By any measure – any measure – Ange Postecoglou is on the right track.
The improvement is not simply steady, it’s like a graph going straight up.
Playing in Europe, it’s been a rain of goals which I’ve never seen us do under any other manager. Domestically, we are a couple of players away from being very nearly the unstoppable force, and it’s going to come.
I think it’s a mark of how far we’ve come that some of us are agonising over why we haven’t come further. It’s a credit to Ange that we’ve got close enough that we can see a night like last night as a missed opportunity when normally a match against that calibre of opposition usually ends with us all taking a swift shot of whatever strong substance is to hand.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the time doing this job, it’s that people over-react no matter what it is that I write. There are some proper drama queens in our support who think that every criticism is heresy. But offering criticism is not simply in the job description, there are times, by God, when it’s the job itself. It’s what we’re supposed to do.
The bloggers aren’t here to be shameless, slavish cheerleaders and when Ange screws up – and I think his substitutions last night were plain wrong and some of our defensive position was shocking – it is correct to write that.
I said before the game that I was excited about it, and about our attacking style, that we would score goals but I didn’t expect us to win. So in a way, the game went the way I thought it would.
I saw us being outplayed by a better team on the night, not doing the football equivalent of self-harm. I didn’t expect us to take the lead and still be in that position with ten minutes to go.
I would have hoped for some late-game management to see it out better if I had.
Ange is not managing in the J League anymore, where all the teams are broadly comparable.
He’s not managing a World Cup spoiler where the fans will simply enjoy the attacking football and hope to get the viewing public talking.
European football is the real deal, and you need to blend attacking football with a sense of realism, and even a little caution.
Nobody is going to criticise a guy who brings on a holding midfielder late in a game, or an extra defender to lock the back door.
The attacking side of this team is so good, so much better than any of us dared dream, that if we can marry it to a common sense strategy at the back that we’ll be a hell of a threat to any team who plays us.
These lessons – if we learn them – will stand us good next year when the time comes for our Champions League Group games.
The way we played at times last night will certainly feed the confidence we already feel about the domestic side of things.
The frustration at going out of the Europa League with a game still to play can’t be denied.
But it really is a backhanded compliment to the manager and this team; I didn’t expect the over-riding emotion this morning to be frustration. I expected a performance that came close but not close enough because they were just too good on the night.
But to have matched a better team, to have had the lead, and then to have thrown it away … well, that’s a measure of both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. The direction of travel is the right one and that’s for damned sure.
Soon enough, the frustration will be gone and we’ll be watching this side do things we never dreamed.
We were so close last night to that big step.
Getting so close that you could feel your nails brush the surface of it … yeah, it makes the fingers itch.