Tag: analysis

Forest Green Rovers 0-1 Plymouth Argyle: Review

In my first ever trip to the New Lawn, I was witness to an entertaining but not shot-filled match between two ‘Green Armies’ in League Two. Were Plymouth Argyle deserved winners over then-leaders Forest Green Rovers? Read on to find out…

Taking my seat at the back of the West Stand near the players’ tunnel gave me a great view of the pitch, plus the body language of all the personnel at different intervals of the match. Plymouth manager Ryan Lowe was exuding positivity as he nearly always does in public, doubtlessly buoyed by the triumph the previous week over Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup.

Just the one change from my predicted lineups and shapes in total – Joe Edwards was still at right wing-back (with Joe Riley on the bench), so Josh Grant got the nod at the base of the black and green central midfield. As expected, the majority of the opening exchanges in the first 10 minutes were down Forest Green’s right, and it looked for a time as though that would be the key battleground.

Beyond that area, the wider centre backs for Argyle were hitting balls early into the channels, looking for the runs of forwards Joel Grant and Byron Moore to beat any offside trap the compact hosts would attempt to spring. In truth, this strategy wasn’t working as planned. Not much was sticking to Moore, and Joel Grant was spending the majority of the time facing away from goal, holding onto possession for as long as he could in the hope of some more sprightly support from midfield.

Returning back to that flank, Callum McFadzean mistimed a header on the counter, but used his speed to recover extremely quickly, blocking a shot from Aaron Collins inside his own area after running way more than half the length of the pitch to atone for his error, As time ticked by though, there was less focus on that side, and the Nailsworth outfit were looking more centrally to try to bypass the opposition’s middle third. A further tame header on the 20th minute from Collins was the sum total of the table-toppers’ efforts in the first 45.

Instead, it was Lowe’s charges who grabbed the opener; a corner was worked short to Antoni Sarcevic, who was allowed to run laterally across the edge of the area unimpeded, bending an effort that might’ve taken a slight deflection during its travel into the far corner of the goal; the scorer celebrated in front of the travelling horde of Pilgrims with a knee slide (I just missed capturing that on camera!).

DSC_1229
There wasn’t much more action in the first period, but what was becoming apparent was that Edwards kept sitting narrow on the right even with the ball, and his compatriot on the opposite wing was causing some concern for the medical staff, going down twice in the 45 with an apparent injury. Luckily, it was nothing serious, but he didn’t reemerge for the second period.

Forest Green had taken things up to second gear in injury time, and I’d have been intrigued to have been in Mark Cooper’s dressing room during the interlude. A lot of what he’d instructed his side to do had worked – they’d nullfied their adversaries’ forwards in open play, Danny Mayor was shut down after a promising beginning to the fixture, and they were making Josh Grant work hard to recover possession in front of the Plymouth triumvirate in defence.

All that said, they needed to show a bit more adventure being a goal down, and McFadzean’s substitution ought to have handed them that. Riley came on in his place, which meant that Edwards shifted to the left. Immediately, I’d have made that wide space the focus of the Gloucestershire club’s forays forward – not because Edwards was a weak link, but simply because they could’ve sprang lots of two-on-one situations against a player who was distinctly right-footed, had a tendency to drift inside (like Mayor in front of him), and who had very little prior experience in that role. Indeed, Liam Shephard did initially look to exploit the gaps, but his crossing choices were woeful when he had the time and space to make more use of his new-found freedom.

The visitors’ own attacks weren’t finding their mark, either. When Moore and Joel Grant weren’t cut off completely, they had a tendency to operate in the same five yards, which meant there was seldom anyone to look for in the penalty area. Added to that, a series of sliced clearances from their teammates further back was putting them under unnecessary pressure, and Forest Green again stepped up their urgency in response, especially after Niall Canavan’s free header went wide.

The best move Forest Green made was with 25 minutes left on the clock. A great lay-off in the form of a cushioned header by Stevens was narrowly missed on the half-volley by Glasgow Celtic loanee Jack Aitchison. Had it been on target, it would’ve been the equaliser – Alex Palmer was rooted to the spot.

Shortly afterwards, Riley also went off injured, which meant another big switch-around for Lowe and assistant Steven Schumacher to contend with. Dom Telford, the former Bury striker, was introduced, which meant shifting Moore to right wing-back. I’m sure Moore himself would be the first to admit he’s not the most dogged defender; if he was deployed there for the Shakers, it usually meant they were the ones chasing the game, not the opposition.

Neverthless, a cleverly worked indirect free-kick by Sarcevic was almost converted by Telford via a flicked header backwards, proving once more that what he lacks in stature he makes up for in surprising aerial ability. The former’s game management was helping the visitors from Devon at least partially prevent wave after wave of lime green and black bursts forward in the last 20 minutes, which went a long way to confirming his deserved man of the match award (from an away perspective).

Although Forest Green were dominating possession in the closing 10 minutes, it never felt for me as though they had the nous to carve out a clear-cut chance. The back three they were facing defended stoutly, and the belated presence of Joel Taylor holding the ball up as far from Palmer’s goalmouth as possible ate up precious seconds for something to spark for their opponents.

Only with five minutes remaining did Cooper make a substitution, but it had little effect on the outcome. The closest his troops came to netting an equaliser was in injury time. A scuffed clearance by Scott Wootton, who’d otherwise barely put a foot wrong all game, resulted in a second successive corner. The ball seemed to ping about in the area, and a goal-bound effort from Shephard was stopped by Moore’s knee of all things.  Referee Sam Purkiss promptly cautioned Palmer for wasting time, which did little to relieve the ire he’d been subjected to from sections of the home crowd.

The final whistle sounded, and Forest Green were no longer top. In truth, for as much as praise can be given for their shape and thwarting of Plymouth’s threats in open play, they never truly looked like getting back into it; perhaps the late, single sub was an indication of the paucity of options in the squad to change the game, or a show of faith by Cooper in the starting XI to break down Argyle’s resistance.

For Lowe and Schumacher’s part, they’ll be pleased with a positive defensive showing, but will hope that Riley’s injury matches McFadzean’s in its short length out of contention. They now have a platform from which to ascend the standings further, and it’s unlikely their future opposition will be quite so compact on their own turf.

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Forest Green Rovers vs Plymouth Argyle: Preview

I’ll be making the short trip across Gloucestershire on Saturday to witness table-topping Forest Green Rovers take on an inconsistent Plymouth Argyle in League Two at The New Lawn – this is my preview of the game.

I’ll be one of the first to confess that I didn’t see Forest Green being top of the pile at this stage of the campaign. Shorn of both Reece Brown and Christian Doidge, coupled with a high turnover of personnel in the double digits both in and out of Nailsworth, it just didn’t have the makings from the outside looking in of an outfit that can boast the joint second meanest defence in the entirety of the EFL, as well as leading a very open looking fourth tier.

Boss Mark Cooper deserves plenty of credit for the manner in which he has gone about his business, and seems to have learned some of the harder lessons from 2018/2019 in the process. His tactical approach is now less dogmatic – no longer is possession for possession’s sake the default, and there is slightly more leeway allowed for defenders to clear their lines. He probably won’t be reading too much into the heavy EFL Trophy defeat earlier this week, given the number of changes made for everyone’s favourite cup competition™. The confident dispatching of potential banana skin Billericay Town in the FA Cup first round is far more indicative of their current standing, and another home draw against the now managerless Carlisle United represents a great chance to push on and get a plum tie in January.

In the away dugout will be Ryan Lowe and Steven Schumacher, fresh from their own topsy-turvy cup exploits over the past week. An impressive narrow victory at resurgent Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup was followed up with a disappointing early exit without kicking a ball from the EFL Trophy – disappointing chiefly because the former Bury manager places a lot of emphasis on progressing in the thoroughly disliked competition.

Of more concern to the loyal but vocal fanbase will be the indifferent league form to date, although it must also be pointed out that they are still only eight points off the summit with a game in hand over most sides in the division. That’s unlikely to have much truck if there’s any repeats in the near future of the 4-0 derby defeat to Exeter City, with Lowe’s comments about it ‘being just another game’ inevitably drawing plenty of ire. In that regard, nothing has changed since leaving the stricken Shakers in the summer, but the best way of helping the Pilgrims faithful forget that painful loss would be to string a positive set of results together, starting on Saturday.

Forest Green 1920.PNG
Rovers have not a consistent shape all season, so I’ve gone with an educated guess as to how they might combat the visitors’ obvious talents in wide positions

As the caption above suggests, Cooper has not stuck to a single formation for very long but without the usual possible pitfalls that such a strategy could entail, just as often employing wing-backs as he does a more traditional flat four. Given that it’s almost certain Callum McFadzean and Danny Mayor will work in tandem down the left for Plymouth, it would seem prudent for the numbers to match up on that flank.

Whether it’s been Lewis Thomas or Joe Wollacott as the custodian, they have both kept clean sheets in more than half their outings; Thomas was rewarded for shutting out the opposition five games in a row with a contract extension until 2021. He is slightly more confident at taking crosses than the Bristol City loanee, but together, they have been a huge component of how miserly the Green Devils have been.

Whichever one is selected, they will usually distribute the ball to the centre back pairing of Liam Kitching and Farrend Rawson, who will split when Forest Green are on the attack further up the pitch, and they themselves will push quite high in an attempt to keep the majority of play in the opposition’s own third. Rawson is still improving at just 23, and rarely loses a defensive duel, ranking as the best in the league in that metric.

Captain Joseph Mills has been a potent source of goals from the left thus far, notching five and providing three for his teammates. While the majority of those have come from the penalty spot, Joe Riley (if fit) will need to be extremely wary about leaving space in behind himself. The skipper is more willing and adept than most of his contemporaries at using his weaker foot, and the accuracy of his low crosses is something Lowe will need to pay plenty of heed to.

Dom Bernard is more conservative with his output (if not his runs). The Irish youngster can operate in a multitude of different positions, but has been used at right-back frequently. His accurate passing keeps things ticking over for his side, and he too often finds his intended target in the area.

Carl Winchester is a metronome as one half of the double pivot in midfield. Whilst not the most sprightly in the air, he will be key to the hosts dictating the tempo of the game. Ebou Adams does most of the mopping up in front of the high backline, giving the defence the confidence to maintain that level of engagement.

Elliott Frear, who signed on a short-term basis last month, has been recently selected on as the left-sided attacking midfield/winger of choice. He will be hoping to earn a longer deal, and if his composed control and finish in the El Glosico derby away at Cheltenham Town is a sign of things to come, he has a decent chance. It will take him more time to make the necessary adjustments tactically, but he’s another Plymouth need to be mindful of.

Jack Aitchison has been playing off the striker in green and black, and comes into the encounter at the weekend in a rich vein of form in front of goal. His quick feet and coolness under pressure are what have marked his strikes to date. Less likely to turn provider than most in his position, he will be instead look to ‘shadow’ Matty Stevens and work the space to shoot.

Liam Shephard is the optimal candidate to be in advance of Bernard. Returning to the McFadzean-Mayor axis for a moment, he is equally at home further back as he is coming into the attacking third. There might be plenty of opportunities for him to go beyond his marker and blunt the efficacy of that duo.

The aforementioned Stevens hasn’t been prolific at the time of writing, but is tracking at hitting the target just under half the time he gets a shot off, which is encouraging for his future place in the XI. Just at home trying to take the ball past his marker as he is being the focal point of the attack, that duality should stand him in good stead against a back three who aren’t at their best when dealing with a target man.

Plymouth 1920

Undoubtedly, there have been some tweaks to Ryan Lowe’s preferred shape since taking charge at Home Park, but it is still ostensibly a 3-5-2, with the wing-backs performing much more closely to the the traditional winger role.

Alex Palmer is apt to stray off his line during matches, acting very much as a sweeper keeper in the modern style. The wider centre backs, captain Gary Sawyer and (most likely) Scott Wootton, work diligently to supply McFadzean and the returning Joe Riley for the pair to bomb forwards. Sawyer has been crucial in intercepting loose balls in his quadrant, as well as preventing an opposing winger pulling the defensive unit out of sync. Wootton isn’t normally kept quite as busy on the counter, and is a more assured aerial presence. Niall Canavan is the mid-point of the triumvirate, and is the best placed to catch the attention of the opposing striker. As a collective, they need to make more out of attacking set pieces, having scored just once between them.

Most regular readers of this blog will know all about McFadzean and Riley from their Gigg Lane days. The former has added an ingredient that eluded him in white and dark blue – a goalscoring end product. Down in Devon, he’s already halfway to double digits, accruing five from just seven shots on target in all competitions! Whether by instruction or inclination from previous successes, he’s already got off more shots as a whole in November than he did in the totality of his season with Bury.  His link-up play with Mayor sees the majority of attacks come down Argyle’s left as you’d perhaps expect, although he has also formed a good understanding with George Cooper during the talisman’s absences.

On the right, Riley is renowned in lower league circles for having a pop from distance – only one of his nine efforts in the league has come inside the 18-yard box. His clever direct free-kick against Northampton Town is evidence of his increased utility in more situations. His presence in the XI gives a better balance to the shape.

Joe Edwards is nominally the most defensive of the midfield three. He will cover ground laterally to help diminish the likelihood of the opposition creating two-on-one passages of play down the flanks, and is the bulwark against quick breaks in the middle. He won’t venture too far away from his position, but has been effective as an extra body at the far post when the need arises.

Whenever I used to see Antoni Sarcevic’s name on the teamsheet against Bury, I was always concerned. A very talented player still in his prime years, the Serbian will shuttle between defensive and attacking duties, offering an option inside to Riley to perform a give-and-go, and probably has a better passing range than Mayor, attempting his fair share of through balls to the front two with a considerable degree of success.

Mayor needs little introduction. He probably hasn’t been at his sparkling best consistently for Argyle, but a concerted run in the side free from injury should facilitate that happening. He’ll always be the target of kicks, and is now mature enough to understand that without being petulant. He remains one of the elite of the division, able to slalom past defenders with his close dribbling skills, cut inside from the wing, and drift away from his marker with ominous ease. The battle down that flank will decide the outcome of Saturday’s fixture.

Joel of the burgeoning Grant ‘family’ will lead the line in black and green. Just like strike partner Byron Moore, he has gradually been used up front more and more in his career after previously plying his trade as a winger. This can be a double-edged sword in practice, but it does mean that they both retain the ability and pace to be unpredictable in their movement, and happy to take up positions in the half-space to make their marker think carefully about whether to close them down and risk creating an opening or hang back several yards and risk ‘allowing’ them to shoot or pass unchallenged. Lowe can also call on Dom Telford from the bench to offer a more direct path to goal.

As for a prediction, I think Forest Green’s defensive record will come under severe threat on Saturday. The expansive way Lowe’s sides play will almost always mean there are spaces to exploit if given the chance, although he has mixed things up of late by instructing the wing-backs to play longer balls into the channels for the forwards to run onto and hold up. Either way, it has all the makings of an excellent spectacle for a netural – 2-2.

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Crewe Alexandra Tactical Analysis

How have Crewe Alexandra banished the away days of the previous campaign under David Artell in the opening three months of the 2019/2020 season in League Two? Let’s take a look.

League Results to Date & General Performances

(Crewe score first in red):

Plymouth Argyle (h): 0-3
Oldham Athletic (a): 2-1
Walsall (h): 1-0
Crawley Town (a): 2-1
Newport County (a): 0-1
Bradford City (h): 2-1
Grimsby Town (a): 2-0
Cambridge United (h): 2-3
Leyton Orient (a): 2-1
Salford City (h): 4-1
Cheltenham Town (a): 1-1
Exeter City (h): 1-1
Carlisle United (a): 4-2
Swindon Town (h): 3-1
Colchester United (a): 0-0
Port Vale (h): 0-1

David Artell has enjoyed a much better start to the league campaign than he managed at the same juncture in 2018/2019. The first match was certainly inauspicious in its scoreline, but the 3-0 reverse was by no means reflective of the Railwaymen’s performance. They then rallied to triumph in five of the next half-dozen, a narrow loss at Newport County bisecting that run.

Paul Green’s first-half dismissal scuppered their chances of holding onto the lead whilst hosting Cambridge United, which they impressively gained at one point despite being a man light. The thrashing of Salford City ably demonstrated what the young squad are capable of, and two creditable draws with likely fellow top-seven chasing sides helped to cement their own credentials.

Seven goals in the space of two games has now segued into two without any – there have been noticeably fewer chances created in the latter, and the narrow ‘derby’ loss to visitors Port Vale was of particular disappointment to supporters.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Crewe 1920


Tactical Approach

For as long as I can remember, Alex have prided themselves on playing a progressive style, utilising their extremely reputable and productive academy to both keep the wage bill down and the potential future fees for the cream of the crop higher. This is no different in 2019. Will Jääskeläinen has established himself as first choice stopper at just 21 – his distribution is instructed to be shorter, with the flying full-backs the usual recipients.

Eddie Nolan and Nicky Hunt will split in possession, passing the ball laterally to their respective flanks. Hunt, now converted to centre-back in his advanced years, will also cover in behind his partner as a safety measure against playing a higher line, or to receive a pass from the goalkeeper. The duo will also both join in attacking set pieces, offering alternative outlets to the target man.

Harry Pickering gallops up the surface to support Charlie Kirk, and will sometimes overlap him to put crosses in or drift inside to make the opposition think twice about attacking through the middle. Captain Perry Ng fulfils a similar role when deployed on the right.

Ryan Wintle is the most defensive-minded of the central midfield triumvirate. He will box off the spaces vacated by Paul Green and Tom Lowery, sweeping up after them when the turnover occurs. Green offers a deeper angle to attempt crosses from, as well as being a long-distance shooter. Lowery places more emphasis on being part of the attacking phases, and always tries to get forward.

Nobody has nailed down the right-wing berth when the formation is a 4-3-3, but Owen Dale has spent the most time there. Assisted by Ng, he will whip low balls into Chris Porter’s feet. The veteran striker either comes short to join in the approach play or more usually loiters inside the area, especially on the six-yard line.

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Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

The roster this term is a year older. Whilst that sounds like a stunningly obvious statement to make, few other clubs in the EFL will have quite the age profile of the first team as they do at Gresty Road. Most of the ones on the younger end of the spectrum have plenty of gametime under their belts, belying their youth.

The two shapes most often utilised make full use of the speed and width in the team – a slight bias to the right channel (40% to 36%) is apparent, with Ng and Dale given more freedom to dribble than their counterparts. They also rank highly for playing in their own third, which is indicative of not rushing their passing, making the ball do the work to draw out the opposition and find pockets of space to get around their press.

An element which is both a strength and a weakness is the efficacy of the strategy lives and dies on how close Porter’s teammates can get to him in open play. If the wide men are stymied, it can be hard for them to get any meaningful supply to him, and the starting positions of the central midfielders are relatively deep. It therefore falls on Crewe to dominate possession in order to creep up the pitch, balancing the need to support Porter with not being caught on the break.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

Working backwards from the forward line, Porter is one of the best in the lower leagues at finishing his chances at close range, especially with his head. His movement and vast experience are bulwarks against his ageing legs, and his goals are positive proof that there is still a niche in an evolving sport for a player that makes clever runs over needlessly depleting their stamina.

Charlie Kirk is one of the most exciting talents in League Two, being their creator-in-chief from out wide and the most confident at running with the ball past an opponent, seldom dwelling on it or not looking up to see who’s making themselves available for a possible pass.

Tom Lowery’s goalscoring contributions from the middle to date have helped ease the burden on Porter to a certain degree, but hasn’t managed a single shot on target in the last four games, taking the gloss off the assists he made in both of the first two of that tranche a little.

Perry Ng continues to mature and impress in equal measure. His versatility is a huge boon to his employers, and his accuracy from a range of different passing styles and distances helps no end in ensuring Alex are the most dominant side in the fourth tier in possession. He still has work to do in an aerial sense, and some teams do target his flank as a possible area to exploit in that manner.

Conclusions

Last season, Artell did an interview with the excellent D3D4 Football, in which he also fielded questions sent in on social media. I asked him whether there was anything psychological behind the travails on the road, and he seemed to suggest that there was a kernel of truth to that, which lay in the mentality of his young squad. At the time of writing, they have collectively consigned that to history; in the seven fixtures on the road in 2019/2020, they have already won more (five) than the totality of 2018/2019 (four). Had their away form been even a little less woeful, they might have sneaked into the play-offs.

Currently in fourth and just a single point from the summit, there’s every reason to suggest they now have what it takes to mount a serious promotion challenge. Granted, their depth doesn’t compare to that of, say, Bradford City, but if they can avoid lengthy injuries to Porter and Kirk, and possibly recruit another striker in the January transfer window, they might make the return to the third tier after a four-year absence. The manager will be thanking the board if that does transpire for sticking with him during the difficulties last term. Many other clubs would’ve taken a different stance.

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Oxford United Tactical Analysis

How have Oxford United become a free-scoring side under Karl Robinson in the opening three months of the 2019/2020 season in League One? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Oxford score first in dark yellow):

Sunderland (a): 1-1
Peterborough United (h): 1-0
Blackpool (a): 1-2
Burton Albion (h): 2-4
Bristol Rovers (a): 1-3
Coventry City (h): 3-3
Fleetwood Town (a): 1-2
Tranmere Rovers (h): 3-0
Bolton Wanderers (a): 0-0
Lincoln City (a): 6-0
Gillingham (h): 3-0
Accrington Stanley (a): 2-2
Doncaster Rovers (h): 3-0
Rotherham United (a): 2-1
Rochdale (h): 3-0
Portsmouth (a): 1-1

A hugely encouraging first ‘third’, which in many ways has felt like a continuation of the recovery from the previous campaign. The customary low-scoring draw involving Sunderland was followed up by what looks increasingly like a huge three points at home to Peterborough United as the weeks go by. An experimental switch in shape to a 4-1-4-1 ought to have yielded something from the trip to Bloomfield Road to face Blackpool, but was instead the heralding of a barren run of five without a win, despite scoring eight in that period.

The rot was halted when hosting Tranmere Rovers, and whilst supporters would doubtlessly have felt frustrated after the stalemate with bottom side Bolton Wanderers, the subsequent two had them purring with delight, watching the Yellows annihilate Lincoln City and Gillingham, racking up nine goals in the space of a week.

Accrington Stanley provided a much sterner examination of their credentials than might have been expected by some onlookers, but ‘normal service’ was then resumed, impressively dispatching likely top six rivals Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United. Holding Rochdale at arm’s length was followed up last weekend by a late equaliser against an underachieving Portsmouth, stretching their unbeaten streak in the league to nine matches and counting.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Oxford 1920
Although a 4-2-3-1 has been used slightly more than the shape above, this is the one that is currently utilised and has yielded the best results


Tactical Approach

I’ve been a vocal critic of Karl Robinson in the past, having seen several times at close quarters in recent years an extremely predictable formation and tactical approach. Previously, it would consist of playing out from the back slowly, letting the full backs gallop up the pitch whilst the double pivot sought to dictate the tempo. The attacking midfield trio would be the most important members of the XI, acting as the runners in behind a target man, the suppliers of the sole striker from crosses, and the pressers in an attempt to force the opposition to go long and cede possession.

Whilst there have been elements of that at the Kassam Stadium since he took charge, sometimes as a writer, you have to admit that someone you admired as a coach but not as a tactician has evolved their thinking.

Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood’s attributes are strong across the board, and he has formed a strong bond with the four in front of him, rarely needing to stray off his line to intercept a dangerous pass or loose ball. Instructed to kick short rather than throw, he can rely on the likes of skipper John Mousinho to accurately pick out a teammate. Alongside him is Rob Dickie, who is given more licence than most centre backs to stride forwards with the ball and attempt killer passes.

On the flanks, Josh Ruffels and Columbus Crew loanee Chris Cadden balance progressive and defensive duties; they’re not as often looked to as most modern full-backs to provide the width, but will offer their support when possession needs to be recycled or the play is switched. Anchorman Alex Rodríguez Gorrín covers the ground both laterally and vertically behind the rest of the midfield, mopping up high passes in the air and putting his foot in when necessary on the ground to halt counters and stop attacks dead.

Understandably, most of his own passes will be short to the likes of Cameron Brannagan and James Henry.  The duo’s willingness and propensity to shoot from range has been instrumental in a large number of the goals thus far. Their dynamism helps what could otherwise be a defensive-looking posture in a different manager’s hands become very offensive and effectual.

Rob Hall hasn’t had the lion’s share of gametime on the right flank, but uses his pace and strong left foot to occupy and go beyond his marker, dragging the unit out of their line in the process. Tarique Fosu intelligently takes up positions in the half-space to shoot from, offering an outlet more centrally. Matty Taylor presses the backline as a whole, often standing in an offside position to fool his marker. He is the focal point for crosses whilst not being a classic target man, offering more to the team in different phases.

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

Two aspects stand out: the sheer volume and distribution of the goals scored to date, plus the very high level of flexibility in the squad as a whole. Any team that’s reliant on a single individual to put the ball in the net is likely to have either a fallow period if and when that player’s form dips or they become unavailable. There have been 10 different league goalscorers, but more significantly, three of them have five or more already, all of whom operate in midfield.

On the latter aspect, every outfielder in the graphic above with the exception can comfortably operate in completely discrete positions to where they’ve been most commonly placed this season, which means that Robinson should be able to mould them as the context changes better than most of his rivals will be able to in League One.

If there is an area that can be improved, it is in regard to set pieces. Already in 2019/2020, Oxford have conceded six from dead balls, ranking them as one of the most leaky in that metric across the division as a whole. Given the height and aerial prowess in the ranks, there are reasons to suggest it’s more a deficiency in organisation and application than in any inherent physical disadvantage; as such, it might be possible to reduce the frequency more easily.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

The U’s have individual talent in abundance. Dickie has firmly established himself as one of the best centre-backs in the third tier at the age of just 23; Brannagan is the all-action central midfielder that supporters crave and the modern game increasingly requires; Fosu, reunited with Robinson after moving from Charlton, has found his niche. There are just a few examples of who the manager can call upon to change a game or preserve their advantage.

Whilst the shot data suggests that Fosu and Henry to a lesser extent won’t quite keep up their records in 2019/2020, the burden being spread so widely ensures that if one or both of them regress back to the mean in the coming weeks, it might not have too negative an effect.

Simon Eastwood hasn’t been at his imperious best, conceding 19 against an xGA of 16.67 – however, it would be an exaggeration to say he hasn’t been reasonably solid. Jamie Mackie continues to underperform, but will be thankful he’s not being relied upon to score unlike some parts of the last campaign.

Conclusions

This could be a special season for Oxford United. Putting aside the league for a minute, they’re in the quarter finals of the EFL Cup where they will pit their wits against Premier League champions Manchester City for the second year in a row. They have an excellent chance of reaching at least the second round of the FA Cup after being drawn against seventh tier Hayes & Yeading, and are also assured of a place in the knockout stages of the EFL Trophy.

An argument has been made that there isn’t a single outstanding team in League One this season. Whilst that’s not the view I take, some of the more fancied sides are not living up to their billing, and Oxford have had the beating of quite a few of them already. There are players like Shandon Baptiste who continue to impress despite their youth, and, if developed sensibly and sold at the right time, could help to substantially alleviate any lingering off-field issues centring around the lease on the stadium.

Robinson has successfully evolved the style he was hitherto renowned for – he’ll likely always favour a possession-based strategy, but gone is the ponderousness when attacking. They now do it with vigour and a swagger at times, rotating the personnel to keep the opposition’s analysis team guessing. They have the wherewithal to remain in the play-offs at a minimum, providing the cups don’t curb their league form significantly.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

The Emperors Abdicate, but the Empire Will Live On

Yesterday, Lincoln City’s fraternal management team Danny and Nicky Cowley left the Imps for struggling Championship outfit Huddersfield Town, who just months ago were still plying their trade in the Premier League. In this post, I look at why, as talented as both men are, the void they’ve left at Sincil Bank can be filled, and doesn’t mark the threshold for what can be achieved at the county club.

Subject to intense speculation for what must’ve felt like an aeon for fans, the Cowley Brothers found the opportunity to take the cudgels a division above too hard to resist, writing in a statement full of class of their love and affection for everyone involved at Lincoln during a glittering, meteoric three-and-a-half years in charge.

Inevitably, a lot of the anticipation and reaction to the announcement from supporters was morose, and whilst my good friend Gary Hutchinson went on to suggest it wasn’t the end of the world for the club on The Stacey West blog, he did opine that the duo’s departure was “a dark day in its history”. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Yesterday was the strongest evidence yet that Lincoln City are still on the up, and more ‘relevant’ in a football sense than at any other juncture in my lifetime at the very least. Just like at Bury, it’s an extremely rare phenomenon for any manager (or management team) to attract serious, lascivious attention from another club, let alone one in a higher tier. Alan Knill made the leap to Scunthorpe United during the 2010/2011 promotion run-in, but was unable to prevent the Iron from being relegated to League One, where they would meet the Shakers in any case. His reign became more renowned for an accident involving a squirrel (yes, really), and the consistent image of him stood in front of the dugout, arms folded and powerless to prevent them from sliding further down the standings.

I’m confident in my belief that a similar fate won’t happen to Danny Cowley; the only parallel is that he’ll be inheriting a side with a very pronounced losing mentality – indeed, the Terriers won just once and drew a further three times under the auspices of Jan Siewert during his wretched 19-game tenure across all competitions. From the outside looking in, Huddersfield have an awfully lopsided squad, but the majority of which are not yet at the peak in their careers – this could mean that most of the dressing room are receptive to the meticulous ideas the pair will bring to the John Smith’s Stadium; given time, they’ll make a success of it, and the fact that they were top of the board’s shortlist suggests that they will be.

I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to end their trophy-laden stint on the end of a 3-1 reverse to Wycombe Wanderers (taking nothing away from the Chairboys whatsoever), but it is what it is. The Imps are sitting in fifth in League One, albeit having played a match more than most of the teams beneath them. Even so, that nominal position is a huge contrast to where they were in 2016 when a couple of P.E. teachers by day gave up that part of their careers to take over at a side that had just finished 13th in the newly christened National League, which was in fact the highest position at that point in the half-decade they’d been dwelling in.

Moreover, average attendances were hovering around the 2,500 mark, and in an anecdote oft-repeated since, the area was full of children wearing Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal shirts, perhaps unsurprising given the plight of the Imps, but is nevertheless something that will probably chime with many readers and supporters of lower league teams.

Almost immediately, the Cowleys galvanised far more than the players at their disposal, but the cathedral city itself. Crowds doubled during their title-winning season, buoyed by the amazing FA Cup run to the quarter finals… but more importantly, people weren’t just along for the brief flirtation with the media spotlight. They kept coming back, and many who’d stopped going for one reason or another previously, returned through the turnstiles, feeling revitalised by the diligence and graft on the pitch and the fan-centred focus off it.

That rapport continued to go from strength to strength, with the Bank becoming a vocal and intimidating ground (for the right reasons) for their opponents to visit. I was asked by Gary to do some work around the clashes between Lincoln and Bury last term, with the second of these more than living up to its billing as a glowing advert for fourth tier football; one piece in particular drew praise, and engendered me to some of their fans on social media. I hadn’t written it to do so, but I felt it was important to dispel the notion of the Cowleys’ men as ‘cloggers’ and other lazy assessments of their tactical setup.

Given the intelligence and expertise in the boardroom now, I’m sure the appointment of the next manager will leave no aspect overlooked, regardless of the speed of which the decision is made. The two most prominent names I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere are Gareth Ainsworth, the Wycombe manager riding the crest of a wave at present; he was strongly linked with the vacant Queens Park Rangers post before Mark Warburton got the nod in May. Like the London club, he has a strong affinity with the Imps from his playing days, but it’s very difficult to foresee him leaving now to a divisional rival. I disagree with the idea that it would be a step down in any way to head north as I’ve seen been mooted on social media, however.

The second ‘option’ is Michael Flynn, working similar wonders at Newport County. He has taken the Exiles from 11 points adrift of safety in March 2017 to 60 seconds of extra time away from a penalty shootout in a play-off final away from a return to the third tier for the first time in 32 long years, all the while making Rodney Parade an impregnable fortress and enjoying forays in cup competitions. It would be an intriguing appointment, but the formation and tactics he employs do not look like a seamless fit for the gig, and that’s putting aside his own loyalty to the south Wales outfit for the sake of argument.

My pick isn’t currently managing at senior level, but has plenty of experience of doing so, even at 43. Michael Appleton left Oxford United for Leicester City to be Craig Shakespeare’s number two in June 2017, with the Foxes one year out from being Premier League champions and several months from being involved in the latter stages of the Champions League. Whilst it seemed like a no-brainer in many senses at the time, his superior would only last four months. Indeed, Appleton himself took caretaker charge of two matches, winning both.

Now at West Bromwich Albion as Under 23s manager, a club he had a previous association with during the latter days of his playing career (you can sense a pattern emerging), I don’t foresee the same anguish the other two would have in leaving their posts. Having had a baptism of fire in earlier managerial roles, he had a comparatively less fraught time at the U’s, gaining promotion in his second campaign to League One and taking them to the brink of the third-tier play-offs; additionally, they were also losing finalists in the EFL Trophy twice in succession, proving his ability to appropriately balance the demands of competing on two fronts.

Last year, he appeared on a very illuminating podcast with Not the Top 20, which gave a fascinating insight into both his personality and the way he operates, particularly to listeners like me that were familiar with the name since his emergence at United in the mid-90s, but not necessarily the man himself:

Current squad depth:

Lincoln 1920 September.PNG
An indicator of the current squad depth – positions and roles simplified for illustrative purposes

The first thing that’s immediately obvious is that the shallow end of the pool is up top and in support of the lone striker, which will hamper attempts by any other newcomer in changing to a two. I should add in the small caveat that with the Yellows, Appleton did most often employ a 4-4-2; however, he had the likes of Kemar Roofe and Chris Maguire to call upon – both of whom spent significant time on either flank, and when they were deployed in the middle, they’d often drift wide or drop deep to find pockets of space in between the lines, which in turn would create gaps for the attacking full-backs and wingers to move into.

At Lincoln, whilst there not be as big ‘names’ as those aforementioned, the collective attributes of Bruno Andrade, Tyler Walker, and Harry Anderson could make something akin to that a possibility. Ideally, someone else could be drafted in before January to share the burden carried by John Akinde, who still seems to draw harsh criticism from some circles.

Elsewhere, things are rosier, although last week’s EFL Trophy match perhaps highlighted the need for a fourth-choice centre back, which would multiply the formations available exponentially. Gianluca Bucci is still only 17, so it seems unlikely he’ll thrust into the fray unless things become desperate. Fellow promising youngsters Alex Bradley and Jordan Adebayo-Smith are out on loan with Harrogate Town and neighbours Boston United respectively.

The ingredients are (mostly) all there for a replication of the setup Appleton had at Oxford – a reliable goalkeeper, full-backs capable of bombing forward to regularly join in attacks, at least one dominant centre back (in both boxes), a central midfield two that can marry dictating the tempo with regaining possession; wide players who can both go outside and cut in; a second striker to make their marker second-guess whether to stay put or go with them when they drop off; lastly, a ‘target man’ to aim a variety of crosses.

Additionally, Appleton is a deeply working-class individual, who understands what’s required of managing a team away from ‘football’s hotbeds’ in England. Whilst Oxford weren’t quite as deep in the doldrums as Lincoln were when Appleton and Cowley were appointed, there was a shared perception that both were capable of something above their stations, and thus it was proven.

In his time away from senior management, Appleton has kept up with the machinations in the EFL, keeping a shortlist of ‘rough diamonds’ in the lower leagues, as well as young players from the top table who could be made available by their parent clubs for the second or third loan spell of their careers, as is his preference when making enquiries.

Like Cowley, it’s self-evident that he takes cup competitions seriously – that is certain to put a strain on a squad as shallow in some regards as the Imps’, but because they’re a well-oiled machine off the pitch, the bulk of compensation package for the brothers would almost certainly go back into the playing budget.

Whoever does get the nod, there might well be a ‘transition period’… but that ought to be no cause for panic – just look at what’s been achieved to date – just last night, Joe Morrell earned his first cap for Wales in a full international, which is testament to his ability and the high regard his club are now held in.

The ’empire’ won’t be destroyed just because of a change of personnel in the dugout. Supporters who returned under the Cowleys and the ‘plastics’ who have joined along the way (in turn tripling the gate) are not witnessing the zenith of what Lincoln are capable of. With an astute appointment like Appleton, the ‘glass ceiling’ is still some distance away. Becca Miller’s tweet below sums up the effect Danny and Nicky had on the club and the city as a whole. Sunny days are here to stay for one small corner in the east of the country.

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Struggling Dons Duke it Out, Plus More League One Analysis

The first of my weekly analyses of the third tier sees a diminished fixture list because of the maiden international break of 2019/2020.

Milton Keynes Dons clash with AFC Wimbledon in both a ‘grudge match’ and the first of two early kick-offs. Paul Tisdale has already stated that “it’s not just another game”, although he intends for his troupe to prepare for it in the same manner as always. The Buckinghamshire outfit have been underwhelming in their swift return to League One, only winning the xG battle once and conceding double figures in the first five encounters. The 3-4-1-2 that served them so well last season has been exposed by better quality this term, and the continuing reliance on Dean Lewington on the left has neither gone unnoticed nor unpunished by the opposition, and the lack of willingness to close down across the board is hurting their efforts.

Wally Downes has encouraged his young squad to “embrace the occasion”; still seeking their first win, there’s an argument to be made that they’ve already played most of the fancied sides in the competition at this juncture, and most of the pressure will be on their adversaries tomorrow lunchtime. Kwesi Appiah will be relishing facing a backline shorn of Regan Poole (with Wales U21s), and a side overall that rank as one of the bottom four during defensive duels.

The other early start sees an all-South Yorkshire clash between Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United. Both clubs have been hit badly by the postponements (Bolton Wanderers and Bury matches in the first month of the season in Donny’s case), but Darren Moore’s charges remain unbeaten in the four that have taken place. They have garnered impressive results without being dominant, and the versatile Kieran Sadlier has been amongst the goals despite the vast majority of his shots being off-target. As you’d expect, much of the approach play has flowed through the quick feet of the evergreen James Coppinger, who has a tendency to drift to the right when deployed centrally.

Paul Warne will simultaneously be ruing the injury to Kyle Vassell, whilst comforted in the knowledge that there is plenty of competition to replace him for the next three weeks. The pace of Freddie Ladapo could see him move across the attacking trio, or Brentford loanee Chiedozie Ogbene might start. Michael Ihiekwe has been a rock at the back, monstering his opponents in the air – four out of five duels are won cleanly by him, and there’s no reason that should change tomorrow.

Bristol Rovers manager Graham Coughlan wants to “build a winning mentality”, particularly at the Memorial Stadium. His side will welcome Accrington Stanley to the south-west tomorrow, with the performances of the right-sided defender earning rave reviews at both ends. He has two assists to his name already, and his accurate crosses aiming for the far post seem to be getting a lot of joy. Ed Upson’s displays at the base of midfield have also been notable, and he should have time in between the lines with which to operate in.

Assistant boss Jimmy Bell has noted “the mood in the camp has improved” after two wins in a week, and the squad has been further bolstered by the very late loan signing of  Sadou Diallo Wolverhampton Wanderers U23s. His distinct height advantage over Séamus Conneely could come in handy during matches Paul Coleman anticipates regularly ceding possession and territory in. More positively, Colby Bishop has made a quietly superb start to life in League One, regularly hitting the target (and the back of the net) and making the most of the chances that come his way.

Coventry City are unbeaten going into their tie with Blackpool. The Sky Blues have given up less than 10 shots on or off target on average in the first six league games, which is reflected in the goals against column – two 3-3 draws have skewed the statistics. Mark Robins has said that “performances have been good… but we want to take it up another level”. Michael Rose has stood out in central defence, and the healthy competition for places up front has translated into early notches.

The Tangerine Army are also riding high in the charts, and Simon Grayson is adamant that when they do lose, “it won’t be through lack of determination or character”. Striker Armand Gnanduillet has hit four in a month, timing his diagonal runs into the box to perfection. There’s something perhaps a little unsustainable about facing so many shots with only five conceded to show for it, so I’d expect either a regression to the mean to occur soon.

Their coastal neighbours Fleetwood Town probably didn’t deserve to lose by two goals at Highbury against Lincoln City last time out. Joey Barton signed Jimmy Dunne on loan from fellow Lancastrian outfit Burnley on deadline day, and the centre-back might replace the one-paced Peter Clarke for the Oxford United encounter. The usually livewire Ashley Hunter has been off-colour thus far, but Paddy Madden has continued to rack up the goals. Ched Evans could earn a start to more closely mirror the visitors’ extremely predictable shape.

Karl Robinson for his part claims the O’s performances “have been sensational”, something that does not tally with the reality. Striker Matty Taylor is nearing a return, but the big concerns remain at the other end – they have conceded 13 from just 54 shots faced and an xGA of 8.04 in total, and there’s a real lethargy to Simon Eastwood’s goalkeeping thus far.

Tranmere Rovers only have a single victory to their name (tantamount to a free hit against a youthful Bolton side) that’s keeping their heads above the relegation zone. Otherwise, they’ve been defensively poor, shipping two per game in the other four fixtures, but they have a trio of players on two for the season at the right end; Connor Jennings especially has made the step up with consummate ease, making a very good fist of probing in behind Stefan Payne as Micky Mellon continues to shuffle the pack.

Gillingham have also not fared brilliantly under Steve Evans, and the first grumblings of discontent are likely to surface if they fail to come back from Birkenhead with at least a point. Again, take out the stroll against the Trotters and a more negative complexion emerges. The majority of the first choice XI are new signings as you’d expect under Evans, and some are struggling to adjust. One of the better performers has been Watford loanee Alex Jakubiak. Operating as the left-sided attacking midfielder in a trio or as a striker, his calm finishes have kept The Gills in contention in the games to date.

It would be remiss to analyse Wycombe Wanderers without making mention of the eyebrow-raising loan capture of Rolando Aarons from Newcastle United. Under Gareth Ainsworth, the Chairboys are one of a clutch of clubs yet to taste defeat, and quite where Aarons will fit in remains in question, with his manager saying “It’s becoming really hard for me to choose who to leave out these days because there’s a lot of players who deserve to be in the team, but I can only pick 11.” David Wheeler has been impressive cutting in from the left and offers a very different threat to Aarons in the air, helped in no short measure by the incisive passing of Joe Jacobson from the back to spring the front three into action.

Lincoln City are kept from the summit by Ipswich Town. Danny Cowley has once again been hotly pursued by teams in the Championship, but is very settled where he is at a club that continues to go from strength to strength. The trickery and pace of Tyler Walker gives Cowley two distinct options to choose from with which to plough the nominally lone furrow in attack, but the wider midfielders quickly make up the space to support their teammate. His rounded playing style and composure under pressure have helped the Imps into the promotion places, and the game tomorrow should be the most exciting in the EFL.

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