Time and Patience – Stocks Are Already Low(e)

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.

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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.

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Gold Omotayo needs the support on the pitch to utilise (and improve) the way he can physically impose himself on matches, which relies just as much on his teammates as it does on his own attributes; off it, he needs reassurances from Lowe that the Sword of Damocles isn’t permanently hovering over his head, should he fail to score

 

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:

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League One goal timings, 2017/2018
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League Two goal timings, 2018/2019 – even at this nascent stage, goals scored and conceded in the last 15 minutes of match make up more than a quarter of the total (25.3%)

 

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.

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