The first of my weekly analyses of the fourth tier focuses on the many surprises thrown up in the early exchanges at both ends of the standings.
It’s reasonable to suggest that Bradford City have underperformed whilst adjusting to life back down in League Two. Gary Bowyer has tried out four distinct shapes in the opening half-dozen encounters, and has lamented the loss of all-rounder Jamie Devitt to the sidelines for at least a fortnight. The injury might, however, help to reduce the amount of tinkering he’s willing or able to do for the foreseeable future, starting with the clash at home with Northampton Town. The Bantams have ranked high in the number of shots thus far but close to bottom with those that have been on target (in the bottom four with both Wyscout and WhoScored), and could do with that changing quickly in front of a sizeable crowd against the visitors.
Keith Curle has stressed the importance of nullifying the threats the hosts possess in their ranks to further frustrate the slightly restless support. The Cobblers enjoyed a superb win over much-fancied Plymouth Argyle in their last outing, with Andy Williams bagging a brace as the focal point of the attack from a pair of Sam Hoskins’ crosses. However, they’ve had a similarly disappointing start to 2019/2020 overall, and Nicky Adams has yet to notch an assist despite an xA of 2.28 (third in the league) – I’d imagine that will change in a fixture that will emphasise pushing wide to create chances.
Cambridge United boss Colin Calderwood will be hoping his proclamation that “lessons have been learned” from their insipid defeat to Port Vale rings true. Whilst not yet living up to their billing from 2018/2019, Forest Green Rovers are likely to dominate possession once more, which could mean a repeat of chasing shadows for a second week. The performance and competition for places could mean a number of changes are made. The centre back pairing of George Taft and Greg Taylor have laid on more passes than anyone else in the squad, and they’ll need those balls to be accurate from defence to prevent being camped in their own third for long spells.
The Nailsworth outfit have not translated their time in control to goals thus far, not even striking once per game. Custodian Jojo Wollacott’s dismissal after half an hour last time out was the chief reason for drawing a blank; Mark Cooper has praised the quality of his attack-minded players in the lead-up to tomorrow, and there ought to be opportunities to climb off the foot of both the touches in the box and shots taken tables, and moreover, earn a convincing win to (temporarily) silence any doubt.
Stephen Pressley has been keen to stress he’s “doing everything he can to maximise the group”, and you once again feel that for Carlisle United to prosper, they’ll have to avoid lay-offs to their small squad… and the likes of versatile forward Hallam Hope to be fully concentrating on the task in hand. That should be an easier task now that the transfer window has closed and he remains in situ, but the Cumbrians have to halt the chances and goals they give up – they were extremely fortunate to keep a clean sheet against Scunthorpe United, losing the xG battle 1.98-0.18!
Stefan Scougall has gleaned two in five from the left side of central midfield, but is a big doubt for the visit of Exeter City. The Grecians are the early pace-setters, with a two-point cushion over their nearest rivals. Nicky Law always looks a class act down the left channel, but even more impressive has been Aaron Martin, especially since being shifted inside as the anchoring centre back in the three. It is partly on the back of his aerial prowess and reading of the game that have aided in their quest to shut out the opposition, making more defensive interceptions collectively than any other team. It will be intriguing to see how he organises his partners when they make the mammoth trip tomorrow, being matched man-for-man by Carlisle’s frontline.
Cheltenham Town have carried their excellent form (particularly at home) into the current campaign, crashing in eight goals in three league fixtures at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium. New signing Jonte Smith will be keen to get in on the action, having eschewed the opportunity to help Bermuda in the CONCACAF Nations League during the international break to ensure his transfer could go ahead without any hitches. Assistant manager Russell Milton took questions this week prior to the Stevenage encounter, much of which centred around what Smith will bring to the group, as well as citing the treatment table list for the Hertfordshire club’s travails up to this point.
Dino Maamria has challenged his troops “to put everything aside” as they seek their maiden victory. He’s rotated personnel in attack to address the string of ‘nils’ against their name, and they were unlucky not to bag a win over Macclesfield Town last weekend. The recent captures of Craig Mackail-Smith and Adam El-Abd add oodles of experience and game management to what was hitherto one of the younger rosters in League Two, although the former might have to settle for a place among the substitutes after Kurtis Guthrie got off the mark.
Callum Harriott has rejoined Colchester United after having a loan spell in Essex several seasons ago. His signing will add even more pace down the flanks, and John McGreal will be banking on it serving as another positive step in their recovery in League Two. Opposition managers are all too aware of the threats at their disposal, and the U’s propensity to get caught offside is testament to that.
Walsall chief Darrell Clarke has been channelling his inner Arsène Wenger ahead of the game, pointing to ‘mental strength’ as the key in shaking off a decidedly indifferent start. Picking the final pass forward has also been a problem – right winger Rory Holden needs more helps from the likes of Danny Guthrie in supplying the front two. The Saddlers rank bottom for key passes created.
Grimsby Town have blasted in 13 goals in six matches to date, and the deadliness of target man James Hanson, scoring half of his 10 shots on target. Granted, two have been penalties, but that takes nothing away from his personal and The Mariners’ rejuvenation in 2019/2020; his presence has been a constant thorn for defences, and at a bare minimum, he has had at least two efforts every match. Set pieces have been a huge part of their superb start, but Michael Jolley believes the “toughest test of the season so far” lies in wait tomorrow when Crewe Alexandra travel eastwards. His adversary for the weekend, David Artell, was effusive in his praise for Jolley, having coached together for the Alex U16s at an earlier stage in their respective careers.
The maturing Railwaymen were able to retain most of their brighter young talents from the previous term, and were at least the equals in terms of xG in the two defeats they have suffered to date (the 3-0 reverse against Plymouth was by no means an accurate reflection of that match). There are few better in the division in the six-yard area than veteran Chris Porter, who can count on Charlie Kirk on his immediate left to ping accurate balls to him.
Leyton Orient are yet another side with a 2-2-2 record, and head coach Ross Embleton believes they “are small margins away” from improving their results on the road. In the immediate future, they will look to do that back at base when they entertain Swindon Town. Josh Wright has proved to be a shrewd acquisition, adding goals and know-how from deep in midfield; the main issue remains conceding big chances that have undermined the low overall number, and this is surely not going to change tomorrow.
The Robins will be backed by a sold-out away end, and first-team coach Tommy Wright expects there to be plenty of goals to entertain them. ‘Wellensball’ has them three points off the top, with the loanee strike partnership of Eoin Doyle and Jerry Yates plundering eight between them. The progressive, riskier passing employed by the Wiltshire outfit is hard to defend against, doubly so when backed up by enterprising wingplay.
Macclesfield Town have continued their promising opening under new manager Daryl McMahon, already accruing nearly a quarter of the points likely to be required for survival as a minimum. Ben Stephens, who can play both up top and as a #10, has been instrumental in their form, acting both as chief creator as well as chipping in with his share of the goals.
Crawley Town are also faring much better than most pundits would’ve anticipated. Gabriele Cioffi is understandably pleased with both the application of his players and the depth at his disposal, the latter of which he added to earlier this week with the signings of Denzeil Boadu and Gyliano van Velzen, and he will be keen to see how they fare tomorrow – Reece Grego-Cox’s place on the right of the three looks most under threat.
It’s hard to recall a time in recent seasons where it hasn’t felt as though the manager of Mansfield Town‘s position is under serious scrutiny. Lying 19th at the table even at this early stage is unlikely to be tolerated for long, but thankfully for John Dempster, Ryan Sweeney’s red card against Exeter City has been rescinded. Sweeney is one of several big names that have not lived up to their billing, which has collectively overshadowed Danny Rose’s fine return in front of goal. Dempster is pinning his hopes on “the Stags soaring” against surprise bottom side Scunthorpe United.
Paul Hurst has endured a torrid opening to his stint in charge, hampered in some ways by injuries – his latest interview on the official site makes for grim reading in terms of expecting many of them making a return in the immediate future. Loanee George Miller has spoken of the need “for a chance to fall for him” to get off the mark, but his game has always been about making a nuisance of himself to create his own opportunities. Rory McArdle’s contribution cannot be sniffed at, but his effectiveness in the air at both ends has not led to much in the way of points.
Morecambe stalwart Jim Bentley has reverted the formation to a 4-4-2 since a costly couple of fixtures that kicked off 2019/2020. This had the desired effect temporarily until reverting to type in the past fortnight. Barry Roche, for so long one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the basement division, has not been at his best, and a solution must be found to plug the gaps if another long season of struggle is to be avoided. Lewis Alessandra’s made the most of his scant chances to date, scoring each of his four shots on target. He should get some further opportunities at home to Salford City.
The Ammies have given up triple figures already, facing 104 shots, by far and away the worst record in the league. Thankfully, that hasn’t translated into comparatively many goals conceded, and Jack Baldwin, on loan from Sunderland, is sure to take his place in the heart of the defence as a countermeasure to that particular stat. Jake Jervis joins a strong-looking forward line, but at present, it’s too easy to pass through their midfield.
Newport County are one of two sides to remain unbeaten in League Two at the time of writing. Rodney Parade has been a fortress for sometime, whilst on the road, they have ground out points when not performing at their zenith against opponents at least their equals on paper. Michael Flynn is adamant that the division “will be the most competitive it’s been in a long time”, something I’m also of the view of, and anticipates another bruising battle with Port Vale.
The Valiants have become tougher to beat under John Askey, who is hoping to take advantage of the Exiles’ absentees tomorrow. It’s no longer simply a case of hitting it to club legend Tom Pope and hoping for the best, as there now exists more depth and devilment in attack. Jordan Archer will be pushing for a place, and he takes up similar positions to Pope but with a change of pace. David Amoo helps to stretch defences that would otherwise remain pretty compact, and that will be the most interesting aspect during tomorrow’s game.
Plymouth Argyle boss Ryan Lowe has been quick to temper any notion of Jose Baxter “getting one over” the latter’s former employers, Oldham Athletic. Both manager and player have not seen things go all their own way in 2019/2020. As is now typical for a Lowe side, most of their attacks have come down the left channel (42%), with the middle relatively underutilised. It should serve as no surprise that they’ve also conceded the bulk down their left, and will have to get much closer to the winger. Chris Eagles should provide them with that chance if selected.
It’s been another term of off-the-pitch machinations overshadowing results on it, which have also been hard to come by so far. Head coach Laurent Banide will be hoping deadline day signing Filipe Morais’ return to Boundary Park will help inject the dressing room with a much-needed boost. The strikers have a single goal between them, and although Chris O’Grady’s departure to neighbours Bolton Wanderers was far from lamented, it has highlighted the lack of a potent target man in their ranks to finish off Gevaro Nepomuceno’s floated crosses.
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