Should Gabriele Cioffi's Crawley Town be performing better?

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 18 March 2019, 12:04

It is difficult not to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Crawley Town manager, Gabriele Cioffi.

Managing a club that has been in League One more recently than the National League, naturally no group of supporters can be remotely impressed by mere survival - which the Italian’s side look likely to accomplish with a 10-point cushion.

And yet, the funds that enabled the club to rise up the leagues under Steve Evans a decade ago have long dissipated, with current chairman Ziya Eren reluctant to supply a budget to make the club’s current position of 17th look below-par on paper.

This period in West Sussex therefore, must be about sustainable growth and steady improvement.

That starts off the field, because the training facilities at Crawley are not quite in line with what other clubs at this level can offer and, in that sense, structural changes are required to get the club on an upward trajectory - that is out of Cioffi’s hands.

On the flip side, there is also reason to think that Crawley have a squad that should perhaps be closer to the top half than the current gulf of nine points – and of course, the performance in Saturday’s 6-1 loss at Crewe was unacceptable.

 

Despite that result, the Red Devils possess one of the best goalkeepers in the division in Glenn ‘Cat’ Morris, who has clawed away most of the efforts that have not flied a whisker wide.

In terms of heading balls away from the penalty area and performing the basics, Crawley have one of the division’s best old-school centre-backs in Joe McNerney.

Striker Ollie Palmer was one of only five players in English football to score double-figures without starting more than 15 games in all competitions while at Lincoln last season; since moving south, he has become League Two’s eighth-highest scorer with 14 goals.

Crawley also have one of League Two’s best technicians in Filipe Morais, who has the capability of picking through passes that only a handful of League Two players can execute; Josh Payne can be a steady holding midfielder, too.

Manchester United loanee Matty Willock and Reece Grego-Cox offer more dynamic options going forward, as does wide forward Ashley Nathaniel-George, who has started just 11 league games despite frequently showing prodigious talent from the bench.

They have an inverted wing-back in Lewis Young who proved the best player in his position for a four-month spell midway through last season and is technically very gifted, even if he and the delicate-footed David Sesay can improve defensively out wide.

Granted, Cioffi has not had too many opportunities to bring his own players in, with just four additions in his reign so far, but Crawley possess bits and pieces of potentially a top half squad which should have won more than five games in their last 23 league matches – two fewer than Macclesfield have in 20.

Part of the problem could be the stylistic differences between players in the squad.

For example, we saw at Crewe that McNerney looks slightly uncomfortable when asked to play out from the back, which is not his natural game.

Equally, the more direct approach does not necessarily suit players like Palmer, who is not a target man despite being relatively tall, or Morais, who tends to find himself in no-man’s land in agricultural affairs.

Perhaps, Cioffi has found it difficult to develop a clear playing identity without facing criticism for leaving out competent and influential players who do not fit into that strategy; maybe he has found himself stuck in a catch-22 situation in which it has been difficult to find a reliable formula for consistency.

In which case, there is an argument to say that he deserves an opportunity to work with the players over the summer away from the microscope and re-shape the squad slightly before being judged conclusively.

For Cioffi to earn that opportunity though, he also needs to show to Crawley fans between now and May that there is a style of football he is working towards.

 

Early in his reign, the 43-year-old’s main selling point, as well as his spirited mentality and the positive initial home form, was that he encouraged his players to mix up their game more than we saw under Harry Kewell.

The problem with advocating adaptability, though, is that it can lead to mixed messages which is not necessarily conducive to generating consistency.

The closest Crawley have come to looking like a top seven side since relegation to this level back in 2015 is their four-month patch of form between October and February last season.

Then, perhaps Kewell’s biggest weakness in the eyes of some was simultaneously his greatest strength: i.e. he did not overly concern himself with what fans thought.

Instead, he stayed true to his own playing philosophy which was football on the deck, attacking wing-backs and triangle passing sequences in the channels, particularly wide right.

Very rarely, if ever, did those principles waver and that allowed players to become accustomed to them and, at times, execute them effectively.

Cioffi has made more attempts than the Australian to interact positively with fans, which is in some ways admirable.

Where one might question him is, firstly, whether he has an ideology he believes in and, if so, whether he has the conviction to see it through.

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