By Chris Dowsett
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Peterborough United are now firmly in a Championship relegation battle as they were overcome by a poor Millwall side in a turgid encounter at London Road on Tuesday night.
3-0 flattered the visitors in truth, but they did a job on Posh. They knew their capabilities and stuck to their game plan, and mightly effective it was too against a Posh side that played right into their hands. Their objective was simple, play with two banks of four and capatalise on errors, thankfully for the Lions, Posh capitulated three times. For the first, on-loan Fulham left back Matthew Briggs failed to clear, Gaby Zakuani went AWOL attempting to recover the situation and with fill-in centre-back Craig Alcock trying to cover, a deep cross was met at the far post by Hamuer Bouazza after he escaped from Mark Little. It was Bouazza's third goal in his last four games against Peterborough United.
Posh failed to pick themselves up and possession retention was poor with far too many passes going astray. There was a lack of creativity all over the park and confidence drained from the home side. The visitors, crucially, made them pay. On 67 minutes, Leeds loanee made it 2-0 after flicking in from a curling free-kick. The goal was all the more frustrating as the majority of Posh's free-kicks on the night had failed to beat the first man. Millwall added gloss to the scoreline despatching the third of the game one minute from time, as borrowed Spurs youngster Harry Kane executed a fantastic volley to send the away supporters home delirious.
Posh, over the last four years, have built a reputation for fast-flowing, attractive, attacking football, but this aspect of their game has horribly deserted them since Christmas with no concernable reason as to why. We have become slow, mundane and extremely predictable and last night's affair was the worst performance in recent times, while, frustratingly, the visitors offered very little.
Another worry is the Posh's form against the teams around them. Bristol City aside, Posh have taken just one point off of Millwall and Doncaster, none so far off Watford and they suffered a horrendous 3-0 defeat at home to struggling Portsmouth. Last night was where a united front was needed, unfortunately, Posh failed to turn up and the supporters voted with their feet, a sign of the club's abysmal form since Christmas, as last night's fixture was attended by just 6,392.
This isn't going to be an in-depth match report as the thought of reliving last night's game in any great detail is enough to make me want to jump out of my upstairs window, but instead I want to focus on the areas that need urgent attention. Make no mistake Posh are very much in a relegation battle, in an alarming run of form that has seen the club take just 10 points and score only 10 goals since Boxing Day, this coming from a side who had scored 41 league goals in the previous 22 games.
Darren Ferguson admitted in an interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire at the weekend that he needed consistency in selection, especially with his forwards. Yet last night, he switched his front two again with Emile Sinclair joining Tyrone Barnett up-front. The decision seemed strange as earlier in the day Sinclair had linked with a move away from the club and Paul Taylor had performed admirably in a central role a few days earlier away at Crystal Palace. The move certainly didn't pay off. Sinclair is a player who you want to do well, his raw pace is enough to scare many a defender, however his lack of football brain is clear for all to see. On a couple of occasions last night he showed his naiveity and lack of experience.
During a rare Posh counter-attack he failed to anticipate the position that a pacy frontman should take and later in the move, gave up running when his presence would have created some problems in the Millwall defence. It became noticeable how in another rare foray forward, skipper Grant McCann appeared unwilling to pass to Posh's nummber 12 despite finding himself in a better position than Barnett. After 55 minutes, and not before time, Ferguson substituted the striker, replacing him with midfielder Lee Frecklington. His strike-partner Barnett was not able to impress as Posh failed to create anything of note and did not muster a shot on target all night. Taylor, pushed out to the right, was once again Posh's best player but with the ten men beside him failing to deliver, his efforts were fruitless. Interestingly, David Ball who is arguably Posh's best finisher, has appeared for just three minutes in the last two games.
Central defence is causing another massive issue for the club. With Gaby Zakuani injured but playing on, Posh had the luxury of keeping Ryan Bennett on loan for a month after he was sold for a club record fee to Norwich City minutes before the Januray transfer window shut. In that time, Ferguson recruited highly-rated Macclesfield Town youngster Shaun Brisley and was also keen to sign a more experienced defender to accompany him. The club's ambitions for Brisley are understandable; mould the player and make sure he works on his strength and conditioning before establishing himself as a Championship player. However, the experiment is not working. Full-back Craig Alcock has been filling in as an emergency centre-back but he certainly is not the answer, as last night showed and the coaching staff seem far too reluctant to play Brisley, despite his ability to play that role.
Posh have now had over five weeks to bring in another central defender but have so far failed. The statements coming out of the club are baffling with Ferguson now claiming that Norwich have reneged on a stipulation in Bennett's deal that would see Posh bring in a defender in return. He is also upset that the Canaries didn't let the England Under 21 international stay at London Road until the end of the season. If the shoe was on the other foot however, I doubt that Posh would a player stay on loan having paid a substantial fee. The moaning needs to stop and efforts should be firmly concentrated on bringing in an experienced defender and building confidence in the current squad to stop the rot.
The other issue is that the club's most experienced players are massively underperforming. George Boyd, who's poor form has coincided with Posh's abysmal run produced possibly his worst performance in a blue shirt last night and Grant McCann was similarly ineffectual, with his set-piece delivery appalling. Mark Little has unfortunately recaptured his form of the early part of last season, producing a particularly hopeless first half performance and Gaby Zakuani's foot injury may have taken its toll as last night looked a game too many for him. At 2-0 last night, all the heads went down and it was extremely noticeable how not one player tried to get the others going or grab them by the scruff of the neck. If Posh are to ensure their Championship safety, there is a lot that needs to change, and quickly.
The upcoming fixtures for Posh are daunting. Blackpool at home on Saturday is followed by Ipswich Town away, then Reading (home), Barnsley (away) with the month culminating with tough home games in West Ham and Leicester City. The worst fear is where the next points are coming from. Despite a nine point gap from relegation, the clubs below are us are in decent form and Posh are in freefall. Things need to change at London Road and fast, otherwise we may well find ourselves back in League One again next season.
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