The Nearly Men
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.
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.
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.