Tag: leaguetwo

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!).

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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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Bradford City Tactical Analysis

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

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Bradford score first in claret and amber):

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

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

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

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

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

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Bradford 1920


Tactical Approach

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

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

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

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

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

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

James Hanson: No One Hit Wonder, Plus More League Two Analysis

The first of my weekly analyses of the fourth tier focuses on the many surprises thrown up in the early exchanges at both ends of the standings.

It’s reasonable to suggest that Bradford City have underperformed whilst adjusting to life back down in League Two. Gary Bowyer has tried out four distinct shapes in the opening half-dozen encounters, and has lamented the loss of all-rounder Jamie Devitt to the sidelines for at least a fortnight. The injury might, however, help to reduce the amount of tinkering he’s willing or able to do for the foreseeable future, starting with the clash at home with Northampton Town. The Bantams have ranked high in the number of shots thus far but close to bottom with those that have been on target (in the bottom four with both Wyscout and WhoScored), and could do with that changing quickly in front of a sizeable crowd against the visitors.

Keith Curle has stressed the importance of nullifying the threats the hosts possess in their ranks to further frustrate the slightly restless support. The Cobblers enjoyed a superb win over much-fancied Plymouth Argyle in their last outing, with Andy Williams bagging a brace as the focal point of the attack from a pair of Sam Hoskins’ crosses. However, they’ve had a similarly disappointing start to 2019/2020 overall, and Nicky Adams has yet to notch an assist despite an xA of 2.28 (third in the league) – I’d imagine that will change in a fixture that will emphasise pushing wide to create chances.

Cambridge United boss Colin Calderwood will be hoping his proclamation that “lessons have been learned” from their insipid defeat to Port Vale rings true. Whilst not yet living up to their billing from 2018/2019, Forest Green Rovers are likely to dominate possession once more, which could mean a repeat of chasing shadows for a second week. The performance and competition for places could mean a number of changes are made. The centre back pairing of George Taft and Greg Taylor have laid on more passes than anyone else in the squad, and they’ll need those balls to be accurate from defence to prevent being camped in their own third for long spells.

The Nailsworth outfit have not translated their time in control to goals thus far, not even striking once per game. Custodian Jojo Wollacott’s dismissal after half an hour last time out was the chief reason for drawing a blank; Mark Cooper has praised the quality of his attack-minded players in the lead-up to tomorrow, and there ought to be opportunities to climb off the foot of both the touches in the box and shots taken tables, and moreover, earn a convincing win to (temporarily) silence any doubt.

Stephen Pressley has been keen to stress he’s “doing everything he can to maximise the group”, and you once again feel that for Carlisle United to prosper, they’ll have to avoid lay-offs to their small squad… and the likes of versatile forward Hallam Hope to be fully concentrating on the task in hand. That should be an easier task now that the transfer window has closed and he remains in situ, but the Cumbrians have to halt the chances and goals they give up – they were extremely fortunate to keep a clean sheet against Scunthorpe United, losing the xG battle 1.98-0.18!

Stefan Scougall has gleaned two in five from the left side of central midfield, but is a big doubt for the visit of Exeter City. The Grecians are the early pace-setters, with a two-point cushion over their nearest rivals. Nicky Law always looks a class act down the left channel, but even more impressive has been Aaron Martin, especially since being shifted inside as the anchoring centre back in the three. It is partly on the back of his aerial prowess and reading of the game that have aided in their quest to shut out the opposition, making more defensive interceptions collectively than any other team. It will be intriguing to see how he organises his partners when they make the mammoth trip tomorrow, being matched man-for-man by Carlisle’s frontline.

Cheltenham Town have carried their excellent form (particularly at home) into the current campaign, crashing in eight goals in three league fixtures at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium. New signing Jonte Smith will be keen to get in on the action, having eschewed the opportunity to help Bermuda in the CONCACAF Nations League during the international break to ensure his transfer could go ahead without any hitches. Assistant manager Russell Milton took questions this week prior to the Stevenage encounter, much of which centred around what Smith will bring to the group, as well as citing the treatment table list for the Hertfordshire club’s travails up to this point.

Dino Maamria has challenged his troops “to put everything aside” as they seek their maiden victory. He’s rotated personnel in attack to address the string of ‘nils’ against their name, and they were unlucky not to bag a win over Macclesfield Town last weekend. The recent captures of Craig Mackail-Smith and Adam El-Abd add oodles of experience and game management to what was hitherto one of the younger rosters in League Two, although the former might have to settle for a place among the substitutes after Kurtis Guthrie got off the mark.

Callum Harriott has rejoined Colchester United after having a loan spell in Essex several seasons ago. His signing will add even more pace down the flanks, and John McGreal will be banking on it serving as another positive step in their recovery in League Two. Opposition managers are all too aware of the threats at their disposal, and the U’s propensity to get caught offside is testament to that.

Walsall chief Darrell Clarke has been channelling his inner Arsène Wenger ahead of the game, pointing to ‘mental strength’ as the key in shaking off a decidedly indifferent start. Picking the final pass forward has also been a problem – right winger Rory Holden needs more helps from the likes of Danny Guthrie in supplying the front two. The Saddlers rank bottom for key passes created.

Grimsby Town have blasted in 13 goals in six matches to date, and the deadliness of target man James Hanson, scoring half of his 10 shots on target. Granted, two have been penalties, but that takes nothing away from his personal and The Mariners’ rejuvenation in 2019/2020; his presence has been a constant thorn for defences, and at a bare minimum, he has had at least two efforts every match. Set pieces have been a huge part of their superb start, but Michael Jolley believes the “toughest test of the season so far” lies in wait tomorrow when Crewe Alexandra travel eastwards. His adversary for the weekend, David Artell, was effusive in his praise for Jolley, having coached together for the Alex U16s at an earlier stage in their respective careers.

The maturing Railwaymen were able to retain most of their brighter young talents from the previous term, and were at least the equals in terms of xG in the two defeats they have suffered to date (the 3-0 reverse against Plymouth was by no means an accurate reflection of that match). There are few better in the division in the six-yard area than veteran Chris Porter, who can count on Charlie Kirk on his immediate left to ping accurate balls to him.

Leyton Orient are yet another side with a 2-2-2 record, and head coach Ross Embleton believes they “are small margins away” from improving their results on the road. In the immediate future, they will look to do that back at base when they entertain Swindon Town. Josh Wright has proved to be a shrewd acquisition, adding goals and know-how from deep in midfield; the main issue remains conceding big chances that have undermined the low overall number, and this is surely not going to change tomorrow.

The Robins will be backed by a sold-out away end, and first-team coach Tommy Wright expects there to be plenty of goals to entertain them. ‘Wellensball’ has them three points off the top, with the loanee strike partnership of Eoin Doyle and Jerry Yates plundering eight between them. The progressive, riskier passing employed by the Wiltshire outfit is hard to defend against, doubly so when backed up by enterprising wingplay.

Macclesfield Town have continued their promising opening under new manager Daryl McMahon, already accruing nearly a quarter of the points likely to be required for survival as a minimum. Ben Stephens, who can play both up top and as a #10, has been instrumental in their form, acting both as chief creator as well as chipping in with his share of the goals.

Crawley Town are also faring much better than most pundits would’ve anticipated. Gabriele Cioffi is understandably pleased with both the application of his players and the depth at his disposal, the latter of which he added to earlier this week with the signings of Denzeil Boadu and Gyliano van Velzen, and he will be keen to see how they fare tomorrow – Reece Grego-Cox’s place on the right of the three looks most under threat.

It’s hard to recall a time in recent seasons where it hasn’t felt as though the manager of Mansfield Town‘s position is under serious scrutiny. Lying 19th at the table even at this early stage is unlikely to be tolerated for long, but thankfully for John Dempster, Ryan Sweeney’s red card against Exeter City has been rescinded. Sweeney is one of several big names that have not lived up to their billing, which has collectively overshadowed Danny Rose’s fine return in front of goal. Dempster is pinning his hopes on “the Stags soaring” against surprise bottom side Scunthorpe United.

Paul Hurst has endured a torrid opening to his stint in charge, hampered in some ways by injuries – his latest interview on the official site makes for grim reading in terms of expecting many of them making a return in the immediate future. Loanee George Miller has spoken of the need “for a chance to fall for him” to get off the mark, but his game has always been about making a nuisance of himself to create his own opportunities. Rory McArdle’s contribution cannot be sniffed at, but his effectiveness in the air at both ends has not led to much in the way of points.

Morecambe stalwart Jim Bentley has reverted the formation to a 4-4-2 since a costly couple of fixtures that kicked off 2019/2020. This had the desired effect temporarily until reverting to type in the past fortnight. Barry Roche, for so long one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the basement division, has not been at his best, and a solution must be found to plug the gaps if another long season of struggle is to be avoided. Lewis Alessandra’s made the most of his scant chances to date, scoring each of his four shots on target. He should get some further opportunities at home to Salford City.

The Ammies have given up triple figures already, facing 104 shots, by far and away the worst record in the league. Thankfully, that hasn’t translated into comparatively many goals conceded, and Jack Baldwin, on loan from Sunderland, is sure to take his place in the heart of the defence as a countermeasure to that particular stat. Jake Jervis joins a strong-looking forward line, but at present, it’s too easy to pass through their midfield.

Newport County are one of two sides to remain unbeaten in League Two at the time of writing. Rodney Parade has been a fortress for sometime, whilst on the road, they have ground out points when not performing at their zenith against opponents at least their equals on paper. Michael Flynn is adamant that the division “will be the most competitive it’s been in a long time”, something I’m also of the view of, and anticipates another bruising battle with Port Vale.

The Valiants have become tougher to beat under John Askey, who is hoping to take advantage of the Exiles’ absentees tomorrow. It’s no longer simply a case of hitting it to club legend Tom Pope and hoping for the best, as there now exists more depth and devilment in attack. Jordan Archer will be pushing for a place, and he takes up similar positions to Pope but with a change of pace. David Amoo helps to stretch defences that would otherwise remain pretty compact, and that will be the most interesting aspect during tomorrow’s game.

Plymouth Argyle boss Ryan Lowe has been quick to temper any notion of Jose Baxter “getting one over” the latter’s former employers, Oldham Athletic. Both manager and player have not seen things go all their own way in 2019/2020. As is now typical for a Lowe side, most of their attacks have come down the left channel (42%), with the middle relatively underutilised. It should serve as no surprise that they’ve also conceded the bulk down their left, and will have to get much closer to the winger. Chris Eagles should provide them with that chance if selected.

It’s been another term of off-the-pitch machinations overshadowing results on it, which have also been hard to come by so far. Head coach Laurent Banide will be hoping deadline day signing Filipe Morais’ return to Boundary Park will help inject the dressing room with a much-needed boost. The strikers have a single goal between them, and although Chris O’Grady’s departure to neighbours Bolton Wanderers was far from lamented, it has highlighted the lack of a potent target man in their ranks to finish off Gevaro Nepomuceno’s floated crosses.

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End of Term Report Cards: Assessing Every Bury Player – 2018/2019

As at Christmas, I canvassed opinion on social media, grouping the grades as follows: A-B are good, C-D are okay, and E-F are poor. The grades are only a reflection of every player’s on-pitch performance, rather than their heroic stoicism off to it to continue performing without full pay since the end of February:

RCE1819

 

**IMPORTANT NOTE**: The ‘What Next’ for every player makes the assumption that a resolution of some kind will be found to the current shambles off the pitch with regard to finances and the immediate future of the football club… otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point including those sections!

1. Joe Murphy

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Credit for all photos: Andy Whitehead

Total Games / Total Minutes: 52 / 5,074

Goals Conceded: 65

Clean Sheets: 13

Assessment: Surprisingly voted by his peers in the PFA League Two Team of the Season, the veteran custodian didn’t miss a minute of league action, brushing off his injury problems from the previous term. The emphasis on quick and short distribution out from the back suited his style very well indeed. He made the odd glaring error as you’d expect from any guardian – allowing former Shaker Danny Rose to rob him of the ball in the home encounter with Mansfield Town to tap into the empty net sticks out in particular. That mishap has to be balanced with often being the very last line of defence in one-on-one situations, and he performed admirably in those cases, saving brilliantly from James Norwood at Prenton Park to ensure parity was kept and promotion was sealed.

Not the tallest or most aerially confident, coming for floated crosses and dead balls into the area were his weaker aspects throughout the campaign, and he conceded more than many other members of the ‘union’, hence a large contingent of fans’ shock at his award. Solid but often unspectacular, his presence on and off the pitch as the oldest individual in the dressing room proved to be a steady influence over the course of 2018/2019.

What Next: He’s harboured ambitions of going into goalkeeper coaching for a couple of years now. At 37, he probably still has at least another season of playing should he be offered another deal. Whether that’s in BL9 or with his #1 spot quite so assured I’m much less certain of.

 

2. Tom Miller

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Total Games / Total Minutes:  15 / 936

Goals Scored: 0

Goals Assisted: 0

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right wing-back / Right-sided centre back in a three / Right-back

Assessment: Started the season as the right-back of choice in a conservative 4-3-2-1, but an early injury likely hastened Lowe’s plans to adopt a more attacking posture. Frequently spotted on the bench thereafter, he had good cameos in the EFL Trophy in a number of roles that ably demonstrated his versatility. At wing-back, his style was in stark contrast to Nicky Adams when rarely afforded the chance, joining in less often in the sweeping moves forward. Additionally, he won plenty of headers down his flank when direct balls were lobbed in search of a nippy winger.

What Next: Still has a year left to run on his contract. Being pushed to a definitive third place in the pecking order by Adams and Ryan Cooney (a decade his junior) must have rankled him somewhat, but if so, there were never any public signs of it. More at ease in a flat back four, he’s an ill fit for a swashbuckling ‘score one more than the opposition’ mentality, but equally, his versatility is important. If the numbers on the roster are cut as expected, he might want to make the most of guaranteed first team football elsewhere as part of the group heading for the exit door.

 

3. Chris Stokes

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 43 / 3,697

Goals Scored: 4

Goals Assisted: 0

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided centre back in a three / Left wing-back / Left-back

Assessment: The former Coventry City defender had quite the arc in his maiden campaign in white and royal blue. Like Miller, he started out at full-back before being pushed forward briefly. The emergence of Callum McFadzean saw him take up a less familiar left-sided centre back with mixed results. His lack of raw speed and physicality saw him beaten often in the air and on the turn when the opposition looked to press the Shakers in their own half to prevent an easy out-ball from their own third. His nadir came in the breathtaking comeback win over Milton Keynes Dons, having a big hand in all three strikes for the visitors (including an unfortunate own goal).

The loan signing of Scott Wharton late in the winter transfer window seemed to have put paid to his season, but he had an amazing renaissance in April, bagging a brace against Carlisle United and another goal with a superb volley at the far post to start the fightback versus Northampton Town, demonstrating a different sort of threat at left-wing back to McFadzean.

What Next: In his prime and with one more year at the club, I can see him staying and being at the very least a good candidate from the bench to call upon to either shore things up at the back or to give something different down the left.

 

4. Will Aimson

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 43 / 3,940

Goals Scored: 4

Goals Assisted: 3

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided centre back in a three / Middle centre back in a three

Assessment: From the get-go, he was instructed to stay wider than most conventional centre backs do in a three-man backline, covering in behind Adams’ many bursts forward up the right flank. This was both a blessing and a curse for the former Blackpool stopper; it gave his teammates the reassurance to push onward, but made his distribution suffer somewhat, restricted in some ways to clipping passes down the channel for the strikers to run onto. Aerial prowess was on show in both boxes, scoring four times from set pieces, none more emphatically than the third equaliser at home to Lincoln City, gaining some small measure of ‘revenge’ for his harsh red card in the reverse fixture.

In the run-in, he took injections in his groin to get through the hectic schedule, which resulted in several early withdrawals from games and time on the sidelines. An unheralded member of the squad relatively speaking, his contributions didn’t go unnoticed by the more discerning observers.

What Next: His appearance makes you think he’s much older than just 25, but, with a year on his contract to run, he’s one of the best assets likely to remain at Gigg Lane into 2019/2020. Can only improve with time, and might be a more central figure in the defence to boot.

 

5. Adam Thompson

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 54 / 5,102

Goals Scored: 2

Goals Assisted: 2

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Middle centre back in a three / Left-sided centre back in a three / Right-sided centre back in a three

Assessment: The pick of the bunch from a defensive point of view. Thompson’s travails last season are well-known, and he alluded to them during a Q&A for this blog. Almost immediately asked to be the all-important middleman in a backline often matched in terms of numbers on the counter, he had few truly poor outings in a year where he played the most of any Bury player. Not the most adept at combatting target men (a problem he shared with his cohorts), he nevertheless always gave as good as he got, being sometimes the only assured presence in front of Murphy. An accurate passer, he might be a tad disappointed not to have got more goals with his intelligent runs in dead ball situations, but showed great composure in the snow against Oxford United in the EFL Trophy to rifle home on the volley.

He was rewarded for his displays by occasionally receiving the captain’s armband, and he really was the glue that held together the defence far more than the goals conceded stat might suggest.

What Next: A swift return to third tier football and one of the more well-regarded centre backs this season in the league, a recall to the Northern Ireland national team setup is not beyond the realms of possibility. It wouldn’t surprise if that happened, and by the same token, if other sides were interested in his services, being at a good age and entering the final year of his contract.

 

6. Eoghan O’Connell

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 35 / 2,278

Goals Scored: 3

Goals Assisted: 2

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Middle centre back in a three / Right-sided centre back in a three / Defensive midfielder in a three

Assessment: The mixed grading by fellow fans above signify that the Irishman had an up and down campaign. Physically, he’s the closest the club have to a dominating defender, and would certainly be the top candidate for isolating a lone striker in the air. On the ground is a different matter entirely, however, which is where the mixed results are borne out; when faced with speed, he can look more than a touch cumbersome, especially on the turn. On the other hand, when the team needs to take the initiative, which they almost always did by default under Lowe, his quality on the ball is there for all to see, with his often surgical through passes helping the whole backline advance up to 10 yards. There’s even an argument that he’s the best passer in the squad on his day, such is the difference he can and has made on numerous occasions.

All three of his goals came early in the season, and the third of the triumvirate was rightly voted the campaign’s very best from the ones selected.

What Next: Subject of serious interest from Coventry City in the winter transfer window, his prime is still some way off. Used in defensive midfield because of the aforementioned passing range, the biggest conundrum he faces is where he should be consider his go-to role, lacking the speed required for a two-man central defence, or to plow a lone furrow as an anchor in front of the back three/four in a counter-attacking outfit, as that could expose the shortcomings in his game.

 

7. Nicky Adams

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 53 / 4,553

Goals Scored: 3

Goals Assisted: 15

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right wing-back / Right-wing in a four

Assessment: I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit sceptical about his return to the club for a third spell, given the lengthy injury spell caused by a damaged anterior cruciate ligament at Carlisle United… and was then utterly perplexed when Lowe shifted him backwards to be a right wing-back after Miller’s own time on the treatment table began. However, it soon became abundantly clear that there was method to the apparent madness, and under the manager he also calls a dear friend, the mutual faith and trust was rewarded, being tasked with playing more like a conventional winger than anything. Putting in the most crosses of anyone in the division yielded the highest assist total in the EFL. Injuries have curtailed a bit of his speed, but he has found ways to combat that, adding probing corners and free-kicks to his repertoire over the last few years.

Stellar displays were always likely to peter out at some stage in the term, but he could never be accused of lacking effort when things weren’t working out as he’d planned.

What Next: It can’t be underestimated how much the vice-captain did for the cause, nor will it have gone unnoticed that he appeared in the second most number of matches in total. His consistently high number of assists will always have other outfits interested in a transfer, but he’s only likely to leave if events off the field conspire to offer him little alternative.

 

10. Danny Mayor

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 44 / 4,143

Goals Scored: 12

Goals Assisted: 9

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided central midfielder in a three / Attacking midfielder in a four / Left-wing in a four

Assessment: Another to silence the doubters, lower league fans were treated to the sorts of displays that reminded them precisely why he’s such a joy to watch. The inside forward took a few matches (like the rest of the squad) to truly get motoring, but once he did, he was unplayable for large swathes of the season in a narrower, deeper position than he’s occupied previously as the nominal left-sided central midfielder. His dribbles from deep always gave his teammates hope that he could conjure something from nothing, which he conspired to do with pleasing regularity, whether benefitting from his own superb close control or by laying off the ball to a free man after dragging his marker horizontally across the pitch.

With such a special talent, the team will inevitably be weaker when he’s not in the lineup, as his needless, costly dismissal at home to Swindon Town proved, making him miss three matches with the worst disciplinary record in the side (some of which, like that incident, can be reasoned away by the number of fouls he suffered). His predictability in his movements on the ball did not necessarily translate into making him any easier to stop, and he was nominated for League Two Player of the Season again, losing out to Norwood, but can console himself by his inclusions in both official team selections.

What Next: Out of contract and almost certainly off elsewhere, which, after six seasons in south Lancashire, you could hardly begrudge him for. The key for him will be finding another manager like Lowe who will treat him in much the same way. Individuals have different needs in terms of support, and my hope for him is he can be a central component of another team’s plans whilst receiving the same sort of attention he’s experienced at Bury.

 

11. Jordan Rossiter

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 16 / 1,593

Goals Scored: 1

Goals Assisted: 1

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Defensive midfielder in a three / Right-sided central midfielder in a three / Left-sided central midfielder in a three

Assessment: Another to assuage fears of breaking down on the pitch and in some style, too. The Glasgow Rangers regista was a ‘massive coup’ according to Lowe when he signed on loan during the winter transfer window, and once more, the gamble was vindicated. His start on the half-frozen pitch against Crawley Town wasn’t the most auspicious, from then on, he hardly erred, being precisely what was missing in defensive situations – someone who could intercept loose passes, win second balls, and redistribute with purpose.

Plying your trade in defensive midfield is probably the best way of going unheralded in the modern game, but it was his vision that stood out most about him, a perception shared by anyone who bore witness to his exploits for the Shakers. He’s never going to be relied upon for what he can do in the final third – that’s not his forté; that said, he capped off his temporary arrangement with a peach of a goal on final day, bending in a stunning effort from outside the area.

What Next: Steven Gerrard will be delighted with how he performed, and must surely have wormed his way back into contention for the Old Firm outfit. A return next season looks unlikely for several reasons, and if he is loaned out once more, expect it to be to a side in the Championship.

 

15. Byron Moore

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 44 / 2,758

Goals Scored: 8

Goals Assisted: 3

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided striker in a two / Left wing-back / Right wing-back

Assessment: A surprise package in the sense that Lowe found an elegant solution to the absence of conventional wingers. Moore, hitherto almost always found on the right flank, carved a very specific niche of his own up top, which came to the fore before the signature of Maynard when there were fewer options to choose from. Important strikes in tricky away fixtures at Swindon Town and Colchester United respectively set the tone for having an important say in the course of the campaign. The nature of his playstyle and unfamiliarity with the requirements of a striker did at times mean he cut a frustrated figure, not always in sync with his partner.

The Plan B for him was to come on in place of McFadzean at left wing-back in an even bolder strategy based on camping in the opposition’s third and working the space in tandem with Mayor to get in behind. It didn’t always come off because it sometimes appeared as though they were occupying the exact same area, but it did signify a greater degree of tactical flexibility on Lowe’s part than any recent predecessor to his post.

What Next: Should stick around for a second season, and might have more consistent starts if the likes of Mayor and Maynard do move on. Positional versatility will be of even greater importance in a trimmed down roster.

 

16. Ryan Cooney

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 14 / 809

Goals Scored: 0

Goals Assisted: 1

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right wing-back / Right-sided centre back in a three / Right-back / Left wing-back

Assessment: Slowly but surely made his way into the frame over the nine months, eventually having the honour of being one of the youngest captains in the club’s 134-year history bestowed upon him for the last fixture of the campaign. Cooney’s rise is built upon a solid work ethic and a willingness to follow instructions and play where asked to. Better in the air than would probably appear, his stand-out performance came at right wing-back in the narrow EFL Trophy triumph over Mansfield Town, thwarting almost every sojourn down the channel. Steady performances ensured more minutes were afforded to him in the run-in, and he strikes a good balance between defence and attack when out wide.

What Next: Will probably be another mainstay on the bench from the get-go, having proven his worth in the difficult transition from U18s regular to the fringes of the first team over the course of the past year and a half. Intrigued to see how he will grasp his second full campaign as a professional in 2019/2020.

 

18. Dom Telford

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 48 / 2,444

Goals Scored: 14

Goals Assisted: 5

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided striker in a two / Attacking midfielder in a four

Assessment: Finishing top scorer in the EFL Trophy was a double-edged sword for the striker, who gleaned half of his haul from the unpopular competition, as was the regular rotation in league games he was prone to being a victim of. Lowe showed more tactical nous in having him usually on the right side of the two, despite very much being a left-footed player. This gave Adams free rein to get forward unhindered, as well as frequently giving Telford’s marker pause for thought as he had the pace to dribble into central areas from a starting position well before the 18 yard line.

Described as a ‘fox in the box’ by his manager upon signing, he showed there was more than one bow on his strong with his diligence outside of it, possessing a low centre of gravity to compensate for his lack of height. This was seen before Maynard arrived, and the pair formed a good understanding, knowing in which context to stay close to one another and when to split to create openings.

What Next: 14 goals is an impressive number for any forward, especially for a player whose ratio was better than one in two. Could be the main man in attack next season if not subject to strong interest from elsewhere in the EFL. A major success story of 2018/2019 without question.

 

19. Scott Wharton

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 15 / 1,266

Goals Scored: 2

Goals Assisted: 1

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided centre back in a three / Middle centre back in a three

Assessment: Parent club Blackburn Rovers recalled him from his season-long deal with Lincoln, disappointed that he wasn’t able to cement a first team place (it should be said he had extremely stiff rivals for a berth). Cian Bolger’s permanent arrival at Sincil Bank compounded matters, so Wharton was instead farmed out to fellow promotion candidates Bury. His 15-game stint has divided opinion somewhat – he, like the rest of team, looked utterly bereft of confidence in that three match losing streak during April, giving the ball away ridiculously cheaply. In other instances, he’s appeared a calmer, taller replacement for Stokes as left-sided centre back.

Goals in successive fixtures signalled his ability to be on the receiving end of dead balls, and when he was at his best, he shut down plenty of attacks in the half-space.

What Next: Reasonably successful seasons in the fourth tier should persuade Tony Mowbray to offer him to established League One clubs. I don’t foresee one of them being the Shakers.

 

21. Callum McFadzean

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 50 / 4,213

Goals Scored: 0

Goals Assisted: 7

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left wing-back / Left-sided centre back in a three / Left-back

Assessment: Like Moore, he performed way above my modest expectations. Didn’t arrive at the club with the best of reputations, and ‘released from Guiseley’, rightly or wrongly, did colour many supporters’ perceptions. Had a slightly shaky introduction at left wing-back, but then made the role his own with increasingly consistent showings, being almost as reliable with his low crosses as his counterpart Adams on the opposite flank with floated ones. No mean feat!

Might be slightly disappointed to be the only regular outfielder not to trouble the scoresheet – he certainly went close on a number of occasions. The self-confessed ‘better at attacking than defending’ belied his own statement throughout the campaign, and his goal-saving tackle at Forest Green Rovers after his own error was a sight to behold, running at full pelt to make amends. Formed an on-pitch rapport with Mayor not too dissimilar to the one the latter enjoyed with Chris Hussey.

What Next: One of the few out of contract individuals that under normal circumstances, the club would be desperate to keep hold of. Initially only came on a six-month basis, and had it deservedly extended. The hope is that history repeats itself, as he is yet another key figure in the squad who proved their worth and then some, appearing in three discrete left-sided roles.

 

26. Jay O’Shea

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 47 / 4,589

Goals Scored: 16

Goals Assisted: 6

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided central midfielder in a three / Left-sided central midfielder in a three / Attacking midfielder in a four

Assessment: Everything I thought he’d be in his first year with the club he turned out to be in his second. Like several others, he was tasked with a different role than he was used to, playing as a right-sided central midfielder rather than off the striker or as an inside forward. The adjustment took time, and given that he forged a reputation as a goalscoring attack-minded player over a creative one, it’s truly astonishing he racked up 16 goals from such a withdrawn position. Even excluding penalties and direct free-kicks, the total would still be in double figures. All of this means he’s the best by that metric at the club in over half a century.

The relationship with Mayor was particularly key to getting so many; regardless of whether his teammate provided the final ball, the pair’s movement in tandem created gaping holes for the other to rush into to full effect. His utterly arrogant assist for Bury’s fourth in their rout of Cheltenham Town at home is one of my personal favourites of all time watching football by any player.

The goals did dry up by the end of February, but his contributions in those five months of white-hot form were extraordinary, earning him multiple Player of the Month awards, nominated for Player of the Season, and even a place in the EFL Overall Team of the Season. Whilst defending is never going to be his strongest suit, he had to do his fair share of tracking back and sitting in to protect leads, intercepting plenty of potentially dangerous passes into his own third.

What Next: Extended his contract on the quiet in January, for all that that’s currently worth. Like Mayor, there’ll be a queue of teams wanting his services, and as much as I’d love him to stay, I can’t realistically conceive of a way in which that will happen.

 

27. Gold Omotayo

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 17 / 617

Goals Scored: 1

Goals Assisted: 0

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided striker in a two / Right-sided striker in a two

Assessment: Along with McFadzean and Jordan Archer, the giant Swiss-Nigerian target man made up one of the trio drafted in from non-league by then Sporting Director Lee Dykes. Initial signs were promising, scoring an injury-time winner on his debut from the bench against a depleted Yeovil Town. Since then, he was given a loan spell at National League side Maidstone Town, notching once during a 35-day arrangement. Eked his way back into contention in March, most often used as a battering ram when chasing the game to divert attention away from Maynard.

What Next: He possesses all the physical attributes to make something from a pro career. Usually in a good position to shoot but rarely able to for one reason or another, I think it’s reasonable to suggest he’ll be elsewhere next season.

 

31. Neil Danns

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 39 / 2,931

Goals Scored: 2

Goals Assisted: 4

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Defensive midfielder in a three / Right-sided central midfielder in a three / Left-sided central midfielder in a three

Assessment: An instrumental presence on and off the pitch, the club captain didn’t have a stellar year in terms of his own form, but that won’t be what fans remember about him. Nominally the most defensive-minded midfielder before the arrival of Rossiter, the 36 year-old wasn’t especially cut out for the task. That said, few could accuse him of lacking the effort needed for such a demanding position. At Moss Rose, he rolled back the years with a brace of highest quality, providing a timely reminder of his talents further forward.

Rossiter’s signing all but relegated him to the bench for the last four months, but he was more than up to the task when coming on, with accurate passes into the channels a staple of his game.

What Next: He wants to continue playing for a couple more years yet, and will have a chance few Guyanese internationals would’ve dreamt possible this summer, being a big influence behind the small country’s qualification for the Gold Cup, their first ever major tournament. A massive motivator behind the scenes, he could be afforded the chance for one final season at Bury.

 

32. Caolan Lavery

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 29 / 1,339

Goals Scored: 6

Goals Assisted: 0

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Right-sided striker in a two

Assessment: An unremarkable capture in many ways, the Sheffield United loanee gave plenty of huff and puff to a forward line that already had that in abundance. In his defence, he rarely had a full 90 minutes to impress, but did manage to get three goals in two derby day clashes with Oldham Athletic, the last of which had huge significance in the context of that fixture. Didn’t face towards the opposition goalkeeper enough for me, which limited the number of shots he was able to get off. A goal every 220 minutes or so doesn’t tell the full story one way or the other. More aggressive in the tackle than his competitors, this was usually at the expense of giving away a free-kick.

What Next: Released by the Blades, there’s still an outside bet that he’ll be back at Gigg Lane, or an ambitious outfit in the fourth tier once more. At 26, he needs to be holding down a regular spot in the EFL.

 

36. Nicky Maynard

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Total Games / Total Minutes: 39 / 3,453

Goals Scored: 22

Goals Assisted: 7

Most Common Position / Role & All Roles: Left-sided striker in a two

Assessment: Curiously overlooked for official recognition of any kind at the end of the season, the much-travelled striker has to rank up there for me as one of the very best to adorn a Bury shirt in my 25 years of watching the club. Bearing in mind he was picked up as a free agent in October, to finish 2018/2019 north of 20 goals in all competitions is an outstanding achievement, and even more so conversely when you take into consideration that they only represented just over a fifth of the Shakers’ tally.

A provider as well as a predator, his all-round game, despite his protestations about being poor at heading, is proof positive of his past, much more lofty history. Scored a plethora of crucial goals, some more beautiful than others. His work-rate, first touch (most of the time), and movement really did make him the missing piece in the jigsaw up front.

What Next: An option already exists to extend his deal. It would be fantastic if that was somehow able to happen, but I have my doubts. A more stable club must surely be ready to take him on, which would follow the pattern of other recent potent strikers having single year stints.

 

Unused Players – What Next?

8. Stephen Dawson

Almost certain to leave in the summer, the tough-tackling central midfielder has been beset by injury problems and woeful displays when Lowe did pick him in the early going. The highest hurdle to a swift departure is the year remaining on his deal, but with pronouncements of cutting costs at the club, he might be persuaded to take a cut of what remains and move on.

9. Jermaine Beckford

The veteran striker played just 13 minutes in 2018/2019 after an aborted comeback from a lateral cruciate ligament injury. He targetted a return to first team action around the time of the play-offs, which thankfully weren’t required. His contract expires in June, and I’d be gobsmacked if he was still here after then.

14. Phil Edwards

Relegated to featuring in just the EFL Trophy on three occasions, the conservative right-back’s attributes are an ill-fit for an expansive, attack-minded wing-back system, possessing neither the height nor pace to make a decent fist of being one of the wider centre-backs in that formation. Certain to leave on the expiry of his contract in June.

17. Jordan Archer

Used extensively at Southport on loan as a lone target man, he hit nine goals in 31 appearances in all competitions for the National League North outfit. Still has a year to run on his deal at Gigg Lane, and has yet to be seen adorning the white and royal blue in a meaningful fixture. Difficult to envisage that changing after the elevation to the third tier, but he might get the opportunity to impress in pre-season friendlies to alter that perception.

20. Joe Adams

Finished well clear in the U18s top goalscorer charts, despite almost exclusively being used as a wide forward on either flank in a front three. Capped several times for Wales U19s, his stock continues to increase, and he made the most of a rare first team chance in the EFL Trophy with an assist, putting in a hanging cross for Telford of all people to head in. Mayor’s probable departure should open the door to more consolidated gametime, but don’t expect him to be thrust into the XI from the off. Strong with both feet, he’s a different kind of prospect, and one that needs developing in a sensible manner.

23. Joe Skarz

Distinctly unimpressive by all accounts on loan at FC Halifax Town for the entirety of 2018/2019. A mirror image of Edwards but on the left flank; now 29, perhaps his extensive injury history has sadly caught up with his body when he ought to be in his prime. His contract almost certainly won’t be renewed.

24. Tom Aldred

A mainstay for SPFL side Motherwell for the second season running, he’s barely missed a minute of action as the right-sided centre-back in a flat four at Fir Park. Clearly unwanted by Lowe when he perhaps had the chance to make him part of his plans south of the border, I’d be surprised if he didn’t end up once more lining up for the Steelmen in 2019/2020.

28. Saul Shotton

Surprisingly overlooked for minutes for the first team (particularly with the EFL Trophy in mind), given his commendable efforts last season. The young left-footed ball-playing centre back has yet to sign terms offered to him at the close of last season (meaning he’s still a scholar rather than a pro), which will negatively impact any offer from another club for his services from a Bury perspective…

29. Callum Hulme

The second player to receive a lengthy pro deal, the key for him is to improve his discipline. There’s little question he has the talent to make a success of a pro career – I haven’t seen that many youngsters have the range of passing he possesses, and he can also be effective anywhere in central midfield. What takes the gloss off slightly are a small number of very questionable incidents resulting in red cards. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if an offer came in for him during the summer, but I’d be more than happy to be witness to a calmer, more focused individual donning a first team shirt with more regularity next season.

33. Harry Bunn

Spent almost the whole term on loan at higher tier Southend United, where he had a mixed bag of a season, full of the usual struggles to stay off the treatment table and flashes of quality. Started off for the Shrimpers mainly as an inside forward cutting in from the left of a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, before latterly being partnered up top with Simon Cox. Two crucial goals during League One’s crazy relegation run-in were worth four points to his temporary side, making a huge difference to their hopes of survival in the process. Is there a chance for him to be back at Bury in the final year of his deal? I think it’s very slim, personally, even in the event of Mayor leaving. I envisage a similar situation to the one facing Dawson in the early weeks of the close season.

35. Scott Burgess

Another unfancied by Lowe, he had two loan spells in the upper echelons of the non-league system; the first was cut short at Wrexham with minutes on the pitch severely limited by the form of others in central midfield, and the second was with York City a tier below the Red Dragons, being a key part of a squad that pulled the Minstermen away from choppy waters and an unthinkable relegation into step three. Reportedly offered a permanent stay by manager Steve Watson, he could be plying his trade at the new stadium at some point next season.

37. Dougie Nyaupembe

Has the pace and flexibility to work in Lowe’s preferred style, but two loan spells at local sides Hyde United and Stalybridge Celtic respectively suggest that his future could lie away from BL9. Regular minutes at Bower Fold would’ve done him the world of good; turning 20 later his year, this is a career-defining summer for the Zimbabwean youngster. Yet again, it probably won’t be with Bury.

38. Sam Allardyce

The grandson of the one-time England boss, he’s perhaps a victim of there being no U23s setup more than he is any shortcomings in his game in being released at the end of his scholarship. Admittedly more effective as a centre-back without the ball than with (although he has worked hard to improve that aspect), he’ll almost certainly resurface at a club that can financially accommodate taking low-risk signings in bulk in the hopes of one or two of them eventually progressing to their first team or being sold on at a handsome profit.

39. Aaron Skinner

Developed as a full-back through the academy but was deployed frequently in central midfield, most notably during the FA Cup Youth run to the quarter-finals. Has had experience of being the captain for the U18s, and will be a key figure for Ryan Kidd in 2019/2020.

40. Aaron Brown

More goals will be expected from the Northern Irish forward during the second year of his scholarship, hitting just four in 2018/2019. He can play as the focal point or on the left of a front three (a favourite ploy of Kidd’s), and will have to contend with the likes of Joe Collins, Bright Amoateng, Cedric Ondoa and Femi Seriki (more on him below) for opportunities next season. Some players thrive on the increased competition, so let’s hope he’s one of those.

41. Cameron Hill

Much like Allardyce, he’ll probably have the same fate after his release. Started off the campaign on fire with the U18s, belying his withdrawn playmaker role in midfield to get amongst the goals. A bad injury kept him out for four or five months, before coming back in time for the Liverpool clash. He perhaps wonder what might’ve been without that setback.

42. Femi Seriki

Graced the bench on final day against Port Vale. The main purpose behind that was to push his name into the shop window again. Having only turned 16 a fortnight ago, he can play anywhere down the right side of the pitch or in a two up front. Crashed in an impressive eight goals from out wide whilst still underage for the U18s in 2018/2019. Still very rough around the edges, retaining him for the duration of his scholarship will prove difficult.

43. Scott Moloney

Impressed Lowe enough in training that he was content to have the young custodian on the bench after Preston North End loanee Mathew Hudson’s deal expired, rather than source a replacement. Suspect he’ll have to make do with the same next season, regardless of whether Murphy is still at Gigg Lane, but could be thrown into the EFL Trophy group games if the format remains close to the last few years.

Will the Most Courageous Promotion in Bury’s 134-Year History Prove to be the Club’s Epitaph?

For my reviews of AugustSeptemberOctoberNovember, December, January, February, and March, click their respective links.

No normal review

It’s frankly impossible to carry on in the same vein as the previous analyses this campaign to conclude 2018/2019. Well-documented off-field issues on here and elsewhere did spill over to matches themselves. Without taking anything away from the sides that beat Bury during April, it’s difficult not to wonder whether some of those might have been prevented had the players been paid, and had manager Ryan Lowe not gone above and beyond his remit to motivate non-football staff, as well as a downbeat squad.

Fortunately, a mixture of an unbelievable rekindling of the team spirit, fans and club being as one (with the usual caveat), and promotion rivals Mansfield Town and Milton Keynes’ equally woeful form ensured the Shakers made it over the threshold with a game to spare. Requiring a point from a daunting looking trip to Prenton Park, Lowe’s heroes rallied from a relatively poor first half display by their standards to deservedly equalise in the second period, restricting the division’s top goalscorer James Norwood much more successfully than had been the case in the early exchanges. The enforced substitution of Eoghan O’Connell for Will Aimson after 38 minutes proved to be the catalyst to regain a foothold in the contest.

It was perhaps poetic that Danny Mayor was the one to get the all-important leveller. Just like with Tom Soares’ effort four years prior on the same ground, the actual finish wasn’t pretty, being hit against a defender’s leg, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who cared at that very moment or in the days since. Besides which, his turn on the halfway line to create the opening all by himself was a bittersweet reminder of his peerless ability to conjure something out of nothing, and that it will likely not be seen in white and royal blue again.

Rightly, the euphoria and imbibing of several shandies by everyone involved at the club once promotion was confirmed lasted well into the week. Although the final fixture at home to Port Vale was largely academic, a second 1-1 draw in the space of five days had two rare moments: firstly, sections of the home support applauding an opposition goal; Tom Pope took to Twitter after the match to acknowledge that:

Secondly, Jordan Rossiter, rarely seen in deep in enemy territory, was left completely unmarked outside the area to arc a beautiful left-footed shot into the far corner. In a career dogged by injury, that goal marked only his third in senior football. Having come through his loan spell constituting 16 games unscathed and his reputation enhanced, Glasgow Rangers boss Steven Gerrard will doubtlessly be ecstatic that the gamble worked.

The result meant Bury clung on to runners-up spot behind champions Lincoln City, six points off the Imps and with a superior goal difference to MK. Suffice it to say, whilst on paper, the grand total of 22 wins and 79 points is nothing special (and is indeed ‘worse’ than previous successful campaigns), the circumstances in which the last 10 or so games were played out under makes it the most remarkable of the 11 promotions in the club’s 125 years in the EFL. It’s also reasonable to suggest that many followers of other teams are far from happy about the nature of it, which isn’t going to go away anytime soon. I’ll make an attempt to address this at the end of this post.

Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines illustrate that there was very little to choose between the Shakers and their opponents, almost without exception:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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U18s

Ryan Kidd’s side wrapped up their highly commendable season with a derby defeat to a very strong Rochdale outfit, which meant they finished just outside the top three. Nevertheless, the greatest success of the term was in the FA Youth Cup, reaching the quarter-final stage against all odds before being understandably outclassed by Liverpool.

The likes of Joe Adams, Callum Hulme, and the well-regarded Femi Seriki were on all the bench for the senior setup on Saturday. Whether by accident or design, it’s hard to envisage these instances not increasing in League One; the budget will almost certainly be cut much further than what happened last summer (if the club survive the winding-up petition). That should also entail a smaller roster and perhaps a little less reluctance on the part of Lowe (should he stay) to give some of the more promising talents meaningful gametime.

As you can see from the Twitter thread above, the academy are still proceeding as normal for next season. The Carrington training complex, divisive among Bury fans as it is, remains a vitally important component of the underage structure, and that should not be dismissed out of hand so readily if the club are to really cut their cloth. The Shakers could do a lot worse than attempt to emulate the likes of Crewe Alexandra if they want to remain a beacon to players released from higher category institutions, as well as developing their own in-house for a fairly streamlined pathway at present to at least the fringes of the first team.

Women

It would be extremely remiss not to mention at the huge success achieved throughout the different women’s sides.

In his first season with the U18s, Chris Honor led his charges to two cup finals and a top-three finish in their division.

The reserves managed to best higher tier opposition in the form of Nelson on on penalties during their Lancashire FA Plate Final encounter after mounting a thrilling comeback in regular time. Kimberly Tyson was particularly impressive up top, showing calmness under pressure for a cool finish for the second goal in the highlights package below:

Colin Platt’s team also came third in their pool, and they will hoping for an even better term next season.

The senior side under the auspices of Scott Johnson have gone from strength to strength ever since he was handed the reins just weeks after the campaign got underway, culminating in a title win and promotion at Gigg Lane itself on Sunday. For club stalwarts like captain Lucy Golding and Aymee Openshaw, the trophy has been a long time in the making, and it will be intriguing to see how they cut their teeth in the North West Premier Division, the fifth tier of the women’s pyramid. A very young squad overall, the potential is most certainly present for them to push higher in the next few years. It’s something I’ll be paying even closer attention to on this blog and when my podcast launches later this summer…

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No matter what happens to the ‘main’ arm of the business, there will still be a Bury FC Women – they couldn’t be in better hands at this moment in time

Potential Takeover

Whilst the celebrations of the past week were taking place, there was of course a very notable person in absentia. Owner Steve Dale has not been seen at the club recently, and his last set of ramblings on the official site dated the 25th of April made stark the grave situation facing the club, even if like me, you don’t take all the figures and needless anecdotes mentioned at face value.

At the time of writing, there are just eight days to go until the adjourned High Court appearance. Director Matt McCarthy mentioned in a more recent local radio interview that there are some interested parties looking to purchase the club from Dale. Simultaneously, there’s a new initiative that’s launched called ‘Buy Our Bury’. They’re looking for pledges from supporters with the aim of making the BL9 outfit fan-owned.

Correctly in my view, they’re not assuming that any successful takeover from Dale will transpire. Even if one does, I firmly believe it’s in the interests of any would-be party to have a conversation with BOB to help spread the financial burden of operating a full-time professional team in the domestic game. If you can, I’d like you to pledge an amount to the campaign. If not, please share the website with your friends. It might make all the difference.

Is this it?

I’d like to take this opportunity to address anyone who’s read up to this point and feels that the men’s team have ‘cheated’ their way to promotion: You’re half-right… but the culpability rests mainly with people no longer at the club – Stewart Day and Lee Clark. The vast majority of the alleged higher earners on the books have barely been used, if at all, by Ryan Lowe during 2018/2019 for various reasons. Does that assuage the overspending by the club for years? Not in the least.

Should there be a punishment for clubs like Bury that have continued to spend beyond their means? Yes, I think so. However, we have seen all too keenly and all too frequently as of late that the EFL are not fit for purpose, and there’s nothing in their current rules and regulations to combat this. Every side in the Championship during 2017/2018 made a loss, in spite of the far higher level of income being part of the second tier ensures. That pattern is largely repeated in the lower reaches, especially when you take out money made from player sales. Again, that in no way excuses the reckless behaviour in the Gigg Lane boardroom during the past six years.

There is the chance that the new owners will wipe out the debt owed to all the creditors, and whilst in many senses that would constitute the best possible outcome for everyone, it could easily be seen as a ‘cheat code’ that draws a definitive line under the past with no repercussions whatsoever. I have a lot of sympathy with that argument, but until there comes a time that one or more high profile club goes bust, I just can’t foresee the EFL doing anything meaningful to clamp down on rogue owners and a flagrant disregard for the long-term futures of clubs. Financial Fair Play (FFP) hasn’t had the desired effect, and is not enforced in the same way throughout the divisions. You only have to glance at how they have handled the even bigger shambles due west at Bolton Wanderers to glean an understanding that massive financial reform is well overdue… but is the collective appetite there for it?
What’s next on the blog?

Regardless of the outcome of the High Court case, I’ll be doing a detailed analysis on every player used in the second half of the season; discussing the retained list (if it’s released in the conventional sense…); putting together my alternative take on League Two Team of the Season; detailing my night at the Football Blogging Awards, which takes place this Thursday at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester; lastly, I hope to have at least one Q&A in the pipeline… and that’s far as I can look with the club’s future still up in the air.

Nothing Lasts… But Nothing is Lost

For my reviews of AugustSeptemberOctoberNovember, December, January, and February, click their respective links.

Tightening Up… at Both Ends (aka Scott Wharton’s Impact and Easing the Burden on Nicky Maynard)

There can be no question now that the pressure is for the first time this season on Ryan Lowe’s men to ensure that the deserved 3-1 home reverse against Swindon Town last weekend does not come to signify anything more than a defeat in a highly competitive division.

Prior to the encounter, Bury had experienced an uncharacteristic spell of clean sheets, most typified by the emerging importance of Blackburn Rovers loanee Scott Wharton on the left side of the centre back three. The 21 year-old has largely been an assured presence in a previously weaker area of the XI, winning a greater proportion of aerial challenges and being more accurate (and shorter) with his passing than was expected of him under Danny Cowley at likely league champions Lincoln City.

No single shape in football is infallible, and the attacking thrust firmly emphasised by Lowe will almost always ensure the opposition in any given match have opportunities to give tough examinations of Wharton and his partners on the counter. When teams like the Robins push up their wingers to the same level as the nominally lone striker, it can often leave the defence in a three-on-three mini-game of sorts, and they can’t win every single one of those battles, especially when the frequency of those situations is as high as what was witnessed on Saturday.

On the flip side of the general tightening up at the back, at the other end, neither the goals nor quite the free-flowing movement was demonstrated in March; Macclesfield Town aside, the Shakers could only muster three more strikes in the month. You’d perhaps expect it to decrease at least a little as the scramble for points necessitates a more conservative posture from sides they play against, but it can’t have also escaped people’s attention that besides Wharton’s own commendable couple of efforts and a Jay O’Shea penalty,  no-one else troubled the score-sheet except Nicky Maynard, who continues to gamely fight for second place in League Two’s top goalscorer charts with Kieran Agard and Tyler Walker of promotion rivals Milton Keynes Dons and Mansfield Town respectively.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that big of a problem. Most clubs are reliant on one or two players to regularly get the goals to help them achieve their aims, but that just hasn’t been the case in 2018/2019, and the onus is really now on others to step up to assist Maynard. Caolan Lavery’s form has taken a nosedive since the derby with Oldham Athletic; Byron Moore might now be needed elsewhere (thanks to Danny Mayor); Dom Telford pulled up in the warm-up before the game at Grimsby Town; lastly, Gold Omotayo’s recent cameos from the bench have unfortunately not done much to inspire confidence.

Mayor’s three game suspension, which I’ll discuss at length further into this article, also means some of the trickery will inevitably be lost from the starting lineup, so more of the chances might need to be created between the striking partnership themselves, which has frequently rotated alongside Maynard.

Ben Mayhew’s xG timelines ably demonstrate a distinct drop-off in the Shakers’ supremacy during a month where the performances were less than sparkling:

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Neil Danns’ Gold Cup qualification

Looking away from Gigg Lane for a moment, I thought it was certainly worth mentioning captain Neil Danns’ exploits for Guyana during the international break. A win for the Golden Jaguars over Belize in the final CONCACAF Nations League fixture ensured their participation at this summer’s Gold Cup, the first major tournament in the country’s history. Danns scored one spot kick and missed another, but there was no question that he massively contributed to their success under the guidance of Michael Johnson, the former Birmingham City and Derby County centre-back.

At 36 and with his contract up in the summer, there are inevitably question marks as to whether Danns will go into that tournament still a Bury player, but either way, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the action, which kicks off on the 15th of June. The draw will be held in Los Angeles in nine days’ time.

‘Replacing’ Danny Mayor for three games

Back to matters closer to home. There can be little doubt that at 2-1 down to Swindon, the Shakers still had a decent chance of restoring parity, despite being largely second best throughout the match. That task was made mightily more difficult by an idiotic lashing out by Mayor in response to a very poor challenge (to say the least) by Canice Carroll. No-one, and I include myself in this, is expecting a professional footballer to stay cool 100% of the time, especially when you’re fouled as often as the inside forward is. The stats have him in the top 10 in the fourth tier for fouls suffered, and then of course are the instances where he still gets kicked and nothing is given by the referee, which happens most often to the most dangerous players.

I have seen some people on social media suggest he and others like him should be offered more ‘protection’ by the match official. In practice, how would that actually manifest itself? Are they supposed to identify the ‘danger men’ before the game kicks off, and give the offender a red card regardless? No, there must be objectivity. Anyone that persistently targets and subsequently fouls an individual will eventually be sent off. If it’s a ‘team effort’, then in one sense, it shows just how much of a threat Mayor poses to them, and there has to be an acceptance on some level that that’s how it’s going to be.

The rush of blood to his head was thankfully not defended too strongly by Lowe in the post-match interview, who privately must have been incandescent about the incident. A good manager recognises that there are different personalities within a squad; Mayor is the epitome of an introvert off the field who, once he graces the turf, usually feels confident to express himself with some sublime pieces of skill and to beat his man repeatedly on the dribble.

His self-imposed absence comes at the most crucial juncture of the entire campaign, and provides Lowe with a huge tactical quandary in the next two weeks. There is no obvious candidate to replicate what Mayor brings… because they just don’t exist. That’s not a disparagement of anyone else on the roster, merely a reflection of the current predicament.

As a consequence, I decided to pose the question to fellow supporters on Twitter:

Byron Moore

Moore

The case for:

The versatile 30 year-old possesses the positional know-how and pace to bypass his marker and cut inside on his stronger right foot. As teams sit ever deeper during the run-in and hit Bury on the break, which Cambridge United are bound to do tomorrow evening (and I don’t blame them), Lowe is going to require someone to reliably carry the ball forward into the final third to both minimise the chances of that occurring, and to try to get in behind resolute backlines.

Moore has already proven to be a capable option in the left channel, and his presence would ensure that the transition to attack can still take place without having to resort to more direct methods, or pushing up others too high. It is the closest role he will receive under the 5-2-1-2 to his most natural place on the wing, and he is highly accurate when crossing the ball, drilling it into the box or shifting onto his right for a deeper far post effort.

The case against:

The aforementioned form of strikers not called Nicky Maynard. Moore, who has a one goal every four games on average during 2018/2019, has been adept up top, operating wider than most forwards would in a conventional pairing. With Telford possibly still out for a little while yet, his services might best be utilised alongside Maynard, rather than being tasked with supplying him.

His instincts are firmly on the attacking end of the spectrum, which is a double-edged sword in a system designed to take the game to the opposition in numbers. Will he really sit back to allow Callum McFadzean to hurtle up the flank on the outside, rather than drift inside? The conclusion I draw is that he’s much better when focused as high up the pitch as possible, and in a side already lacking ball-winners, he is even less defensively-minded than the man he’d be replacing.

Neil Danns

Danns

The case for:

The skipper’s (temporary) restoration to the XI would ensure a true three-man midfield. Even before Mayor’s dismissal, it was plain to see that Rossiter was doing all the leg-work in the middle, which the more adventurous sides in the final seven games could easily exploit if afforded the opportunity to do so. It would also allow O’Shea to concentrate more on late runs to the edge of the area, and less on having to help out the Glasgow Rangers loanee (or less often, anyway). Danns is by no means a ball-winning midfielder, but you can guarantee his maximum effort to cover as much ground between the two boxes as possible.

It would also give more balance to the midfield, which would go hand in hand with a greater degree of flexibility. There might yet be situations in the three games ahead where Bury need to hold onto a lead, and I’d sooner trust Danns to hold fort than the other candidates discussed in this section.

The case against:

You’d be asking an awful lot of the wing-backs, both to provide the width and the attacking thrust.. McFadzean would more or less have to go it alone down the left flank, with the most attack-minded of the midfielders usually operating closer to Nicky Adams. The vice-captain, for his part, has not enjoyed the best time of it in recent games, but to expect totally consistent displays from individuals who are ultimately plying their trade in the fourth tier is a misguided one.

Would there be enough guile and creativity in the lineup? As much as I love O’Shea, he’s what I’d categorise as a goalscoring attacking midfielder, rather than as a playmaker. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s likely that it will be a case of having to break down two banks of four/five. Without someone to carry the ball from deep and do the unexpected, there’s an air of predictability in the approach play.

Joe Adams

J. Adams

The case for:

Regular readers of this blog will know I mention Joe Adams from time-to-time, and for good reason. Rewarded for his displays in the youth side with a pro deal until June 2021 (currently the longest contract of anyone at Bury at the time of writing), he could just be the option few opposition scouts would anticipate playing. Lowe has often spoken with praise for him, whilst understandably being cautious about throwing him at the deep end. Still only 18, the Welsh U19 international is top scorer for Ryan Kidd’s youngsters this season, bagging 13 goals without ever playing in a conventional striker’s role.

He has the pace and the dribbling ability to beat his man and get in behind, but equally as importantly, he is strong with both feet from crossing situations, meaning that as his marker, you don’t know for sure which way he’ll go, and the Shakers could really do with that level of uncertainty in the opposition ranks without Mayor.

The case against:

As much as the manager is an advocate of developing talent, it would constitute a huge risk to thrust him into the starting lineup at his age, and in the situation the club find themselves in. Like Moore, his positivity could easily lead to counterattacks, and there’s also the small matter of whether he’s still injured, having had to drop out of the last Welsh squad he was called up for a fortnight ago. Like Telford, you don’t tend to get estimated return dates from Lowe during interviews, perhaps in an effort to keep his next opponents guessing.

Even if fit, there’s a time to properly ‘blood’ academy graduates, and it differs on a case-by-case basis. He might have a much bigger role next season in what is likely to be a squad reduced in numbers by a smaller playing budget (regardless of division) and the continuing lack of an U23s setup.

The unbeaten run, and ‘negative’ predictions

As the title of this post states, nothing lasts forever, which is especially true in football. The recency effect of less than scintillating displays, coupled with the defeat, has led to the return of negativity, and in greater amounts than I’d have expected. To go 14 matches without leaving a ground pointless is a superb achievement in any league, and the circumstances behind the remarkable turn-around in fortunes under Lowe.

In my preview of the game for Steven Fyfe’s blog for Saturday, I said Bury would lose to Swindon… and so they did. I caught quite a bit of flack for prognosticating ‘doom’, even being asked after the event whether I was happy that my prediction was correct! The answer to that should be blatantly obvious – no. However, I’m not going to do what I see supporters of almost every club do and say they’ll win if I don’t believe it will happen. I knew the threats that Richie Wellens’ outfit had at their disposal, I knew how he’d got them playing a more progressive style of football, and any guess at a result is just that – a guess.

I also play for fun a Predictions Game over on FL2 Blogger, and over the course of the campaign, excluding the rearranged game with Cambridge tomorrow, I have had Bury winning 18, drawing 15, and losing just six of the 39 games, which would leave the Shakers just two points shy of reality. So much for my negative predictions…

The remaining seven fixtures, and the big-game experience in the core squad

League Two

Attention now turns to the run-in, with that loss allowing MK to leapfrog Bury into second place. Wins for Mansfield and a white-hot Tranmere Rovers side, themselves with a game in hand on the rest of the pack, has ramped up the stakes for tomorrow evening. It should also be mentioned at this point that I did a bit of research into the ‘big games’ members of the Shakers’ core squad have been in during their careers, and one of the possible advantages of having an older than average dressing room is that there is a wealth of experience of successes (and failures) in promotion tilts through both the automatic and play-off routes, with three-quarters of the 20 used players this calendar year having had at least some memory to fall back on before 2018/2019.

I also decided to poll fans as to how many points they think will be accrued in the remaining seven matches:

The top end of that bracket would be sufficient for a club record points total of 86, beating out 2014/2015’s vintage under a certain David Flitcroft by one. But it won’t be easy to emulate.

Firstly, Colin Calderwood will be hoping for a big reaction of his own from a lacklustre display by the U’s in their own backyard, succumbing to a last-gasp defeat in injury time to top seven hopefuls Colchester United. Their own status in the EFL is still under jeopardy, with Notts County’s big win at the weekend cutting the gap to six points. The visitors have pace on the counter, principally in the guise of Jevani Brown, as well as the tall presence of target man Jabo Ibehre, who, whilst far from prolific this campaign, is exactly the sort of player Bury have struggled to contain.

Carlisle United are in no sort of form, and now find themselves outside the reckoning by three points. Well beaten by Tranmere, they will nevertheless target a win at Brunton Park this coming Saturday. Jamie Devitt is one of the best players in League Two, and you wouldn’t put it past Hallam Hope adding to his considerable goal tally against his former side.

The aforementioned Colchester come to BL9 on the 13th, and will probably be within a victory of the top seven at worst by the time the crunch fixture rolls around. The other U’s are the most puzzling outfit in the league, equally as capable of doling out thrashings as they are at receiving them. They should set their stall out to attack more than most have at Gigg Lane this season, with pace to burn on the wings and one of the best central midfield partnerships in the division – Sammie Szmodics in particular could cause damage.

Rodney Parade is a tough place to travel to, and Bury can expect little benevolence from Newport County on Good Friday. With 11 wins and just three losses at home, Michael Flynn’s charges are also still eyeing a late play-off surge, with two games in hand in which to reduce arrears. Jamille Matt had the beating of Adam Thompson in the reverse fixture, and both Padraig Amond and Ade Azeez are good options to call on if the Jamaican needs more support up top.

Easter Monday will pit the Shakers against probably the only side in their remaining games with ostensibly nothing to play for. Northampton Town have enjoyed some improvement under Keith Curle, but nothing too dramatic to convince observers that they’ll be challenging at the top end in 2019/2020. Nonetheless, they showed their defensive mettle in the earlier stalemate, and have some canny operators in midfield to ensure anything but smooth sailing.

For me, the key aim remains avoiding needing to go to Prenton Park on the penultimate weekend needing a result to seal promotion. Tranmere’s winning streak is no fluke, and whilst I think it’s almost certain that it will be snapped before the last game in April, they still look ominous at the moment, and I see little reason why their performances will taper off. Resolute in goal and at the back, unassailable top scorer James Norwood is backed up by a supporting cast in similar rich veins of form – the likes of Ollie Banks and Connor Jennings must be shut down to get anything from the game.

Port Vale ought to be all but home and dry on final day, but veteran Tom Pope will want to add to his century of goals (and counting) for the Burslem outfit. There is major concern off the pitch, but I don’t think it will prove the distraction some would like to believe on it. Again, Bury really don’t want to go into needing the points to cement a place in the top three…

Double glory for the women’s sides?

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Scott Johnson’s side are now firm favourites to win the championship and with it, the only promotion place available. A 13-0 shellacking of Morecambe Reserves yesterday underlined the quality throughout the team and on the bench. Four wins from the remaining five will guarantee 2019/2020 in the North West Premier Division, and the same number of games will take place in double headers against Cammell Laird 1907 and Preston North End, each instance being inexplicably played after the first game, with only an hour break…

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Senior side captain and taliswoman Lucy Golding added yet another goal to her tally, taking her to 19 for the season, despite operating in a deeper role; she too will be hoping for glory by the conclusion of April…

The very wet weather in the middle of the month caused the Reserves’ Plate Final against Nelson at Leyland to be postponed until this coming Sunday. Defeat to Stanwix Juniors put paid to Colin Platt’s slim hopes of promotion, but he will be hoping that strikers Sarah Knight and Kimberley Tyson can upset their higher tier opponents, and bring some silverware back home for a positive end to a very encouraging season under his leadership.

Three from Four? The Fight for Automatic Promotion

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

Current Table

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

Historical Performance of Fourth Tier Teams in Last 10 Matches

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

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

Remaining Fixtures

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

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

Lincoln City

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

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

Lincoln Recent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form over last 10 league matches

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

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

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

Remaining fixtures in more detail

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis & Prediction

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

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

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

Bury

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

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form over last 10 league matches

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

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

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

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

Remaining fixtures in more detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis & Prediction

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

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

Milton Keynes Dons

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

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

MK Dons Recent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form over last 10 league matches

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

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

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

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

Remaining fixtures in more detail

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

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

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

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

Analysis & Prediction

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

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

Mansfield Town

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

Most common recent XI, shape, and strategy

Mansfield Recent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form over last 10 league matches

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remaining fixtures in more detail

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis & Prediction

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

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

Can anyone else gatecrash the automatic promotion places?

Current standings below the top four

5th & Below

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