders – Graham Dorrans, Joussouf Mulumbu and Robbie Brady. No move to strengthen the defence was made until January, when Klose was flown in from Wolfsburg and Ivo Pinto from Dinamo Zagreb. By then much of the damage had been done.
There was, briefly, an indication that Neil was not going to neglect the defence for a second consecutive summer break. Young French defender Jerome Onguene was reportedly in the directors’ box for our opening home game against Sheffield Wednesday, but in the event he remained at Sochaux. The only defensive arrival at Carrow Road was Michael Turner, back from his most recent loan spell at Hillsborough. In an office somewhere, Steven Whitakker meanwhile signed a one-year extension to his contract.Whoopee-do.
Neil once again waited until the January sales – a notoriously difficult environment to sign players – to bring in Mitchell Dijks on loan from Ajax to replace the departing Martin Olsson. The 6ft 4ins tall left-back looks a decent acquisition if early indications can be relief upon. But in terms of automatic promotion, that ship has sailed, and the Dutchman joins a side for which getting into the play-offs will be an uphill battle.
We might yet do it; stranger things have happened. But if we don’t, Neil’s failure to invest properly in a defence prone to the jitters and before the campaign began will be the most obvious place to start any post-mortem.