Soft Underbelly Evident For Disappointing Stags

Buoyed by recent performances, the never-ending  trek across the snowy hills of Cumbria was a no brainer for me. There was no doubt in my mind that we would come away with at least a point.

How wrong I was, as the Stags succumbed to a 2-1 defeat after leading until the seventy minute mark. By the time the full time whistle went, I had to jog back to the car to unfreeze the blood within my body. The confidence that permeated my mind on the outward leg was replaced with the stark reality of a relegation scrap.

Adam Murray made two changes, Heslop and Lambe in for the ill Clements and the dropped Kee. The benching of Kee didn't come as much of a surprise. He has so far failed to live up to the billing given to him by the fans. Also, it was understandable that Murray wanted to pack the midfield and use the pace of Lambe on the break.

The first half was a pretty even game. There were no clear cut chances for either side, rather half chances. Oliver headed over inside the first minute after good play by Lambe. His header deflected off the back of the challenging defender but the referee Mark Haywood gave a goal kick. The incorrect decision set the tone for his torrid performance.

The home side had a couple of decent efforts, Rigg drilling a shot across the face of the goal and also having a goal disallowed after a push on Tafazolli in the build up.

There was little evidence of the attacking creativity Mansfield had shown in recent weeks, perhaps the importance of the game inhibiting their freedom of expression, which is a worrying trait to have for a team in a relegation battle. The Stags were also exhibiting a bizarre offside trap from defensive free kicks, pushing the line up to approximately ten yards higher than you would expect. I assume the thinking behind that was that the attackers have to think more about staying onside than attacking the ball and also it gives the goalkeeper more of a sight of the ball and increased time to react. Simply put, it did not work. They got away with it on two or three occasions in the first half but were to be punished later on.

At the opportune time, on the brink of half time, the Stags took the lead. Matty Blair chased a Heslop ball into the corner and attempted to pull the ball back to Lambe. His pass cannoned back off Anthony Griffiths (who was on trial at the Stags in pre-season), and back to Blair. The Carlisle defence all appealed for offside but the linesman had called correctly. At the second attempt Blair found Lambe, who twisted and turned the ball back onto his stronger right foot and deliver a high, inviting cross towards Vadaine Oliver. Oliver attacked the ball masterfully and powered a header past the keeper and in off the post.

The home fans were up in arms about the decision, as was Keith Curle, and the players left the field at the interval to a chorus of boos directed towards the officials. The outrage at a correct decision seemed to create a siege mentality amongst the locals which was to spur their side on in the second half.

An individual moan at half time as despite queuing for ten minutes, the whole stand was being catered for by two ladies and I wasn't even half way towards a cup of tea by the time the teams were out for the second half. A shoddy state of affairs!

Keith Curle must have got into his team at half time because they came out on the front foot, aided by the urgings of the ever increasing volume their fans were producing. A free kick launched into the Stags box ten minutes after the break caused problems to the ineffective offside trap, and after a bit of head tennis the ball ran through to Wyke who, from where I was sitting, high up adjacent with the byline, appeared to be rugby tackled by Adam Smith. I immediately feared the worst but the referee pointed for a corner. In real time it looked a stone wall penalty but other reports suggest the officials got the decision right. Either way, it only served to fan the flames and the Carlisle fans where now whipped up into a fervour.

A sight that nobody likes to see is a player being stretchered off. Unfortunately for Matty Blair and Mansfield Town, he was carried off the pitch with an ankle injury with twenty five minutes to go. The Carlisle fans chanted 'cheat' as Blair hit the deck, and I must admit at first viewing it did appear he had hit the deck easily. The heckling continued despite the clear serious nature of the injury sustained. A poor showing by the Carlisle fans, no matter how aggrieved they may have felt about earlier decisions. Billy Kee replaced him, which I think was a strange decision by Murray. We were winning the game, and to take the extra man out of midfield for a striker who doesn't have the best work rate was questionable.

The equaliser came five minutes later. The assistant awarded a free kick on the Stags left hand side, despite a clean tacked from Tafazolli right under his nose. Tafazolli did initially go to clear the ball with his left, missed it, and then got the ball as his leg came down from the miss-kick. Despite it not working through the whole game, the Stags persisted with the offside trap and it was to be there undoing. A clever nudge on Oliver by Archibald-Henville just before the ball was delivered took him out of his defensive zone, meaning both Elder and Raynes both stained to get across. Archibald-Henville flicked the ball on, Tafazolli had not followed his runner and Wyke was on hand to tap in. The first flick on was running harmlessly through to Smith but took a knick off Raynes' back and into the path of Wyke. Another soft goal from another set-piece. I originally though the goal was offside but TV replays have proved the goal, apart from the verdict of the linesman in the first place, was valid.

Mansfield should have retaken the lead almost immediately. Reggie Lambe burst into the right channel with an explosive turn of pace. After achieving the difficult part, Lambe looked up to see Oliver completely unmarked in the centre but under no pressure at all he somehow put the pass behind the Stags marksman. Lambe continues to frustrate in the manor of players such as Lindon Meikle have before him. He has the ability to beat a player and deliver good quality, as in evidence with the first goal, but all too often his delivery as poor. The archetypal description of a League Two winger.

Carlisle punished the Stags wastefulness moments later. Mansfield appeared to be building a head of steam as they were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position on the left hand side of the Carlisle penalty area. Browns delivery was headed away in the direction of Reggie Lambe. He appeared to be in complete control of the situation but was outmuscled midway inside the Carlisle half by the smallest player on the pitch, ex-Stag Derek Asamoah. Asamaoah brought the ball away and laid it too his right to substitute David Amoo. In the process, Asamoah was chopped down by Ricky Ravenhill. It may sound cynical, but a moment quicker and the breakaway would have been halted, Ravenhill would have been booked and the goal would have been prevented. Lambe was chasing Amoo back but in his haste to make up for his error was too eager and easily turned by Amoo. Lambe also had the opportunity to bring Amoo down but lacked the nouse. Carlisle has two men free on the left being tracked by Ravenhill, a stride behind because of his decision to foul Asamoah. The free men were invited to run into the space by Elder being sucked over to assist Lambe. Wyke was the player Amoo found, he feigned to shoot, which took both Smith and Ravenhill out of the game, passed the ball back to Dempsey who slid the ball past the desperately outstretched leg of Elder. The Stags caught on the counter but it was well orchestrated by Carlisle.

The Stags players shoulders slumped and they looked a beaten side after the that. The now inevitable ten minute cameo from Matt Rhead failed for the fourth week running to be productive and smacked of an all too evident 'Plan B', if you can call lumping the ball to a sixteen stone striker a plan. He replaced Junior Brown who had been quiet, but the only way Rhead will score is if you plonk the ball on his head 6 yards from goal, so to take arguably your best crosser of the ball off was another poor decision. One final chance was created from a corner when Raynes, now for the fourth week running, failed to convert a great headed opportunity.

No win in six now for the Stags who drop into the relegation zone. This was by far the most disappointing performance of 2015 and yet I would argue the result could have gone either way. Mansfield's soft underbelly is extremely worrying and I think more work needs to be done in this transfer window. The Stags are still lacking experience and it shows. On too many occasions, Carlisle were gifted the ball back needlessly. When leading, playing with five men in midfield away from home, against the four man midfield of Carlisle, The Stags should have been keeping the ball, using Oliver in the channels and the pace of wingers. Instead, Heslop and Ravenhill were particularly guilty of hoofing the ball in whichever direction they were facing. Carlisle were bound to put pressure on eventually but the way to deal with that is to keep the ball not to keep giving it straight back to the opposition.

Stevenage are up next, having lost two games on the spin. The first thing that needs to be ditched ahead of next week is the ridiculous offside trap. It did not work at all and gives the impressions to the opposition 'we cannot defend free kicks so we will rely on the assistant to flag someone offside'. Even if they did catch someone offside, the quality of the officiating at this level offers no guarantee that it would be spotted. Mark men, show character, take responsibility and follow the runner. As we are at home, I would expect the 4-4-2 to return and hopefully Clements to bring some composure in open play and quality with a dead ball. Kee will come in for Blair and now has a point to prove having been left out of the eleven.

The players need to prove that the performance was a 'one-off' after the promising displays of recent weeks. The way they react in the next game will give a clear indication as to the squads character after such a disheartening result. There are still 57 points to play for, which should be remembered, but there is only so long Murray can remind players and fans about that without winning a game. He was quick to bring it up before the game and that may have de-motivated his players.

I would suggest that confidence is now at a season low, after Murray has had a pretty easy ride so far from the fans. We have seen signs of progress and prettier football but not the results to back it up. A win is a must out of the next two or three games to stop the rot, but do Murray and his players have the ability to provide it?

Player Ratings :

Smith - 6 - A few hesitant moments and kicking poor again. No chance with the goals.
Sutton  - 7 - Good performance, used the ball well.
Raynes - 7 - Solid display. Unlucky with the first goal. Needs to start putting his headed chances away.
Tafazolli - 6 - Good in open play but lost his man for the set piece.
Elder - 6.5 - Sucked over for the second goal, but otherwise defended well.
Lambe - 6 - Looked bright and created first goal but lack of concentration when could have given Oliver a tap in and outmuscled for the winner.
Ravenhill - 6 - Didn't have the influence of last week and chasing shadows for the second half.
Heslop - 6 - Hustle and bustle but lacked creativity. Lost midfield battle with Griffiths.
Brown - 6 - Quiet game.
Blair - 6 - A few good runs but final decision lacking. Sad to seem him stretchered off, hope its not season-ending as has potential.
Oliver - 6.5 - Scored but starved of service and caught on his heels a few times.

Subs :
Kee - 6 - Sharpness still did not seem to be there, poor first touch on a couple of occasions.
Rhead - Won a few headers as you would expect but nothing of note.