Three from Four? The Fight for Automatic Promotion

There are now just 10 matches left of the regular League Two season. Ryan Lowe and his Bury charges must watch all three of their main rivals for automatic promotion play this Tuesday evening, and he will be hoping for an unexpected slip-up from at least one of the contenders. In this blogpost, I take a deep dive into how each side has risen to the highest echelons of the fourth tier, the strengths and weaknesses of their current tactics, and crucially, predict which one will miss have to settle for the crapshoot of the play-offs.

Current Table

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Last weekend’s fixtures didn’t turn out quite how I’d anticipated, with Milton Keynes Dons swapping positions with Mansfield Town in the table as a consequence. Lincoln City remain very much in pole position, with a game in a hand on nearest rivals Bury, and an eight point cushion over fourth, coupled with a slightly superior goal difference. The Shakers sit out Tuesday evening’s gameweek because of the Cheltenham Festival, having had that clash brought forward a week. They will privately be hoping for another slip-up from one of their rivals, even though manager Ryan Lowe would be loath to admit that publicly. Unexpected outcomes are bound to occur during the run-in, which is the focus of the next section.

Historical Performance of Fourth Tier Teams in Last 10 Matches

To view the images in a higher resolution, open in a new tab/window, remove the text after ‘.png’ and press enter – Peter Løhmann’s charts are a labour of love and they offer superb insight into patterns and trends from the last 20 seasons in the fourth tier:
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As the desperation for points increases in the lower reaches of the standings, there is plenty of evidence to suggest improvements almost across the board year-on-year during run-ins, and is something the top four need to be mindful of this season
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This is further backed up here, although big upturns in form are of course still rare
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On average, no ‘position’ achieves a points-per-game total of 2; the remaining fixtures in 2018/2019 could make that next to impossible, despite the prowess of the top four in comparison to the rest of the division

There are caveats to using past data to inform any future predictions, naturally. The general conclusion however is to expect the unexpected in small doses. For example, not once have the teams occupying 1st and 2nd after 36 matches have taken place subsequently fallen out of the automatic places in the last 20 years. Similarly, never has the outfit in 3rd bombed out of the top seven altogether, and the current makeup of this campaign’s table makes that even harder to envisage happening. It’s something almost completely mirrored by the club in 4th, with one exception – 12th in 2009/2010! Even if the Stags somehow didn’t win another game from hereon in, I don’t think they’d plumb such depths. The majority of their remaining games are with sides whose league status is all but assured either way, as the matrix below illustrates:

Remaining Fixtures

Top Four Remaining Fixtures
The darkest shade represents fellow top four clubs; the lightest is sides still threatened with relegation, starting with Morecambe downwards (despite their hugely impressive 3-0 triumph over Forest Green Rovers at the weekend)

In order to have a more informed view, I’ve looked at how each of the managers at the helm for the contenders have set up tactically, form over the previous 10 games in League Two, scrutinising their next 10 (nine in Bury’s case), and finally, the thankless task of predicting just how it will all finish, starting with…

Lincoln City

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At first glance, striker John Akinde’s contributions away from the penalty spot have been poor for the Imps, with less than half of his 13 goals coming from other situations; dive deeper, however, and a different picture begins to emerge of a player subjected at times to a little too much criticism from sections of Lincoln’s supporters

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

Lincoln Recent

‘Common wisdom’ would have you believe that Danny Cowley sets his side up in a very direct style, full of tall, hard-working cloggers, whose main aim is to dish out reducers and nick a goal from a set piece or John Akinde penalty. It’s not a perception I concur with at all. Admittedly, they’re not normally as easy on the eye as the other promotion contenders, but neither he nor their burgeoning fanbase will care one jot about that. The most crucial metric, after all, is their points tally.

Stylistically, they almost always have a flat back-four. Veteran goalkeeper Matt Gilks, a January deadline day capture, has been an assured presence between the sticks, and has boxed off probably the only area of mild weakness in the side. He is protected by the best central defensive duo in the division bar none. Imperious stand-in captain Jason Shackell did pick up an injury in their last match under the lights at Sincil Bank, and the Cowley patented ‘Fog of War’ will be in effect as to an accurate date for his expected return. The stopper is utterly dominant in the air, winning more than two thirds of his duels; naturally, this has translated to a decent haul of goals, too. Having Cian Bolger as your replacement speaks volumes about the quality on the roster.

Michael Bostwick has filled in as an anchor man in a double pivot during the season, but is most at home in the heart of defence. Much like Shackell, he laps up high balls and floated crosses all match long, but is also a decent passer of the ball. The key to the setup is the width provided down the flanks, and the balance struck by Harry Toffolo and Neal Eardley so as not to expose their teammates too frequently. Both of them will push high up the pitch, and have usually plenty of targets in and around the penalty area to aim for. Toffolo is probably the more dynamic of the two, but it would be remiss not to highlight Eardley’s importance to the side, especially in holding the shape of the defence without the ball – it’s often in that phase where the level of the coaching the players have received is most evident.

Skipper Lee Frecklington’s enforced absence has left a place up for grabs in midfield alongside the experienced Michael O’Connor, who is apt to sit in the central third more often than not to ensure the numbers are rarely not in Lincoln’s favour if countered upon. He breaks up play with a strong ground game, and looks to spread the ball out wide when an option is available. Mark O’Hara has started the last two fixtures, and underlined his claim with the winner against Yeovil Town, showing off his good movement and powerful heading ability for his goal. He has the speed and stamina to maintain a high level of performance throughout the 90 minutes, as well as the utility to be repositioned if the need arises without adversely affecting what he can offer, and to work alongside O’Connor to close out matches.

The wingers have the licence to join in the attacks at will, so they often appear to be in a three or four-man forward line when taking the game to the opposition. Bruno Andrade had a superb February, winning Player of the Month and weighing in with a remarkable six goals in four fixtures. One of the most exciting individuals to watch in this season’s fourth tier, his strength lies in beating his man and pulling off the spectacular to create a chance or shooting opportunity, usually leaving crossing duties to the overlapping Toffolo.

On the right, Harry Anderson has Akinde at the far post to try to pick out, which goes some way to explaining his greater number of attempts at getting the ball to him from out wide. His pace aids his side greatly in getting to the final third and making the opposition think twice about committing too many men forward of their own. He can also drift into the channel to shoot from range, and has the positional discipline to be part of an attacking midfield trio, where the demands are slightly different.

Akinde is not a classic target man – let’s make that clear. Yes, he’s handy in the air; yes, he can lay off the ball in the box for a teammate to finish… but it’s the reintroduction of fan favourite Matt Rhead to the XI that has helped to bisect the attention that’s normally all on the former Barnet hitman, and demonstrate once more his proficiency in front of goal, and is very composed on the ball and under pressure. Rhead is unlikely to complete many matches between now and the end of the season, but he does offer a natural focal point for dead ball situations and a viable option for Cowley to select in tight away matches. Shay McCartan and Danny Rowe can also play off Akinde, and use their pace to get in behind the defence when played through.

Form over last 10 league matches

Enjoying a long run without losing, a Toffolo goal was enough to separate The Imps from rivals Grimsby Town in a testy derby encounter. A Rowe brace was sufficient to see off a listing Yeovil Town at Huish Park in a routine away win; if anything, Lincoln have been even better on the road than on their own turf. Another way of framing their six-goal thriller with Bury is that they weren’t ever behind at any stage of the pulsating clash, keeping their rivals at arm’s length in the process.

A (briefly) rejuvenated Notts County held them to a 1-1 draw, which saw a rare penalty miss from Akinde. Further points were dropped in their next two games – a costly sending off for Anderson in the first half let Northampton Town back into the match, and then an Ilias Chair-inspired Stevenage almost stole all three at the death, with Boro roaring back from two down to claim a share of the spoils.

The winless streak was snapped with Bruno Andrade’s double salvo away to Morecambe, which was sandwiched by yet another draw – on that occasion, it was The Imps’ turn to snatch something at the death (the sixth minute of injury time, to be precise) against Exeter City. The last two games at the time of writing have both been more comfortable than the scorelines suggest – although they had to do it the hard way at Forest Green Rovers, they seldom looked in danger of surrendering their lead once they poked their noses in front. The return fixture with the Glovers was little different in that regard.

Remaining fixtures in more detail

Paul Scholes’ Oldham Athletic™ are first up. The Imps ought to take full advantage of an outfit very much still in a transitional phase, and their wide players ought to be afforded space to work in than with most other opponents during the run-in. It’s then pivotal to avoid defeat against Mansfield Town – as clichéd as it doubtlessly comes across, draws at this juncture against near(ish) rivals are nearly as good as wins – anything that maintains the gap to fourth and below is to be welcomed, but they will need to vastly improve their showing from the first clash the sides had in 2018/2019. The Stags remain extremely tricky opponents away from home.

Gabriele Cioffi will be hoping for a similar result to what his Crawley Town side achieved at Bury in February when the Red Devils entertain Lincoln – they are a good match for the Imps physically, but don’t offer too much else. That fixture is then followed up with another game they should obtain three points from ‘on paper’ – Macclesfield Town battle gamely, but they have been found badly wanting at the stage of the season they need to improve, given they are mired in the relegation zone, six points from safety.

It won’t get much bigger than facing Milton Keynes Dons in Buckinghamshire. Just like with Mansfield, the primary objective should be obtaining a draw. A loss would be damaging to their title credentials, and open the door for a possible three-way struggle for supremacy. Mike Duff has improved Cheltenham Town no end since taking over early in the season; however, they remain relatively poor travellers, and will seek to soak up the pressure Lincoln’s forward line can exert on them, especially since The Robins lack the pace (if not the guile) to penetrate the Imps’ steadfast backline.

Few teams relish the trip to Cumbria at the best of times, and it’s likely Carlisle United will still be fighting for one of the lower play-off places on Good Friday. Equally, the Cowleys might target the Easter fixtures to seal promotion, so it ought to be an intriguing encounter. Tranmere Rovers ought to be firmly entrenched in the top seven by then, and any outfit containing James Norwood and two uncompromising centre backs in the form of Manny Monthe and Mark Ellis is almost guaranteed to push the men in red, white, and black all the way.

The remaining two fixtures are away to Newport County, yet another team with the emphasis firmly placed on the physical over the technical. In theory, they should have nothing to play for by then, but even in cases like that, there’s always the chance that a few individuals are still looking to impress Mike Flynn enough to secure contracts for next season. The schizophrenic Colchester United are the final opposition; on their day, they have the quality to beat the top sides, and could be looking to secure their own play-off place. Lincoln definitely don’t want to be going into the game needing something out of it to achieve their main objective.

Analysis & Prediction

Playing Mansfield and MK in the space of four gameweeks will go a long way to determining whether the celebrations in that corner of the East Midlands are raucous or ‘just’ joyous. Losing one or both of those games will put their title hopes in serious jeopardy… but does it matter all that much? Yes, coming first and lifting the League Two trophy has its merits above simply being promoted – no-one would argue against that, and perhaps having led the division for so long, finishing 2nd or 3rd would be disappointing to a degree. I don’t think it will come to that.

Danny Cowley added depth in key areas to a good-sized squad, recruiting sensibly in January. They have the know-how throughout the side to see games out, and the pace in wide positions to land sucker punches on opponents who set their stall out to attack the Imps. Under his very savvy management, they have quietly gone about their business (as quiet as you can having led for so long), racking up the goals without necessarily battering the other team in the margin of victory. The other three sides in this list have all earned plaudits for their style of play at one time or another in 2018/2019, and that might just suit them down the ground.

When they have tasted defeat on the very odd occasion, they’ve always followed it up with a win. Another 18 points should ensure the championship, but I expect it to be much closer than it is now. 1st

Bury

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The reliance on Nicky Maynard for goals has quietly increased under the radar, with only Scott Wharton and Jay O’Shea netting more than once in total in the past 10 matches; that will almost certainly have to change during a busy, tough-looking April

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

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Barely deviating from a blueprint tweaked in the third league match of the campaign, Ryan Lowe has made more than good on his promise when he got the gig permanently of playing an attacking, entertaining style of football, something which can sometimes resemble having seven offensive-minded outfielders to just three defensive ones.

The basic premise is for the centre back trio to all be able to reliably pass out from their third to different targets – their nearest wing-back, Glasgow Rangers regista Jordan Rossiter in midfield, or down the channels looking for the strikers to run onto. The recent inclusions of loanee Scott Wharton and Eoghan O’Connell has increased their overall accuracy at the cost of sacrificing some speed and efficacy on the ground in the case of the latter.

As with most modern interpretations of the five-man defence, the wing-backs are the pivotal components of the Shakers’ XI. Wharton is beginning to foster a good rapport with Callum McFadzean on the left in particular, and O’Connell’s ability to pick out teammates at a distance can mean that Nicky Adams spends a touch more time concentrating on being on the front foot. It must be said that both of them are ostensibly wingers shoehorned into roles that ordinarily balance defensive and attacking duties, but such is the onus on taking the game to the opposition, more of it is given over to providing the width in the final third.

Rossiter has made the nominally more conservative of the two central midfield slots his own, relegating club captain Neil Danns to cameo roles from the substitutes’ bench. He has been the closest approximation to what was the ‘missing link’ in the side, intercepting loose balls with abandon, intelligently recycling possession, and being completely unafraid to simply ‘get stuck in’, despite his lengthy injury record. In turn, it’s freed Jay O’Shea to a certain extent to bomb on from deep, which he was apt to do anyway, but now with that added reassurance. The consistent scoring output from him has been a huge factor in relieving the pressure from the strikers, and has provided much food for thought when the opposing side sets up against Bury; in previous seasons, the threat would’ve almost solely come from Danny Mayor.

Speaking of whom, he has been back to his dazzling best in a free role in the left half-space, drifting inside to give room for McFadzean to overlap on the outside, and dragging his marker(s) infield along with him. This can often result in the hovering O’Shea being free at the edge of the box. An inside forward by trade, he’s not usually found putting crosses into the area, but using his incredible close control to dribble inside and cut back for one of the other five players normally camped there.

There is a reliance on Adams to float the ball in from out wide, and he tops both the attempts and assists chart in the fourth tier, in spite of not normally having a teammate known for their aerial prowess to aim for. Being somewhat proficient with his left foot gives him more angles to utilise when trying to pick someone out, which compensates for being a touch slower at the age of 32 than in his heyday.

In a largely settled XI, the only (frequent) rotation has come up front. Nicky Maynard’s exploits since joining as a free agent in October don’t require much elaboration, but he has looked in recent weeks like the only striker who’s going to score, and has even won games using his head, which he often cites as the weakest aspect of his attributes. Caolan Lavery has been partnering him of late, and he does offer a little more presence in the area than some of the internal competition. Dom Telford and the versatile Byron Moore are their replacements; both offer direct running both on and off the ball, and Moore can hold it out wide to wait for others to join in the attack.

When things haven’t been going Bury’s way, an even greater emphasis on attack has been deployed. This has sometimes entailed shifting McFadzean inside as the left-sided centre back who joins in forays forward, playing Moore as a wing-back on either flank, and bringing on Gold Omotayo to offer an obvious focal point in the penalty area. Whilst only a bit-part player in 2018/2019, the Swiss target man has been important in being a decoy for Maynard to roam undetected – that unlikely combination has won games in injury time twice in the last 10 league fixtures, and it might just be something we see more.

Form over last 10 league matches

Just like The Imps, Bury have been unbeaten in the league at the time of writing for 13 games, which few fans would’ve predicted after the first half-a-dozen matches back in the fourth tier yielded three of the total seven defeats. The sequence was started by a stirring comeback from 3-1 down to triumph 4-3 over MK Dons in the first of a trio of extremely challenging fixtures against most of the heavyweights in the division. It was followed up by a smash-and-grab style win at the New Lawn over Forest Green Rovers, again from behind. They then bounced back three times in the pulsating televised game at home against leaders Lincoln.

A much poorer perfomance on a half-frozen Gigg Lane pitch when Crawley Town came to visit was reflected in the 1-1 scoreline, but they were soon back to winning ways at fellow Lancashire outfit Morecambe, although they made hard work of it, almost conspiring to throw away a three-goal advantage. The long trip down to Exeter City provided a fortuitous victory, with Nicky Maynard’s scuffed shot going well wide until the (un)timely intervention of a Grecian defender.

The derby with Oldham Athletic finally yielded a (convincing) win on home turf for The Shakers, who were full value for their three goals after falling behind early in the proceedings. They were made to work hard by north-west neighbours Macclesfield Town for the points, but their class told in the end.

The moving forward of their encounter with Cheltenham Town at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium offered them a rare opportunity to temporarily knock Lincoln off top spot on goal difference, but despite utterly dominating possession (70% as the away side), they had to settle for a draw. That could’ve been a big blow psychologically, and Stevenage certainly offered no favours, largely shutting them down in the absence of Mayor. It took until the fourth minute of second half injury time to score, which was a massive filip after Mansfield’s travails in Burslem…

Remaining fixtures in more detail

Lowe’s charges have a week to recuperate from their last-gasp victory in Hertfordshire, and welcome a Cambridge United side inching their way to survival under Colin Calderwood. Though they have rarely notched more than a goal in any game this season, one of those occasions was against Bury at home in November, coming back from two down and a man light to share the spoils. They do possess some electric pace on the counter in the form of one-time Shaker David Amoo and Jevani Brown, and although I think the hosts ought to have enough to overcome them, that aspect cannot be ignored.

Seven days later, they face a streaky Grimsby Town at Blundell Park. Custodian James McKeown has been one of the most outstanding goalkeepers in the league this season, and they haven’t conceded too many as of late. The tussle between Rossiter and the very talented Elliott Embleton could have a big say on which way the outcome swings. Again though, this is one of the ‘kinder’ fixtures left to play away from home.

The 30th of March pits ‘Loweball’ versus ‘Wellensball’. There can be little doubt that Richie Wellens has picked Swindon Town’s squad up from the floor since his appointment, and a late surge for the play-offs remains a possibility, despite their setback at the weekend against fellow hopefuls Carlisle United. This is the home game I’m least sure about Bury getting something from. It’s unlikely they’ll survive the next nine games without tasting defeat at least once, and that match seems the likeliest candidate.

Either way, April looks quite tough. A trip to Brunton Park will almost certainly find the Cumbrians in a similar position to Swindon, and a draw would represent a good outcome. Lowe’s men will need to keep Jamie Devitt quiet to maximise their chances of three points. A home clash with a decidedly erratic Colchester United takes place a week later; although they have the quality to go up against anyone this season, it’s only been witnessed in fits and bursts. Any side containing Ben Stevenson and Sammie Szmodics to name but two should be watched closely.

Good Friday sees Bury travel to Newport County, who have one of the most potent striking partnerships in the division. Padraig Amond has been rewarded for his displays with a call-up to the Republic of Ireland, and Jamille Matt leads the line brilliantly for another side with possible pretensions of a play-off place. I foresee the match playing out a lot like the reverse fixture did, with the Exiles ceding territory to remain compact and frustrate the opposition.

Three days later, Northampton Town make the journey north to BL9. I was impressed by how quickly Keith Curle had galvanised his players in the 0-0 at Sixfields, and slowly but surely, they have been on an upward trajectory in 2019. Difficult to beat, they have only lost one more game than MK Dons, and in Aaron Pierre in defence, they possess a dominating centre back who is attracting attention from representatives of clubs two tiers higher.

By the time of the penultimate match with Tranmere Rovers, both teams’ fates should be clearer. The Birkenhead outfit are the only side chasing (or in) a play-off place in rude form, and with Connor Jennings a reliable supplier for the league’s top scorer in the shape of  James Norwood, it’s sure to be an exciting occasion. Of course, there’s also the possibility that history might repeat itself – Prenton Park was the scene of Bury’s last promotion from the fourth tier in 2014/2015…

The final match sees the return of Tom Pope and Port Vale to Gigg Lane. Not quite out of a relegation fight just yet, the fixture could still be pivotal for both teams at either end of the standings. Under John Askey, the Valiants are slowly improving their attacking output, and by the same token, Lowe will be keen to round off the season in style – if that can’t be achieved, a win by any means will do.

Analysis & Prediction

Lowe has done all he can to quash talk in public of promotion, understandably refusing to look more than a game ahead “to get to where we want to get to”, which is back in League One at the first time of asking. Few predicted that at the start of 2018/2019, and no matter what happens now, it has been one of the best campaigns in decades, playing better football than at any other point in my 25 years of watching. However, there are no prizes for simply doing that, and some of the recent wins on the road, the lack of which had hitherto been the weakest aspect of the season, have had all the typical ‘grinding out’ qualities, with forgettable performances in the last three… but seven points to show for it.

If they can maintain the recent form of two points per game, they’ll break their own record for most points accrued in a single season since three were awarded for wins. There is a special feeling at the club right now, but it will still be a dogfight to maintain their grip on an automatic promotion place, let alone second. Picking up at least two victories in April will be key – if it happens and promotion does indeed follow, then there is a strong case for Lowe being awarded Manager of the Season. You only have to look at the contrast between now and 10 months ago to understand why. 3rd

Milton Keynes Dons

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The impact of Paul Tisdale’s loan signings in the winter transfer window is starting to be felt during MK’s five-match winning streak; Jake Hesketh has helped them look ominously strong once more

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

MK Dons Recent

Callum Brittain’s recovery from three months out has helped Paul Tisdale restore a true three-man attack. MK build from the back, with the vast majority of custodian Stuart Moore’s passes being short to his central defenders, and his general distribution is accurate enough to be a good fit for that style of play. His height allows him to confidently claim crosses and corners.

Joe Walsh and Russell Martin will fan out slightly to cover for the forward runs of captain Dean Lewington and Brittain. Walsh is not the tallest of centre backs, but still wins his fair share of battles in the air. Martin is the more experienced and slower of the duo, and his accuracy at picking out teammates makes pressing the back four less of a viable option. Lewington’s crosses remain an important outlet for MK, and are complemented by Brittain’s efforts, helping to keep the threats more than singular from the flanks.

Ousseynou Cissé is a rangy presence in defensive midfield, gobbling up high balls and intercepting with aplomb. He also possesses a powerful shot and is a big threat from set pieces, and in open play, his reassuring presence helps maximise the efficacy of Alex Gilbey’s tireless shuttling between the lines and work rate. He is apt to shoot from range if other, more penetrative options are limited. He can occasionally try to be a little too cute with his through balls, but is a generally very consistent playmaker. Conor McGrandles is much more at home next to him than at right wing-back, and rarely gives the ball away cheaply in the engine room. He links well with Cissé and Gilbey, and doesn’t over-commit himself in the attacking phase.

Kieran Agard has not always had the goals tally to compare to his xG, but not that’s something that can be thrown at him this term, having racked up just short of 20. There will be a lot of swapping of positions in the three-pronged attack, and he has a tendency to drift wide in any case. He can be prone to being caught offside, which is often a consequence of playing on the shoulder of the last defender, full in the knowledge that he’d often win a foot race with them.

Even so, Chuks Aneke is perhaps the biggest danger of all. He will have the upper hand in most air wars with defenders, but he is most skillful in shaking off detection in the area, like any truly predatory striker. He averages almost four shots per game, proving that he doesn’t shy away from having another go if previously unsuccessful. Nominally on the left, he’ll often come deep to receive the ball, and then dribble towards goal with it in a positive manner. Far from the speediest individual, he’s still very difficult to prise the ball from.

David Wheeler or Jake Hesketh will complete the trio, although the latter is normally found peeling off the spearhead of the Dons to find space in between the lines. Queens Park Rangers loanee Wheeler is both good in the air and quick on the ground, the former of which helps him take up dangerous positions when Lewington floats the ball across. He’s not the same as Rhys Healey was, but he does help them stay in the final third for longer, and reach that area more quickly.

Form over last 10 league matches

The epitome of a mixed bag. Usually woeful on the road this season, Crewe Alexandra came to Stadium:MK and then left with all three points, but worse was to come in January. Despite playing for 50 minutes with 10 men, Grimsby Town still somehow managed to keep the Buckinghamshire outfit’s attack out, Wes Thomas’ strike before the sending off inflicting another loss on MK.

Something resembling the ‘old’ MK of their dominance in the latter part of 2018 was seen at home to Oldham Athletic. In truth, the margin could’ve been much wider than 2-1; it seemed as though they’d turned a corner. It proved to be a false dawn. A 3-1 reverse at an improving Exeter City, shorn of Jayden Stockley, continued to raise question marks in winter about their defence, which had looked so solid until the Christmas period. They conspired to concede three once more in their next outing, and suffered the ignominy of a Panenka in their own ground to seal victory for Swindon Town, but they were value for at least a point.

The last five games have all been wins, with noticeable improvements from Tisdale’s charges from even the first half of the campaign. Aneke struck late to secure victory at Newport County to give them a deserved three points. McGrandles, by this time shifted back into his preferred central midfield role, was the spark for their next maximum haul, coming off best in a five-goal thriller at Brunton Park, and they had to withstand concerted pressure to maintain their lead when they regained it in an eight-minute burst during the second half.

The rearranged game with the Exiles because of the South Wales outfit’s FA Cup exploits meant the reverse fixture fell just 11 days later. Once more, they shut their opponents out, a rare Cissé strike setting them on their way to victory. Agard got his name back on the scoresheet at home to Crawley Town in a tight encounter, and then last Saturday, Tisdale’s men mounted a comeback away at Macclesfield Town to overtake Mansfield Town in the third automatic promotion slot, having fallen out of the top seven entirely during their prior miserable spell of form.

Remaining fixtures in more detail

The recent bad weather seems to have spared their match tonight at Morecambe, who will put up plenty of fight but should be overcome. That fixture is followed on Saturday when they play hosts to Stevenage, who will be reliant on holding their two banks of four in a low line to scrape a result.

A second game at home in a row against Yeovil Town could give them a real opportunity to put together an eight-game winning run, and the way Forest Green Rovers are performing currently, I wouldn’t put it past Tisdale’s men to make it nine. Of course, Lincoln City are a different proposition altogether, and by that time, a creditable draw should cement at least third, if not second.

Tranmere Rovers will also provide a thorough examination of MK, and are bang in form themselves. Again, a share of the spoils would keep them and Mansfield at bay. Notts County will be hoping their fate isn’t already sealed by Good Friday; if not, they must go all-out to preserve their status as the oldest club in the EFL, and could spring a surprise in the process.

Mansfield found out the hard way that Port Vale aren’t perhaps as there for the taking as they’d imagined, but will find the going tough in Buckinghamshire. The final two games are both very tough. Colchester United might need the points to secure their play-off berth, and can be devastating when on song. Mansfield at home could have many permutations…

Analysis & Prediction

My gut feeling says it will be MK, not Bury, who will run Lincoln the closest, and the gap between the trio could be fewer than three points in the final standings. Tisdale had his doubters during a terrible January, but wasn’t helped by the recall by Cardiff City of Rhys Healey, nor the early injury to George Williams at Gigg Lane, who hasn’t featured since. The loan signings of Hesketh and Wheeler have reinforced an already strong attack, and Brittain’s calming presence has helped to tighten the defence after his own spell on the sidelines.

Tisdale also has a wealth of past experience to call upon to get his side over the line. Having failed at the final hurdle with Exeter City, he now has the resources and the form to ensure that their grip on 3rd at the very least doesn’t loosen. Games against the Imps and Stags could determine the difference between promotion and the championship. 2nd

Mansfield Town

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Returning from suspension after one of the stupidest red cards ever seen, Tyler Walker is David Flitcroft’s key man to halt the slide away from home

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

Mansfield Recent

Tyler Walker’s suspension was one of the chief reasons behind boss David Flitcroft’s decision to go with a flat back four during those games. His return should see the 3-4-1-2 make its reappearance, with playmaker Jacob Mellis shuttling in between the lines. Much like Lincoln, three different goalkeepers have had significant gametime – #1 choice Bobby Olejnik is sidelined with damaged cruciate ligaments for the remainder of 2018/2019, so Nottingham Forest loanee (a frequent occurrence this season) Jordan Smith now patrols the area, who will be hoping for better protection from the experienced backline than he’s been afforded in recent outings.

Ever-present captain Krystian Pearce marshals the rest of the defence superbly, which he combines with an imposing physicality and strong aerial skills. Ryan Sweeney’s concussion at Vale Park might delay the reversion to a three temporarily, although Matt Preston, a doubt for Crawley Town, could be the right-sided of the trio if he’s passed fit. He’s another colossus at the back, more apt to clear his lines quickly than pick out a teammate with a precise pass, but most successful teams need a mixture of the two. On the left, Mal Benning could be called upon to give that balance, although he has operated mostly in a full-back/wing-back role. He has been integral to the transition from the first to second third of the pitch, but will find those opportunities limited if asked to fill in more centrally, and the opposition could target his relative lack of height.

Hayden White’s lengthy injury has meant that several different individuals have been tried to fill his boots. CJ Hamilton is a completely different player to the aggressive White, and his attributes are very much attack-focused. He could be placed on the opposite wing in the short-term, having had a breakout season full of goals and torturing opposing defences. Gethin Jones is a more natural fit for that berth, and will prioritise maintaining the structure of the XI over forays forward.

Willem Tomlinson signed as a free agent after his release from Blackburn Rovers in early February, and has featured in the past four fixtures as the anchor man of the XI. His presence ensures that there’s never oceans of space for the other team to attack on the counter, and he is asked when he does regain possession to recycle the ball to Neal Bishop or Mellis. Bishop has been immense all season long, and is one of the favourites to claim the club’s Player of the Year award. He operates as the focal point in midfield, charging down loose balls, blocking counters, and using his vision to keep the Stags on the front foot. His movement during set pieces is excellent, and he normally finds a pocket of space in those situations to shoot from.

Mellis’ talents have never been in doubt, but his application often has. An attacking midfielder by trade, he has been forced to adapt to a deeper role by Flitcroft in particular during his previous spell at Bury and now in Nottinghamshire. He loves an effort from range and to play in big occasions, rising to prominence with strikes against Lincoln and MK Dons this term.

Grant has mostly taken over set piece duties from Mellis, and after a strong start in blue and yellow, has begun to attract some criticism for not putting his foot in. Nevertheless, his ability will be required to break the deadlock as games get tighter. He has demonstrated how effective he can be with both feet, using his speed to get in behind to get shots off or to cut back to a teammate.

The options are numerous in attack when all of the players are available for selection. Ajose could just as easily be paired with Walker as Grant, and he enjoys playing on the shoulder of the last defender to finish from angles normally on the right-hand side of the area, and he also has the presence of mind to drift to the far post to latch onto crosses and loose balls, dragging his marker with him if the latter notices at all.

As the lynchpin of the team, Walker is a pacey dribbler and lethal in the penalty area with both his left and right foot. He is brave when challenging for the ball aerially in the six yard box, and involves himself in several stages of the attack, dropping off the frontline to receive and pass the ball quickly, ably supported by good numbers to hem in the opposition.

Form over last 10 league matches

Exchanging positions with Bury over the period, Mansfield kicked off with a routine, if late, victory over Crawley Town, Tyler Walker once again being the difference maker at a vital juncture. They then impressively came back from a two-goal deficit to claim the win away to Colchester United, three second half strikes from their bevy of attacking talent capping off a battling performance in which a draw might have been the fairer result.

No such question marks lingered over their thrashing of Tranmere Rovers. Ollie Banks’ dismissal at 1-0 down severely curtailed the Birkenhead side’s threat, and the Stags added two more to their tally. A good point was then gained at The New Lawn, although I’m sure Flitcroft would have been a little disappointed that Forest Green Rovers restored parity, given that his charges had been leading for so long. 

Macclesfield Town were swatted aside back at Field Mill, Walker making certain of the win just before injury time. The away defeat against Newport County marked the first in an ongoing losing sequence on the road. Wayward shooting was as much the cause of their downfall as the hosts’ ability to shut them out, only getting a single effort on target.

Beleaguered Notts County were transformed in their derby match, barely giving their rivals a kick at Meadow Lane – Craig Mackail-Smith bagged the priceless winner for the Magpies, ensuring bragging rights and a fighting chance of survival.

However, Mansfield regained a sense of normality in their own backyard, Walker notching the winner before being sent off in one of the most ridiculous momentary lapses of reason I’ve ever seen. His suspension didn’t seem to affect the rest of the team when they bested Cheltenham Town, scoring four in the process. The versatile CJ Hamilton got a brace to set them on their way. The Robins did hit back twice before the hosts returned the favour to hold onto third place.

Port Vale should have been the game to resurrect their worrying run away, but Nicky Ajose’s penalty was saved with the match 0-0. The Valiants then found a hero in talisman Tom Pope’s absence in the shape of Ricky Miller’s unlikely double. Ajose did make amends for his earlier miss to provide a pathway back into the game, but the Burslem outfit held firm and looked dangerous on the counter. That costly defeat has seen them fall to fourth, with Flitcroft now questioning the desire of several of his players in away trips at the worst possible time.

Remaining fixtures in more detail

As their rivals have found out, banking on a win at Crawley Town is a foolish mentality to have. Walker will be back from his needless suspension, and that should mean a reversion to a back three with several new fades in the XI. Should they salvage one or all three points from West Sussex, they could then have a squeak of a chance of the title if they can get the better of leaders Lincoln City, but that’s a tall order even during a purple patch of form.

They ought to have a better time of it at home to Crewe Alexandra. The Railwaymen will almost certainly have to be content with a comfortable mid-table position, and the Stags should dominate the midfield. The journeys far from home comforts don’t get much kinder; Exeter City still harbour play-off dreams of their own, and a draw would represent a decent outcome.

Cambridge United might be safe from the relegation zone by this point, and I expect Flitcroft to take full advantage of that. An improving Northampton Town are another tricky proposition, and it will likely take a performance with plenty of cutting edge to wrestle three points from Sixfields. 

Morecambe at home on Good Friday is a match that screams ‘banana skin’, particularly if The Shrimps are still looking over their shoulders at the bottom two. Jim Bentley always sets his side up to scrap for every ball to compensate for the shortfall in quality he has at his disposal. The Boundary Park pitch doesn’t do sides that like to play on the deck any favours, but the fixture with Oldham Athletic looks like their best bet of all to win. Stevenage have seen their season peter out disappointingly over recent weeks, and the Stags shouldn’t have too many causes for concern in that one.

All roads lead to Milton Keynes to take on the Dons. I’ve discussed the possible scenarios in my analysis of the Buckinghamshire outfit’s remaining matches, so there’s no need to duplicate that, other than to put forward the notion that if Flitcroft needs a win to secure promotion, it’s about the worst possible fixture to try to attain it.

Analysis & Prediction

An expensively assembled squad looked odds-on to consign the disappointing collapse of 2017/2018 to history, losing just once in the first half of the current campaign. Yes, plenty of those were draws, but they were a good platform to build upon for the latter stages. Flitcroft has gained a reputation as a streaky manager, and that tag is not wholly undeserved. The damaging loss of someone like White would hinder any side in the division, but he has yet to find a satisfactory solution, which underlines just how important the wing-back role is in most systems today. Openly questioning some players’ desire and resolve, whether it has merit, is a risky move with 10 games remaining, having just given up the final automatic place.

Talent-wise, all four teams are fairly even, and the main separators are the men in the dugout. Walker is someone who can win games on his own, and the spine looks strong. However, there are more tricky games on the road to come, and they might have to settle for a play-off spot, even if they can convert some of those losses to draws. 5th

Can anyone else gatecrash the automatic promotion places?

Current standings below the top four

5th & Below

Though just four points separate 5th to 9th, I feel that a plausible case can only currently be made for Tranmere Rovers. Their past six games have yielded 16 points, and they’ve only conceded a single goal. Other than them, only Colchester United are in any kind of form, and they veer from spectacular to shambolic with little rhyme or reason. I think Bury are beyond reach of the Birkenhead outfit, but they are the best placed side to take advantage of any further slips from Mansfield or another MK Dons poor patch. They still have to play all of the top three, so they could have a huge hand in the title race, as well as their own pretensions. They’ve ‘chosen’ the best time to spring to life, and though their fixture list is tough on paper, many of the games are against fellow play-off hopefuls listing woefully. Should they ‘fail’ to break in, they are strongly placed to carry forward their late surge into the play-off games themselves. I can see them finishing an oustanding 4th.

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4 thoughts on “Three from Four? The Fight for Automatic Promotion

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