Tag: leagueone

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.

 

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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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Bury Me in Exile is Not Dead!

This blog will properly restart in the close season. I have been battling depression for quite a while (and not just because of how horrific this season in particular has been) but I feel like I’m slowly improving and have turned the corner. Some of the content will change from 2018/2019 onwards but hopefully, the quality won’t in the eyes of the readers. Football and Bury have taken a back seat during this period and on occasion, I’ve even had to be reminded that there’s a match on (as it seems some of the players have judging by results). I concluded that I have some serious issues with the general direction of travel both the sport as a whole and the Shakers are currently on. It’s unlikely I can affect the former and perhaps not even the latter; however, I will certainly try my best to at least explain what I mean by that in the months ahead.

A few aspects will certainly change and I have listed below what they are:

  • I felt like a bit of a ‘fraud’ writing previews and reviews of matches I didn’t attend in person. Granted, as of the current season, there has been access to footage of the full match a day or so after it has taken place and you can play around with the video to gain better hindsight (and insight) of events. Even so, it doesn’t give you the full fat experience of attending a game. To that end, I’ll only write previews and reviews of matches I know I’m going to go to or see live in some other form from now on.
  • I don’t have as much time to dedicate to writing this blog as I did previously. That’s why I’d rather implement the ‘fewer, bigger, better’ mantra of quality over quantity. Dropping most of the previews and reviews will in turn lead to a more studied assessment of, say, a month’s worth of games.
  • There will be more content as a proportion where I explore the state of the club and the sport in a wider sense, as was my original intention when I first created it 14 months ago. This is hopefully a way of gaining a wider audience that still enjoy reading longform prose on the ‘meatier’ matters affecting fans.

 

Some things will remain the same, however:

  • My commitment to balanced writing; yes, I can be very critical of aspects of how, say, Bury are run but I always steer well clear of playing the man, rather than the ball.
  • Reaching out to fans of teams other than Bury, through season previews, occasional match previews/reviews, Q&As and additional content.
  • Promoting coverage of Bury’s U18s/Academy and women’s sides. They deserve to have the same level of care and attention as the men’s senior squad.

 

I certainly didn’t envisage that 2017/2018 would be the poorest season in living memory. At the time of writing, a win for Oldham Athletic at home against Walsall tonight will make the Shakers the first team in the top four tiers to be relegated. It will also undoubtedly precipitate yet another massive overhaul of staff (both on and off the field). There certainly won’t be a shortage of things to write about during the long, summer months…

Don’t forget! If you have a suggestion for something you want to see on here, please feel free to contact me. Any sensible ideas are always welcomed.

Portsmouth vs Bury: Preview

Last Saturday came and went without a match for Bury (and AFC Wimbledon) thanks to a controversial, late postponement by the appointed referee. That is now in the past and the wait for new manager Chris Lucketti’s ‘second debut’ will now take place on Boxing Day. In the meantime, the Shakers travel to two long-haul destinations, both of which are clubs that only seem to win or lose and struggle for consistency.

Portsmouth have probably been about on par with my pre-season prediction of them. I felt that the bookies making them second or third favourites were a touch on the optimistic side but they currently sit a single place outside the play-off, three points closer to Charlton Athletic in sixth after an impressive 1-0 victory over the Addicks last time out (although the London outfit do have a game in hand). Kenny Jackett has attempted to guard against any complacency ahead of tomorrow’s encounter; he is too experienced to treat any opposition lightly, even though Plymouth Arygle’s triumph against relegation rivals Gillingham meant Lucketti’s men fell back to bottom of the pile through no fault of their own.

Portsmouth vs Bury H 1718

Pompey have conceded just over a goal per game, which is more than respectable given the need to adjust back to the third tier. Luke McGee has in front of him an enviable centre-back pairing: neither are incredibly quick but they are titans in defence. Matt Clarke has great composure on the ball and controlled aggression in the tackle; Christian Burgess possesses brutish strength and can be a menace in the other box, too. They are flanked by Brandon Haunstrap on the left (who is decent in the air despite his short stature) and Nathan Thompson on the right (another force to be reckoned with and he will eat any punts up to Michael Smith with relish).

Ahead of them is a central midfield that tends to start reasonably apart from the defensive line but that will sit in to protect a lead, which they have done with no small measure of success in 2017/2018. Danny Rose is one of the best in his role in the division and his selfless play and copious amounts of stamina mean he is a peerless pivot in Jackett’s setup. Stuart O’Keefe is almost a carbon copy and they will control the game given any opportunity.

On the wings, Gareth Evans will shuttle between the thirds and provide defensive support to Thompson whilst Jamal Lowe will stay the furthest forward. His tremendous agility and skill whilst dribbling can stretch the other team to breaking point and helps create plenty of space for Conor Chaplin in particular. The latter has been utilised more from the bench thus far but with Kal Naismith perhaps a week away from fitness, I’d expect to see him patrolling between the lines behind the lethal Brett Pitman. Another pacey player in an XI with not much shortage of it, he can swap roles with the former Ipswich Town striker in a combination rarely seen at this level. Pitman will be hoping to add to his tally of a dozen in League One and I believe his positioning is the chief reason why he has so many to his name.

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Although Jermaine Beckford is probably knocking on the door to be thrust back into the thick of it, I think it would be a mistake to throw him back in from the off, especially after a couple of bounce games were called off both this and last week. The same XI that started away at Walsall in the EFL Trophy on the 2nd of December will probably be named once more. Lucketti is not one to make sweeping changes but he must avoid instructing his team to play too directly (and aerially) to Smith because it simply won’t work. He needs Nicky Ajose to stick close to him again and for the loanee to peel off from his markers so the runners from midfield might profit.

As for a prediction, I think a 1-1 draw could be on the cards. Yes, the hosts will enjoy a vociferous, sizeable crowd at Fratton Park but that’s always been the case on the Hampshire coast and what will be key is not allowing the men in blue to dominate proceedings from the off. The improvements made in midfield might just allow Bury to leave with a point.

Bury vs AFC Wimbledon: Preview

Bury manager Chris Lucketti will be making his home debut for the second time but on this occasion, in the dugout as his side welcome AFC Wimbledon to Gigg Lane. As you’d expect under new stewardship, the atmosphere surrounding the playing side of the club is more positive than at any recent juncture preceding his appointment. The addition of Joe Parkinson as his assistant seems to have gone down well amongst the supporters; ultimately though, they will be judged on the immediate future in terms of league results.

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I don’t foresee any changes from the victory over Walsall in the EFL Trophy first knockout stage last Saturday, presuming Greg Leigh is feeling fit. A more than competent team display with the different units actually resembling units was the order of the day; Nicky Ajose underlined his credentials to carry the burden whilst Jermaine Beckford edges closer to fitness and seemed to have fostered a decent understanding with Michael Smith; a high press against the visitors could reap dividends, particularly if Jay O’Shea can find some space and play it between the compact lines. The early signs augur well under Lucketti’s guidance but it will be a different sort of test tomorrow.

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His opposite number Neal Ardley has had what I would consider exactly the sort of 2017/2018 I expected from AFC Wimbledon, hovering just above the drop-zone and finding a reliable source of goals extremely difficult to come by. There have been notable wins (especially in the cups against Tottenham Hotspur, who they will face in the third round of the FA Cup after dispatching rivals Charlton Athletic last week) but consistency has been a huge issue. They of course had to deal with several high-profile departures in the summer and much of the craft and finesse witnessed last year has disappeared along with them.

Their style is very direct (even more so than in 2016/2017). Loanee George Long has been one of the better performers in League One between the sticks and doesn’t have any major weaknesses; the back four are all well-drilled, imposing in the air and content to sit very deep. Jon Meades’ long-throws have some potency, so the Shakers will need to watchful in those situations. The sitting midfield two of Tom Soares and Liam Trotter shuttle amiably when out of possession and provide good cover for their teammates.

Lyle Taylor’s pace can hurt plenty of sides and he will look to get as close as possible to Cody McDonald when the ball is punted up to the latter; his five goals are proof positive of his ability in an outfit that have the fewest shots on target in the entire division. Andy Barcham will look to do the same as Taylor, peeling off from the right to profit from knock-downs and draw markers towards him.

As for a prediction, I’m going for a 2-1 win to the hosts. There is no doubt that AFC Wimbledon will put up a substantial fight in tomorrow’s encounter (assuming the weather stays cold but clear and the game is fine). They should have the measure of Smith in the air but as he proved last time out, if Ajose can prove to be an effective partner for him, his lay-offs might be enough to unlock a dogged and resolute backline.

 

 

Northampton Town 0-0 Bury: Review

  • A more defensively resolute display formed the backbone of a second clean sheet in a week and enabled Chris Lucketti to avoid defeat in his maiden game as Bury manager against relegation rivals Northampton Town at Sixfields. Harry Bunn’s absence through injury meant an enforced change to the starting XI and the more conservative Callum Reilly had plenty to do in the first period; a costly error in possession almost let through the evergreen Marc Richards in an advanced area; the veteran striker was in the thick of it once more and should’ve done much better in the six-yard area from a whipped cross by Brendan Moloney but conspired to shoot straight at Leo Fasan.

 

  • Matt Crooks, in unfamiliar territory on the left flank, got into good positions all game and showed some quick feet and at times bamboozled Phil Edwards with his dribbling ability and his cutback was eventually stopped on the line by Eoghan O’Connell. Similarly, Matt Grimes’ set pieces always looked a threat and former Shaker Leon Barnett would’ve been disappointed not to hit the target with a towering header from his teammate’s corner.

 

  • Michael Smith bemoaned the number of missed opportunities the side that started the day at the foot of the table had but didn’t convert when they eventually gained a foothold in the encounter. As usual, he was the most guilty of spurning clear cut openings, although having had a second look at his looping header over Matt Ingram, I’m not sure there was much more he could’ve done from that position and if he had volleyed the ball, the odds would’ve been slimmer of a goal.

 

  • Rohan Ince continued his recent improvement with a box-to-box role befitting his attributes. He was the lynchpin in Bury’s midfield and quick one-twos enabled him to get in behind his opponents’ defence on two occasions. The former of these was the more presentable and an extra touch could’ve been taken to gain greater control of the ball. Nevertheless, he has played himself back into contention for a place beside Stephen Dawson once he returns from injury in the next few weeks.

 

  • The game wasn’t a dour affair by any means but wouldn’t have been the result Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in particular was after; the Cobblers have failed to score in the entire month of November and what they would’ve previously thought was an eminently winnable fixture was made tougher by Lucketti’s appointment and the first signs of his hand at work in defensive organisation. A two-week break has now started between Saturday’s fixture and the next league match for either side and there should be some key players back once another ball in the third tier is kicked. For Lucketti, it represents a lengthy period in which to instil his philosophy into the squad and also to progress into the latter stages of the EFL Trophy away at Walsall. How he handles that tie could give us an inkling into his plans for the busy winter schedule subsequent to that match.

Northampton Town vs Bury: Preview

A wave of cautious optimism has greeted new manager Chris Lucketti’s appointment and the club legend will be in thick of it from the get-go tomorrow in a must-win clash away to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s similarly struggling Northampton Town at Sixfields.

The Cobblers changed managers on the last day of August after losing each of their first four league games and Justin Edinburgh suffered the ignominy of being the first chief to be bombed out from the top 92 teams in the country, thus completing an annus horriblis for the former Gillingham boss. The legendary Dutch striker was able to temporarily change their fortunes upon his arrival but they have struggled for consistency since the initial bounce; the 6-0 October roasting by Bristol Rovers in front of a shell-shocked home crowd has been the nadir of a campaign that ought, on paper at least, have seen them higher based on the calibre of player signed in the summer and some of the talent already present at the end of 2016/2017.

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The hosts are shorn of several key individuals for the weekend, the talismanic John-Joe O’Toole being the most notable absentee. They are also sweating on the fitness of centre-back Aaron Pierre and Saturday might just come too soon for him to feature in the squad. The most likely candidate to be in his place is a certain Leon Barnett. The former Shaker has largely had to be content to be on the bench this season but will be tasked with preventing knockdowns by Michael Smith to the attacking midfield trio behind the target man, as well as covering for the runs of Brendan Moloney; the right-back likes to get beyond his partner up the flank on the overlap and offer an outlet for crosses into the lone striker.

Ash Taylor will be uncomfortable in the left-sided of the two; he has a tendency to avoid using his weaker foot wherever possible. However, he can still be an extremely tough customer in the air and in both boxes to boot. Defensively, he will have his hands full trying to shackle Smith whilst being mindful of the direct style of Mihai Dobre in between him and skipper David Buchanan. The second former Gigg Lane resident likely to be in the first XI has not had an easy time of it but you can always rely on him giving everything to the cause. His good balance and jumping reach make up for his relative lack of stature and pace.

Manchester United loanee Regan Poole is highly regarded at Old Trafford as one for the future. Still only 19, he has carved out a niche for himself in front of the back four, offering high energy and a penchant for being able to keep possession in tight areas and still play positive balls forward to the rest of the midfield. The talented Matt Grimes has stuttered since his big-money transfer several years ago from Exeter City to the bright lights of the top tier and hasn’t been at his best in 2017/2018 either. On his day, he is extremely adept striking the ball with either foot and has the vision to match his range of passing.

Anchor man Matt Crooks has found himself in uncharted waters out on the left as of late. He is aggressive in the tackle and fancies his chances from long range but he will not behave as a conventional winger. I’d expect him to tuck inside in all three phases to offer support to Grimes and Lewis McGugan. The classy ex-Nottingham Forest playmaker is renowned for his direct free-kicks in times past but those duties normally fall elsewhere. He will need to get close to lone frontman Chris Long to ensure he isn’t completely outnumbered in attacking situations.

On the other wing, Billy Waters is another square peg forced into a round hole. He has the requisite pace to unsettle most outfits in League One but again, his playstyle is more like a forward than someone who will take on his man and deliver in crosses from the byline. Long is decent on the end of floated deliveries and he will be keen to add to his meagre total of three goals (which makes him joint top scorer along with Crooks). Borrowed from Burnley, he works hard for the Cobblers and is no slouch with his movement.

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Harry Bunn’s hamstring problem aside, I can’t see Lucketti reinventing the wheel with selection or shape. There is little doubt in my mind that he will have watched back the win over table-topping Shrewsbury Town and, taking into consideration his limited time with the group since his confirmation on Wednesday evening, will largely carry on where caretaker Ryan Lowe left off for his maiden game. Greg Leigh and Waters might pass each other like ships in the night and someone between the pair of Rohan Ince and Eoghan O’Connell will need to cut off the space on Bury’s left.

As for a prediction, I think it will be 2-0 to the visitors. Northampton have had ‘nil’ next to their name in greater than half of their league matches thus far and the formation adopted by Lowe on Tuesday brought both greater solidity and crucially, advanced support for the goal-shy Smith. Both managers have their work cut out to revive their charges’ woeful campaigns but on this occasion, I can see Lucketti’s strategy coming out on top and earning him the victory that might just see the Shakers escape the bottom four on his first attempt.

Bury 1-0 Shrewsbury Town: Review

  • Ah, that was a typical Bury result if such a thing truly exists. Six league games without victory and after two abhorrent performances at Gigg Lane within days of each other… and to paraphase a certain 90s comedy film, just when you thought it couldn’t get worse… they totally redeemed themselves! The usual notes of caution apply – the 1-0 win over table-topping Shrewsbury Town last night is still only worth three points, they’re still bottom, it’s next to meaningless if not followed up by at least avoiding defeat at Northampton Town on Saturday… but it does feel like it could be the basis for a turnaround in fortunes, especially given the opposition and the tenacity on display. Caretaker manager Ryan Lowe had been demanding a vast improvement from his talented squad and finally received it.

 

  • His opposite number Paul Hurst did however slightly increase Lowe’s chances of gaining something out of the encounter by surprisingly changing shape before kick-off. The ever-present Alex Rodman ‘ruled himself out’ of contention and the level of protection he offers the left-back whilst Junior Brown is still sidelined cannot be underestimated; in his place was Stefan Payne whom, whilst hardworking, has a tendency to drift towards the centre. Carlton Morris and Louis Dodds’ inclusions altered the tactics even further and to the Shropshire outfit’s detriment. That said, he shouldn’t be too downbeat about only their second loss in League One; they did have a few chances to avert that outcome but it just wasn’t their day and I’m sure they will rally when their roster is restored to full strength. I was particularly impressed by Ben Godfrey at the base of their midfield. His recovery runs helped prevent the scoreline from being more one-sided than the reality of the contest.

 

  • The win was built on two very solid-looking duos: Stand-in captain Nathan Cameron and Eoghan O’Connell at centre-back in a flat four with Josh Laurent and Rohan Ince offering a defensive midfield shield in front of them. The latter two in particular have come in for heavy criticism this season but they can be more than satisfied with their night’s work, nullifying some dangerous attacks through the middle from Dodds and Jon Nolan. Cameron appeared back to his best, covering gaps in between Phil Edwards and his partner and his positioning is what sets him apart from most in the third tier; his persistent knee problems have impacted on his speed a tad but his reading of the game remains as sharp as ever.

 

  • Obviously, there was a slice of fortune in avoiding being a goal down to a stonewall penalty. Leo Fasan’s uncharacteristic decision to rush from his line to tackle Morris was ill-judged and he left the referee with little choice but to award the spot-kick to Town. Shaun Whalley slammed his effort onto the post with the ‘keeper well-beaten and Payne’s instinctive rebound whilst off-balance meant he could only guide it wide with a gaping hole before him. The Italian custodian more than made up for his error of judgement by saving smartly twice in quick succession in the second half to earn the social media man-of-the-match reward in a (for once) crowded field.

 

  • The move for Greg Leigh’s winner has to be one of the best team goals I’ve ever seen for the Shakers. It’s crucial to note that it was started by Cameron’s timely block and the type of calmness on the ball to feed the left-back from O’Connell I could easily grow accustomed to. What I’ve noticed recently about the current candidate for the player of the season is that not only is he technically very good on the dribble, he’s adept at drifting into the half-space with it as well. His slaloming run and the expertly weighted passing exchanges with Jay O’Shea and Michael Smith was capped off by a cool finish beyond the otherwise excellent Dean Henderson. It makes me wonder if his future could be the same as his past: he was a winger in Manchester City’s academy after being converted from a striker. If affordable, it’s key that the club offer him an extension on his deal or they risk him leaving for a set amount of compensation in the summer.

 

  • Harry Bunn had easily his best outing in the white and royal blue. He has always been best used as an inside forward and the change of shape by Lowe afforded him the numbers further back to express himself more before he succumbed to injury. The triumvirate of Bunn (or his replacement Chris Maguire), Jay O’Shea and Mihai Dobre is certainly an exciting one with a good balance of attributes: creativity, tendency to use their weaker foot and pace. Hopefully, the same setup is utilised at the weekend by the new man in the dugout…