Aug 15 2013 by Nick Hilton, The Liverpool Post
THE theory sounds logical enough. Experienced footballers should be able to build a working relationship with new team-mates on the pitch quicker than younger players.
Unfortunately, it’s not working out that way at Tranmere and the “getting to know you problem” is causing a few heads to be scratched as we approach the end of the second week of the new season.
Three games into 2012/13, the youthful team put together by Rovers manager Ronnie Moore had flown out of the blocks, reeling off a trio of victories. They hit it off as a group so well and so quickly that the rest of the division could not keep up with them. Tranmere played 13 League One games before tasting defeat.
Fast forward 12 months and Moore, mindful that lack of experience caught up with Tranmere during the second half of the last campaign, has laced the squad with senior pros who have been around the block a few times.
But they are not yet gelling convincingly on the pitch. Some players look like strangers to each other’s strengths, weaknesses and habits. The result has been disjointed performances marked by defensive lapses.
A resounding defeat at Walsall on the opening day was followed by an exciting but untidy 3-3 draw with Crawley at Prenton Park last weekend. Tranmere’s only success, and only clean sheet, was in overcoming League Two club Mansfield Town 2-0 in the Capital One Cup last Tuesday.
Moore says he believes the squad is stronger than the one he assembled a year ago. “I think we have better players than we had last season at this present time we have not got a better team,” he said.
Moore and assistant John McMahon say they are glad of a week without a fixture so there’s time, ahead of Saturday’s visit to Crewe Alexandra, for work on the training ground to address the most pressing aspect of the patchy start – defending.
McMahon said: “It was obvious to everyone that defensively we were very poor against Crawley.
“With the players we have brought in, you would expect us to gel quickly as a team. We have not done that yet.
“It is quite early in the season so there are no alarm bells ringing at the moment. But against Crawley and Walsall, the performances were not up to standard.
“People are bound to make comparisons to last season. It is inevitable.”
Moore admits full-backs Danny Holmes and Evan Horwood, a summer signing from Hartlepool, are “not having a good time.”
However, he has no cover and no competition for either player in a small squad of 19 professionals.
Experienced centre-backs Ash Taylor and Stephen Foster, a summer recruit from Barnsley, have not yet hit it off at the heart of the defence, although both have reason to complain they are not getting enough protection from the midfield players.
The team have been more confident and creative going forward than in the final phase of last season, when the goals dried up altogether. Andy Robinson has two goals to his name, as does winger Joe Thompson.
McMahon suggests however that midfield and forward players need to pay greater attention to their defensive duties.
He said: “I think we are capable of scoring goals and the goal so far have come from all areas, midfield, the wide positions and the striker.
“But in terms of our performances, we need to be more compact, more of a unit offensively and defensively.”
McMahon went on: “Defensively is not just the back four who have a responsibility. We are talking about the midfielders and the strikers as well. For me, we have to work harder as a team, from the front through midfield, working collectively to protect the defenders because at the moment they seem so isolated it’s untrue.”
Tranmere spent much of this week as they have every week since the start of pre-season training, working to improve the way they defend set plays.
So far, all of the work and focus have not improved a weakness that became seriously costly in the second half of last season.
Tranmere conceded from a corner within little more than one minute of the 3-1 defeat at Walsall and conceded two from set plays in the 3-3 draw at home to Crawley last Saturday.
McMahon admitted: “We are never confident when we concede a corner or a wide free kick. We should be better at defending them.
“We should not need to be putting players in certain positions and areas on the training ground, which is really going back to basics of how to defend and do man-to-man marking. Stuff like that should be within players. We should not have to go through it every day.
“With a lot of defending you can forget about tactics and technique.
“It’s physical. Do you want to beat the man you are up against? Have you got the desire and courage to go and head the ball first?
“Although we can show players many times what they should be doing, you can’t ask the referee to stop the game so we can go out onto the pitch and make sure they are in the right position.
“When it happens, players have to rely on their own instincts, their own toughness, physical and mental, to make sure they keep the ball out of the net.”