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.
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.
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.