Bury’s poor start to life back in the fourth tier has gone under the radar in the media that cover the basement division. As part of my quest to continually improve my blog by increasing my knowledge and broadening my horizons, I have consumed a lot of podcasts on my commutes to work, as well as reading articles extensively. Few pay much heed to the Shakers’ early trials and tribulations, and it’s not hard to offer reasons why that’s the case.
I maintain my belief that, the Crawley Town defeat aside, the opening five games in League Two have panned out pretty much in line with at least my expectations. True, four points is a barely acceptable return, but performances have warranted at least a share of the spoils in every encounter… and the data largely backs that up.
I’ve been hesitant to include references to metrics like expected goals (xG) previously for fear of putting people off reading on, but there seems to be a trickling down from higher up the pyramid of interest in analytics, as well as more general acceptance of them. As with any single tool, it has to be used in tandem with ‘eyeballing’ (actually watching the matches) to ensure higher accuracy. Below is a slideshow, courtesy of the peerless Ben Mayhew and his Experimental 3-6-1 blog.
One of the most prominent narratives thus far has been a perceived lack of getting shots off or finishing chances, and they’re sometimes considered to be mutually inclusive problems. When you consider that in most xG models that a penalty is ‘worth’ 0.7 goals, John Akinde’s cool sidefoot from 12 yards out had hitherto been the sole occasion where Ryan Lowe’s charges had been outgunned, and that came as a direct consequence of Will Aimson’s second yellow card. Fine margins indeed.
I’m fully cognisant that will be of little comfort for other supporters reading. Already, and with no surprise to me whatsoever, I have witnessed fans calling for Lowe to be sacked, which is faintly ridiculous. That it’s still August hasn’t stopped them, or indeed the board at Notts County from dispensing with Kevin Nolan’s services, with the Magpies propping up the table, contrary to every single pre-season prediction, including my own.
Comparisons have been inevitably made with the prior campaign’s total shambles: a win on the first weekend that masks underlying problems on and off the pitch. I don’t think there’s a direct correlation here.
Firstly, prior to the defeat last Saturday, the defence appeared to be much more cohesive as a unit than at any point in 2017/2018. At Broadfield, they were shorn of Aimson through suspension, and then Eoghan O’Connell through injury with the match finely poised at 1-1. The latter caused a reorganisation that, whilst it doesn’t fully explain the utter lack of urgency in preventing Ollie Palmer’s slaloming run for the Red Devils’ winner, was indicative of an enforced change in personnel that once more put Lowe on the back foot, as well as raising questions over the lack of defensive cover on the subs’ bench.
Part of that reshuffle involved dragging Nicky Adams even further from familiarity. Deployed as a wing-back in league games ever since a fairly innocuous challenge took out Tom Miller, he was pushed into an orthodox full-back role by his compatriot’s substitution. Phil Edwards could have come on instead of an extra body in midfield, but that would still have meant the man who made his 500th senior appearance at the weekend would’ve been moved back. Chris Stokes was already occupying the left-sided berth in a three (and then a two), and Edwards’ ‘cameos’ centrally in 2017/2018 still give me the jitters. Lowe must find a way of utilising Adams in a more conventional way further forward, as suits his talents. His lack of defensive nous was plain for all to witness, and it’s difficult to apportion too much responsibility on his shoulders. It’s made all the more galling by the fact that there are two others on the roster that are more natural fits: Dougie Nyaupembe and Ryan Cooney. Neither have made the matchday squad yet.
At the other end of the pitch, some sections want to see yet more forwards to be brought into the club. The likes of Dom Telford and Gold Omotayo were always likely to need time to adjust to featuring regularly for differing reasons: Telford because of his age and former club, Omotayo because of the unconventional route from Switzerland into full-time professional sport, having once been on the books at FC Zürich. There have been flashes from both of their potential, and they have tended to perform more capably when partnered with someone of Chris Dagnall’s wealth of experience. It’s simply far too early to dismiss either of their merits, but equally, ways must be found of turning more shots into goals that don’t hinge on Jermaine Beckford’s slow return to match fitness.
Returning to the point about defensive cover for a moment, another player conspicuous by his absence thus far has been Saul Shotton. In Lowe’s own words, he’s the fourth choice centre back for certain, now that Tom Aldred has re-joined Motherwell, and certainly could’ve been done with during the latter stages of the latest defeat. I am therefore more interested than most to see if he makes the XVIII, should O’Connell’s knock rule him out of contention… and exactly what the makeup of the starting eleven in the EFL Trophy will be in midweek. A glimpse of Joe Adams sat in the dugout during the EFL Cup penalty shootout loss to Nottingham Forest is the closest anyone still contracted to the club and 18 or younger has been to tasting first team action, despite the squad being chipped away by outgoing loans and Lowe’s previous strong rhetoric on the subject.
Another area where fingers have been pointed is a perceived lack of fitness, which in some minds neatly explains the number of late goals that Bury have conceded. I have certainly noticed one or two individuals tire, Danny Mayor in particular, but he is carrying an ongoing groin problem. There is also the caveat of it being a very small sample size to reach any conclusion at this stage. I’ve included last season’s goal timings below for you to make comparisons:
The elephant in the (engine) room for me remains the midfield as a unit. I realise I’m beating a well-worn drum by stating that, but I maintain that, as games progress, the lack of effective structure has made it easier for opposition teams to play a higher line from their defence, which has had a knock-on effect further up the field. It’s also worth remembering that all the scorelines going into the last 10 or 15 minutes have either been level or a single goal separating the two sides. That’s bound to change (for better or worse) over the course of the campaign, so it’s an area worth revisiting. The likeliest explanation is that there a multitude of factors that have been causing the late setbacks, and the ‘losing’ mentality of the players who were here in 2017/2018 cannot be overlooked as a possible cause. It’s the hardest element to change.
What I’m not shying away from, however, is that results do need to change, starting this weekend at home to Morecambe. Despite their lowly standing and ambition to simply survive in the EFL once more, they cannot be underestimated. Bury do have the quality to beat them, and for the pressure on Lowe to alleviate, I think they have to do it convincingly by the margin of victory at the very least; it’s likely to be a physical battle all over the pitch. Performance levels have been generally good without the points to back them up. Few at this juncture would mind the opposite occurring.
The yellow card Will Aimson rightly received in the very first couple of minutes would, unfortunately from a Bury perspective, have a massive impact later in the game. His eventual sending off shouldn’t detract from what was an excellent performance overall. His positioning was spot on, he covered the other two centre backs with well-timed interceptions, and he was constantly cajoling both of them and Nicky Adams to reset themselves, ever vigilant of the dangers Lincoln City posed. His absence on Saturday for the trip to Crawley Town could be sizeable.
Danny Cowley’s men set up in the shape I’d anticipated, but not exactly the same personnel in attacking areas than I’d anticipated. Matt Rhead spearheaded their front three, which didn’t seem the best fit for the quick balls forward that were played in the first half. The Shakers rearguard could afford to take a high line, owing to the target man’s inherent lack of pace. Matt Green went quite narrow on his right, leaving only Bruno Andrade to provide width. Elliott Chapman, making his first league start for The Imps, looked the brightest, getting up in support from a midfield that seemed far too deep to get the best out of their unit or their teammates in the final third. He had the most joy in the wide space, as the channels were heavily congested.
Whilst I’m sure Chris Dagnall was delighted in some respects to finally having a striking partner alongside him in a dark blue shirt, it wasn’t a vintage display from Gold Omotayo, and understandably, there didn’t appear to much of a rapport at this stage, save for one slick move. The former Crewe Alexandra player certainly worked hard, and his first touch did a better job of retaining possession than his Swiss compatriot’s. Manager Ryan Lowe wants his side to defend from the front, and there can be no question that between them, they did that; sometimes however, it meant that Dagnall would be found behind his own backline in open play, and that’s hardly where he’ll do damage. Omotayo was constantly lambasted on the iFollow commentary, which I felt went a little far. Like some of the other strikers signed in the close season, he needs time and patience to adapt to playing consistently, and in his case on a full-time basis.
Although the visitors had the edge in the opening period, they did give the ball away cheaply in midfield areas frequently, particularly when looking to switch from one flank to another. Adams did seem a little more comfortable than he had been previously in the right wing-back role, but it’s still unfamiliar territory for him. It often meant that neither he nor Chris Stokes were on quite the same wavelength as Stephen Dawson and Neil Danns, but once more, that will undoubtedly improve with time.
In an obvious reaction to last Saturday’s draw with Forest Green Rovers, Bury did shoot far more from outside the area when allowed to. There was however, still a noticeable reluctance to do so when they managed to penetrate the hosts’ 18-yard box, and it only changed when the situation became desperate in the closing stages. Compare and contrast that with the shot that led to the penalty, even though it was never likely to be heading in.
Well before that, the pre-season favourites were always going to create something. Jason Shackell was impressive at both ends of the pitch, and his header looked goalbound until Joe Murphy clawed it away, the reaction from the crowd drowned out by the infamous air raid siren that plays whenever Lincoln have a corner at Sincil Bank. He also stood up well to spells of sustained pressure, leading his teammates superbly.
If there was a defensive failing though, it was certainly evident in Eoghan O’Connell being allowed two attempts at a shot before being rewarded for his efforts with his second stab. Yet again, it originated from a set piece, and underlined Adams’ importance in this regard. The Irish ball-playing centre back was the only one to react to his initial headed effort being blocked, and also seems to be gaining confidence that he can be someone for the opposition to watch out for when attacking. He also leads the in-house goal tally with two…
The second half was inevitably going to have a different narrative. Chapman surprisingly made way for Harry Anderson, and this allowed a reversion to a 4-4-2, as well as allowing Bruno Andrade to be much wider on the left flank. The south Lancashire outfit had to contend with an abundance of whipped crosses, the vast majority of which were dealt with decisively. Their greater retention of the ball allowed the quietly effective Tom Pett to impose himself more visibly on the flow of the match. This was further enhanced by the further substitutions; Shay McCartan has a completely different skillset to Rhead, and it also succeeded in pushing back Bury by a good five yards at least.
A home win didn’t seem at all likely until the penalty was awarded to them – correctly. Aimson obviously knew that the ball was being fired towards goal, and getting up from the floor to block, whilst admirable, ran the risk of it being called for handball and another yellow card. John Akinde, on for the ineffective Rhead, waited for Murphy to move to enact a carbon copy of the previous spot kick goals he’d scored in a red and white shirt.
The reshuffle at the back caused by the red card had Stokes playing on the left side of a three, with Callum McFadzean, on a sub for Omotayo, in his place at wing-back. This is something I’d like to see repeated at the weekend in Essex, rather than Saul Shotton being drafted in. This is because it provides better balance on that side, and McFadzean’s pace and instincts are more honed to getting forward (successfully) than Stokes will ever be in a five-man defence.
Easy to say with hindsight, but even at the time, I thought Byron Moore coming on for Dagnall was a mistake. Although the winger is certainly quick and direct, he is not someone who’s going to lead the attack in any context, so it effectively meant that there were no strikers left on the pitch whilst Dom Telford, a forward similar in approach to Moore, remained unused on the bench. This move highlighted the tactical deficiencies Lowe still possesses. Dagnall had run himself ragged, but Telford could’ve made Lincoln think twice about bombing forward with their man advantage with abandon. It ensured that the ball kept coming back towards Murphy, who misjudged one such instance in spectacular fashion. Lee Frecklington, like Pett, had by this stage gained a stranglehold on midfield, and his calm and collected finish into the empty net whilst still being put under pressure should not go unnoticed.
I prefer to see the positives of the match; the negatives are largely what they have been to date in every game. The Shakers lived with a side that will perform better on many occasions this season, even without gaining points in a few of those that their efforts will warrant. Defensively, they largely kept some of the best talents in the entire division at arm’s length for 75 minutes. They had at least the same number of chances to win the game. They have now been to two of the bookies’ three favourites for the title and been at least equal, even if the scorelines haven’t in the end reflected that. Yes, goals are still at a premium, and it’s unlikely to change overnight, but they can look to the next two matches as good opportunities to rectify that. Crawley Town and Morecambe have been more ‘accommodating’ than most with their defences, and the former have a threadbare squad stretched to breaking point by a red card of their own on Tuesday. Either way, Bury now need to regain that winning feeling, even if it means sacrificing being credited by the opposition in the process.
The final few minutes have decided the outcome of all four matches in Bury’s season to date, and manager Ryan Lowe will possibly be hoping it doesn’t come to that once more, as he prepares to take his charges east for the trip to joint-top Lincoln City. No side in League Two has a perfect record after three games, but Danny Cowley’s men have perhaps come the closest, earning an excellent opening day victory against Northampton Town, and following it up in even more impressive fashion against Swindon Town. The derby encounter with Grimsby Town was always likely to be a close affair, and the mood around the cathedral city remains buoyant, as evidenced by the swell in support the club have received since the management team arrived in May 2016.
The Shakers have had one win, one draw and one defeat in their first set of fixtures, with the main pluses being a much more resolute look to the defence, which had hitherto been on the porous side, and a greater collective harmony and effort on the pitch.
The hosts must contend with several injury concerns at present; custodian Josh Vickers did play on Saturday, but doesn’t look to be fit enough to keep his place. Scott Wharton might also miss the cut, and the swashbuckling style of Shay McCartan will be absent from the gaze of Sincil Bank’s floodlights, too.
The positional and tactical flexibility they possess throughout the predicted XI are chief reasons for their ability to adapt their style to both venue and opposition. At home, they’ll revert to a flat back four and neither Harry Toffolo or Neal Eardley are likely to be pressed in their own defensive third with regularity. The full-backs can flit between more advanced roles at will, and should have the freedom to get forward and provide outside options for the wider attacking midfielders.
Vickers and Wharton will be missed in goal and the heart of defence respectively, and most of Jason Shackell’s time will be spent trying to contain Gold Omotayo, or at least reduce the instances and effectiveness of the Swiss giant’s flick-ons and movement. Michael Bostwick will need to be watchful of him or Dom Telford’s runs in behind, as two other sides have already found to their cost this campaign by means of a red card. The former Peterborough United stalwart is extremely aggressive in the tackle and poses a massive danger in the opposition penalty area to boot.
Lee Frecklington uses every bit of his experience to dictate the tempo of a game from deep areas. He has an eye for goal from range if given the time and space by the opposition to saunter up the pitch unchecked. Similarly, Michael O’Connor might provide a double pivot option to help out his teammates and soak up the pressure. Watch out for his direct free-kicks and positional flexibility – the latter is a coveted commodity in a tight-knit squad that already has a few unavailable.
McCartan could be replaced by moving Tom Pett higher up, and he should be able to perform well with plenty of space to work in. Very agile and a technical dribbler, he’ll make one of the Shakers’ back three step out perhaps more than they’d want to, which could create gaps down the sides in the half-spaces.
Harry Anderson can operate on either flank, but will start on the right. He’ll have the beating of Chris Stokes for pace all day long, and is also deceptively strong for a player of his stature. Bruno Andrade’s signature was desperately wanted by a plethora of teams in the EFL’s lower leagues and for good reason. 22 goals from attacking midfield was an astonishing return for Boreham Wood in 2017/2018, and all the evidence to date suggests he has made the step up without breaking a sweat. It helps that he has John Akinde (or Matt Green from the bench) to aim for, and he likes nothing more than bursting into the area and checking back on his right foot for a clipped cross to the far post. All three goals Bury have conceded to date have come from a lack of closing down the spare man on their left.
Akinde is very strong and loves nothing more than using that to back into his marker to shield the ball, but it’s his anticipation and movement which elevates him in comparison to other strikers of similar stature. Both of his strikes have been from the spot in the league, but you’d be a fool to discount his threat in open play – the calm way he stole the ball in the EFL Cup from Nathan Smith and finished into the bottom corner might make Eoghan O’Connell a bit more wary of the time he has on the ball to start a move.
Assuming Tom Miller and Chris Dagnall are still out, I can only foresee one change from the draw against Forest Green Rovers. Lowe must be cognizant of the numbers Lincoln will have in midfield, so he could either revert to one up top or, more likely, bring back Stephen Dawson into the XI. Stokes will have his work cut out from a defensive point of view, and given Nicky Adams’ unnatural fit for his current role, the width in attack, such as it is, will probably only come from Danny Mayor.
As for a prediction, I’m going for a keenly fought, narrow 2-1 win for Lincoln. The middle three in dark blue, no matter how they’re made up, must press as a team to ensure the likes of Frecklington and Pett are not allowed sufficient thinking time to look up and spot runners down the channels. The onus will be on the home side to set the tempo, and a repeat of the dogged performance away at Nottingham Forest will be required to glean even a single point from this match. It’s far from impossible, but given the dearth so far of clear-cut chances and goals, they might have to rely once more on the defence to restrict the opposition, more than on their own ability in attack.
I’m normally disinclined to comment on the atmosphere and crowd at a match I attend, but I feel it’s necessary to point out how surreal it came across to me on Saturday. It was my third visit to Stadium MK, but the first where it was so quiet in the stands, almost resembling a pre-season friendly at times. The stated attendance of just short of 7,000 seemed a gross exaggeration, drawing incredulous reactions from Bury fans all around me, and the biggest cheer from the home supporters prior to the dying embers of the encounter was for a ball chipped from the seating area over a player, waiting to take a throw-in.
Regarding the action itself, Paul Tisdale opted for a back five in the opening period, which had the knock-on effect of ensuring most of the battles were fought in midfield, and neither side had the creativity to get in behind packed defences. I counted just one occasion in total, and it came in second half stoppage time, with the Shakers piling forward for an unlikely equaliser. The change of tack to a flat four during the interval did help MK come into proceedings a touch more, nullifying some of the freedom Danny Mayor and Nicky Adams enjoyed in the process, and giving Jordan Houghton more options from his holding role to aim for, instead of his teammates hitting it long to debutant Dylan Asonganyi.
The pace of Asonganyi and Kieran Agard in attacking areas certainly gave The Shakers’ rearguard food for thought; the strategy to go on the outside of the wide centre backs was reasonably effective, particularly down their right, insofar as it ensured that they had to stay quite deep and hit it long more often than not, and Will Aimson was the most guilty of wasting his passes under little to no pressure. Adam Thompson isn’t the speediest, but he normally had a few yards’ head-start on his man, more often than not shepherding the hoofed ball out for a goal kick or to Joe Murphy. Again, this tactic morphed during the second half, sometimes resulting in the men in white and gold swapping positions or holding up play at the edge of the ‘D’, with greater numbers coming up in support of them than had hitherto been the case.
A notable and frequent occurrence throughout the match were the quick, short free-kicks taken by Bury. The two sides both had very well organised defences, so it was certainly understandable for Ryan Lowe to instruct his charges to attempt to disrupt the time the hosts had to reset their shape. This didn’t have the desired outcome for two reasons: firstly, there was a noticeably comparative lack of pace in dark blue to make the most of the set pieces. Secondly, the communication wasn’t quite there yet between the taker and intended recipient, so you’d see a good pass hit into one of the flanks without it being read early enough.
An injury around the 40th minute to right wing-back Tom Miller left Lowe with a quandary. The bench, whilst appearing strong and experienced, only contained one defensively-minded outfield player – Callum McFadzean, who operates on the other wing. It left him little choice but to switch the formation, opting to bring on Gold Omotayo to partner Chris Dagnall in attack, and shifting Adams back into the position Miller had inadvertently vacated. The knock-on effects were twofold – Adams was evidently unsure of which positions to take up when defending, and it also negated his effectiveness against the slow Dean Lewington. I also think it played into Tisdale’s hands to a degree, as Houghton only had Mayor to contend with from then on, and this almost certainly precipitated the tactical changes from a home perspective soon after.
Callum Styles was appearing for the first time since immediately being sent back to Gigg Lane on loan from Barnsley; the encounter proved to be a telling snapshot of where he is in his development. What was plain to see is that he has indeed added some muscle to his short frame, and he was able to win a few more challenges than he might have done at the same point last year. He always looks to receive a pass to feet, very rarely wastes the ball when he does get it, has a good range of techniques to ensure his own pass reaches its intended target… but the tempo does signficantly slow down when he’s in possession. That isn’t always a hindrance, but I’m not sure if it’s the best match for what Lowe is trying to emphasise in 2018/2019. He doesn’t have the right personnel either behind him (anyone at all) or in front of him (a more direct playmaker and/or a striker who plays on the shoulder of the last defender) to fully accentuate all the positive attributes he does possess.
Dom Telford’s cameo wasn’t the best first impression I’ve had of him in the flesh. Whilst Chris Dagnall predictably toiled when alone up front in the face of three centre backs and wayward long balls, he does have the requisite first touch and experience to at least bring others into play when he does manage to get hold of possession, even if it comes at a cost of being penetrative with it. The former Bristol Rovers loanee looked lost; his partnership with Omotayo hasn’t reached beyond the embryonic stage, and both were guilty of being positionally poor, costing Bury dearly when mounting attacks. Each of the two had a half-chance to score; Omotayo’s header was too close to Lee Nicholls, and Telford’s turn and shot was far too tame. It’s difficult to foresee either dislodging Dagnall if Lowe persists with a 5-2-2-1, based on that evidence.
One very welcome part of the match was Jay O’Shea’s introduction from the bench. Talk of high wages aside, he offers a different threat behind the forwards than either Adams or Mayor, although both starters had good games and were unfortunate not to score: the former had a free kick that rattled the post, the latter had a goalbound effort headed off the line by a defender with Nicholls beaten. Mayor will start on the flank and bring the ball inside at a right angle to the penalty area. O’Shea is much more direct, and will run straight into the 18 yard-box on the dribble. I think he should be afforded more minutes tomorrow evening against Nottingham Forest, and is a more than capable alternative to the current starting pair.
The winner for MK was harsh on their opponents, coming as it did from the one lapse in concentration I can recall them making. A cross-field pass was played to the right, and the superb George Williams (my personal choice for man of the match) was unmarked, and he controlled the ball with one touch. Oussenyou Cissé, the towering substitute who had challenged Chris Stokes for the aerial ball, immediately drifted inside the area. Stokes remained in situ to try to cut any attempted pass, but Cissé was unmarked when he guided it into the far corner, leaving Joe Murphy no chance.
In summary, both managers can be satisfied that they had set up their defences well. This is a particular filip for Lowe, as the current unit look as though they fully understand their responsibilities. The concerns are further up the pitch; both sets of attackers appeared quite blunt, and the invention from midfield was missing something. I liked that Bury weren’t cowed in any way by their opponents, and, despite their starting formation, definitely didn’t come to Buckinghamshire seeking a point. If they can retain their solidity in the league (the game against Forest is tantamount to a ‘free hit’), there’s every reason to suggest they can kick on and achieve a respectable standing in the table. Tisdale will also be a mixture of relieved and encouraged that MK Dons have taken two wins from two against fellow relegated outfits, without having played spectacularly well, and in the latter match, missing some key players.
I will be making the short train journey into Buckinghamshire to watch Bury take on Paul Tisdale’s MK Dons. Although both teams won on opening day, the hosts are undoubtedly the favourites, and certainly looked more dangerous than the Shakers in their respective matches, even though Ryan Lowe’s charges were up against the nine men of Yeovil Town for the last quarter of their encounter.
Not everything went Tisdale’s way during their trip to Oldham Athletic, however. No fewer than four players sustained knocks or injuries, forcing them to see out the final few minutes at Boundary Park a player light themselves.
Bereft of several starters, the strategy is unlikely to change all that much, the emphasis still firmly placed on keeping possession, only looking to play riskier balls in the final third after working it between the more advanced midfielders. Lee Nicholls favours throwing the ball out in open play, which is a good fit for the setup. Even without Callum Brittain, there’s a good balance to the back four; captain Dean Lewington will get forward when he can, although his speed is understandably not what it once was. Joe Walsh is also left-footed, and will look to pass to his central defensive partner Jordan Moore-Taylor to make more refined use of the ball. George Williams could start out on the right, and will use his aerial prowess to compensate for his lack of height, as well as getting up the pitch to support the wide man on his flank.
Jordan Houghton will anchor the midfield, and he will need to keep tabs on Danny Mayor’s drifting runs inside. Ryan Watson will act as the go-between in the centre of the park, keeping things ticking over. Alex Gilbey dictates the tempo, and his early return to fitness after a protracted spell on the sidelines is a major plus. Unafraid to get stuck in to win the ball back, he then will gallop into the final third where he has several options: Kieran Agard peeling off his marker, Ryan Harley on one side and Chuks Aneke on the other, or he can shape to shoot, as he’s apt to do from range, and accurate to boot.
Harley scored on his debut last week, making an unopposed run to the back post after some intricate build-up. He probably won’t find Bury’s defenders quite as accommodating, but he too is a threat in the air as well as on the dribble. Aneke has been the subject of continued speculation linking him with a move away from stadium:mk, but at the time of writing, he remains in situ. Without Peter Pawlett, he could start on the right, he will look for Agard’s runs to create space for him to run into, and he most certainly can out-muscle his marker and that power translates to his shots.
Agard needs plenty of support from his teammates to be productive in a lone striker role. He doesn’t tend to create chances for himself, but his impressive agility and work rate should ensure that if some of his supply is cut off, it will be hard for Lowe to devise a method of doing it completely, even if he’s faced with three centre backs.
That said, the rest of the team cannot afford to do the same. Gilbey will find time and space in between the lines and have the Shakers chasing shadows if they’re not carefuul. He in particular must be pressed into at least making hasty decisions on the ball, if not mistakes. Neil Danns is the likeliest candidate to do that if the XI that started last Saturday remain the same. Callum Styles, in his first game officially on loan after moving to Barnsley, will need to pick his passes carefully to Mayor and Adams, as both he and Danns will be at a numerical disadvantage in midfield.
Mayor will need a consistent supply on the floor to get the better of Williams. Even if he beats his man, he’ll probably have at most two in the box to aim for. Nicky Adams should use Lewington’s reluctance to join his side’s attacks against him, crossing from different angles and areas to try to draw him out. If Lowe persists with Chris Dagnall, he needs the inside forwards to remain high up in close support. Gold Omotayo or Dom Telford are better fits for the system MK employ; the former because he’ll cause concern with his physicality, the latter because his pace and direct running would increase the gap between the backline and Houghton.
As for a prediction, I’m going for a 1-0 win for the home side. Even without some of their best talents, it’s hard to foresee how Bury can hurt them if Lowe sets his side up as he did in the opener. The defence looked solid against Yeovil, and will surely be tested to a far greater extent. Avoiding falling behind early will be crucial to head home with a positive result. In some ways, this is the clichéd ‘ideal time’ to be playing against MK Dons: a new manager, a long list of unavailable players, and the ones who are present are still adapting to Tisdale’s philosophy and in some cases, their new surroundings… but does the novice manager in the away dressing room have the nous to make the most of that ‘opportunity’? I have my doubts.
The dust has just about settled on the ‘soft’ deadline of the summer transfer window. In this article, I’ll look at where it’s left Bury’s squad, what shapes and styles of play are realistically open to Ryan Lowe, and how I’d line them up were I in charge!
Callum Styles to Barnsley (and back again)
This one came as a bit of a surprise to me. Not in the sense that there was interest in him (which has been the case ever since he arrived from Burnley’s academy), nor the club that will be his new home for the next four years. No, it was more the timing of the move itself. As you will see below, the current Shakers roster, whilst swollen in quantity, doesn’t actually have that many central midfielders, and fewer still that have any sort of playmaker credentials. It’s a relief that he’s been immediately loaned back from Oakwell to Gigg Lane until at least January, because it’s already a struggle to envisage who, apart from a fully fit Jay O’Shea, can create chances for the forwards from central areas with any regularity.
I’ve seen two contrasting reactions this deal: firstly, the actual fee itself. Although officially undisclosed, the rumoured fee is £500,000, plus add-ons. On the one hand, for an 18 year-old creative midfielder with only a year remaining on his contract, 30 matches and three assists to his name, and plying his trade at a fourth tier outfit, it looks perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, there’s this lingering sense that I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling, that the board have again sanctioned a move away for a young talent for primarily short-term (financial) reasons. This is doubtlessly a topic I will come back to again and again, until we see as shift in policy, and a more stable outlook off the field, expect to see plenty more like this.
The second sort of popular opinion I saw is that he ‘wasn’t actually that good anyway’. True, if you were looking at the raw output data, you’d be forgiven for thinking along those lines. With his stature and build, he’s unlikely to ever be the sort of player that can reliably win 50-50 tackles in the middle of the park, or track back and make goal-saving interventions. But those have never been part of his style, no pun intended. I’m a big believer in accentuating the stronger attributes an individual has and ‘hiding’ the weaknesses. That doesn’t mean you can’t be coached into improving these aspects, but when considering them in a starting lineup, you adapt your strategy to compensate.
Dai Wai-Tsun to Oxford United
The destination is most certainly a shock for me, but not that he’s gone. No stranger to giving choice quotes to media back in his native Hong Kong, the inverted winger was probably going to find gametime severely restricted, especially if Lowe persists with a 5-2-2-1 (more on that below). Opportunities for him in 2017/2018 were quite limited, playing the equivalent of just five full matches, even after being talked up considerably by Lee Clark. The consensus here seems to be one of indifference at his departure, and it’s more understandable with him… but still not something I subscribe to.
Erring on the side of caution is always best, particularly when attempting to objectively evaluate young players coming through the academy to the fringes of the first team. The odds are stacked against them playing professionally after 21. Like Styles, Dai has the technical attributes to succeed in a setup that values them, but still needs to firmly establish what his best role is in an XI, as well as find a way of dealing with the more brutish side of the sport. Under Karl Robinson, if he does receive minutes after predominately being amongst the U23s, it’s almost certainly going to be in the right-hand channel of a 4-2-3-1, with fewer defensive responsibilities than he was afforded in white and royal blue, and far more emphasis on short, intricate passing triangles. He’s unlikely to have the same impact as Styles will at his new club, but if he’s given the time and space to develop, he could be featuring at the Kassam before the campaign is through.
Tom Aldred to Motherwell on loan
A deal that’s mutually beneficial for all parties. He enjoyed a level of success and adulation from the supporters at Fir Park in the latter half of 2017/2018 that bore no resemblance to the mostly torrid outings in League One under the auspices of three separate managers. The SPFL outfit, having recently profited from the sale of Cédric Kipré to Wigan Athletic, were nonetheless never likely to sign Aldred permanently at this juncture. Instead, they can enjoy the benefits of a season-long loan, safe in the knowledge that his contract expires next June, and, unless something drastic occurs, he’d much rather be in an environment where he feels both wanted and integral to the team. The knock-on effect is that Saul Shotton is now the undoubted fourth choice centre back in the senior squad, if that wasn’t already clear by the former Blackpool stopper’s continued outings in pre-season friendlies with the U23s.
Squad depth as of today
So where do these three outgoings leave the roster? The picture below includes everyone at the club in simplified positions, who has also been given a first team squad number, which includes Styles until the New Year:
Shorn of two, there’s an ever-so-slightly more balanced look to the setup, but there are still some areas overloaded. It’s still doubtful if Phil Edwards will be seen on the field again for Bury, such is the competition at right-back, and the very low esteem he’s held in – most of which, but not all, is squarely down to him. Similar aspersions can be cast at Harry Bunn and Stephen Dawson; however, they were sat together on the bench for the laboured opening day triumph over nine-man Yeovil Town, and it’s difficult to foresee them being cast aside now. The latter has the advantage of a paucity of other options in central midfield, especially of his type. Whilst he is a ball-winner, his age and long-standing concerns over his injury record have badly damaged his reputation, and even he is more inclined to go forward rather than back. This makes the lack of a more defensive-minded, younger recruit all the more baffling… although as stated above, there is scope to rectify that before the month is out, either by signing an unattached player (such as Amine Linganzi, who has been on trial at Carrington) or through the loan system.
On the left flank, only the academy prospects Joe Adams and Callum Hulme can reliably claim that their stronger foot matches their position, although the pair can operate right across advanced midfield areas. The forwards appear reasonably diverse in their skillsets, and will obviously be boosted when Jermaine Beckford is back participating in full training and somewhere close to match fitness.
5-2-2-1: Here to stay?
Having spent the plurality of pre-season switching between a 4-2-3-1 and latterly, a 5-3-2, Lowe opted for an unorthodox shape in the first game, with understandable accusations that the formation appeared far too conservative hosting limited opposition. In a notable shift from 2017/2018, two of the three centre backs often stepped out of defence. In Adam Thompson’s case, this was chiefly to close down the space behind the central midfield pair, intercepting any loose passes and preventing The Glovers operating between the lines whilst they still had parity in personnel. Eoghan O’Connell was tasked more with using his superior passing ability to recycle the ball to his compatriots ahead of him, as well as attempt riskier options down the flanks.
Neither wing-back exactly roved forward, but they did offer some support in the wide spaces, maintaining the defensive unit superbly, particularly when you consider it was their first competitive match together as a five. Neil Danns’ work rate helped reduce the numerical disadvantage in the middle third of the pitch, which will be the case against almost every single other team in the fourth tier. He doesn’t have the same class on the ball as Callum Styles, but uses his vast experience and tactical knowledge to coach his partner throughout, as was obvious last weekend. The youngster for his part will probably never be one to make late bursting runs into the opposition penalty area, principally due to a lack of explosive pace.
All of the above factors put a lot of onus on the inside forwards to create chances for themselves and the lone striker, risking the latter becoming isolated for periods of the match. Danny Mayor seemed to be back to his tricky best, beating his marker on the dribble several times and cutting inside to good effect. The reluctance to shoot until the perfect opening appears persists, however. Nicky Adams is a more reliable crossing outlet on the other side, and coupled that with a willingness to get back into position quickly when a turnover of possession happened.
Chris Dagnall is a willing runner but is far from a natural choice to spearhead the attack. He works best in tandem with at least one other, and has neither the height nor the physicality to operate effectively in areas with his marker breathing down his neck. Against superior opposition on paper, his ability to defend from the front could be key in seeing out games. Jermaine Beckford and Gold Omotayo are more imposing figures; the former plays on the shoulder of the last defender, which could be an effective tactic if the line is reasonably high and his teammates can get into positions frequently to pick him out.
4-4-2: Can it work?
Short answer: no. Longer answer: in terms of the personnel at both ends of the pitch, it could actually be the best system. This is because the defence when taken as a whole has a good mix of conservatism, positional sense and can play their way out of trouble when required. As stated previously in this article, the forwards have the requisite skills to keep scouts and managers vigilant. Dagnall has always been at his most prolific in front of goal when provided with a partner to work with, and in Omotayo and Beckford, he’d be a close witness to most of the headers being won, as well as pressing high when the ball is lost.
The midfield is the issue in three of the four positions. On the right, Nicky Adams has the stamina to track back when fully fit, and Byron Moore is equally inclined to perform this role well. Mayor’s strong suit has never been when facing his own goal, nor is it reliably (and cleanly) challenging for possession down his flank. Dawson is the only ball-winner in the centre, but rarely does this in the defensive third. This would leave big gaps in between the lines, forcing either a centre back to step out and potentially expose themselves, or for the unit to retreat, which brings about its own issues. As it stands, this shape would make stark the individual and collective weaknesses in midfield, neither industrious enough to be continuously effective between boxes, nor strong enough to regain (and retain) possession.
4-2-3-1: My kingdom for a pivot
This shape ought to have been what was witnessed for the majority of last season, but injuries to O’Shea, Dawson and Beckford in the early months were large factors in other measures being taken, not forgetting the utter lack of tactical nous on the part of Lee Clark. This year, without a tall, physical presence in front of the back four and/or a deep-lying playmaker, it would negate the strengths of the formation and the central midfielders in one fell swoop.
Once more, the rest of the XI would be able to cope amiably. On the left, both Mayor and Harry Bunn would be free to drift inside, safe in the knowledge of having at least six outfield players behind the ball at almost all times. It would also suit Jay O’Shea’s trequartista modus operandi, being both a creative and goalscoring threat to the opposition, and strong with both feet. The wider players of the attacking midfield trio could also peel off and aim crosses at him and the lone striker, who would be able to call on support of three others reliably. Again, this most suits Beckford and Omotayo, and the latter has displayed good touches and positional awareness already (albeit in an incredibly small sample size).
5-3-2: Narrow in attack
Beckford aside, this is how I expected Lowe to organise the XI last week. Callum McFadzean is a more natural choice at wing-back than Chris Stokes, the player himself admitting he’s better at getting forward than ‘staying at home’ in the defensive unit. Here, he and Tom Miller would be asked to provide all of the width, with the midfield three unlikely to split in or out of possession, relying more on the centre backs to do so when Bury are countered on. The main concern here would be if the wing-backs are pinned back or doubled up down their flank, who would burst forward from midfield to carve out opportunities for the strikers? The most obvious answer is probably Danns, but he’d need one of the other two to take a risk and join in the attack.
4-3-3: My new ideal
I was asked on Twitter this week how I would set the Shakers up were I in charge, and I have waited until writing this article to issue my response. As I said at the top about Styles, I’d rather accentuate the positive aspects of each player in a constructive way that leaves the XI with the fewest collective weaknesses.
The full-backs pick themselves, essentially. Neither would get forward greatly, allowing the ‘front six’ a little more freedom from a defensive point of view. O’Connell or Shotton would still be the ball-playing centre back, but would be asked to do so without breaking the line. They would have three in midfield and attack to aim for, should they opt for a long pass.
The midfielders have a decent blend of creativity and tenacity. Dawson would nominally be the deepest, but would roam forward when possession was on the opposite side of the field, and the same would be true of Styles. The key here would be Danns timing any late runs in support of the front three; the Shakers have rarely been known in recent years for committing bodies forward unless the need was dire, and rarer still has the right balance been struck.
The most intriguing aspects are the identities of the wide forwards. It’s my opinion that a 4-3-3 doesn’t suit Mayor, as it requires those individuals to press high in the wide and half-spaces, which is a task Nicky Adams is simply better at doing on the left. His namesake Joe Adams continues to be mightily impressive for the U18s, and has the added advantage of being adept with his weaker right foot, allowing him to cut inside from both wings (hence why he’s listed twice).
Dom Telford could also be played there, giving a more lop-sided look to the front three, who could feed off the main striker and come alive in the penalty area on the dribble. Jordan Archer allies pace to physicality, and would be a target man but without the shackles of having to plough a furrow in the middle. This would make it hard for the opposition to know who should keep tabs on him, and that could in turn create space for his teammates. O’Shea would do much the same job as Joe Adams but on the right.
For me, this formation gives the most balance; it’s neither too narrow nor too wide, and can be adjusted easily at the front for the opposition. It lessens the need for the midfield to pile forward, and the reluctance/inability of the full-backs to offer dynamic support actually helps them out defensively speaking. It’s all-too apparent that the midfield area is still in need of some care and attention, but if I saw Lowe at least try out something akin to what I believe would be the best fit, I’d be very pleased.
League Two - 13th; W 16 / D 14 / L 16 / F 53 / A 52 / Pts 62
As you’d expect finishing 13th and winning the same number of games as they lost, Colchester United’s season was quite mixed, with a low total of goals scored and conceded to boot. August and September weren’t kind to The U’s, yielding just three victories, although one of them was emphatic (5-1), teaching Forest Green Rovers a harsh lesson in what it took to be competitive in the EFL. The run-up to Christmas saw fortunes change, and the bulk of their triumphs were accrued during that period. The early months of 2018 were mostly characterised by low-scoring draws, giving John McGreal plenty of food for thought for the following season, as by this point, they were practically assured of fourth tier football, and were highly unlikely to trouble the top seven. Proceedings tailed off somewhat during the denouement, but there was still plenty of cause for optimism as the curtain fell on the campaign.
Top Goalscorer: Sammie Szmodics (12 goals in 29 starts/2,697 minutes)
Top Creator: Drey Wright (8 assists in 38 starts/3,366 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: John McGreal; I remember him from the ‘nearly’ side that were Tranmere Rovers in the early-to-mid-90s, lining up alongside the likes of John Aldridge and Eric Nixon; three times in a row, they lost out in the ‘old’ Division 1 play-offs, and the defender spent the peak years of his career in a white and blue jersey, amassing well over 200 appearances for the Birkenhead outfit. He sought a new challenge in 1999, and found it in the guise of Ipswich Town, helping them to win promotion to the Premier League, succeeding where he and his teammates back on the Wirral had failed so cruelly.
The Tractor Boys took the top flight by storm, finishing in an astonishing fifth position, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, as it was known at the time, and reaching it once more by virtue of the Fair Play rankings. The latter half of his stint at Portman Road was plagued by injuries, and he moved to Burnley in 2004, spending three years at Turf Moor. Upon release, and ironically failing to gain a contract after a trial at Colchester, McGreal started studying for his coaching badges, returning to the Suffolk side in an academy role.
He slowly climbed the ranks there, and in 2015, he was named as interim manager at United, overseeing a single game: a 5-1 defeat against Burton Albion. Subsequently, he became reserve team coach as part of Kevin Keen’s backroom staff. However, the latter left after their relegation to League Two at the end of that term, and McGreal was named as his permanent successor. In his nascent campaign, he steered the U’s to eighth, helped along by the goals of Chris Porter. Shorn of such a reliable source, they fell back slightly in 2017/2018, but he’s been backed in the transfer market during the summer.
Ins: Harry Pell (Cheltenham Town), Noah Chesmain (Millwall), Frank Nouble (Newport County), Ethan Ross (West Bromwich Albion U23s), Luke Norris (Swindon Town), Bailey Vose (Brighton & Hove Albion U23s) & Aaron Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan).
Outs: Doug Loft (Shrewsbury Town), Danny Jonhstone (Greenock Morton), Sam Walker (Reading), Craig Slater (Partick Thistle), Sean Murray (Vejle), Tommy O’Sullivan (free agent), Drey Wright (St Johnstone) & Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe (Bromley).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: I don’t think Dillon Barnes is nailed on to be #1 following the departure of Sam Walker to Reading in the long-term, but will be between the sticks for at least a while yet. His reflexes are his strongest suit, and he should line up behind a three-man backline, with the wider centre backs splitting off when Colchester are in possession, plugging the gaps left by the wing-backs who will be so high up the pitch as to resemble wide midfielders. Tom Eastman is an accurate passer with raking balls forward to the front or to the playmaker in the side, which will undoubtedly be Harry Pell. Frankie Kent is the youngest of the trio, and will hold fort close to Barnes. Luke Prosser is both tall and strong, and relishes putting these attributes to the test.
Defensive midfielder Tom Lapslie will work hard to ensure that the middle third of the pitch isn’t vacated by the forays forward by his teammates, organising them and covering when gaps are left with his customary sliding tackles. Brennan Dickenson has all the requisite skills to make the flank his own. He’s extremely quick, agile, and possesses good balance. Added to that, his early crosses can be laser-like, so he’ll need to be closed down by his opponents well before he reaches what would normally be considered dangerous territory. On the opposite side, Kane Vincent-Young’s qualities are not too dissimilar, and he can do so on either wing, owing to his favourable left foot.
Behind the front three, Pell will look to play angled through balls, both on the ground and over the top, in an attempt to disrupt the defensive line as much as possible, forcing them back; in doing so, he’ll have more room to operate in. He enjoys taking long shots, especially from direct free-kicks, and being the heartbeat of the team. Sammie Szmodics is technically brilliant, and is at his best when running straight at defenders. Another player in the ranks who tries his luck from range, he’ll have good options to pick out if he decides to look for a pass.
Competition for his spot could come in the form of Frank Nouble, who, although usually a striker, does operate wide left sometimes, and uses his physical prowess to dominate his marker. Mikael Mandron will be the target man if selected, operating in the half-space to create space for others. Luke Norris should be fit for the opening game on Saturday after overcoming a groin problem. Whilst not the largest in stature, he will go toe-to-toe with any centre back and fancy his chances of besting them. More importantly, he rediscovered his scoring touch at Swindon Town, and should be fashioned with numerous opportunities every match to trouble the leaderboard in 2018/2019.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion;I don’t know if this represents a bold call, but as I’ve said several times during these previews, none of the ‘existing’ League Two sides really have much to fear from those relegated from the tier above, with the possible exception of Milton Keynes Dons. Largely, McGreal has replaced those who’ve left the Colchester Community Stadium with better, more tactically flexible alternatives. In Pell, Szmodics and Norris, they have three of the most deadly individuals in the league, and depth in every position. Some might consider the Essex side less fashionable than the favourites to win the title in 2018/2019, but I believe they have a good a chance as anyone to lift the trophy come May. Bet against them at your peril.
League Two - 22nd; W 9 / D 19 / L 18 / F 41 / A 56 / Pts 46
A pretty awful campaign at first glance, with survival only obtained by virtue of a superior goal difference over Barnet, a stalemate away at eventual play-off winners Coventry City proving sufficient to retain their league status. Goals were a big struggle in 2017/2018, with fewer than one per game on average. Fortunately, with Barry Roche at the other end, Morecambe had one of the best goalkeepers in the division, and were actually pretty miserly when conceding goals, owing much to him and his defensive organisation.
Top Goalscorer: Callum Lang (10 goals in 14 starts/1,445 minutes)
Top Creator: Michael Rose (5 assists in 38 starts/3,418 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Jim Bentley; at just 42, the Liverpudlian is now the longest-serving manager in the top four tiers of English, following Paul Tisdale’s move from Exeter City to Milton Keynes Dons. As a player, he was once on Manchester City’s books, before seeking first team football with Telford United, and he spent five seasons with the Shropshire outfit. In 2002, he signed for Morecambe, plying his trade for The Shrimps for nine years; in the last couple of this spell, he started taking his coaching badges, becoming coach of the reserves and then the first team, in addition to still being registered to play.
However, once he was given the main job, he turned his attentions fully to the dugout in 2011. Since then, he has kept the Lancashire club in the EFL against all odds, and, such is the admiration their fans have for him, they held a bucket collection to raise £1,000 to pay off a fine he received from the FA in 2017. He sets his sides up to be technically competent, playing a quick passing game that’s pleasing on the eye. His closest brush with relegation came last season, and despite finishing in the bottom half for the lion’s share of his tenure, he’s admired universally throughout the lower leagues for his work on such a tight budget.
Ins: Jordan Cranston (Cheltenham Town), Lamin Jagne (free agent), Rhys Oates (Hartlepool United), Andrew Tutte (Bury), Carlos Mendes Gomes (West Didsbury & Chorlton), Dawid Szczepaniak (Airbus UK Broughton), Zak Mills (Grimsby Town), Jason Oswell (Stockport County), Liam Mandeville (Doncaster Rovers on loan) & James Sinclair (free agent).
Outs: Rhys Turner (Barrow), Patrick Brough (Falkirk), Danijel Nizic (Western Sydney Wanderers), Dean Winnard (free agent), Reece Deakin (free agent), Luke Jordan (free agent), Michael Rose (Macclesfield Town), Steven Yawson (free agent), Adam McGurk (free agent) & Aaron McGowan (Hamilton Academical).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: The transition from back to front will be rapid, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to long punts from the centre backs. The Shrimps will mix it up, adapting their style of play in order to unsettle the opposition. Barry Roche’s superb leadership always gives his fellow defenders a confidence boost, and he’s as capable a goalkeeper as any other plying their trade in League Two. Nominal captain Alex Kenyon can operate in the heart of defence and as a pivot, using his good range of passing, strength and left foot to full effect. Steven Old is best known for timing his interceptions well, which is another key skill in an outfit that might be on the back foot for most of their encounters.
At left-back, Luke Conlan challenges for the ball well when in the air, and tracks back quickly if caught up the pitch and Morecambe are countered on. Zak Mills uses his weaker foot a considerable amount of time, which helps him not to be too predictable when engaging his marker. The base of the midfield will contain Andrew Fleming more often than not, and his positional flexibility and agility enable him to cover the space between the lines admirably, and he really gets stuck in when it’s called for. Andrew Tutte, when fit, will do much the same task, but looks most at home when breaking forward with the ball, and he’ll be a danger for any side that invite him to hit one from outside of the 18-yard box.
Even at 39, Kevin Ellison can still hang with players half his age. His free-kicks remain deadly, and his game management ensures he makes the most of his experience and stamina reserves. Aaron Wildig will spend the most time on the ball in advanced areas, looking to bring Ellison and the other attackers into play. His movement is very good, and his low centre of gravity gets him out of tight spots. Adam Campbell is particularly versatile, and this can make it difficult for markets to pick him up. He tends to place his shots rather than opt for power, and his dribbling skills can unlock defences, creating opportunities for him or one of his teammates.
There is a substantial number of contenders for the lone striker role. Carlos Mendes Gomes is highly regarded, but he might have to settle for 20-minute cameos from the bench as he’s eased into full-time football. Liam Mandeville could be the first crack of the whip, and he can get up well for a 5’11” centre forward. His composure in front of goal could be the difference between a draw and a defeat, especially if clear-cut chances are at a premium.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Circling the relegation drain;although I have the north-west club in the lowest group, it’s not an indictment of their manager, nor of their players. Many of the contingent brought through the doors this summer are extreme punts – that’s simply the nature of the beast, and if one or two come off quickly, they will vindicate the transfer policy and then some. Bentley has always done an admirable job with the resources he’s been given, and there’s no reason to suggest that that will change in 2018/2019. The openness of the division does give a side like Morecambe a decent opportunity to make a mockery of my prediction, and unlike many others who will be down there come next May, they already have in place pretty much an entire squad, with at least two players fighting it out for every role. This is most true in attack, and as a consequence, they should trouble the scoresheet more regularly than last term.
League Two - 17th; W 13 / D 12 / L 21 / F 67 / A 73 / Pts 51
A strange campaign for Gary Johnson’s men. The goals of Mo Eisa, a predatory striker plucked from relative obscurity at Greenwich Borough, proved to be one of the stories of 2017/2018. The creativity of Harry Pell and several others ensured he always had a reliable supply of chances to make the most of, but the problem was keeping them out at the other end. The Robins conceded three or more times in a match on 10 separate occasions, hampering their efforts to attain a comfortable mid-table position. Several fallow, winless periods marked the season, despite their collective potency. Additionally, only once did they manage to put together a sequence of wins, and the last four games all ended in defeat, giving a more lop-sided complexion to proceedings than ought to have been the case.
Top Goalscorer: Mo Eisa (23 goals in 45 starts/3,758 minutes)
Top Creator: Harry Pell (5 assists in 32 starts/2,914 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Gary Johnson; never a particularly successful player, the father of Bristol City head coach Lee built up a business that mixed the sport and holidays together. He studied for his badges for six years, before assuming a post at Newmarket Town in 1986. He came to greater prominence as assistant to John Beck at Cambridge United in the early 90s, being a key man in their rise from the fourth to the second tier. He took over permanently in 1993, moving to Kettering Town two years later. Most intriguingly, he was the Latvia boss from 1999 to 2001, overseeing their respectable Euro 2000 qualification campaign, finishing with a positive goal difference and a mere four points from a play-off spot.
Arguably, Johnson’s most successful period as a manager was his first stint with Yeovil Town, taking them from the doldrums of the then-Conference to the ‘old’ Division Two in the space of three seasons, which included winning the fifth tier championship by a margin of 17 points, only missing out on the play-offs by goal difference in the second term, then becoming title winners once more, amassing 90 points.
Bristol City came calling in 2005, and he quickly steadied the ship, taking them from 22nd to 9th in the first campaign, then securing runners-up spot and automatic promotion on the final day of 2006/2007. Remarkably, he almost took them to the Premier League, only missing out in the play-off final to Hull City. His fortunes waned in short interludes at both Peterborough United and Northampton Town, and these were measured in months.
He returned to Huish Park in 2012, masterminding their promotion to the Championship, which remains the highest league The Glovers have ever been in. In an ultra-competitive division, he couldn’t keep his charges up, winning just eight matches. The rot didn’t end there, and he was relieved of his duties in February 2015, not long before they suffered a double relegation, both occasions finishing bottom of the pile.
Although Cheltenham didn’t escape the same fate upon his appointment, he was kept on, and won an instant return to the EFL, winning the National League and racking up over 100 points. Easily the most experienced manager in League Two, he’ll be hoping to use that to his advantage, particularly in tight encounters.
Ins: Alex Addai (Mertsham), Ryan Broom (Bristol Rovers), Chris Hussey (Sheffield United), Tom Smith (Swindon Town), Conor Thomas (ATK), Sean Long (Lincoln City), Johnny Mullins (Luton Town), Ben Tozer (Newport County), Josh Debayo (Leicester City U23s), Manny Duku (Hayes & Yeading United) & Jacob Maddox (Chelsea U23s on loan).
Outs: Mo Eisa (Bristol City), Harry Pell (Colchester United), Josh Thomas (Gloucester City), Dan Holman (free agent), Danny Wright (Solihull Moors), Jamie Grimes (Macclesfield Town), Jerrell Sellars (Östersunds), Jordan Cranston (Morecambe), Sanmi Odelusi (Halifax Town), Carl Winchester (Forest Green Rovers), Aaron Downes (retired), Adam Page (free agent), Jaanai Gordon (free agent) & Brian Graham (Ross County).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Goalkeeper Scott Flinders is a little on the slow side to move off his line, and this is an area that could be identified as a weak link. That said, he is a competent shot-stopper, and is one of the more willing custodians in the fourth tier to come up for corners late in the game, when things are desperate.
Captain Johnny Mullins should bring with him from Luton Town an assuredness to the backline that was lacking in 2017/2018. Excellent in the air and a warrior on the ground, that combination will help The Robins from giving away both goals and chances quite as readily. He’ll take William Boyle under his care, coaching him through some of the hairier situations they’ll come up against. As a duo, they will make forwards work hard for openings.
The full-backs on the flanks should be more expansive this time round. Chris Hussey’s reputation precedes him when it comes to roving into the final third, and both his crossing and delivery from set pieces are normally outstanding. His main weakness is his defensive positioning, but there’s reason to believe that the conservative look of the likely midfield trio will act as a countermeasure to that shortcoming. Ryan Broom will have it out with Sean Long for the slot on the right; the former is the mirror of Hussey in his movements, the latter a more pragmatic, safety-first defender.
Nigel Atangana is another in the XI who’ll take few prisoners, being the bulwark between the lines and an intimidating physical presence. He, along with his teammates in the centre of the park, will look to recycle the ball out wide when they win it back. Ben Tozer gets plenty of purchase on his long throws, and his propensity to sit deep will make it harder for opponents to break Cheltenham down through the middle, forcing them into the wider spaces. Conor Thomas might be the only one of the three who’ll burst forward with any regularity, supporting Manny Duku in periods when The Robins can retain the ball in the channels to provide another body to aim for in the penalty area.
Liam McAlinden won’t hug the touchline, drifting inside but still favouring his left peg, to support the lone striker; this also allows for the characteristics of Hussey to come to the fore, most evidenced in his overlapping runs. McAlinden is a goal threat, and will be helped by the positivity of Jacob Maddox on the opposite side, who’ll need to prove he can use his passing and movement on and off the ball in a senior environment and retain his effectiveness. The aforementioned Duku is,one of only two strikers on the books, and won’t have the luxury of time to set down a marker, but like Eisa and Gold Omotayo at Bury, is another non-league prospect in his early-to-mid-20s, who could well make a mockery of the giant step up from Hayes & Yeading, basing his play on stealing half a yard of space with his back to goal, and more crucially, making quick decisions when he does have the ball at his feet.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Safe but sorry; both the board and Johnson will have foreseen and prepared for the sale of Eisa long before it came. Whilst there’s just a week remaining in the permanent transfer window, Robins fans can still expect at least one more striker to come in, particularly as the sale of Brian Graham was sanctioned earlier today. They should concede fewer goals in 2018/2019, but the lack of depth in attacking areas could be a big issue, even if the manager is able to reinvest most of the transfer fee received for Eisa in further recruits. I don’t see them troubling the top half of the table, but they should remain an exciting side to watch when on their game.
Analysing The Shakers, League One & Two, and Local English & Welsh Football