Tight at the top
After the conclusion of Tuesday night’s matches, things couldn’t be tighter in the standings immediately below pacesetters Lincoln City. The 1-1 draw between Forest Green Rovers and Mansfield Town has ensured the former didn’t take full advantage of their game in hand on Bury by drawing level on points with their rivals, and in the latter’s case, it kept them within striking distance.
Milton Keynes Dons halted a truly insipid 2019 thus far by turning in an ugly 2-1 win over Oldham Athletic. Paul Tisdale won’t care a jot that the performance in the last 30 minutes left a lot to be desired, and they still have a game in hand on the four teams above them (away to Newport County in February).
Carlisle United continue to confound critics, and are the division’s form team over the last six, gaining 15 points from a possible 18. Recently installed manager Steven Pressley has been able to keep the momentum the Cumbrians had enjoyed under John Sheridan, and has added to their creative options in the past couple of days, bringing a little more depth to the squad.
In other words, it’s going to be a fiercely competitive conclusion to the campaign. When there are 10 matches remaining, I’ll revisit the standings, assess the top seven’s strengths and weaknesses, and try to predict the unpredictable…
Goals, goals, goals!
Just like two months ago, the Shakers have once more racked up the goals, adding another 22 to their tally for the season. Now standing at 80, they are behind only Manchester City with their total across the top 92 clubs in English football. Manager Ryan Lowe promised entertaining, attacking football under his stewardship, and whilst it arguably (and completely understandably) took a little while for things to come to fruition, his side have consistently delivered on that front beyond all reasonable expectations, and have now acquired the label of being ‘League Two’s Entertainers’, a phrase that evokes memories of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United from the mid-90s. Ultimately, his sides fell just short of wrestling the Premier League title away from Manchester United, and have come to be associated more as glorious failures. Fans and staff at Bury alike must be hoping that in a sense, the current crop can go one better and achieve promotion.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the glut has been that no single player has been relied upon for either creating the opportunities or finishing them off. The likes of Nicky Maynard, Jay O’Shea, and Dom Telford are now all on a dozen or more for the campaign, and could be set to be joined on double figures by Danny Mayor (9) and Byron Moore (8) before too long. I can’t recall any previous season where so many individuals have had such numbers in the white and royal blue. The wing-backs have been crucial in working the space to put crosses into the area, but again, the methods have been similarly numerous; 10 have come from outside the box in the league, and 14 have been scored with the left foot, which is a particularly interesting statistic, given that only two of the regular starting outfielders complete most of their actions using that one.
Another aspect to consider is the general difficulty of the opponents faced during January; the EFL Trophy matches pitted third tier outfits against the Shakers, and a three-match sequence in the league could barely have looked more challenging – MK Dons (home), Forest Green (away), and leaders Lincoln (home). Taking all of that into account, to rack up nine goals in the two cup games, and the same return against three of the best four teams in League Two is nothing short of remarkable. It should also be noted that in the cases of MK Dons and the Imps, no other side has put that many goals in a single game against them in the league – four and three respectively, ably demonstrating Bury’s ability to compete against the cream of the crop, and do serious damage to their hitherto tight defences in the process.
Once more, Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines demonstrate the different ways Bury have remained unbeaten in January:
‘Not the best without the ball’ – can it be fixed?
All that said, it would be remiss to overlook the fact that 13 goals were also conceded in the seven fixtures. Certainly, the quality of the opponents are a mitigating factor, but it’s hard to assuage the strong perception that a decent number of them were on the softer side. Lincoln boss Danny Cowley rightly stated that without the ball, there’s plenty of scope to hurt Bury, and it’s not hard to see why.
In a typical attack that originates from playing out from the back, the ball is then normally given short to one of the wing-backs or Neil Danns as the nominally more defensive-minded of the central midfield pairing.
Obviously, in a strategy geared for attack, it has many inherent advantages, especially if by always having a reliable out-ball, you can escape the high press many of their recent opponents have sought to deploy. Movement off the ball is still the most important aspect of the tactic (and probably in the sport as a whole), and when you have the likes of Mayor and O’Shea in midfield areas, the unexpected can often occur that aids greatly in penetrating even a deep backline.
One of the most joyous things for me about football is that there’s no such thing as a perfect tactic or strategy; as a result, new innovations come into being, become more widespread, and are in turn superseded by something else altogether. It doesn’t take the most analytical of scouts to understand that there are two key weaknesses in Lowe’s current implementation: firstly, they can be countered upon fairly easily. The lack of numbers in defence and the preference for silk over steel in central midfield both mean that the ball can be distributed at pace from both open play and dead ball situations consistently almost as soon as it’s won back by the opposition.
Bury often look panicky at these times, not principally in my opinion because any one player is not up to the task, but because the onus is firmly on selecting attack-minded individuals, who then have a lot of ground to cover to get back to their own goal to recover possession. Additionally, the most selected XI give up at least two inches in height to the vast majority of other teams in the league, which doesn’t just manifest itself from set plays, but also from long, raking balls hit down the channels, where they are often found wanting in winning either the first or second challenge.
I don’t see an easy fix in the short-term. In the close season, and regardless of which division they find themselves in for the 2019/2020 campaign, I’d like to see a tweaking of it. There’s every chance that change might come in the form of Mayor’s departure, which, if it did happen, might mean sacrificing the free role he had ahead of Danns and O’Shea, and shifting it back behind them to act as a counterbalance to possible strategies thought up by other managers, and a calming influence to what has actually been a good backline this season.
Chris Stokes, and the loan signing of Scott Wharton
It has been the former Coventry City’s ‘turn’ to receive criticism from some quarters in recent weeks. On the one hand, it’s inescapable that he had a big part in all three of Tisdale’s charges’ strikes on my annual visit, including an own goal. However, he then followed up that woeful outing with a man-of-the-match display at The New Lawn, repaying the faith Lowe has in him and the rest of the regular starters; the boss has already demonstrated through both rhetoric and action that he won’t discard someone on the basis of one or two below-par performances in quick succession.
Unfortunately, he was again second-best in last week’s outings, and was substituted in both instances. The loan capture of Scott Wharton, who had donned the red, black, and white of promotion rivals Lincoln for the equivalent of a full year, puts added pressure on his position. The Blackburn Rovers centre back is more of a specialist left-sided centre back than Stokes is, which isn’t a huge surprise, given that the latter only played 680 minutes in that role in the three seasons prior to joining Bury.
Although an inch shorter than his new and more experienced teammate, Wharton is much more dominant in the air, and at the very least Stokes’ equivalent with the ball at his feet. The percentages for successful passes aren’t as kind during his previous loan spell away from Ewood Park, but that can at least be partly explained by a vastly different style the Cowley brothers have devised, which has brought them no small degree of success.
It’s been said on several occasions that Tony Mowbray and his backroom staff were unhappy at the number of minutes Wharton was afforded at Sincil Bank in the first half of 2018/2019. How much that’s likely to change is up for debate right now. At the very worst, he’ll be a more than capable option for Lowe to bring on during matches. At best, he’ll usurp Stokes in the final stretch of games, but I have the feeling both of them will be required to do their part before the season is over. Stokes has had to adapt to two different roles that are largely unfamiliar to him during this term, both of which have at times served to accentuate his weaknesses rather than his strengths. It’s important for supporters to keep that in mind when assessing him, or any other player instructed to perform a certain role/position. The ceaseless attacking nature will only further magnify mistakes the few defensive-minded individuals make, and they’re put into one-on-one situations far more frequently than most of their equivalents in other sides can expect to be.
One of the standout performers away from the headliners higher up the pitch has been the ball-playing Irish centre back, who has been utilised exclusively as a defensive midfielder in January’s games, particularly when Bury have been chasing a result. Although he lacks the speed and mobility of even the 36 year-old Danns, his penchant for pinging 40 to 50 forward passes to their intended target has helped no end in regaining control in this kind of scenario.
Against Accrington, he ran the show; as a sub in the extraordinary fightback against MK Dons, he didn’t misplace a single pass, and laid on an assist for Telford to halve the arrears. Consistent displays in the other games saw him chosen ahead of the captain for the Lincoln clash, and was arguably one of the better performers in that match, and also saw a curling effort disallowed for no immediately discernible reason.
As ever, it’s ensuring that the immense promise he has (he’s still only 23) is harnessed properly, and his displays of late have left me wondering what his best position in future is. He probably doesn’t have the requisite raw pace to play in a two-man central defence, especially if that rearguard isn’t well-protected. In a three-man setup, this is best hidden by being the central component, where his aerial prowess is also most needed… but it would also mean shifting Adam Thompson into a wider space, which would both be unfair and unwise. With Wharton signing, it all but confirms my suspicion that he’ll mostly be played ahead of the defensive line, at least for the remainder of the current season.
Comeback wins (and draw!)
Equally as important as the remaining unbeaten in January has been finding another way to win. Coming from behind to triumph is often said to exemplify a certain togetherness in the group (and in the stands). Statistically, it tends to be rare for obvious reasons. Much rarer still is the ability to do it for three matches in a row against quality opposition. A Shakers outfit missing a few of their more high profile names in the first half at Accrington Stanley roared back from 2-0 down to win by two clear goals in the second period to progress in the EFL Trophy.
Even more inexplicably, they were 3-1 down at home to MK Dons with 18 minutes left of normal time, yet still somehow conspired to overturn that deficit in one of the most stirring, exciting games seen in BL9 for decades. Just as brilliantly in some ways, they then travelled to Nailsworth for the very first time, and although they were distinctly second best in spells of the game to an excellent footballing side in Forest Green, but just had that clinical edge that can make all the difference in tightly contested affairs.
One way of framing the six-goal thriller on Sky Sports last Saturday would be to say that at no point during the encounter were Lincoln behind, and that augurs well for the Imps. I can certainly go along with that train of thought, and to score three at Gigg Lane, even with the leakiest defence in the top seven, is unlikely to be repeated this season, with only the two pre-season favourites having achieved that at the time of writing. Avoiding defeat in that game was crucial for both sides, and has only solidified in my mind my belief that the visitors will taste title glory in May, but also that Bury are now in a position to give anyone in the division more than a bloody nose. Even the away form, which had previously been like a weight chained to their automatic promotion hopes, has picked up of late.
The bond between the squad and the supporters hasn’t been as strong as it is now for quite some time, and probably not since the last successful bid to escape the fourth tier. Yes, performances and stirring wins from losing positions help, but simply seeing that they all care is usually enough to maintain that connection. Lowe will be keen to find a formula that keeps the need for comebacks to a minimum, but the work that has gone on behind the scenes to turn things around to this point is nothing short of astonishing.
One game from Wembley
As well as going better in the league than most would’ve anticipated, the Shakers are also on an actual cup run. Admittedly, it’s not in the FA Cup, which will have to wait for another year, but they are now at their furthest point ever in the much-maligned EFL Trophy, having overcome three League One sides and a full-strength Mansfield away from home in the process. The excellent victory at The Wham Stadium was followed up by an impressive 5-2 demolition of Oxford United at a snowy Gigg Lane. All that stands between them and a first appearance at the ‘new’ Wembley, and the first to a stadium bearing that name in 24 years, are high-flying Portsmouth.
Should the Shakers progress, then it’s almost certain that their crowd will be dwarfed by the contingent Sunderland or Bristol Rovers would bring to London. The reason I mention that is because Shaun Harvey, Chief Executive of the EFL, is incredibly keen for the final to be very well-attended, not just in and of itself, but because it will help to skew the figures/receptiveness of followers of all EFL sides in the competition, and make it appear as though there’s more of an appetite for the current format to continue. Black Cats fans have demonstrated a greater than anticipated enthusiasm for the tournament, so it isn’t especially surprising to read that many opposed to the bungled nature of the tertiary cup want the game to be played between Bury and The Gas.
Encouragingly, a timely announcement was made last Saturday morning of pro terms being agreed and signed by the distinctive-looking playmaker, who has featured on the odd occasion this season in the EFL Trophy, and who started against Leicester City U23s. Lowe has been a big admirer of his from the time he came back to Bury for a third spell, and took the ex-Manchester City youngster under his wing during development games. Having plied his trade with the Blues as a left-sided (but right-footed) wing-back/winger, he’s now someone who takes the initiative in the centre of the park, always looking to dictate the tempo regardless of how high up or far back in midfield he’s positioned. Skillful on the ball, the variety in his passing could see him progress far beyond the confines of Gigg Lane at some point in his future, and his long-range shooting ability makes him most similar in playstyle to O’Shea from the senior squad. The rapport he has with Joe Adams might be something to look out for in 2019/2020.
One more in?
At the time of writing, Sporting Director Lee Dykes has talked about the possibility of adding one further face to the ranks, with perhaps several fringe players joining Scott Burgess on temporary spells away from south Lancashire before the transfer window closes on Thursday.
Burgess’ departure only adds further scrutiny to the area that’s been lacking for a while now – central midfield. It seems very unlikely at this juncture that Callum Styles will rejoin for the remainder of the season, and with Stephen Dawson injured and perhaps unwanted, there really isn’t anyone else that has much first team experience of playing there; O’Connell is now the first alternative to Danns or O’Shea, with Hulme an unlikely second to him. Ryan Cooney can operate in a number of different roles, but seems to be mostly selected at wing-back now.
All of that means a new signing is a distinct possibility, and the likelihood is it would come in the form of a loan. In an ideal world, it would be someone with decent aerial reach, and able to cover a lot of ground. The winter transfer window rarely hands clubs ‘ideals’ when the clock is ticking, and Lowe has recently gone on record to state that if no business can be concluded regarding incomings, he’d still be more than satisfied with the group he already has.
It is around this time of the season that thoughts turn to the final third of league matches, with certain games that appear ‘easier’ on paper proving to be anything but. First up is another home match, this time against Gabriele Cioffi’s Crawley Town. In the reverse tie in Essex, the Shakers conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but the Red Devils were under Harry Kewell’s management. Since then, the Italian has lost twice the number of games that he’s won. Inconsistency has been the most charitable word to describe their form, but they did break their long winless run on the road last time out at the expense of Swindon Town. Their roster looks a little threadbare at the moment, but in Ollie Palmer, they have someone more than capable of firing them to a comfortable mid-table finish, and he’s already had success against the Shakers this season.
Just before Morecambe away is the small matter of the Fifth Round of the FA Youth Cup, pitting Ryan Kidd’s U18s against Preston North End’s. The two sides have met on three occasions during 2018/2019, with each game ending in a draw. The only difference between them was a penalty shootout victory for Bury in the second of those games (in the Youth Alliance Cup). For the senior side, even with the Shrimps’ form yielding no wins this side of Christmas, they cannot take three points as a given at The Globe Arena. Jim Bentley’s men showed plenty of fight and no shortage of endeavour, and he’ll be calling for those qualities in abundance to avoid relegation once more.
Exeter City have very quietly come back into the play-off reckoning, chiefly at the expense of faltering Colchester United. Jayden Stockley’s sale to the Lillywhites hasn’t yet torpedoed their prospects, but it has hampered their ability to finish chances, with only three strikes thus far in 2019. Avoiding defeat is a must, and opportunities might be a bit more of a premium for the likes of Maynard and O’Shea against a solid-looking defence.
The final league game of the shortest month of the year is the return fixture against Oldham. The Latics remain the only side to have beaten Bury by more than one goal in any competition during 2018/2019, but as ever at Boundary Park these days, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen when they meet again. Under caretaker Pete Wild, they have been at times superb and other times shambolic, with talisman Jose Baxter publicly criticising some of his teammates in the wake of their controversial late defeat to Doncaster Rovers in the FA Cup. Their involvement deep in that tournament does mean they have games in hand over the teams around them, and a late charge for the top seven isn’t out of the question if Wild or his eventual permanent replacement (possibly Paul Scholes) can unify what at times seems like quite a disparate dressing room. Having been humiliated in the first half before Christmas, some of Lowe’s players will now know what’s required of them, especially by fans that want that little bit extra on derby days.
Sky’s cameras will return for the EFL Trophy semi-final match with Pompey. It should be noted that between now and then, the south coast side will have to play at least six games compared to Bury’s four. Still in the hunt for promotion themselves and with a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup at stake, it’s hard to know from the outside how much focus Kenny Jackett will give the televised fixture on the 26th. Whilst it does represent another chance to then play at Wembley, they’re in the middle of a five-team dogfight for two automatic places to the Championship. Lowe’s top priority is understandably also the league, but he too covets the opportunity to lead a side out at the famous stadium. Time will tell if it’s the only chance he’ll get this season…