The takeaways: Hartlepool United 2-2 Ebbsfleet – 'Like Zinedine Zidane' and how injuries impacted John Askey’s system change as things still didn’t work for Pools
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Emmanuel Dieseruvwe continued his fine trend in a Hartlepool shirt, picking up where he left off after the club’s two week break from action, when firing his 12th of the season.
But Hartlepool’s fragility was on show again as they gave up that lead within three minutes when Billy Clifford arrived unchallenged on the edge of the area to meet Matthias Fanimo’s cut back.
John Askey's side struggled to adjust to their new system as Ebbsfleet threatened on more than one occasion throughout the game before Jake Hastie came off the bench to score his second goal of the season in the 90th minute.
Askey’s reprieve was short-lived, however, as once again Hartlepool quickly surrendered their lead when Dominic Samuel converted from almost on the goal line from Mustapha Olagunju’s pull back to salvage a draw for the visitors and leave Pools closer to the bottom four than they are the top seven.
The Mail breaks down some of the key talking points from Hartlepool’s return to action:
Injuries impact Hartlepool’s change in approach but it still did not work
There are mitigating factors as to why Askey’s change in system struggled to make its desired impact – most notably another round of players finding themselves in the treatment room.
Askey deliberated whether he should stick with the plan he and his coaching staff had devised over the previous two weeks when Charlie Seaman and Joe Grey found themselves out of contention to face Ebbsfleet through injury and illness respectively. Add to that both Luke Hendrie (thigh) and Josh Umerah (ankle) were ruled out with injuries picked up in the defeat to Rochdale and Askey was, arguably, short in some of the key areas for his 4-3-3/ 4-2-3-1 philosophy to measure up how he wanted it to.
Askey, it was suggested, upon his arrival actually preferred a 4-3-3 system having enjoyed plenty of success with that set-up while at York City. But Hartlepool have been entrenched in a wing-back system since Dave Challinor’s tenure with the club with David Ferguson and Jamie Sterry particularly congruent in that regard.
Sterry’s exit in the summer might have allowed a change to that style by Askey, but the Hartlepool boss admitted following Saturday’s draw how Dan Dodds played a significant role in the decision to remain with wing-backs, with Askey of the belief the former Middlesbrough man was more equipped as a right-sided centre-back, and thus better in a three.
But given Hartlepool’s struggles of late, the change in system was one that was worth evaluating. In the second half against Rochdale there were signs of promise after Askey had been labelled as one dimensional at times this season.
Injuries or not, however, the change did not seem to work here. Ebbsfleet represented, on paper at least, an ideal opponent for Pools to experiment given they were one of the few sides below Hartlepool in the form table having also won just once on the road all season since their promotion from National League South.
Invariably, however, things did not go accordingly for Askey. As per Wyscout, Pools enjoyed less than 40 per cent possession for only the second time at home this season – the other coming against a possession-based Mike Williamson Gateshead side, whilst also being down to 10-men after Umerah’s early second half dismissal.
Pools also accrued their second lowest xG at home at 0.85 compared to the 0.8 in their previous home outing against Rochdale which would suggest little changed, at least in an attacking sense, by filtering through systems.
Within that, it was their second lowest recorded attempts at goal on home soil with just nine – again only worsened against Gateshead when dealing with 10-men for a period of the game – and they faced their third highest amount of shots all season with Ebbsfleet’s 17 behind Chesterfield (20) and Halifax Town (29). Conversely, Ebbsfleet's 17 attempts at goal were the most they have managed away from home all season, with their next best effort (12) coming in the 1-1 draw with AFC Fylde last month.
But beyond some of those basic stats, Pools, on the eye, were simply too open. Ebbsfleet were able to bypass midfield all too easily with Hartlepool struggling to defend from the front which meant the pressure was then loaded on a back four.
As a result, Askey was forced to change his system and revert to the back five during the first half as the dilemma continues.
Askey has stressed how it remains difficult to play, perhaps, how he would desire with the personnel at his disposal but this is a puzzle in which he will need to figure out whether that is by further system tweaks or a change in style of play.
Hartlepool demonstrate their vulnerability…twice
The complexities of Hartlepool’s system came amid the backdrop of them actually achieving the best possible start through Dieseruvwe’s early goal.
Pools had two weeks to work and develop their game plan and to take the lead after just six minutes must have felt like the perfect reward.
Given Ebbsfleet’s struggles, that could have been a turning point where Pools could, and maybe should, have gone on to dominate the game. Instead, Ebbsfleet levelled within minutes and dictated things themselves.
Likewise, despite what had, by that point, become another disappointing performance, when Hastie was on hand to restore Hartlepool’s lead in the 90th minute, that should have been the key to unlocking a much-needed victory. Pools have reached the stage where it doesn’t matter how victories come just as long as they do and yet they were undone quickly yet again when failing to deal with a free kick into the box.
“We’ve got to find a way of winning. At the moment we can’t,” said Askey.
“The performance, again, wasn’t good enough. We had a great chance to get three points which we perhaps didn’t deserve. We’ve done great to score two goals and then with seconds to go we concede a poor goal.
“If there’s any positive it’s that we’ve got a point. It’s not a big positive, especially with being at home.”
Callum Cooke’s return a welcome lift
Although Hartlepool struggled in the game, the return of Callum Cooke did provide some promise.
Cooke has been missing since the defeat to Oxford City in September with an ankle ligament injury but was brought on just before the hour mark and immediately gave Pools a little bit more impetus in an attacking sense by showing for and carrying the ball.
It may take one or two further cameos such as this to blow off the match-fitness cobwebs but it goes without saying how much of a boost his return could be – a feeling shared by Askey.
“You can see when Callum came on he looked like Zinedine Zidane compared to some of the players on there,” said Askey.
“You could see the quality, and he was playing with confidence and started to bring people into play and hopefully if he can stay fit then we know the qualities Callum has got.
“Callum getting on the ball gives other people confidence as well so it’s a real bonus to get him back sooner than what we thought.”