Month: October 2019

Review: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ by James Bentley

For full disclosure, I had a very tiny part in helping fellow Bury fan James Bentley with his second tome about the Shakers (the first being centred around the 1984/1985 promotion-winning squad titled ‘The Forgotten Fifteen’ , which was set against the backdrop of the Bradford and Heysel disasters). I transcribed the parts featuring Mark Carter and David Pugh slowly, using lunch breaks at work to complete the task. It doesn’t affect how I perceive the book as a whole.

Having started the fortnightly pilgrimage to Gigg Lane mere months prior to where the main body commences as a wide-eyed eight-year old, the man in the dugout is Mike Walsh with a certain Stan Ternent as his assistant. It continues in a chronological fashion, spanning a four-year period until Neil Warnock takes charge and the downward spiral begins in earnest on the back of the meteoric rise hitherto experienced under Ternent, doubtlessly the most successful and best era to be a fan in the post-war period.

As well as chronicling the ups and downs of the seasons game-by-game, the major ‘added value’ comes in the guise of former players and staff agreeing to be interviewed for their takes on the extraordinary rise of Bury Football Club in the mid-90s, as well as accounts of supporters recollecting key events and their emotions at the time. Bentley is also able to call upon extensive archived material from newspapers (mostly the Bury Times when it still meant something to anyone, and the Manchester Evening News before the era of handing it out for free in the city centre). The local print and radio journalists add another layer to the prose, helping what might have been a bit dry at the end of another author’s pen or fingertips into a real page-turner.

Technology just before the proliferation of the internet into the collective public consciousness has a big say in the narrative, too. VHS tapes were still the order of the day, and even though attendances swelled to 6,000 or so in 1997/1998, it’s unlikely many copies of the season reviews were purchased back then, much less survive to this day and in a transferable state to more modern media. Anyone who’s watched the grainy footage on YouTube and other online platforms is extremely grateful for their existence; for me personally, watching back the highlights from that time (with a couple of famous exceptions) represented just the second instances of ever seeing them. That point can’t be understated because when they’re coupled with the excitable tones of commentator Paul Greenlees, it only enhances many of the goals’ iconic statuses, and ably demonstrates not having quick and endless access to them can allow a belated but renewed appreciation of memories hitherto trapped in amber.

The author himself was of a prime age for fully appreciating what was unfolding in front of the faithful few thousand in BL9, and this is relayed in what a player signing or leaving, a formation change, a rallying call, and the atmosphere before and during a match meant and felt like to him. Through no fault of his own, this in itself is a huge improvement over his first work. Simply being witness to the events adds an authentic voice to proceedings.

Whereas many of his anecdotes being close to a decade my senior are about going to pubs and driving down to away trips with his dad, what music he was into, and a finer understanding of the tactical points of the starting lineup, mine were about catching the 481 or 483 bus to Bury from Rossendale (initially with both my mum and grandma), dining in Burger King on the Rock, buying sweets in the Millgate Shopping Centre post office, and unzipping my bag to allow my teddy Paskin (named after John Paskin, the delightfully mustachioed South African striker the club had between 1994 and 1996 with a more than a whiff of porn star about him) to watch along with us.

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Like James, we were also at Wembley for the crushingly disappointing ’95 play-off final defeat to Chesterfield, and little would any of us have known that the 5-0 reverse to Warnock’s Plymouth early in the subsequent term would be the precipitant of the dramatic promotion the next May. We were among those gathered on the pitch after Ternent’s charges had done their bit, waiting to hear the outcome of the Darlington-Scunthorpe United game. Once confirmation of the draw came through, everyone, myself included, jumped up on down on the boggy pitch that barely passed as a playing surface. It would prove to be the last time my grandma was there in life. Some of her ashes were scattered there in September of the same year.

1996/1997 was the title winning season, and as was customary, Bury were one of the favourites for the drop. ‘Fortress Gigg’ was established, and with tribunal signing Dean Kiely in between the sticks, I had my first real favourite player. I’d always been a goalkeeper in the playground despite my small stature, and I always preferred asking for the jerseys over the outfield tops for birthdays and Christmases. What I didn’t know back then was just how protracted the saga had been over the fee for Kiely, and this is another way in which the book comes into its own – it has really helped me fill in the ‘gaps’ in what I would otherwise be able to recall.

Certain pivotal fixtures are of course covered in far greater detail than others, especially the decisive final pair that handed the club its first silverware for decades and a second successive promotion to boot. Once more, my feelings are mirrored in the author’s prose, but it should also be noted that even in the midst of success, the financial dark clouds that have never been far away from the Fishpool area were beginning to reform. Even in the days of lower league sides regularly paying transfer fees and a relatively low wage bill, Bury were still making fairly significant year-on-year losses. Whilst these pale in comparison to this decade and the inevitable liquidation of the current entity, they did add credence to the never-changing perception (and reality) of the club as either ‘cash-strapped’ or ‘spending beyond their means’.

Of most interest to me is the section on the first campaign in the ‘old’ Division One (now the Championship). I was starting high school, and it really felt like the team I loved and I were on the cusp of something. It was also the beginning of regularly travelling to away grounds up and down the country with my mum, including getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning to get on the official coaches to the likes of East Anglian rivals Norwich City and Ipswich Town. Although these were rarely wins, it never sapped my enjoyment of them or made me wish I’d done something else with my Saturdays and Tuesday evenings in the years since – indeed, as is reflected in the book, they were some of the best times of my life and of many others’, perhaps even more so for the ephemeral nature of being in the second tier on merit. The Valentine’s Day win over Manchester City at Maine Road in 1998 five days before my 12th birthday is unlikely to ever be beaten as my favourite away experience.

There are anecdotes contained within that few would’ve been aware of at the time, ranging from Ternent and Warnock’s mutual hatred to the far more harrowing tales of Andy Woodward, which only came to light in 2016 as the first in a deeply disturbing lone line of victims of child sexual abuse in football that continue to have ramifications in the sport to this day.

There are only two small negatives I can find in the book, neither of which really spoiled much. The first was an affliction all too common to Kindle editions, and unlikely to be the fault of the author. The formatting periodically lets things down – this manifests itself most strikingly in making words in a sentence combine into one for no real reason and giving pause for true comprehension of what’s being conveyed.

The second is the more than occasional party political allusion. I accept that the reader’s mileage will vary in this, and to play devil’s advocate, the ambiguous title of the book was very much of its time and famous for it. There are also instances where events current to the epoch are relayed alongside matches, some of which are of more pertinence than others; again though, these are less frequent or intrusive than his first book because of the authentic voice.

In summary, anyone with even a passing interest in Bury or more broadly about a less celebrated (former) member of the 92 will find plenty to entertain and elucidate them, and the author must be commended for the years of research and hard work that went into publishing it, as well as subsequent attempts to keep the ‘spirit’ of the club alive since expulsion of the EFL through a tour of pubs affected by the depressing events of the last six months whilst reflecting on better times without wallowing too much in nostalgia.

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Bristol Rovers 2-2 Portsmouth: Review

If you read my preview, you’d know that my expectations from the match yesterday at the Memorial Stadium had significantly diminished in the absence of Bristol Rovers’ star striker Jonson Clarke-Harris. Portsmouth also came into the encounter severely under-performing in League One this season, with manager Kenny Jackett the subject of plenty of vitriol from supporters.

I took my seat high up in the Poplar Insulation Stand, which gave me a perfect vantage point to see the tactical battle play out in a ground full of character.

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Open the image in a new tab and remove WordPress’ compressed dimensions to see the panoramic view of the Mem in its true glory

There was one change apiece from my predicted lineups for the two sides; the much-maligned Tom Nichols was relegated to the bench in favour of Tyler Smith. For Pompey, Ronan Curtis was drafted in on the left of the attacking midfield trio.

An early thrust down the right was a false dawn for The Gas, who looked utterly toothless up top after that fleeting moment, and the visitors were more than content to have their double pivot in midfield sit quite close to the back four, lapping up the powder-puff ambles into their territory, then quickly turning them into a counter. Oddly, despite Rovers’ conservatism, they’d often find themselves outnumbered in these situations.

As it was, the opening goal came from a contentious penalty decision. A move that began with a short free-kick was eventually directed into the home area and helped on by Ronan Curtis into the path of John Marquis ended with the latter seeming to go down from a push. I didn’t believe in real time that it was so clear-cut, and even slowing things down on the highlights makes it seem as though he made the most of things. Nevertheless, Gareth Evans stepped up to convert, giving Pirates chief Graham Coughlan a tactical quandary with 81 minutes still on the clock.

The problems were plain for all to see. With no focal point in the forward positions, the long balls to the front line were swallowed up. A lack of movement and positive intent in midfield magnified this, and in turn made the back three pass it across in the desperate hope that someone in advance of them would actively seek out possession.

The pattern kept repeating itself. Abu Ogogo, eventual recipient of the man of the match award, thwarted several breaks by his opponents, but couldn’t prevent further presentable chances from being created. Anssi Jaakkola kept the disparity to just a single goal almost single-handedly in the first period. Portsmouth’s height advantage was very telling in both open and dead ball situations, and every opportunity possible was sought from which to cross to the far post from both flanks.

The half-time whistle sounded, and at that juncture, I was sure Coughlan would have to do something drastic to shake off the malaise that was swirling around the ground along with the inclement weather, but there was no evidence of any changes as play resumed. Pompey hadn’t got out of second gear, but neither had they seemed capable of it on the evidence thus far.

Again, the diminutive statures of the hosts were costing them dear. The ball kept bouncing over captain Ollie Clarke and Ogogo’s heads, putting pressure on their teammates to step out of their low line to cut out the understated threats in grey. On the occasions they would stem the tide and attempt to take the game to the Hampshire outfit, they simply wouldn’t get close enough to their strikers, whose body language was getting visibly worse as time wore on, reflecting the frustrations felt in the crowd around me.

There seemed to be no way back to parity when on the 70th minute mark, Portsmouth got their second. A woeful clearance on Rovers’ left flank meekly surrendered possession in a dangerous area. Marquis turned creator, putting in a cross for Curtis to head in unmarked. They hadn’t to work too diligently for their two-goal lead, and a repeat of the scoreline suffered on Tuesday at the hands of Bolton Wanderers looked on the cards.

To Coughlan’s belated credit, the switches he made from that moment on had the desired effect. Liam Sercombe’s return to at least partial match fitness was timely. A free kick minutes later resulted in some pinball in Pompey’s area. Right wing-back Alex Rodman made the very most of the loose ball to lash it into the unguarded net. Subsequently, Tony Craig was withdrawn for Mark Little, allowing Rodman to push up into a midfield four. Kyle Bennett was also introduced, providing a brief but important link between the lines.

Jackett, whether he hadn’t anticipated the onslaught or felt powerless to react to it, paid the price with that reluctance in the dying embers. Despite the aforementioned physical disadvantage in set plays, the Gas profited once more from them, and the ball was forced over the line by a combination of Ross McCrorie and goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray to send the hapless duo to the floor almost immediately after the final whistle along with the rest of the XI.

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The home players applaud the crowd after a hard-earned point…

The majority of the 8.648 in attendance left relatively happy whilst full in the knowledge that their side cannot always rely on either a big mistake or a lucky happenstance from a set piece. The onus needs to be on Coughlan to be more positive in home matches from the outset. As for Portsmouth, this was another two points dropped in a soporific season to date – on paper and in person, they should be doing far better even whilst a nagging feeling persists that they’re playing within themselves. They were the better team but did not ‘batter’ Bristol Rovers by any means.

 

Bristol Rovers vs Portsmouth: Preview

In the first match I’ll be attending in person this season, I take a look at the League One clash between Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth at the Memorial Stadium.

I have to admit that it’s strange to be writing about a game I’ll be at that doesn’t involve Bury in one form or another; it’s not an unprecedented occurrence, but it has been rare up until this point. Even with the phoenix starting to rise, it’s going to become much more commonplace. My love of football doesn’t begin and end with the Shakers, and this is just the inaugural step on covering sides in my locale.

Bristol Rovers, for their part, were not expected to be in the top half of the third tier standings with 14 games played. Had they won on Tuesday, Graham Coughlan’s charges would’ve been firmly ensconced in the play-offs, ably demonstrating how close the table still is in some areas. Instead, they turned in an abject performance at home to the previously winless Bolton Wanderers, fully deserving the 2-0 reverse inflicted on them by the Trotters.

The prevailing narrative where The Gas are concerned is an over-reliance on the explosive talents of Jonson Clarke-Harris, who rose to prominence in spectacular fashion last term. I still remember his loan spell at Gigg Lane six years ago in an abject squad under the bumbling, belligerent auspices of Kevin Blackwell. I could see then he had the raw qualities to progress his career, and his goal return of four in 12 augured well. This season began in much the same way as 2018/2019 concluded. An all-round striker, he has the strength and acceleration to get clear of his marker, be more than effective in the air, and has a knack of pulling off the spectacular.

It’s no surprise that the injury he suffered earlier this month has come as a grievous blow to the squad; only one goal has been scored in the three fixtures since, with no-one else stepping up in his absence to carry the burden. Tomorrow, they face a Portsmouth outfit way off the pace, and the perception is that their 1-0 victory over Lincoln City on Tuesday preserved Kenny Jackett’s job for the time being, at least.

Pompey have suffered more than most from fixture cancellations thus far, which goes a long way to explain why they’ve played fewer than every other side in the division. They too have had to cope without their star forward in the form of Brett Pitman, but have more able replacements – in fact, it’s disparaging to describe John Marquis in such a fashion, even if he just ended a long barren spell the other night for his third of the campaign.

no Sercombe and Clarke-Harris; vitriol for Clarke; Leahy possibly back in for Kelly perceived lack of a Plan B

Bristol Rovers 1920

Coughlan is likely to rigidly stick to a 3-5-2 that screams defensive solidity over creativity and risk. Pirates supporters will sincerely be hoping that left wing-back Luke Leahy can prove his fitness sufficiently to be back in the starting lineup. Michael Kelly, who has been deputising him, is far more suited for a flat four, and that conservatism has been another factor during the recent travails. Joe Dodoo had the beating of Kelly all night long on Tuesday, and whilst there’s no disgrace in that, it did highlight the inherent weaknesses on that side of the defence.

Alfie Kilgour is predominantly right-footed but is being deployed on the opposite part of the central three. He will look to cover Leahy’s runs whilst being wary of not being pulled too far away from his position, particularly given the fact that the opposition will match up the numbers. Tony Craig will need to be at his best to hold the shape together, whilst his teammate Tom Davies (who has made the most interceptions of anyone in the league), will flit between covering for the others when the line is penetrated and shutting down attacks on his flank.

As a unit, they’re instructed to play plenty of long balls to the strikers. On the occasions they don’t, distribution is evenly spread between the wings. If fit, Leahy is one of the better (few) creative outlets in the XI, and will go beyond the midfield three frequently. Alex Rodman has only recently been tasked with performing the same role on the right but has found a niche in thwarting wingers rather than being one himself.

Ed Upson is the nominal pivot in midfield, but in reality, all three of the likely starters tomorrow favour defence over attack in their actions. Very few of his passes carry any sort of risk, but he’s more likely to be in a suitable area to shoot than Abu Ogogo. Captain Ollie Clarke has been off-colour all season long, which just makes fans pine for Liam Sercombe’s recovery all the more. At his best, he can be the #8 that is so desperately needed to operate in between the lines.

The problems don’t stop in midfield. Tom Nichols looks like a man utterly bereft of confidence. He has accrued fewer than 10 goals in over two years and this is reflected in the calls for him to be dropped from the team. Like Victor Adeboyejo, he favours making drifting runs to the right half-space, either in anticipation of a cross from Leahy or to shift the opposition defence out of their set shape. The Barnsley loanee has yet to net in the league, and whilst he can hold the ball up well, that doesn’t serve much of a purpose without far more support from deeper on the pitch.

Portsmouth 1920

The usually unflappable Craig MacGillivray has been under-par between the sticks for the Hampshire side this season, coming off significantly worse against expected goals conceded to actual (9.46 to 12). That said, he remains both a confident taker of crosses in the air and a reliable distributor; the latter quality may be called into action on the counter regularly tomorrow. Full-backs Lee Brown and Ross McCrorie (who can also play in defensive midfield) will bomb forward whenever given licence to do so; the greater width behind John Marquis means the setup is less reliant on them being the ones to whip balls into the area.

Sean Raggett has come in for some criticism from his own fans this season, and the same can be said for Christian Burgess’ propensity to run with the ball ahead of the backline. When you couple that with not winning as many duels as he ought to, it does underline a certain nervousness in defence at present.

The two anchors in midfield have similar approaches to advancing possession through the second third of the pitch. Captain Tom Naylor, unlike Upson for Bristol Rovers, takes too many risks with his passing, including a strange obsession with clipped through balls over the defence that almost always get swallowed up. Ben Close covers more ground and is a little more solid but has the same problems with picking out teammates.

Gareth Evans has been tried in several roles behind the sole striker. Reluctant to shoot when deployed centrally and a better creator (from a low base) out wide, it’s unclear why he’s being persisted with directly off Marquis. There’s no shortage of attack-minded midfielders at the club who like to cause damage in between the full-back and nearest centre back, such as Marcus Harness and Ronan Curtis. The former of the duo has got the nod in recent matches, even though he’s more at home on the opposite side. The ex-Burton Albion favourite has a knack of anticipating loose balls in the area, which could be a key difference maker tomorrow.

Marquis will be hoping to improve as the season wears on. He cannot do this in isolation and needs more unpredictability when he’s supported. Ryan Williams does not have the same skillset as the aforementioned Curtis or the departed Jamal Lowe, which can make it easier for teams to simply sit in and soak up the pressure. Marquis is currently averaging under two shots a match despite the five attempts on Tuesday; only a third of these are on target, and both of these metrics have to change to salvage something from 2019/2020.

As for a prediction, I’m expecting a tight, low-scoring affair with little to choose between the sides. The stubbornness of both managers is manifesting itself in the styles of play on show at the moment. Rovers are hitting it long to a strikeforce that evokes no fear, bypassing a midfield seemingly designed to keep things tight when turnovers occur. Pompey, especially without Clarke-Harris lining up against them, have the superior individuals on paper but that has not coalesced into a cohesive team. Despite the plethora of options in advanced areas, too many balls are hit long into the channels or to a surrounded Marquis. What looked on paper a more exciting contest a few weeks ago doesn’t have that feel now – I’d love to be wrong, though!

Bradford City Tactical Analysis

How have Bradford City fared under boss Gary Bowyer in the opening quarter of the 2019/2020 season in League Two? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Bradford score first in claret and amber):

Cambridge United (h): 0-0
Grimsby Town (a): 1-1
Oldham Athletic (h): 3-0
Stevenage (a): 1-0
Forest Green Rovers (h): 0-1
Crewe Alexandra (a): 1-2
Northampton Town (h): 2-1
Walsall (a): 1-0
Cheltenham Town (a): 2-3
Carlisle United (h): 3-1
Scunthorpe United (a): 1-1
Swindon Town (h): 2-1
Morecambe (a): 2-1

Life back in the basement division hasn’t all been smooth sailing for The Bantams, but they have certainly coped better than their fellow demoted sides from the third tier in 2018/2019 (11th, 19th, and 22nd respectively). Bowyer had the advantage of being hired back in March when their fate wasn’t sealed but was probable.

The extra few months of planning afforded to him has resulted in a huge turnover of players; moreover, the new arrivals have bedded in well at Valley Parade, and the first four matches yielded eight points. Although the next couple were narrowly lost in encounters that could’ve gone either way – the injury-time defeat at home to Forest Green Rovers particularly heartbreaking.

They’ve lost just one more since – a pulsating second half away to Cheltenham Town saw them strike twice but end up on the wrong side of a five-goal thriller in a game where they carved out the better opportunities. Once more, they piled on the pressure when they travelled to Scunthorpe United (the Iron were a man light for over 70 minutes) without the scoreline reflecting their dominance.

October has been fruitful thus far – six points from the first two fixtures now has them nominally in the automatic promotion places by virtue of goals scored over the more defensively resolute Forest Green Rovers; more importantly, supporters are feeling positive after suffering a downward spiral on and off the pitch for large swathes of the past few seasons.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Bradford 1920


Tactical Approach

Whilst Bowyer certainly does favour a conventional 4-4-2, something that he’s brought with him across the Pennines from previous roles, it’s by no means the shape he persists with all the time. Last Saturday against Morecambe for example, a defensive pivot was used behind a four-man midfield.

As you’d expect from having two on each flank, the build-up for most attacks are constructed in the outside channels, with a slight bias towards the right (40% to 34%). Connor Wood and compatriot Kelvin Mellor are both progressive with the ball, linking up well with the wingers in front of them. Wood is more apt to go beyond his teammate, but there’s no huge distinction between the source of crosses.

Centre backs Ben Richards-Everton and Anthony O’Connor (ably backed up by namesake Paudie) split wider when trying to pick out one of the strikers with direct long balls from their own third, as well as covering for the full-backs on when possession is lost further upfield.

Even when the single pivot isn’t positioned at the base of midfield, the duo in the centre work tirelessly to shut down counters and make supporting runs for the wingers to have a short passing option, or to be the recipient of a lay-off by a striker, usually Clayton Donaldson.

Dylan Connolly, who has been on the left in the past two games, is more apt to get to the byline than Harry Pritchard when cutting back or sending a looping ball into the centre. Donaldson and James Vaughan are a duo with copious amounts of experience further up the pyramid; the former uses his physicality to bring others into play in the construction of attacks, and the latter is also strong in his own right, working the channels to offer something different to just aerial battles.

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

The Bantams are powerful in the air, always giving their opponents cause from concern from open play and dead ball situations. Of the 166 shots to date, 43 have been via headers, the second highest in the division – five of them have been converted, which is an impressive ratio when every factor is taken into consideration.

Defensively, they’ve held their own, managing to block plenty of shots and win more than their fair share of duels to turn potentially worrying situations into attacks.

None of the passing statistics stand out, but it could be argued that it’s testament to the individual qualities within the group to make the most of retaining the ball – the claret and amber army are decidedly average on most of those metrics, which makes sense when the strategy is to make the most of the know-how up top or cross from out wide. Crossing by even the elite clubs rarely leads to a goal greater than a ratio of 1:10 attempts.

A plus point that won’t be in the stats on WhoScored or Wyscout as such is Bowyer’s ability to rotate personnel, both through substitutions and the flexibility inherent in certain players’ abilities to perform different roles. It’s one thing to have a deep roster in most areas, but another to keep the ones who aren’t starring motivated and ready for when they do receive the chances.

There aren’t too many weaknesses that haven’t already been alluded to in some fashion. Looking at the pace down the sides, more use could be made of the likes of Pritchard and Connolly in a greater variety of contexts, but Bowyer might feel that preserving their stamina and with it, to differ their speed on and off the ball is more crucial to preserving superiority in the second phase.

Surprisingly, they’re next to bottom when it comes to accurate corners, even though the prowess in the air is the bedrock of constructing passages of play in every other situation. From a very low base, they could certainly improve in this regard.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

At a touch under a goal conceded every game, Richard O’Donnell has been performing admirably, and must be relieved to not be facing the same barrage of shots as he did last term. Against xGA (expected goals against), he is also faring well – 12 to 13.56. His  presence in the area is a comfort blanket for the defence when they’re breached.

Ben Richards-Everton’s strong left foot gives the back four great balance, and helps in no small measure in preventing the unit as a whole shifting too much to one side when attacked. Additionally, his propensity to time interceptions well is a huge boon, as was witnessed most prominently in the trip to Stevenage in September. Third choice centre back Paudie O’Connor has had a big hand in the opposite penalty box, showing a poacher’s instinct on two occasions already.

Matt Palmer has simply been everywhere in midfield. When playing a 4-4-2 of the kind Bowyer does, it places the pressure firmly on the pairing in the centre to cover ground at speed, win possession back and retain it with accurate passing, and participate in every phase of play.  He has recovered the ball successfully comparatively well, and has only given four fouls away to date – truly amazing when you consider the role he’s entrusted with.

James Vaughan hasn’t yet had the haul to back up his variety and frequency of efforts. The horrible penalty miss against Walsall aside, he’s looked reasonably sharp in front of goal after not having the best time of things in the past two campaigns at other clubs. Unusually, the majority of his strikes to date have been with his head, and you’d expect that to change over the course of the year. Both he and the misfiring Donaldson will be keenly aware that Shay McCartan and Aramide Oteh will be vying for their places – the latter had a goalscoring cameo last time out, and the duo’s versatility will surely come into its own as the weeks pass.

Despite Kelvin Mellor’s height, he’s only been winning 40% of aerial duels for a full-back, which ranks as one of the worst in the nascent season among his peers. It is nitpicking as he otherwise been a key asset in the XI, but it’s hard to diagnose the reason for it – it is important to remember that simply being tall isn’t always an indicator of being dominant when facing high balls.

Conclusions

As a manager, Gary Bowyer has not walked into any easy jobs. He had to contend with the Venkys and everything that they entailed at Blackburn Rovers; it was then very much the epitome of out of the frying pan and into the fire with fellow Lanacashire outfit Blackpool – there, with unimaginable constraints, he guided the Seasiders back into the third tier after a memorable play-off final win in his first season at the helm. In his present guise, he came into another famous ‘B’ club mere months after the Edin Rahic debacle had finally come to an end.

Even without all cylinders firing, he has taken what remained of last year’s crestfallen squad, added quality and know-how in the summer, and as the leaves are falling to the ground, Bradford are already in the top three where it’s hard to envisage they’ll drop out of. There’s a feeling that they still have yet to hit top gear, and all the ingredients are present for them to build on the momentum gained from recent wins. Maybe Donaldson won’t rediscover his finest form; maybe Zeli Ismail and Hope Akpan, who would be in the starting lineup of almost every other team in League Two, will remain decidedly inconsistent; the difference between them and their competition is that they can afford to have instances like that, being far less reliant on any one player to dig them out of trouble. Good times are coming back to at least one corner of West Yorkshire in 2019/2020.

Gillingham Tactical Analysis

How have Gillingham fared under boss Steve Evans in the opening quarter of the 2019/2020 season in League One? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Gillingham score first in blue):

Doncaster Rovers (a): 1-1
Burton Albion (h): 1-2
Blackpool (h): 2-2
Coventry City (a): 0-1
Bolton Wanderers (h): 5-0
Tranmere Rovers (a): 2-2
Wycombe Wanderers (h): 2-0
Bristol Rovers (a): 1-1
Ipswich Town (h): 0-1
Oxford United (a): 0-3
Southend United (h): 3-1

The very definition of a mixed bag of results for the Medway-based outfit thus far, which can be attributed in part to the customary number of signings a new manager tends to make in the first transfer window available to them (14), plus Evans’ own proclivities – he was doubtlessly persuaded by chairman Paul Scally giving him carte blanche to stamp his own distinct philosophy on the club.

One of the main complaints last season was that the Gills rarely played on the front foot, but for the most part, they have at least competed in the vast majority of their league fixtures to date. The first four games didn’t yield any wins, although supporters would’ve taken plenty of heart from more than holding their own against Doncaster Rovers.

There’s been a prevailing narrative to completely dismiss scorelines achieved in the nascent weeks when playing a weakened Bolton Wanderers, but I don’t think that’s totally fair, and the dominance they had over The Trotters did give a strong indication of what they could be capable of when given the chance to flex their collective muscles.

The apex was the impressive triumph over high-flying Wycombe Wanderers, ending the visitors’ unbeaten start in the third tier. Conversely, they were swept away by an Oxford United side full of swagger, but they haven’t had to endure any worrying runs of form.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

 

Gillingham 1920
The tendency has been to retain a flat four and a front two, rotating the flexible midfield squad members to match up to their opponents


Tactical Approach

Evans has often been derided as a long-ball merchant, and this is borne out to a certain extent by the number of ‘reachers’ from defence. The Gills have the highest number of unsuccessful passes in the division according to WhoScored (the definition varies – on Wyscout for example, they sit seventh in that particular ranking).

The two centre backs split when construction is shorter, and the flanks are equally favoured. At 35, Barry Fuller is understandably less inclined to bomb forward as much as his compatriot on the left (usually Southampton U23s loanee Thomas O’Connor), but is still a massive influence on how the team functions.

Versatile Alfie Jones has mainly operated as the defensive midfield pivot, mopping up behind the rest of the middle third, intercepting loose balls and distributing it to the right channel. The energetic Mark Byrne is the dynamo on the other side, working to cover the space vacated by O’Connor’s forays and to link up with Oliver Lee.

Lee also shifts into the left half-space, providing another option for the full-back for a give-and-go, or to help ensure there are more bodies in the box for the crosses, which, despite the emphasis firmly placed on the wings for chance creation, they are actually in the bottom third for the overall number of attempts.

Alex Jakbuiak acts as a shadow striker, picking up the ball in between the lines as much as he’ll be found in the 18-yard area. Brandon Hanlan, having assumed the role vacated by the much-loved and prolific Tom Eaves, leads the line, but in truth, both strikers drift wide.

 

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

Defensively, they are far less of a pushover than under the auspices of Steve Lovell. They have gone from needlessly putting themselves under pressure and facing the most number of shots in 2018/2019 to a far more favourable ranking, in part because the losses of possession tend to be higher up the pitch.

When in their own third, they are winning the ball back more regularly, especially in the air, which has been aided by a steady partnership in front of custodian Jack Bonham. This also manifests itself in sitting off less, with a noticeable ramping up in the work rate when possession has been conceded.

The players used so far have been a good mix of experienced know-how and promising potential, which is reflected in the average age of 26. This is significantly down from the previous term. Moreover, this is another indicator of greater ‘staying power’ in games, and they’ve yet to concede a single goal in the dying embers of matches.

The painfully low pass accuracy could well come back to haunt them as autumn turns to winter on heavier pitches that will sap energy. Despite having a compact shape, they’re not finding teammates often enough to ensure they’re not countered upon.

On the occasions they go on the dribble, they are losing those one-on-ones over half the time, which limits the number of different ways they can unpick their opponents. It also seems to create a paradox when wing-play is nominally limited to the full-backs that they aren’t especially adept in this regard, which in turn means they don’t utilise the outside channels enough for crosses.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

Replacing Tomáš Holý was never going to be an easy task, but Bonham has been an assured presence in goal. Whilst xGC (Expected Goals Conceded) is only one metric, he is performing considerably better against it than most of his contemporaries – 14 to 15.6. Every single one of his short passes has arrived at his intended target, and he’s yet to lose a challenge in the air.

Similarly, Connor Oglivie has made great strides in helping to dampen any lingering disappointment supporters might have had at the departure of Gabriel Zakuani. Together with new skipper Max Ehmer, The Gills are sturdier when faced with crosses into their own area. His permanent signing from Tottenham Hotspur U23s early in the summer after a successful loan stint was a filip for Evans, and he’s repaid his manager in spades since, bravely blocking six shots at close quarters.

Barry Fuller remains remarkably consistent, laying on two assists in the first 11 games, as well as picking out a forward from crosses more than 40% of the time, which is actually very high when you factor in all the possible outcomes and total attempts.

As a whole, they’ve been less reliant on a single individual to score the goals. Midfield anchor Alfie Jones has added a brace to his outstanding record of winning two thirds of his duels. Raidi Jadhi will be delighted with both his and Michael O’Connor’s progress back at Southampton U23s. The assured presence that was sorely missing in 2018/2019 to screen the defence looks to now be in situ.

Stuart O’Keefe has been an important fulcrum in the middle third; he always looks to progress with the ball into the final third by picking out a forward making a peeling run, or stands it up for O’Connor on the overlap. He has meshed that with his defensive duties reasonably well, helping to prevent his team being outnumbered on a quick break.

Alex Jakubiak’s contributions have been telling, too; three of his four goals have come from finding pockets of space on the left-hand side of the area, and the other displayed the kind of poacher’s instinct required to change games.

His strike partner Brandon Hanlan has been averaging a touch under two shots per match, and the majority of these have been off-target. He’ll also be a little disappointed not to be making his presence felt more aerially. The double-edged sword of having more competition for places will ensure he stays fresher (his cameo from the bench against Wycombe was telling), but also means he’ll no longer be a mainstay if he doesn’t improve his output.

I’d also expect a bit better from a creative standpoint from Olly Lee. The attacking midfielder conjured up plenty for SPFL mainstays Hearts last term despite a greater degree of variation in the shape, and if he can become that man for his new employers, he might give opposition managers and analysis teams more food for thought. He’ll be hoping his lay-off for O’Keefe in the last fixture is the shape of things to come.

Conclusions

I’ve seen the charge that Evans is a dinosaur in more ways than one with his approach to football management; a formula was once highly successful was not replicated at Peterborough United, and has not given fans enough to shout about (yet) in Kent. It is true that too many wayward long passes are played, and the body of evidence I’ve seen suggests that plenty of them are just not necessary.

The midfield as a unit are really solid and multi-faceted, and the greater depth the manager has been allowed to draft in should mean a repeat of last season’s flirtation with relegations (along with half of the division) won’t occur. Most of the pace is on the bench at the time of writing (Ben Pringle, Mark Marshall, and Mikael Ndjoli), which again means tactical tweaks can be made to tire out the opposition’s defenders, break out of their compact shape on the counter, or simply race to the corner flags to preserve a precious lead.

Critics who dismiss their rout of Bolton cannot by the same token ignore their besting of a dangerous Wycombe outfit. They’ve only been blown away once, and the massive disparity between xG and xGA (against) has been reversed so far, which can’t be explained away even by omitting the aforementioned thrashing.

Unlikely to trouble either end of the table, Evans should focus on making the best use of the talent already at Prestfield, rather than dipping into the market too many times in January, barring an injury crisis. He has more tools at his disposal than anyone at the helm since the late Justin Edinburgh, and a season of real progression can be had by making only small adjustments to the current setup.