Month: November 2018

Drink It In: The Most Successful Month for 61 Years

My reviews of August, September, and October are here.

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Goals, goals, goals!

There’s only one place to start with this review of November: 22 goals in a calendar month represents Bury’s best haul for well over half a century. There were some free-scoring teams donning white and royal blue during the 50s and 60s, in a period when the Shakers often graced the second tier of English football.

In more recent years, even during the back-to-back promotion seasons under the legendary stewardship of Stan Ternent, the Shakers were never especially high-scorers, notching 66 and 62 respectively between 1995 and 1997.

During my 24 years of supporting the club, excluding the current campaign, the average goals scored in a league season has been a fairly low 55. The most prominent of the upper outliers to this was in 2010/2011 with a total of 82; this was when the club finished runners-up to Chesterfield under the auspices of Alan Knill and latterly Richie Barker in the run-in when the former departed Gigg Lane to take charge of Scunthorpe United. Barker, doubtlessly helped by the senior players in the dressing room, continued Knill’s decidedly attack-minded 4-4-2.

Current manager Ryan Lowe was a crucial part of that squad, and has been spectacularly successful during his short permanent spell in the dugout in implementing the same desire he had for scoring in his playing career as a striker with intelligent movement and instinctive finishing to the pitch, watching on from the sidelines.

Not only are the Lancashire outfit the top scorers in League Two at the time of writing (by a clear margin over promotion rivals Lincoln City and Colchester United), they rank fifth out of 92, behind overall leaders West Bromwich Albion by three, the unstoppable Manchester City by two, and lastly, Sunderland and (Sunday’s FA Cup opponents Luton Town) in the division above by one.

In the slideshow below, Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines demonstrate that in some of the games, the performance levels haven’t actually hit the same heights as October; Macclesfield Town and Cheltenham Town can feel hard done by to both fall to defeat by three-goal margins.

 

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As Nicky Adams stated during his interview on the D3D4 football Podcast (which I also starred in!), although on paper the formation is 5-3-2, neither he nor Callum McFadzean on the opposite flank really operate as wing-backs, featuring almost as ubiquitously at the other end of the field as the two strikers. More often than not, their respective wider centre-backs cover their forays forward when the ball is either lost or possession is recycled backwards to the defence to start a move once more.

The two central midfielders of the three are always highly technical, no matter who occupies those slots. Together with Danny Mayor’s free role in the left half-space, this can create an imbalance, as I’ll discuss below… but when it does work, it usually translates to plenty of good quality chances being created every game, and more importantly, being finished off at a high rate.

Overall, this season’s crop have already eclipsed the class of 2017/2018’s woeful efforts (50 to 49 with six months remaining), and only four more are required in the 26 remaining league games to surpass the pitiful total accrued last term.

Much more impressive for me than the quantity is the quality, which seems to have increased in line with the number. Nicky Maynard’s overhead kick against Mansfield Town won Goal of the Month for October, swiftly following Mayor being awarded the same accolade in September. November could easily have yet another nomination for a Bury player, and the 4-0 triumph over Stevenage alone had at least three outstanding strikes to choose from:

However, Lowe is correct to stress that the trend of scoring four or more in a match is unlikely to continue, having been already achieved six times to date in all competitions. However, whilst the key players remain at the club, it’s hard to foresee too many barren spells, as another key facet has been the distribution of both goals and assists, with no single individual monopolising either chart. Other sides in the top 10 are more heavily reliant on one standout name to keep them in contention, and this might work in Bury’s favour when the games come thick and fast over the Christmas and New Year period.

Cup successes

Some readers might think it a bit churlish to regard progress to the second round of two of the three domestic cup competitions as ‘successes’, but as Bury supporters of almost any age could tell you, it actually is. Understandably, still participating in the EFL Trophy knockout stage has been largely overlooked, but it does represent another opportunity for the senior fringe members and most ready U18s to convince Lowe to consider them for league fixtures, when the need to rotate will begin to take hold, even though it goes against the Liverpudlian’s principles.

On the subject of the younger members of the roster, they are in the third round of the FA Youth Cup away at Stevenage in the middle of the month. Although their opponents are undefeated in their pool of the Youth Alliance League, it still could be a good platform to reach deep into the tournament once more if they perform to the best of their undoubted abilities.

The first team thankfully avoided the potential banana skin that struggling National League side Dover Athletic might have been, clearing off the line in the opening few minutes the visitors’ best opening, and snuffing out any hopes of a result with a controlled, professional display in an eventual 5-0 rout.

The second round draw was about as unkind to them as possible, save for playing Luton at Kenilworth Road, where the Hatters have looked utterly imperious. As mentioned above, Nathan Jones’ troops have also racked up the goals, playing an expansive brand of football that has bamboozled their adversaries, such is the quality both on and off the ball. It goes without saying that Sunday’s match will be the most stern examination of the Shakers’ credentials in 2018/2019, and I include the EFL Cup game at Nottingham Forest in that, given the stage of the season this game takes place in. The away side will rightfully be favourites, and it promises to be an open affair. Progression to the promised land of the third round would really force the domestic footballing world to sit up and take notice of the turnabout in fortunes thus far.

The balance in central midfield

This topic just won’t go away, nor is it likely to anytime soon. Let’s talk about the ‘bad’ first: when the White & Blue Army have come up against sides that have packed their own engine room and sought to compete on equal terms, the pairing, usually Neil Danns and Jay O’Shea have understandably struggled. This was at its most obvious during the second half at Cambridge United last Saturday, where, in the absence of the former from the XI (jetlagged on the bench after international duty with Guyana), they were overrun, and Callum Styles was especially cut adrift.

Lowe must find a way to solve the conundrum in time for December’s fixture calendar; it might mean curbing Mayor’s creativity and dragging him back downfield, which actually worked to great effect in shutting down Ryan Broom’s threat for Cheltenham on Tuesday. On other occasions, it could be instructing both strikers to press their defenders for large swathes of the game, or even replacing one of them for a more conservatively minded player, such as Eoghan O’Connell.

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Jay O’Shea understandably took time to adapt to a deeper role as one of the two in central midfield, but has really warmed to his new position in recent weeks, amassing five goals in November alone

Back onto the ‘good’: Danns has been a more understated presence than the figure he cut last season, where he seemed one of the few senior professionals to really battle to attempt to stave off relegation. O’Shea, who had an underwhelming maiden campaign in 2017/2018 playing off the striker, has blossomed into his withdrawn role, posing a huge threat from outside the area, whether he is looking to conjure up something out of nothing for a teammate, or opting to shoot.

The Irishman’s chipped through ball to Maynard for Bury’s fourth against The Robins on last time out demonstrated exceptional vision, and as long as Styles’ loan deal lasts, he should look to give the Barnsley loanee some pointers.

Wider centre backs & Eoghan O’Connell

The collective backline continue to throttle the number of chances the opposition have, with the fewest number of shots coming towards goalkeeper Joe Murphy out of any side in League Two. Unfortunately, when they are on target, a third of them are going in, which is the second poorest ratio of any side in the current top 10.

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@betval’s chart ably illustrates the Shakers’ many strengths… and one big weakness

The reasons for that must fall at the feet of Lowe for the style (as no single tactic will ever be without flaws), the lack of protection often afforded by the central midfield two, and the poor passing of the wider centre backs. Will Aimson and Chris Stokes have been guilty on multiple occasions of casual actions on the ball, by giving it away cheaply, distributing it upfield poorly or dwelling on it for too long. The second of these failings can sometimes undermine the efforts of the other nine, and the failure to calmly control possession has resulted in several cheap goals for the other side over the course of 2018/2019.

The return of O’Connell from the treatment table has served as a timely reminder that their places could be in jeopardy. The difference when he came on for Aimson in the previous encounter was stark, as he exudes a much calmer presence with the ball at his feet than either him or Stokes, rarely launching it forwards in hope more than expectation that a teammate will be on the end of it.

Another side of Nicky Maynard

The influence of Maynard is plain for all to see. A haul of eight goals from fewer than 1,000 minutes is testament to that, and aside from an uncharacteristically poor miss against Cambridge with the goalmouth gaping, he has been lethal inside the area:

Additionally, his first touch to take down O’Shea’s chipped through ball for the second of his brace on Tuesday was simply sublime, and was closely matched by his finish:

What’s been most impressive of all for me though is his all-round game. On current evidence, his only major downside is his heading ability, which he freely admits during interviews is not his forté.

I would encourage anyone reading this to take the time to watch his intelligent movement, his blossoming understanding with Byron Moore up top (with his compatriot aiding him in no small measure to create space), the way he can wriggle out of extremely tight situations and retain possession, and most of all, his passing, the likes of which I’ve rarely seen from any striker for Bury. All of that to me suggests that he has plenty to offer when he draws a blank in a match; it’s little wonder he has played at elite level on merit in his career, based on what he’s served up thus far. Long may it continue.

December’s fixtures

I’ve already discussed at some length the crucial FA Cup match on Sunday, which is quickly followed by a trip to Field Mill to face Mansfield Town on the Tuesday in the EFL Trophy Second Round. It would be a big blow to morale (and the balance sheet) to lose both in spite of how difficult they’re sure to be, and even if Stags boss David Flitcroft chooses to rest some of his first choice pros, their early exit from the FA Cup has given them significantly greater time to prepare for the game.

The first league action of the month sees Exeter City make the long journey north. Although still in the mix, their form has declined significantly since the injury to Hiram Boateng, and by the time the game rolls around, they won’t have won in the league for nearly two months. Nevertheless, taking them lightly would be a massive risk, particularly with target man Jayden Stockley already on double figures for the season.

The following weekend is derby day, where consistently inconsistent hosts Oldham Athletic will entertain their near neighbours to the west. Manager Frankie Bunn has confounded some of his critics by keeping things on the pitch relatively strife-free amidst a tumultuous backdrop away from it, and the fixture is sure to be a competitive one.

Tranmere Rovers, another side lurking in and around the play-offs, boast League Two’s most potent goalscorer James Norwood in their ranks, and it will take the back three’s very best to prevent him from adding to his enviable tally. At the other end, they have started to leak goals alarmingly, shipping 12 in their last five at the time of writing. Bury should look to use their home advantage to dominate from the off.

Boxing Day means a second sojourn to the dark yellow and blue corner of Nottinghamshire in the festive month, and is almost certainly the toughest league game on paper. The two outfits traded blows in a 2-2 draw back in October, and it’s sure to be another closely fought affair. A win there would be a real statement.

2018 is rounded off by setting up camp in the black and white part of the famous city. On their third manager already, Neal Ardley should have a good grip on the Magpies by the time of the game, and there still exists a huge amount of talent in their ranks. The question is whether he can galvanise what’s there into a cohesive unit more quickly than either of his predecessors were offered by the Meadow Lane board.

Most of the above are probably on a knife-edge, and the results of each will go a long way to making or breaking Lowe’s men as serious contenders for the top three.

Half an eye on January

Transfer business, both in and out, hinges on the FA Cup. Bowing out or even progressing and subsequently losing to a ‘smaller’ side could force the sale of some of the brighter lights, most chiefly Mayor, whose deal runs out at the end of June. His exploits have certainly been watched closely by other sides higher up the echelons, and if the club’s hand is forced between letting him go for a fee in January or for nothing in the summer, they’d be remiss not to decide on the first of these options.

There’s also the question of what will happen to the current loanees. Understudy Mathew Hudson’s agreement ends in January, and his only first team participation to date has come in the EFL Trophy, but there’s always the inherent risk of something happening to Murphy, and being left without a senior ‘keeper available.

Reading between the lines, I wouldn’t expect to see Jamie Barjonas still at Bury after the window closes. Lowe has stated he’s found it difficult to adapt to the style of play he sets the side up with. Similarly, Styles has not had the greatest time in the scant chances he’s been given, and another four or five months of the same would test both the player’s and Barnsley’s resolve.

Should both of them leave, however, the midfield would decidedly limited in numbers, and that’s without addressing the continued absence of Stephen Dawson. Everything seems to point to his exit in the not-too distant future as well, which would surely mean the likes of Callum Hulme and Cameron Hill featuring more regularly on the bench, if the funds don’t exist to bring in a more experienced replacement.

The excitement is back

I ran a poll on Twitter in preparation for this post, offering a straight choice between possible, positive outcomes:

For me personally, I would go against the majority of respondents. I was conscious that the probable financial lure of facing a big team away from home would represent (and would skew the votes), but I was thinking about it more from just being a memorable season. A poor December in the league is unlikely on its own to derail any pretensions of promotion, but passage through to the third round would in my view keep building the momentum around the club, and shouldn’t serve as a distraction to competing at the nosebleed level of League Two. Are fans more likely to fondly remember the campaign if it ends in ‘failure’ of the (un)stated aim by being in the top three (and falling out at some stage) or a memorable, rare cup run? I would say the latter.

Hand in hand with the glut of goals is the feelgood factor at the club. As always, it’s tempered slightly by financial rumblings in the background and consequently, fans are already sweating over whether the standout performers can be kept in the January transfer window, but that’s the nature of the beast. This could be ameliorated by beating Luton and landing a plum draw in the third round, but that shouldn’t ever be relied upon from a budgeting point of view.

Either way, the brand of football shouldn’t be disrupted too much, and certain initiatives made off the field have brought many wavering fans back onside. But even if things do head south, by its nature, the sport is extremely ephemeral – a player can be a villain and a hero in a single game, a team on a winning run can suddenly hit the buffers for no rhyme or reason, a slice of (mis)fortune can alter the fate of a manager and their staff.

League Two, much like The Championship, is unpredictable. Macclesfield Town, now saddled with the media circus that will follow them as long as Sol Campbell is in post (rightly or wrongly), have had a mini-revival of their own, and are no longer dead certs for an immediate return to the fifth tier. Stevenage, soundly beaten by Bury one week, came back from behind to best Milton Keynes Dons, scoring three in the process against what had hitherto been a ridiculously tight defence.

No longer are dyed-in-the-wool supporters, who have suffered more than most of their contemporaries in the EFL in the last few seasons, resigned to watching games where Bury seem up against it, week in, week out, and the concept of scoring more than once in a game with any regularity the stuff of dreams. I’m treasuring the present, as although the near future offers no guarantees, it should still be an exciting second half of the season.

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Cambridge United vs Bury: Preview

Joe Dunne’s Cambridge United will welcome an extremely potent Bury outfit to the Abbey Stadium tomorrow, which I will be watching in person, hopeful (but not expectant) of a performance akin to their last four outings, which have yielded 16 goals across three competitions.

Prior to last weekend’s 3-1 reverse away at Oldham Athletic, they had been on something of a mini-revival in the league, having claimed 10 points from a possible 12, kickstarted by an extremely creditable 1-1 draw at then-leaders Lincoln City before bagging three impressive wins in a row. That spell aided their hitherto paltry efforts in attack that had them flirting dangerously with the bottom two places.

Dunne will doubtlessly be wary of the Shakers’ recent exploits, but can ill-afford to simply instruct his charges to sit back, especially at home and with three sides below them (and Cheltenham Town looked to have turned a corner).

There have been plenty of rumblings over the form (and even the condition) of custodian David Forde, and the identity of the #1 on the teamsheet at around 14:00 tomorrow is far from certain. Bulgarian Dimitar Mitov has seemed a little more assured in the recent matches he has featured in, but the problems are wider than just in goal.

The full-backs are tasked with providing all the width in the side. Jake Carroll, who Bury fans might recall during a brief loan spell five seasons ago, hasn’t been wholly convincing on the left flank this campaign, as is evidenced by the multitude of chances created down that channel (the 4-3 upset caused by Guiseley in the FA Cup a fortnight ago only reinforced that concern). On the opposite wing, Brad Halliday probably won’t be fit in time, and you can perm one from three individuals as to who will replace him if that comes to pass; I’ve gone with Liam O’Neil, who has only just returned from the treatment table himself. He should have the stamina to get forward, as well as being able to track Danny Mayor.

George Taft bemoaned the Amber & Black Army’s ‘collapse’ after the Latics defeat, as he and his teammates were made to pay for very basic errors in their own third. The tall centre-back will almost certainly triumph in any aerial duel with the likes of Nicky Maynard and Dom Telford. How much his strength in that area will be called upon, however, is another matter entirely. Unusually, both likely starters in the heart of defence are left footed, which may or may not result in an unconscious shift several yards to that flank, and they will need to ensure the gap between the right-back and the other three doesn’t become too wide, as their adversaries have the right mix of attackers that enjoy running into space with the ball.

Captain Gary Deegan takes no prisoners as the pivot in midfield, and will have his work cut out to stem the onslaught, unless his compatriots drop back when possession is lost to recover it in a timely fashion. When he does regain it, he’ll look to recycle it to the ‘wider’ players in the narrow diamond.

Like O’Neil, Reggie Lambe might re-enter the fray from the outset. The Bermudan can play anywhere across the middle of the park, has plenty of pace and good balance, which will help no in end in repelling Bury’s advances centrally. George Maris will be hoping the Shakers’ coaching staff have overlooked what he can do with time and space outside the area, as he showed to devastating effect last time out. Jevani Brown will sit off the front two when they’re out of possession, and join in quickly whenever there’s a turnover. Top scorer in the league with four to his name, he’s bound to make the visitors’ midfield two think twice about galloping forward with abandon.

Ade Azeez is yet to recapture the form he showed at AFC Wimbledon several years ago, and has not netted this term since a brace on the 11th of August. Nevertheless, he cannot be ignored as a threat, and he’ll always look to beat any offside trap, using his agility to take on a defender in a one-on-one situation. Jabo Ibehre, far from prolific either, has the physicality that the back three in dark and light blue tomorrow have struggled badly with thus far. If the target man can bring the likes of Azeez and Brown regularly into play, it will totally interrupt the Lancashire outfit’s gameplan.

The conundrum for Lowe to ruminate on will be whether to include Neil Danns in the XI; ‘fresh’ from scoring for Guyana in the CONCACAF Nations League as Tuesday turned into Wednesday back in England, there will be some doubts about how fit (and jet-lagged) the veteran midfielder will be. Celebrating his 36th birthday today, his omittance would be a small shot in the arm for Cambridge, because although Callum Styles deputised ably (but not spectacularly) in his absence against Stevenage, he just doesn’t have the same presence in the centre of the pitch, despite his tackling improving considerably in the last few months.

The rest of the starting lineup will almost certainly be unchanged from the four-star victory, apart from perhaps up top. Eoghan O’Connell’s cameo and quality finish probably won’t be enough by itself to shift any of the defence (or Styles), but he might be called into action from the bench once more, especially if the physical advantage for the U’s is getting too much for the loanee and Jay O’Shea.

Nicky Adams will have plenty of opportunities to run at (and beyond) Carroll, and although Maynard’s hot streak in front of goal has cooled a touch, neither his work-rate nor contribution in the final phase have. I imagine Lowe might favour Telford or Byron Moore over Chris Dagnall for this game, given the bedlam in the amber backline when faced with quick runners on the dribble.

As for a prediction, I believe this will be another instance in a long line, where Bury’s opposition sit back to a degree and pay a kind of tactical respect. I can’t see a way of the Shakers not peppering the goal with good quality shots (and scoring), but stranger things have happened. Lowe has done his damnedest to squash rising expectations in public, but in private, he must be quietly confident of notching another win if the dual threat of Maris lurking with intent outside the area, and the hold-up stylings of Ibhere can be nullified. That might give rise to the mentality of the squad being called into question by their manager publicly again.

I have seen five live games to date this season in one fashion or another, but have yet to witness a single victory. I think that will belatedly change, but the scoreline will be a closer one than what has characterised an extremely fruitful November to date. 4-2 to the Shakers.

Buryball 2.0: 2-3 or Not 2-3

For Part 1 (including an explanation of Buryball), click here. For Part 2, click here.

When you’re desperate for any kind of result in League Two, a trip to Sincil Bank to face Lincoln City would be way down the list of preferred destinations. Danny Mayor was thankfully fit enough to be named in the first XI, with Stephen Dawson having to settle for a place on the bench on the advice of my coaching staff.

Once more, things started brightly. Nicky Maynard finally grabbed his first goal for the Shakers, burying a header in the fourth minute, connecting with a pinpoint, deep cross on the right flank by Nicky Adams.

Maynard 1st Goal 1819
(If you have any trouble reading the text in the screenshots, open them in a new window and remove any text after ‘.png’ in the address bar – they will then appear at full size/resolution)

Sadly, the advantage lasted barely 120 seconds. Bruno Andrade, one of the exceptional talents in the division, was already tormenting Tom Miller, beating him for pace and centring the ball low for Kellan Gordon to stroke into the net.

The Imps were well on top for the remainder of the first half, and took the lead on 35 minutes. Andrade was the architect once more, and with the air raid siren blaring (in my mind at least), he could easily find the ominous, ever-present aerial threat of Jason Shackell, who makes winning the ball anywhere above head height look ridiculously simple. 2-1 to the hosts.

Bury were being dominated in possession and on clear-cut opportunities. My only option was to bring on Dawson in place of Jamie Barjonas, and hope that he was up to the physical demands placed upon him, both by the opposition and having only really just resumed full training. Similarly, Nicky Adams was being pushed back by Andrade, so I exchanged him for his namesake Joe, opting to keep him up there to provide another out-ball.

It was the other flank that saw an immediate benefit. Danny Mayor collected a hopeful punt by Adam Thompson (on the volley!), and in his classic style, ran at the home side’s backline, before checking onto his right foot and arrowing the ball into the far corner. Game on.

Yet again, it wouldn’t last. John Akinde had been relatively quiet up to this point, but he pounced on a half-cleared corner by Miller, squaring it for Lee Frecklington who, under pressure, laid it back off to Andrade. Joe Murphy was unsighted, and the game was lost, but not before one further chance for the visitors. Mayor made a darting run to be in the right place for an Eoghan O’Connell long diagonal pass, and watched in despair as his shot was saved by the strong, outstretched hand of Sam Slocombe. Four games, four defeats…

Chris Sang, ninth choice out of eight in the striking department, opted to join Ashton United on loan until the end of the season, and only a miracle will see his contract renewed when it expires upon his return.

So, to Crawley in the pouring rain four days later. Two chances went begging in the early exchanges for the beleaguered Lancashire outfit. Callum Styles, not known for his scoring prowess at senior level, drilled just wide whilst atop the on penalty spot. Minutes later, Thompson had a header cleared off the line, conspiring to do the same in his own area to ensure parity was kept… for moments more. The subsequent corner was tossed in by Luke Gambin, and Murphy raced through a crowd of players… only to miss it completely. Ollie Palmer lit a cigar and had a read of the local paper before remembering that he still had to ensure the ball crossed the line to make it 1-0 to the Red Devils.

Shot accuracy was a concern in the first period, not chance creation. 10 efforts came and went, but only one was on goal. Styles rattled the crossbar from a Mayor pullback, but that was the most trouble Glenn Morris had to deal with after the early let-off.

A slither prior to the hour mark, Maynard levelled the score. Styles released Mayor to his left, and with a low cross on his weaker foot, found the journeyman forward at the near post, glancing the ball in from all of two yards. Dawson again made a cameo from the bench at that juncture, and he was joined by Callum Hulme and Caolan Lavery in a switch of shape and emphasis to a more positive 4-4-2.

1-1 Maynard 59 mins, Styles releases Mayor, low cross on weak foot byline glanced in at near post; Dawson, Hulme and Lavery on 4-4-2. The Sheffield United loanee showed some good understanding with Maynard, with the former spotting Nicky Adams’ run off the ball in the half-space, and with his penetration left unchecked, the ball was eased into his path and finished with aplomb into the far corner.

All I wanted at that point was some calm from the team, taking no needless chances in defence especially. No such luck. O’Connell, with time and space, was robbed out wide by Dom Poleon. The Irish centre back was given a temporary reprieve by the versatile forward’s poor shot when one-on-one, but he did force a corner…

George Francomb took it from the left, and in a move clearly practiced on the training ground, Bondz N’Gala, with his back to goal, cushioned a header for Josh Payne to slam into the net. Matters got worse when Jimmy Smith was allowed freedom of right flank and the county of Essex, crossing in for Ashley Nathaniel-George to pile on the misery. 19 shots on the road, two more goals… and yet another 3-2 loss. Argh.

2-3 2-3 0-1 2-3 2-3 1819
Stop laughing at the back!

The perfect tonic for the malaise in the league is often a cup competition, evoking all the clichés about form going out of the window. Marco Silva’s Everton sat 10th in the Premier League with a symmetrical record from their opening three fixtures, and, likely because they’re in that first clutch of teams outside the ‘Big Six’, were taking their encounter with Bury very seriously indeed. They fancied their chances too, lining up in a decidedly attacking 4-2-4 and with an intimidating lineup, sporting Bernard and Theo Walcott on the wings. Yikes.

Tom Davies was tasked with pulling the strings in the two-man midfield. Not known for his aerial prowess, he nevertheless latched onto a Walcott set piece, producing a smart save from Murphy. The Irish goalkeeper quickly threw the ball long, and it eventually found Mayor 25 yards out, who hit it first time, crashing against the bar. Further opportunities weren’t at as much of a premium as I’d have anticipated prior to the match, probably as a result of the Toffees’ cavalier approach. In a carbon copy move from the last game, Maynard profited once more from an accurate centre by Nicky Adams, giving the basement club a shock lead… lasting less than a minute.

1-0 vs Everton 1819
The elation was the very epitome of ephemeral

If you can imagine this scenario, Walcott’s pace and trickery were too much for Chris Stokes, and the intelligent positioning of Cenk Tosun allowed him to find himself goalside but not offside, muscling in front of Thompson to equalise.

Tosun turned provider for strike partner Dominic Calvert-Lewin, drawing Miller out of his conservative proclivities, and in doing so, Thompson had to at least attempt to cover, but was stuck in no man’s lad, unable to prevent the cross, unable to prevent the finish. 2-1 to Everton.

In terms of clear-cut chances however, the two teams were equal. Barjonas released Maynard over the top, breaking their offside trap. England’s #1 Jordan Pickford dived superbly to keep out his effort, and in a similar move minutes later,  could only hit the side netting. The whistle for half-time below, and despite now being behind, I was encouraged by the overall display, having outshot a top-tier side on their own turf. Unsurprisingly though, both full backs had been given the runaround and were heavily fatigued, prompting a triple substitution to freshen things up.

For a fourth time in the game, Maynard had got the better of their star-studded backline, taking a superb long pass from Saul Shotton into his stride, kissing the post with his attempt. Then, Thompson showed his credentials at the other end, blocking Calvert-Lewin’s goalbound effort with an outstandingly timed block. That was as good as it was going to get, sadly, as the hosts’ vastly superior quality was beginning to tell.

Bernard made it 3-1, prodding home a rebound after his initial effort had been saved. The fourth had a touch of fortune, as the much-maligned Phil Edwards, on as a sub, actually stopped Cenk Tosun in his tracks… but the ball bobbled inadvertently to an unmarked Walcott, lashing home to put the tie to bed.

The rout was complete when Dawson cheaply surrendered possession in the middle of the park, leading to yet another breakway. Oumar Niasse’s close control broke the line, and fellow sub Gylfi Sigurðsson made the most of the gift.

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The scoreline doesn’t tell the whole story, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter

Three international call-ups in the fourth tier can let you request a postponement, and I decided to do just that. I couldn’t countenance being our players light with potentially no points on the board at home to Grimsby Town. Most notable of that group was Styles being drafted into the England U20s setup.

Grimsby Postponement 1819Lucketti Temerity

On the eve of a vital clash with Morecambe, ex-boss Chris Lucketti had the temerity to question the current management and form. Given that he chalked up one point in nine league matches, he should’ve kept his thoughts to himself, and it only hardened my resolve to go ‘two better’ than him immediately.

For this one, I reverted back to a 4-3-3; Stokes needed rest after suffering a knock midweek, leaving me a choice between not playing to Callum McFadzean’s strengths… or handing out another debut to a more naturally suitable candidate. I went with the latter despite the inherent risk, and Jack Hatton became the latest to emerge from the academy’s production line.

The Shrimps went on the attack from the off and were sucked in. The Shakers didn’t have any blisteringly speedy players in their side, but were still fleet of foot enough on the counter to open the scoring, Mayor using his instep to roll the ball in from a Nicky Adams’ pass. The ‘League Two Eden Hazard’ doubled his tally and his side’s lead, turning on the style with his classic dribble, cut inside and finish.

Two became three in no time at all. It was all-too apparent that Jim Bentley’s charges were terrified of Mayor’s forays forward, and this time he was the instigator, switching the ball to Nicky Adams on the right, and he kept up the pace, whipping in a wicked cross for Maynard to ease in.

Even three up, I wasn’t confident of gaining victory. If there’s one sure way to score against Bury, it’s from a corner. Andrew Tutte’s delivery came back to haunt his previous employers, Joe Piggott taking full advantage of Josef Yarney’s clever flick into his path. Barjonas had a shot that kissed the post before the break, and I made the conscious decision to keep attacking in the second period, having more belief in the likelihood that the Shakers could add to their tally over preventing their county rivals not staging a comeback.

Dawson is not renowned for his potency in front of goal, but he showed good intelligence to react to a chested pass inside the six yard box from Adams after another well-executed free-kick routine, notching his first of the season in the process. Maynard followed Barjonas in striking the woodwork, his angled shot coming after some good work by the Glasgow Rangers loanee to keep the chance alive.

With little left to lose, Bentley was encouraging almost everyone in a red and black shirt to press forward. Upon seeing this change of emphasis, I drafted in Cameron Hill for his bow on the league stage, placing him as an anchor man to rove between the defensive lines and snuff out the danger. This just made Morecambe look wider when transitioning, and they cut the deficit to two from another corner. On this occasion, Yarney was the scorer, nodding home from Carlos Mendes Gomes’ set piece.

They then conspired to reduce the lead to a single goal, Piggott hitting his shot across the ‘keeper. Fortunately, that was as far as they went, and the game finished as an eight-goal thriller when Maynard was fouled in the area by Yarney, tucking away the penalty himself. At last, a win in the league and off the foot of the EFL in the process. Still, conceding 16 goals in only six matches needs addressing by hook or by crook.

5-3 L2 Table 1819
Nosebleed time!

This resulted in three players being named in Team of the Week, including Murphy, batting away a slew of chances for the Seasiders at critical junctures.

TOTW 1 1819

A 1-0 loss to Carlisle in EFL Trophy inspired few talking points. In truth, it was a poor performance by both sides, hampered from my perspective by a lot of fatigue in the U18s I chose to put out there.

Hopefully, the win and week off from first team action will allow some time to devise and implement some better strategies when defending corners, and restore to full fitness the vast majority of the squad. Be sure to look out for Part 4, which rounds off September’s games!

Less is More: Why Having Fewer Football Matches Just Makes Sense – Part 2

Please read Part 1 first if you haven’t already!

European Super League

I hadn’t planned on leaving it so long to write the concluding part, but I now feel compelled to bring it to publication in light of the rumour mill swirling about the ‘European Super League’. a concept that has been mooted for almost as long as I can remember, and one that just never seems to go away, each time gaining a little more traction – not necessarily with league bodies or the fans themselves, but with those whose interests usually centre around profit margins above all other concerns.

In a document leaked by Der Spiegel, five Premier League teams would initially be involved, and the founder sides’ membership of the breakaway competition would be ‘guaranteed for 20 years’, as clear an indication as you’re likely to get in paper of the permanency of the idea.

The reaction has been vociferous, but as you’d expect, not all of it has been in opposition. Admittedly, none of the people I’ve directly spoken to about it have been in favour, and the dividing line has been centred around whether the FA and the Premier League should do all they can to retain the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal… or let them go.

There are similarities to the formation of the Premier League itself in 1992: clubs with larger fanbases/worldwide audiences wanting a larger slice of the revenue generated to match their ‘status’. Though some of the ‘actors’ differ, the Football League, as it was known then, decided against calling their bluff, in a move that has had untold consequences that are still being felt today. The corridors of power have changed in the quarter of a century since then, and with the benefit of hindsight, they really should have done so. Governance of football at all levels in England is a jumble, which might actually help hasten the elite outfits’ abrogation from the domestic calendar altogether.

Whilst FIFA have threatened to ban players from participating in national team games who are part of the ESL, you have to wonder how much of that is sabre-rattling, together with a degree of shock at this exposé, coming mere days after their own proposed expansion of the Club World Cup was postponed, being resisted by many of the same clubs named in the publication.

Restructuring – The ‘How’

The first part was entirely dedicated to why I felt it was necessary to reduce the number of matches played in the domestic game (which I would also apply globally, although there are obvious complications in trying to enforce that). The method is actually quite simple, and has been made easier in this scenario by assuming the five teams mentioned above. The Premier League’s current composition of 20 is actually something of an anachronism in the current climate, and there have been intermittent calls from a whole number of different vested interests to cut that total down. My slant isn’t to do so to somehow magically improve the English men’s national side, and their run to the semi-finals of this year’s World Cup could easily be used as a large fly in that metaphorical ointment. I come back to the same reasoning I had six weeks ago: it’s just better for the people who matter – the players themselves, the clubs they play for, the fans, the transport network…

Let’s get into the meat of the post. My solution is to propose six leagues consisting of 16 teams each. The rough structure of the top two tiers would remain pretty much as they are currently, and the current third and fourth divisions would be regionalised, much as they were in the mid-part of the 20th Century. Such a measure would necessitate the occasional ‘rebalancing’ of the leagues; for example, would a hypothetical side that plays in the Birmingham area north or south? This issue would arise infrequently, and sides in the Midlands area might find themselves shifted from one to the other to keep journey times and associated costs down for the other members.

Here is a look at how the overall structure would function, using the current standings of the remaining 87 of the 92 teams in the top four leagues to inform the methodology, and adding several of the National League leaders to ensure parity:

New League Structure
(If you have any trouble reading the text in the screenshots, open them in a new window and remove any text after ‘.png’ in the address bar – they will then appear at full size/resolution)

I envisage that the promotion and relegation spots would also be equalised three up, three down; the third promotion spot would be contested in a three-team play-off, with the highest ranked of the trio receiving a bye to the final to be played on neutral ground; this would mean there would be less chance of any one side having nothing to play for as their season draws to the close, and the reduction in games would statistically make it likelier that the battle for positions are tighter. This could also work for the Premier League, where instead of promotion the outfits in third to fifth are vying for, it’s a place in UEFA’s primary and secondary continental competitions (should they still be running in the event of a Super League), much like what happens in the Eredivisie now.

The addition of four to the overall number in the PL/EFL pool to 96 would, of course, have a knock-on effect to each domestic cup, too. Firstly, the Checkatrade/EFL Trophy would, for all intents and purposes, retain its current structure, but eschew the Category 1 sides from the competition, having been an unmitigated disaster in both the esteem in which the poor sibling of the three is held, and on the already paltry crowds that attended matches before current EFL chairman Shaun Harvey’s masterstroke.

As I mentioned before, the group games in the first round would all be played close together at the end of pre-season. The groups themselves would be quite static in terms of who plays who, keeping each mini-league as tight-knit geographically to each other as possible. The only initial draw would be to determine which of them would have the advantage of playing two of the three matches at home in the current single round robin format. Additionally, just like now, the subsequent knockout rounds would be regionalised, pitting the ‘winner’ from north and south against each other in the final on neutral ground.

The most radical change would come in the EFL Cup. Given more room to breathe, and now played on Saturdays, the first round would have a regionalised, unseeded draw, and be free of any Championship outfits. Every subsequent round would be nationwide, ensuring as far as practical that very few sides in the third and fourth tiers would go too long without pitting their wits against a team they wouldn’t normally come into direct contact with. The semi-finals would be single leg affairs, and just like the Checkatrade, a draw would be made to determine which teams were the hosts.

The most notable differences in the FA Cup would be the necessary increase of teams in the First Round Proper from 124 to 128. There would be no regionalisation from the entry of EFL sides, and, just as now, the third round would bring all the top two tier teams. The semi-finals would not take place at Wembley, and would instead follow a similar pattern to that outlined in the other cups; that ‘privilege’ would be reserved solely for the final of the FA Cup and no other competition. Replays would be scrapped, but because of a more equitable redistribution of money in the game, this would have much less impact than it would do otherwise.

How would all of this affect the calendar in reality? Let’s take a glance at Bury’s fixture list for 2018/2019. I haven’t added all the remaining rounds of competitions they are in, but you can still see, it’s quite relentless:

Current Fixture Structure 1Current Fixture Structure 2

Discounting friendlies, the bare minimum they will play from August to May is 50. A win tomorrow and any avoidance of defeat in 90 minutes next Tuesday will take that total to 52.

Now let’s look at an extreme example of a season in the new model, assuming for the sake of argument it takes place in 2019/2020:

Example Extreme Fixture List 1Example Extreme Fixture List 2

If the Shakers could somehow go on a cup run on all fronts (stop laughing at the back), and participate in a play-off, their total number of matches, discounting the pre-EFL Trophy friendlies, would once more be 52. But it’s very unlikely they’d come close to this number, and, given their recent history, it’s much more probable that it would be under 40. This would leave several occasions where they wouldn’t have a fixture of any kind on a weekend, allowing more time for players to recover from injuries and for other off-pitch matters to be worked on, which can sometimes be confined to quite a tight window in the summer.

Other Things To Consider

The ramifications of a European Super League are difficult to determine, but the impact would surely be felt worldwide. The domestic game in England would be affected, as would the national teams if FIFA made good on their threat. Either way, a big rethink is required on what matters most in football – is it higher crowds, better welfare for players and a more equitable way of reinvesting in grassroots, or the constant crowbarring in of more and more matches, blatantly disregarding health and logistics, and financial greed? A reduction in fixtures would not in isolation be a silver bullet, but, along with other measures I’ll write about in future, could improve matters substantially.

 

Buryball 2.0: The Agony and the… Agony

For Part 1 and an explanation of what Buryball is, see here.

Losing Stephen Dawson to injury in the pre-season build-up left me in a sticky situation tactically for the visit of Yeovil Town. Do I persist with a very positive looking 4-3-3 with no natural ballwinner in the matchday squad, or shift strategy to something a little more watertight and unfamiliar to the players? In the end I settled on the former, bringing in Glasgow Rangers loanee Jamie Barjonas to the XI, pushing up Callum Styles from a support to attack duty on his playmaking in the process.

It paid immediate dividends. Captain Neil Danns, deployed on the left of the midfield trio and the only one of whom could tell you what winning a tackle actually feels like, was at his most predatory to tap in a rebound off the post in the very first minute of the game, profiting from Styles’ direct free kick. Unbelievably (and eerily resembling real life against Macclesfield Town), the Grenadian international bagged his second in almost no time at all from outside the area, Styles once again the architect.

Danns 1st Goal 1819.png

Danns 2nd Goal 1819.png

The Football Manager series has always had a way of booting you in the face, just when you seem to have things going well. The pain started in the 12th minute, Danny Mayor limping off with a suspected leg injury. I know I mentioned in the last post about fast-tracking some of the U18s to competitive action, but I hadn’t bargained on having to do so quite as early as that. Joe Adams came on in his place, but not before I momentarily considered switching his namesake Nicky to the opposite flank to accommodate Byron Moore, but I just thought that he’d be ever so slightly weaker on the left, whereas the youngster is equally adept on either, on account of having two reliably good feet.

If that wasn’t bad enough though, the pain turned to anguish on the stroke of the 20th minute. Danns, on an early hat-trick, took a hard kick to his shoulder, and also had to be replaced. The gambit was falling apart, even with a two-goal cushion still intact. I threw on Jay O’Shea to perform a similar role in the XI, being all-too aware that wasn’t really his forté. Styles, so effective as the spearhead in midfield, then became the pivot, operating between the lines.

Naturally, this only encouraged The Glovers to pour forward, cutting through a very porous bank of three at will to take on a defence that had never played together as a unit before, and it showed. Adam Thompson committed a needless foul in the box, just as a dangerous cross was gathered by veteran custodian Joe Murphy. The referee had little option put to point to the penalty spot. Up stepped Carl Dickinson to halve their deficit… but it was saved!

The disappointment of the miss only seemed to spur on the Somerset outfit to attack with even more abandon, and they made their physical advantage pay from a corner as half-time was approaching. The set piece wasn’t cleared very far, and Yoann Arquin dominated Eoghan O’Connell to win the second ball, taking it down onto his chest and crashing it in at the near post. Height was already a concern for me, especially as the Irish centre-back is the tallest and most commanding in the air of the senior players.

The second period followed a similar pattern to the first; by now, Yeovil were having the edge in terms of both possession and chances, but there were still opportunities to put more daylight between the two sides. Nicky Maynard, quiet up until this point, was then set free after a delightfully chipped ball over the top by Styles to break the offside trap. The one-time Premier League striker could only conspire to shoot straight into the arms of the onrushing Nathan Baxter.

Bury were made to pay for wasting that clear-cut opening. A well-worked move inside the 18-yard area was prodded home by Olufela Olomola. 2-2. Even before the equaliser, I considered that I’d now be satisfied with a point, and the goal solidified my thought process. Barjonas took a knock in the first half, and was still feeling the effects of it. As a result, and with no other central midfield options of any kind, I threw on Saul Shotton, the defence becoming a flat five.

The only noticeable change that this had, however, was to sacrifice any sort of challenge down the wings when the visitors made the transition from defence. Arquin was enjoying coming up against Tom Miller down his side, and beat the former Carlisle United man for pace, crossing low behind the rest of the unit for the similarly quick Olomola to finish from close range. Ouch.

3-2 was how it finished, and to go along with the annoying ‘Bury in disappointing collapse’ headline, I had to count the cost of two of my key men having spells on the sidelines: Danns will be out for a month, which is a grievous blow to my whole strategy. Mayor was luckily only unavailable for three weeks, and there are at least four others on the roster who can perform competently on the left wing.

It almost goes without saying that a trip to title favourites Milton Keynes Dons in Buckinghamshire wouldn’t have been my preferred destination, low as the side was on central midfielders already. In recognition of this, I looked to the second system I was training the players on – a more finely balanced 4-2-3-1, with O’Shea shadowing Maynard. I felt it was the only way to accommodate lack of ball-winners and paucity of options in the middle, whilst not sacrificing the strength of the XI in attacking areas. Joe Adams hadn’t had the best of matches filling in for Mayor, so to ease the pressure on him, I handed Callum Hulme his debut. The main difference between the two hot prospects from open play is that Hulme will naturally stay wider when asked to operate on the wing, and I was hoping to do to Paul Tisdale’s charges what had been just done to me.

The hosts looked to set the tempo from the off, and it became rapidly apparent that Rhys Healey was central to all of their better passages of play. He went on a slaloming, mazy run from just inside his own half, striking the foot of the post in the process.

Later on, a dangerous free kick was conceded, which Styles would again take. His floated ball from the right flank found the grateful head of O’Connell, who guided it past Lee Nicholls, as he stood rooted to his line in an untimely moment of indecision.

O'Connell 1st Goal 1819.png

That man Healey levelled things up from another set play, though. Once more, a corner was only half-cleared, and MK won the ball back, spreading it out wide to Mitch Hancox, who found the Cardiff City loanee inside the six yard area facing away from goal. In one swift movement, he swivelled and blasted it past Murphy before any defenders could throw themselves in front of the shot.

Not to be deterred, I thought proceedings had gone reasonably well thus far and didn’t see a need to change tack. The triumvirate behind Maynard were beginning to combine well, giving cause for concern for Tisdale. This was best illustrated by the third goal in the game. A patient build-up from the outside channel to the centre was left unchecked by MK, going from Hulme to Maynard (who’s actually quite a good passer of the ball for a striker), the former Dons man laid off to O’Shea, who belted the ball beyond the goalkeeper’s reach to put Bury 2-1 up.

O'Shea 1st Goal 1819.png

The lead didn’t last very long, unfortunately. Aa long throw from the left was headed out to the edge of the area, and Jordan Houghton, who loves a long shot, was only too happy to latch onto the loose ball, stroking home first time on the half-volley. Their comeback was complete when Healey, who hit the post for a second time, set up substitute Sam Nombe for the winner in the dying minutes. Another 3-2 loss. Sigh

Mayor was back in light training by the time the EFL Cup 1st Round arrived, pitting the Shakers against local rivals Rochdale at Spotland. A cursory glance at the home line-up, sporting a certain Zach Clough as the sole striker, suggested that manager Keith Hill was treating the fixture seriously. The board of directors at Gigg Lane don’t consider it to be an important competition, so merely performing without disgrace and bowing out was their minimum expectation.

Keeping the same XI and formation from the previous game seemed to work well, going 1-0 up with just 120 seconds on the clock. Nicky Adams, no stranger to the East Lancs Derby in both colours, floated a cross from the 18-yard line, which O’Shea of all people tucked away with a cushioned header! The problem was certainly not of an attacking nature.

Dangerman Ian Henderson, playing off Clough, had picked up a yellow card for an innocuous foul whilst the encounter was still very young, and didn’t learn his lesson, going in hard on Nicky Adams in the middle of the park with seemingly little danger. Dale were now down to 10 men, and Hill’s reaction to the dismissal was to do… absolutely nothing. The full-backs were already being asked to provide all the width even before the sending off, and the Nottingham Forest loanee was cutting an isolated figure when chances were already at a premium.

Henderson Red 1819.png

Nevertheless, they still had sufficient quality in their ranks to pose some stern questions, particularly on the break in the second half as legs started to become fatigued. In an attempt to stifle this, I again opted to pack the defence, only this time, with numerical advantage, I brought Gold Omotayo on as a target man to partner Maynard, with Joe Adams being introduced at the same time to pounce on any knockdowns and loose balls. This allowed Bury to hit it long but also give the towering Swiss figure ample support to retain possession and prevent the counter-attack.

The Shakers had a golden opportunity to double their lead, when Ryan Delaney handballed a Callum McFadzean centre. Maynard, wishing to break his duck, stepped up to the penalty spot, only to see his effort saved superbly by Josh Lillis. The wait goes on, but at least his approach play has been positive in each of the three games thus far.

Thankfully, passage through to the second round was sealed when Omotayo coolly stabbed home from a Tom Miller cross. In the post-match press conference, the local journalists were a little too keen to lavish praise on the goalscorer, so I looked to ease the pressure on him at the first opportunity, only too cognizant that his opportunities are likely to be limited to cameo appearances, and he remains on the loan list to gain more full-time professional experience.

Rochdale 0-2 Bury 1819.png

Speaking of temporary deals, Ryan Cooney and Dougie Nyaupembe decided to join Solihull Moors on loan and Dover Athletic respectively in the National League until the end of the season. Whilst that does leave only Phil Edwards and youngster Aaron Skinner as alternatives to Miller at either full or wing-back on the right flank, I think having five players vying for just one spot would stunt the development of at least two of the three novices, and Cooney’s (successful) conversion from midfielder to defender in real life actually harms his prospects in my short-term plans.

News broke before the first-ever contest with Forest Green Rovers that the reward for dispatching Rochdale was a trip to Goodison Park to face Everton in round two, one of the highest ranked sides to enter at that stage. The big question will be what kind of XI Marco Silva puts out as to whether I stand any chance of staging an upset. Jermaine Beckford began the rehabilitation phase of his return from suffering damaged cruciate ligaments in October 2017, but will find his path to the first team blocked by a multitude of options, as well as only usually playing one striker. More crucially, both Dawson and Mayor are back in full training, but I will ease their reintroduction to action, as both are decidedly injury prone individuals, and as such, I want to minimise their risk of an immediate relapse.

Everton Draw 1819.png

A quiet first half ensued, mostly played in midfield and peppered with occasional shots from all-too acute angles by the wide men, Hulme and Nicky Adams. However, the side hailing from the sprawling metropolis of Nailsworth hit their gracious hosts on the counter on in the 29th minute, courtesy of a George Williams curler after another depressingly unopposed run… and that was the only ‘highlight’ of the entire match – not even a triple sub on the hour mark to shake things up had any impact whatsoever. That meant that a worrying record of three defeats in three, but somehow, not enough to trouble the relegation spots just yet.

Table 3 Games 1819.png

Will the return of Dawson and Mayor make a difference? Find out in Part 3 soon!

Buryball 2.0: The Youth Movement

In the first chapter, I cover the pre-season build-up to the inaugural campaign of Buryball 2.0!

A reminder of the rules of Buryball, with some of the comments below each point tweaked to reflect the real world at Gigg Lane:

1. Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend.

The first criterion is unlikely to be that much of a factor (in the first season at least). What it means in practice is that I could sign a player for a high fee as long as their salary was relatively low as that is what will affect the bottom line in the long run

2. Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the ‘New Manager Syndrome’.

Suffice it to say that I won’t be falling into that particular trap, especially given the generally huge turnover of players at Bury in the last five years and the lack of a transfer budget. Most fans agree that the talent in the squad is there in real life and given how accurate the stats in Football Manager are these days, it’s bound to be reflected on the game. Given that the aim will be to guide the Lancashire outfit to immediate success, the notion of applying for another position is off the table.

3. Don’t buy players who impressed at international tournaments: they’re likely to be overvalued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team – there are different incentives and a different tactical set-up at tournaments and it’s a super small sample size.

Again, this is unlikely to affect my management of Bury in the short to medium term but it is an important point to note. Long-term tracking of players decreases the need to scout tournaments, which are often a seller’s market.

4. Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil and England.

I believe this comes from historic performances and styles of play of the national sides throughout the second half of the 20th century and the conflation of that archetype to any player representing that country on the game regardless of their ability level. There might now be a bit of a shift towards Belgium and France in contemporary terms. On the face of it, this won’t affect my recruitment, but you might be surprised how many players in the lower leagues are from places with a reputation (past or present)) for playing eye-catching football. With English players, it’s hard to avoid them coming through the academy (more on that below), but is something to keep in mind where it doesn’t conflict with other criteria. Another factor that will play out early in proceedings is good old Brexit, the terms of which could seriously affect the ability to recruit from the EU.

5. Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside.

This will be absolutely fundamental to making it a success. Bury will start the game in significant debt and need to make significant returns on the roster in lieu of having much in the way of generating income on non-matchdays. There is a significant contingent of outfield players that are 30 or over, which will need to change as seamlessly as possible, without needlessly rushing through changes.

6. Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one about players.

Lee Dykes will be called upon to offer his scouting recommendations, as well as help facilitate both player purchases and sales. In the fullness of time, the scouting network will increase in number and coverage.

lee dykes.jpg
Dykes’ role, and that of any Director of Sport/Football in the modern game, is becoming increasingly visible and important further down the pyramid, although it’s still not as commonplace in England as it is on continental Europe

7. Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly and means previous statistics have greater value.

Contingent to a certain extent either on having a productive academy or ‘sacrificing’ it to leverage more financial resources into recruiting players at an older age. It’s one of the easier points on this list to ‘buy’ into, and Dykes’ hiring, coupled with a necessary budget reduction following relegation, have led to a change in policy. This age bracket and ‘type’ of individual will make up the bulk of my signings over the course of the story.

8. Strikers cost more than they should.

Typically, the most highly valued players are the ones primarily tasked with putting the ball into the net frequently. That goes almost without saying. However, if all the other pieces in the jigsaw are there, it should mean that goals are more evenly distributed throughout the team and for that reason, less emphasis is placed on spending every penny on a ‘guaranteed 20-goal striker’. It also means finding value in players where in the most difficult part of the market by picking up transfer-listed individuals or those who have been overlooked, which is central to this philosophy. Luckily, the Shakers have plenty of depth in this department!
9. Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold.

This applies at any stage of their career. It’s also contingent on a desperate competitor not snatching your want-away star player in the dying embers of the transfer window but there should be a degree of foresight in those cases. It can also be a hard sell to fans and the dressing room itself in the short-term but again, it’s one of the pillars of Moneyball.

10. Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players.

To expand on above, this also means putting much more resources and stock into coaching than a ‘quick fix’ transfer. You will see below that there are some specific roles and areas that even Bury’s still-bloated roster doesn’t have adequate cover for. The option to retrain an existing player into a particular niche if they have the attributes for it, which might be the only option when finances are very tight and a youngster isn’t quite ready to make the step up.

The first thing most virtual managers will notice about the U18s is that whilst they’re not the most numerous, there is no shortage of exciting prospects amongst the group, hence the name of this chapter. Certain ones will be fast-tracked to the first team, both to test their mettle, and to satisfy the criterion directly above this one. The Shakers have gained a reputation as a vendor of teenage talent in the past five years, and it will need to continue in order to balance the books.

11. The best way to improve a team is by identifying and replacing the weakest links, rather than by splashing out on making the best links even better.

The old adage about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link is certainly true in football; savvy opposing managers will instruct their charges to ruthlessly exploit weakness and uncertainty. With the ‘correct’ age demographics already mostly in place at the club, the existing group should improve on an individual and collective basis anyway. It’s then a case of gradually uplifting the slightly worse links.

All of the above are existing maxims in Moneyball (and the latter two are from Soccernomics), plus these pair that are specific to the die-hard fans at Gigg Lane:

12. Bury fans value work rate in a player above all other attributes.

This is easier to ‘eyeball’ in specific areas of the pitch for the average punter; that said, a balance must also be struck over what work rate constitutes – covering the greatest amount of distance on the field without making much impact on proceedings can only be tolerated so many times. Nevertheless, it does mean I’ll be unlikely to sign anyone with a prominently low stat in certain positions.
13. Bury fans value seeing players come through the youth academy system over other 16-20 year old signings, especially those who are on loan.

A great fit for Buryball 2.0; all three loanees are 20 and under in 2018/2019, but it’s unlikely that I’ll be looking to bring in as many as that in future seasons, and will probably instead look to extend all three deals until the end of the campaign. The loan market will only be dipped into after careful consideration of the 10th point on this list.

Buryball 2.0

Chairman Stewart Day greeted me immediately upon the announcement of my appointment, before slapping me with the news that you only have a surplus wage budget of about £2,000 to play with over the course of the upcoming term. I made the decision to disable the first transfer window, as I’ve never liked it being enabled on the game, even if the side I’ve taken control of is desperately crying out for new faces. I used it to add a couple of scouts, as I can’t have Dykes as the sole person tasked with identifying prospective signings. I also beefed up the medical staff, as that’s another area sorely lacking off-field.

The (minimum) expectation is automatically set to automatic promotion! I had a feeling after doing the research for the club that it would be to reach the play-offs, which would’ve been an eminently more achievable task. A decent crack at the top three will rely heavily upon some of the younger guys hitting the ground running, and avoiding injuries to key stars in a squad full of highly prone players.

I surrendered training to assistant manager Rob Kelly, with frequent updates set up to ensure he devises plans suitable for each person, and to maximise the time I have to devise tactics and manage egos away from Carrington.

An early look at the League Two odds suggest the bookies see it as a four-way fight for the three automatic spots on offer, with MK Dons slightly shorter than the chasing pack. Chuks Aneke is also the favourite to be the top goalscorer, with Nicky Maynard his closest challenger. Current real-life leader James Norwood for Tranmere Rovers doesn’t make the list.

 

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(If you have any trouble reading the text in the screenshots, open them in a new window and remove any text after ‘.png’ in the address bar – they will then appear at full size/resolution)

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I delegated friendlies to Kelly, and whilst the only desire I have for warm-up games is to avoid serious injury to any of the likely XI for Yeovil Town, a 2-0 loss to TNS (The New Saints) wasn’t exactly an ideal way to kick things off. Fortunately, that was the only reverse suffered over the five matches, besting traditional opponents Radcliffe 3-1, as well as another local side in the shape Ramsbottom United 5-0, with Danny Mayor grabbing a hat-trick. Most impressive though was beating two full-strength third tier outfits AFC Wimbledon and Peterborough United, 3-1 and 2-1 respectively.

Sadly, the squad didn’t come out of the programme unscathed. Stephen Dawson, so out of favour in reality, is actually the crux of ensuring my strategy doesn’t commit too many bodies forward when in transition from the second to the final third. Joe Murphy also suffered a knock, but should be fully fit in time for Darren Way’s charges to come to town. Below is an insight into my preferred formation and tactic for most games:

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The premise is that all four defenders don’t stray too far from their own 18-yard line. Joe Murphy will throw it long to release the midfielders, but in situations where the defenders need to win possession back, Eoghan O’Connell will occasionally step out to win aerial battles and in turn, spray balls to Dawson to give to the more creative players in midfield, especially Callum Styles. Chris Stokes and Tom Miller will ‘stay at home’ to maintain the defensive shape, forcing the runners coming at them to go out wide and risk getting their cross blocked at the first attempt, or to try to run in behind when the space is already closed down.

The positive mentality adopted will mean that I look to take the game to the opposition, reflecting the balance of strengths and weaknesses in the group – in other words,  the bias towards attacking. Neil Danns will shuttle the ball between the boxes, Callum Styles will (hopefully) conjure up chances for the front three, and Danny Mayor will be relieved of any defensive responsibilities, allowing him to focus on doing what he does best 100% of the time. Nicky Adams will get stuck in a bit more, being present in more phases of play than his teammate, and the crosses will come in quick and low for Maynard, given that his heading isn’t his forté.

With Dawson’s enforced absence, there is a chance for Jamie Barjonas or Jay O’Shea to come in to cover for him, but neither of them are going to offer the same steel in the centre of the park. Danns could do it in the short-term, but it isn’t the best utilisation of his skillset. Already, there’s a problem… but can I keep the Glovers at arm’s length and start the season with three points? Find out in the next chapter!

 

Almost Unbeaten, Almost ‘There’

You can see my summaries of August and September by clicking their respective links.

The Nearly Men

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Ryan Lowe’s charges built on an impressive September (which led to the Bury boss being nominated for League Two Manager of the Month) by at least taking a share of the spoils in all of the most difficult looking matches on paper, only to fall at the last hurdle thanks to an old friend. One way of looking at the last five league games is to say that they’ve only yielded one win, which is absolutely true… but they’ve also only had a single defeat during them, and the Shakers have lost just once per month in the two following August in the fourth tier.

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Ben Mayhew’s data for the past month closely resembles what has been borne out on the pitch (not always a given at the level in question). I wrote about the struggles down at Sixfields, but the biggest redeeming quality of that encounter was also the simplest: they didn’t lose in a match that, on balance, they deserved nothing from.

This was also true to an extent against the return of David Flitcroft to Gigg Lane with much-fancied Mansfield Town just days later. The Stags were one of the few outfits to really go toe-to-toe with Bury to date, remaining the only team to score more than once against Bury since Morecambe managed to on the 1st of September, and their boldness very nearly paid dividends for them. Danny Rose made the most of a complete hash by goalkeeper Joe Murphy, but the veteran’s blushes were spared deep in injury time by the second of Nicky Maynard’s brace. More on him below.

The short trip to Cheshire threw up one of the most dominant away performances seen in the past few years by the Lancashire side, outgunning their opponents on xG by a factor of almost 7:1. Unfortunately, that translate to a priceless winner, but the feeling was there that someone could be on the end of a(nother) hiding in the not-too-distant future.

Despite Notts County’s travails this campaign, I really didn’t anticipate it being them. Since Harry Kewell’s appointment, they’d slowly tightened things up at the back, especially at set pieces, and were beginning to climb the standings in the bottom half. That said, the tactics he employed were all wrong, with even the hosts’ central midfield looking mighty against the paltry resistance offered by Elliott Hewitt. The scapegoat for his supremo’s errors was hauled off at half time, but by then, the damage was already done. Their adversaries were able to play a high tempo throughout the 90 minutes, and the four goals they notched were just rewards for their display.

Expecting a similar performance three days later against Newport County was asking a lot. Watching the game on iFollow, I was started to get irritated… not by the players, but by the commentators demanding the same showing. None of the starting eleven had changed, and Michael Flynn’s men were much more savvy in defensive situations. The addition of pacey Antoine Semenyo early in the second period gave The Exiles the shot in the arm they required to get back to parity.

The pasting Port Vale received from Lincoln City was the impetus for a change of tack, and they have since kept four consecutive clean sheets in all competitions. The Burslem outfit were indebted to Scott Brown almost as much as Newport were to Joe Day in preventing a Shakers victory, and they now sit just two points below their vanquished visitors, and surely looking up the ladder, rather than down.

Danny Mayor

I think it would actually do Mayor a disservice to suggest he’s ‘back to his best’ at this point. His displays as of late are superior to anything he’s shown previously in the white and royal blue. I will freely admit that I was skeptical about his credentials this season; two years of not being in a good place mentally and physically (from an injury standpoint), which can happen to anyone in any walk of life, With a full pre-season programme behind him, and, just as vitally, handed a free role by Lowe, he has had a massive impact on the division in 2018/2019, and must rank once more as one of its best, which is bittersweet in some ways.

Taking up a nominal position on the left, he has linked well with the quietly impressive Callum McFadzean, inevitably drawing comparisons to the on-field rapport he enjoyed with Chris Hussey four seasons ago. It’s an area that has clearly had a lot of time and effort dedicated to it on the training ground, and for good reason. The former Guiseley player is not a natural defender in the strictest definition of the term by his own admission, and his willingness to support Bury’s talisman in advanced areas has created plenty of goalscoring chances, an element most certainly missing from that flank in 2017/2018.

A data source shared with me the number of dribbles he has attempted and completed in the 16 matches to date… and let’s just say he’s far out in front across the whole league. The 28 year-old’s presence does many things from a tactical point of view:

  • It more often than not makes the coaching staff in the opposing dugout set up their defensive lines deeper than they might do otherwise
  • It commits bodies to marking the space he’s in or will move into on the dribble (sometimes as many as four players)
  • It keeps Bury higher up the pitch in threatening areas, as his teammates know more often than not that he’ll retain the ball thanks to his skill and close control, so they commit themselves forward both in more numbers and close proximity to receive and release possession back to him

Equally as importantly, the creative burden has been shared across the pitch, as shown by the assists chart:

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10 players have already made at least one assist in the league during 2018/2019, and four are already on three or more goals

Losing him to injury and/or suspension would undoubtedly be a massive blow, but I feel that there are others who could take on at least part of his job, which hasn’t been the case since his first arrival on loan five years ago.

Nicky Maynard

“Why do they need another striker?” I found myself thinking more than once when he signed, whilst acknowledging some overdue prudence by only securing his signature until the winter transfer window. He had trained at both Crewe Alexandra and Oxford United in the summer, but was understandably rusty in his first appearance for his new club at the tail-end of September.

The portents weren’t much better at Northampton Town, where he was starved of service and beaten in the air all night long. The one-time Premier League forward acknowledges his limitations in the air, but supporters have been witness to some superb all-round turns from then on. The overhead kick against Mansfield demonstrated his peerless technique, as did his positioning and composure for the 95th-minute leveller.

At Gresty Road, he got in front of his man to tap home inside the six yard box, and repeated the trick in the thrashing of Notts County.

For me though, his best goal was his most recent effort:

The touch, flick and turn to create the space and opportunity for himself, the coolness to pay no heed to the three black shirts swarming on his position, and guide into the near post with his right foot from outside area was on a stratum unparalleled since perhaps Leon Clarke and James Vaughan, but possibly better in that phase of play than either of them were for Bury… and that’s high praise indeed.

He’s linking up most promisingly with Dom Telford, but will need to get used to the rotation with Chris Dagnall. The news of his extension to the end of the season, along with McFadzean, was well-timed, and both men can hopefully continue in similar rich veins of form.

Central midfield still unconvincing

Lowe has had a great deal of success in adopting an attacking impetus after a slow beginning to the campaign, and most of the ‘cogs in the machine’ are functioning well. I have heard one or two mutterings about Joe Murphy, having made two bad errors in 2018/2019; the centre backs have limited their opponents’ shooting chances for the most part; the wing-backs have been key in making the transition from the first to final third of the field; I’ve already described Danny Mayor’s free role in attacking midfield in detail above; the two strikers, regardless of their identity, have pressed from the front to keep the ball as far away from their own penalty area as possible, as well as chipping in with goals of their own.

The missing element here is the central midfield two. Granted, when the Shakers have had the lion’s share of possession by design or by the opposition inviting them deep into their territory, Neil Danns and Jay O’Shea have looked quite effective.

The latter of the pair has had to make a big adjustment to playing in such a deep role, which perhaps speaks volumes about the alternative options on the roster, more than it does his own proficiency in the position. His skills can go unnoticed and some of them have been muted altogether – no longer is he really attempting a killer ball, and rarely does he have a shot from distance. By the time the midfield have advanced that far, the prime areas for long-range efforts have usually been blocked off. An uncharacteristic sloppy pass eventually led to Newport’s equaliser last week.

As for Danns, I’m still undecided whether his ‘star’ is beginning to wane a little, which would be understandable, given he is mere days from celebrating his 36th birthday, and being asked to perform a physically demanding box-to-box game in a duo. At Northampton, the game seemed to pass him by, and both he and O’Shea were too easily played through when Mansfield came to town.

There are always going to be occasions when the other side wins the midfield battle, but these instances have been rare so far, not because of Bury’s strengths in the middle, but because most teams have asked Lowe’s troops to break through their banks of four or five.

Loanees Callum Styles and Jamie Barjonas have been limited to cameo appearances in the league, and Stephen Dawson is still very much a peripheral figure. An individual of his nature seems to be what the current setup is crying out for, and the suspicion remains that he’s angling for a move away, almost certainly being in the top three earners on the playing staff. A younger version of the archetype should be the number one priority for Sporting Director Lee Dykes in January. The temperature is beginning to drop and will continue to plummet in the weeks and months ahead, and, allied with the heavier pitches, a more attritional edge or Plan B will need to be adopted to improve or at least maintain Bury’s record in close-fought encounters.

Target Man Weaknesses

Although they still rank highly in the ‘fewest shots allowed’ stakes, the statistic can paper over some of the cracks in the defence. The trio of Chris Stokes, ever-present Adam Thompson and Will Aimson have, for the most part, done well, and there does seem to be a good degree of understanding of each of their roles and responsibilities.

I’ve previously highlighted their main collective deficiency – little pace, which can be exposed on the turn. Once more, this can be diminished if you’re the team doing the majority of the probing. What is becoming more apparent as time wears on is a big weakness against a very specific type of opponent – a target man. Not generally known for their speed, they use their upper body strength both aerially and on the ground to win the ball and then jealously guard it from their marker(s). In each of the two previous matches, the triumvirate have seemed almost in thrall to Jamille Matt and Tom Pope respectively. Only needing a single chance to score, the pair took five points off Bury between them in the space of a week.

 

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Jamille Matt (centre) leads the line superbly for Michael Flynn’s Newport County, and his positional play is on the same footing as his ability to keep his opponents at arm’s length

Lowe has tacitly admitted that there is a general height disadvantage throughout the squad. The three tallest are all central strikers, and I’d argue that although Eoghan O’Connell is only an inch larger than Thompson (his closest competitor), his latest absence has been felt. The Irish ball-playing centre back has a greater presence than any of the current three (basing that purely on his build), and of the five on the books, is probably the best equipped at dealing with that type of adversary, as he is also a touch more aggressive in the tackle and can link that with his range of passing, much in the same way that the returning Saul Shotton can. The belated competition for places can only improve matters, even if it’s purely psychological. It might yet be another area that the recruitment team are looking at, and it would help to make more use of Nicky Adams’ dead balls.

November

The fixture list this month throws up the sort of matches where, for the most part, Bury should be favourites to take maximum points and lay a glove on the top seven at the very least. Macclesfield Town, tomorrow’s opponents, are still managerless and bottom of the entire EFL. However, that’s seldom been a ‘gimme’ down the years, and Lowe must ensure that the wariness he has of the Silkmen is reflected in the performance at Moss Rose.

The following weekend brings Dover Athletic to Greater Manchester for the first ever competitive meeting between the two clubs. Floundering at the foot of the National League, a similar mentality will need to be adopted by the matchday squad as it ought to this Saturday. The FA Cup has been not been a welcome distraction for long-suffering supporters for decades, minus one or two instances. With home comforts, the Shakers must overcome dogged opposition, spearheaded by a certain Inih Effiong, one of the main proponents in their downfall at the same depressingly early hurdle in 2017/2018 whilst donning Woking’s colours.

Any method of victory over Fleetwood Town in the EFL Trophy will almost certainly prolong involvement in the neglected stepchild of the three domestic cup competitions on offer, and bring with it much-needed revenue. It’s also another chance to showcase some of the promising younger talent within the club’s ranks, and could serve as a dress rehearsal of a kind for some of the individuals on both teamsheets for their second round matchup in the FA Youth Cup, which is likely to take place the week after.

Stevenage sit just above Bury at the time of writing, which has been forged on the back of some sterling defensive displays under the watchful gaze of Dino Maamria. There is an unpredictability to their results this season, and they probably won’t travel north looking to take just a draw from the game.

I’ll be at Cambridge United on the 24th, which I’ll be previewing more in-depth closer to the time. Hitherto badly struggling, they looked to have turned the corner in the past two games, coming closer to resembling a side which, when you look at the names on it, should be much, much higher in the division.

The month is rounded off by a Tuesday night tussle with Cheltenham Town. Club legend Mike Duff has taken over the reins, but there has been no noticeable upturn in results, and they still frequently have ‘nil’ in the goals scored column, amassing just 10 in their 15 games to date. Being as reliant as they are on Luke Varney and Tyrone Barnett to spearhead their attack doesn’t augur well, but as I mentioned already, the latter is precisely the archetype the Shakers have just not got to grips with. Jacob Maddox will be tasked with leading them on the attack, and he will need to be kept quiet to prevent an embarrassing outcome.

Buryball is Back!

Yes, that’s right. I will be picking up where I inadvertently left off last year, keeping all the same rules and tenets of what made it such a fun challenge to play.

This time around, the pace will be somewhat slower for two reasons. Firstly, I think my decision to rattle through the season in one post inevitably meant a lot of details were omitted, and some of the quirks and nuances that affect any virtual manager were overlooked completely. Secondly, I just simply don’t have as much free time to dedicate to it as I once did, which is also a chief reason for the lack of new articles on this blog as of late (although that will improve from this week onwards).

Once more, I am the assistant researcher for Bury for Football Manager 2019, so I should in theory have as good a handle as anyone on how to get the most out of the squad. Upon the game’s official release tomorrow, I’ll share a tactic on Twitter with anyone who wants to take control of the Shakers. This isn’t strictly related to Buryball, but it was a request from a fellow fan, and the aim was simple – emulate the reality as much as possible. I can’t promise it will actually work that well in-game, but it could serve as a good starting platform for series newbies and veterans alike.

I also want the interactivity to return in my new FM series, and the gentler speed should enable that to be more commonplace. Your feedback will be crucial in helping to shape the course of my story, so I’ll be frequently canvassing opinion both on here and on social media.

Look out for Part 1 in the coming days, as well as the custom tactic, which I’m christening as ‘Loweball’!