Three games into pre-season, and how are K’s shaping up? That’s a difficult question to answer. Pre-season in non-league is a reliably unreliable indicator of prospects for the season ahead: there are trialists playing the odd game and then disappearing; key players are on holiday; lads who play most of the games run off in August and September for an extra fiver a week; warm-up games are played at a laughably slow tempo, giving players the time on the ball they lack in the hustle and bustle of a league fixture. Results – and even performances – don’t really matter until August 8th at Leiston.
So how can we predict if K’s are looking set for a good season? The manager and coaching staff are now settled, so no excuses on that front. In my opinion the level of success this term will simply be about the quality of the squad that we can put together.
I use the word ‘squad’ deliberately, in place of the word ‘team’. Too often over the past few years, there have been whole chunks of the season when Tommy (or Dowse before him) didn’t have three genuine options on the bench to change the games. At 3-0 down away at Hendon last season, Tommy Williams was forced into bringing on the 15-stone human wrecking-ball Danny Buckle up front rather than somebody who could genuinely turn the game around – and that wasn’t an unusual type of substitution in Winter. Even worse, K’s have often had to put out a team with obvious weak links in the starting XI due to a trusted player’s injury or suspension, or an unexpected player departure.
Why does that really matter when you’ve got McCollin and Moss up front (for example)? Well, there’s a lot of evidence that it’s not the strength of your best player, or even the average strength of your team, that really matters when looking at likely success over a season: it’s actually how bad your weakest player is. A couple of numbers geeks, Chris Anderson & David Solly, explored this theory in their football book ‘The Numbers Game’, and their research has since been backed up by several other geeks doing a similar thing. If, as an example, K’s lost the services of Rob Tolfrey and replaced him with an even better goalkeeper (hard to imagine, but go with it), we might get a few more points next season, but there wouldn’t be a big improvement. But if K’s could ensure that there was only very seldom a ‘weak link’ in the side, a player who isn’t really comfortable at Ryman League level, then there would be a massive improvement in K’s results.
Why? If you’ve got a fairly strong player, the other team will make sure they focus on stopping them as far as possible, so signing an even stronger player doesn’t change things too much. Whereas if you’ve got a weak link (or two) where you haven’t normally, the opposition picks on him (or them) relentlessly, viewing it as an opportunity. Some (old) examples. When we played Byron Napper at left back away at Bury St Edmonds, Bury switched the play every single time they got it to their right flank, and sent their full back bombing on; Napper was sent off after twenty minutes. When we played Sean Ray at centre half, Thamesmead adapted their tactics to drag us out of our half and then hit direct balls over the top, exposing Ray’s lack of pace and negating his strength in the air; they came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. You could call this The Djimi Traore Theory.
Looking at the current squad we’ve been using so far in pre-season, my hope is that Tommy Williams has learned from last season, and from his previous experience at Carshalton, and realised that it’s better to spread the budget wisely on a strong squad rather than blowing it on a few star names. That’s not to say that some great players wouldn’t be welcome of course – but not at the expense of having a liability somewhere else in the eleven.