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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.