United hosted League One outfit Bolton at Brunton Park on Saturday afternoon and a discipline in the approach, coupled with a comfortable feel in the shape, left manager Paul Simpson with plenty of positives to mull over come the full-time whistle.
“It was massively encouraging, yes,” he agreed. “The biggest thing that pleased me was the fitness levels.
“They looked strong, and I think the other thing was that they looked comfortable in the shape they had, and the discipline to keep that shape throughout, even when we were making a whole host of changes.
“There were tired legs from the lads who played the 90 minutes but you expect that. There were so many things to be pleased about.
“I keep saying that the games are an extension of training and this has been another really good training day for us.”
Expanding more on the shape employed, which was a slight variation on the pre-season theme so far, he commented: “The pleasing thing for me was the way they were with the shape. We literally did a walk through on the way we wanted to set up against them on Friday.
“We didn’t actually know their team but we talked about Santos playing as the central one of the back three, and the way they play they want to get everything through him.
“They use him to try and bounce it into midfield and out to the outside centre backs. We did a walk through on how we wanted to set out against that, and then it was a case of, if they do try it, can we be in areas where we go and threaten it and win it back.
“Then, if you do that, can we have a quick transition and see if we can get something from it. There were a lot of good things and when you do that walk through and it works, at least it shows that the lads are listening to us and they’re able to go and execute it.”
“We still need to be better because there were things that weren’t quite right,” he added. “We gave the ball away a little bit too cheaply at times, we had occasions where our outside centre-backs were getting out and weren’t quite finding the right pass.
“Those are things we need to improve on. We had opportunities where we could have been a little bit more organised on set plays. We didn’t do it particularly well. There are still things we need to improve and work on. But I’ve got to say, overall I was really pleased with what I saw.
“As I’ve said, the biggest thing for me was the fitness and strength levels I saw from them. The discipline they showed, the work ethic, all those things were really good. Although I’m not forgetting it’s a pre-season friendly.”
Having seen his team turn possession over and sweep forward for the first goal, he confirmed that he was just as pleased with the second and third, which perhaps weren’t quite as crisp.
“I keep reminding people that last year we got done too many times on a transition,” he told us. “That was because the structure wasn’t quite right.
“I think if you have the right shape, when you do lose the ball, you’re in a position to win it back quickly.
“That was a pleasing thing for us and, although they were scruffy goals, I’ll take a lot of scruffy goals this season if that’s what we have to have, because it means the players are in the right places.
“And being ion the right place is something we’ve tried to do. I’m not overly keen on overcoaching teams, I don’t believe you should put loads and loads of ideas into players heads. You can’t turn them into robots.
“They have to be able to adapt, and it was pleasing that they did that for us in this game with the way they managed the team shape at the start of it to deal with a change that Bolton made to what we expected to see from them.
“That stands us in good stead that we have players who can see things and do something about it. We’ve just got to hope they continue to do that.”
Always going to be tested in the heat, and against a team from a higher level, were the fitness levels, both as individuals and as a group.
“I’ve learned from this game that we’re fit, that’s the first thing I’d say,” he commented. “Credit goes to the plan that Jamie Roper our strength coach has put together to prepare them for the work we want them to do.
“We’ll keep working them for the next two weeks so there’ll be no let up. We’re not looking to peak for that Crawley game, but we do have to be in a good place.
“We want to peak later on in the season. I still know this season’s going to be a really big challenge, I’m not deluded, I know that.
“Good results in pre-season don’t change that. I’m delighted we’ve got three goals, we didn’t do that at all last year, and we’ve done it against a good Bolton side.
“I’m really pleased with the shape we’re looking at, and we tried something different with a midfield three today, and it worked for us.
“The other thing, as I said earlier, is that the players showed their adaptability because we expected Bolton to go with two sitting midfielders and a number 10, so we were going to go with Callum up against that, and the other two up against their other two midfielders.
“As it was they were different, they changed it and went with a one and a two, so the players adapted to that themselves.
“Gibbo went up against their sitting midfielder off his own initiative, so that was really pleasing. It’s showing that the players are intelligent, and they have licence to adapt if they need to. That can only stand us in good stead.”
Happy with the display, but determined to maintain the focus, he said: “The truth is that I do like much of what I’ve seen, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t get too excited because it’s a pre-season friendly.
“I know we need to better at things in certain areas, so there’s still a long way to go. I’m not trying to play anything down but I’m still going into the season thinking we need to get enough points to be safe.
“I’m not thinking play-offs, promotion, none of that, none of those pie in the sky things. Let’s deal with the next two weeks first and then see if we can get off to a good start against Crawley in terms of performance and the result.
“I’ve seen things that please me and I’ve seen things that need to be better. That’s the challenge for the next two weeks, is to make sure we are better at those things we’ve identified and that we deal with whatever comes our way.”
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