Tag: matchpreviews

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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Bristol Rovers vs Portsmouth: Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol Rovers 1920

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

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

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

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

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

Portsmouth 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bury U18s vs Liverpool U18s: Preview

In their biggest game for over half a century, Bury’s U18s take on the might of Liverpool for a place in the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup on Wednesday evening at Gigg Lane, where Watford await the victors.

I’ve been closely following the fortunes of the youth team since Ryan Kidd returned to the to take over as manager of the newly reintegrated highest age group of the academy in 2014. Working alongside Mark Litherland, the overseer of the system as a whole, and only remaining staff member from before previous chairman Stewart Day’s tenure, they, along with the likes of Graham Hastings, Jamie Hesketh and others, have completely revamped what had hitherto been largely barren in terms of producing players who made it professionally.

The game against the Premier League giants could in some ways be argued to be the culmination of over half a decade of innovation and toil largely unseen publicly, save for a few fits and bursts. The first such indication came in the third round of the 2014/2015 campaign. Kidd’s boys travelled to Old Trafford, and far from disgraced themselves by losing by a solitary goal to a Manchester United outfit containing the likes of Dean Henderson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and a certain Marcus Rashford; their efforts impressed Sir Bobby Charlton, and planted a small seed in the minds of many close observers that there was a resurgence taking place in south Lancashire. Few of that vintage in white and royal blue remain pro players, but that’s besides the point, and paints the closeness of that encounter in even brighter brushstrokes.

Since that time, there has been steady progress both on and off the pitch. Success in academy matches and league seasons tends not to be measured in the same way as the senior competitions; titles and wins are usually secondary to player development and sales, the latter of which has become all too frequent and, at times, cruel under EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan). Nevertheless, that as many as 20 or more have found their pathway to the Shakers’ first team in that five-year expanse is testament to the importance of retaining the Category 3 status. A good proportion of that contingent have been sold to clubs in higher divisions, and the club stand to benefit financially and reputationally from their further progression in the sport.

In 2019, the Shakers are now in a position where their ranks are filled with youngsters coming to them, rather than them needing to be sought, because of the high esteem Litherland and Kidd are held in, and because the actions are in sync with the rhetoric about affording them opportunities. In the FA Youth Cup, they are the last side standing whose first team were or are in the Premier League in the last two years. Added to that, their Cat 3 status stands out like a sore thumb among much more moneyed setups.

Most of the talk in the build-up to the final tie of the quarter-final stage I have come across are in tones that make Liverpool’s advance seem almost inevitable. In some ways, it’s not hard to see why, especially if the writer is ignorant of the Shakers’ qualities. The odds are stacked against the hosts, but as mad Reds fan Ryan Lowe himself said, “people are saying it’s going to be a tough game (for Bury)… but why not for Liverpool, too?”

Bury U18s 1819 433

On these pages, I’ve not had as much as I’d like to talk up (within reason) the abilities of the small squad Kidd has nurtured over the past eight or nine months. In the main, there are two formations that have been utilised this season. The former Preston North End centre back, who bested that outfit at Deepdale to reach this stage from the dugout, had almost exclusively set out Bury in an unconventional but attack-minded 4-3-3 prior to November. It was around then that an emulation of the swashbuckling 5-2-1-2 adopted by Lowe was taken on in some games to increase the group’s familiarity and understanding of what’s demanded from the high-tempo, quick passing style.

The above formation demands that at least one of the centre back pair is comfortable in both carrying the ball out of defence and passing it forwards with confidence. Normally, Mark Edwards-Williams is the goalkeeper of choice, and is instructed to take short kicks and throws to set up attacks. By his own admission, recycling it among the backline and looking for an unmarked teammate to clip a pass ahead of are not Sam Allardyce’s forté – that’s not to say he’s lacking in that department, but he is an archetypal centre back, more adept at clearing his lines and standing up to a physically imposing striker. Saul Shotton has got back into the groove following injury problems in the nascent part of the season; aided by his experience in the uncompromisingly brutal shambles of the senior side in 2017/2018, he possesses both the height and passing range to indicate he could have a promising future in the upper echelons of the game for many years to come; his stronger left foot provides good balance to the backline, especially if playing as a three.

The full-backs areas are the most interesting of the XI from a tactical point of view. As with most contemporary four-man setups in defence, they’re asked to push up deep into the opposing third. The wider players in the forward line will naturally look to cut or tuck inside, which creates the space for Jack Hatton and Eddy Jones to whip in low crosses with plenty of pace to the far post. They have also proven to be adept at swapping flanks before and during games, which is unusual, and whether that was created from necessity or the inventiveness of their manager, it has allowed a greater degree of flexibility, and furthermore to exploit one wing or to fortify it.

Aaron Skinner can fill in at right-back if the need arises, but he has been more recently found in the centre of midfield, and provides much of the grit in an otherwise very technical ‘front six’. Although nominally ahead of Cameron Hill on the pitch, he’ll be covering any gaps that arise on the counter, and will need to be at his very best to prevent the diamond employed by Liverpool from monopolising possession in the centre.

Hill has been very unfortunate with injury this season, confined to the sidelines for four months. A deep-lying playmaker, that description doesn’t fully do him justice; he’s very effective in the penalty area at getting on the end of dead balls and finishing them, which isn’t something you normally associate with someone who looks to create from open play. Had it not been for that lengthy absence, it’s likely he’d have been afforded some gametime for the first team in the EFL Trophy run.

Callum Hulme is the first of two second year scholars to have been rewarded for their efforts with professional contracts. Another individual who’s mostly been training with the senior side this campaign, he has an aggressive streak to go along with the ‘silk’ of his idiosyncratic passing range and propensity to shoot (accurately) from long distances. It’s crucial he gets on the ball as much as possible to feed the likes of Joe Adams and Femi Seriki in order to make the Reds think twice about committing players forward in numbers.

Captain for the occasion, Adams is the second person to have signed pro terms, tying him to BL9 until 2021. Good with both feet, he’ll be on the left to accommodate Seriki. Much like Danny Mayor, he’ll sit narrowly than most other wingers in a three-pronged attack, and will doubtlessly cut inside to find Seriki or Jones on the overlap for a cutback around the ‘D’ to curl a shot with his right foot. In a departure from Mayor, he’s more apt to attempt crosses of his own, and if Bright Amoateng is playing, he has a very lively target to aim for. Capped for Wales U19s and top scorer for the Shakers with 13 despite never playing as an out-and-out striker and sometimes missing out entirely due to travelling with the first team for their matches, it only serves to further underlines his credentials and multi-faceted skills.

The irony of Amoateng’s likely involvement is that he’s on trial from Liverpool, with a view to being a scholar with the Merseyside outfit next season. Still just 15, he’s been the difference-maker in the last two rounds of the FA Youth Cup run, hitting decisive goals in both ties. His movement off the ball aids him immensely in creating some room for him to finish off chances, which might be at a premium against his employers.

15 year-old Seriki is also a big talent, which is putting it lightly. Heavily scouted by other clubs, he was named on the bench for an EFL Trophy match in December, as the above tweet attests. Not totally conforming to being classified as either a striker or a winger, he often operates in between those lines, popping up on either side of the nearest centre back to make it harder for them to track his runs. What is probable though is that he’ll be lurking with intent at the far post if a ball comes in from Adams or Hatton, and whilst I’m sure that will have been noted by the Reds’ analysis and coaching departments, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to prevent its efficacy. He’s the second top scorer with eight to his name, which is testament to his penchant for anticipating a pass or loose ball in the area at such a young age.

His recent unprompted name drop by Lowe in an interview is the most overt suggestion yet that he’ll make his senior debut before the season is out (if circumstances allow). It would certainly drive up interest even further in him, and then it would be a case of either persuading him to accept a scholarship with the carrot of more first team exposure, or to extract the highest price for his services within the very confining restrictions EPPP places on any deal (not that I’m particularly comfortable about the commodification of players that are still children, but that’s another argument for another article).

Bury U18s 1819 532

The alternative setup is a very close mirror of the senior side, which would probably see Bobby Copping come in at centre back for either Hill or Skinner. The major difference would be a greater emphasis on pressing from the front ny Amoateng and Seriki, allowing the five-man defence breathing space and for the midfielders to get tighter to the opposition to cut off easy passing routes for the opposition.

Copping is another star turn in an academy that has had of centre backs with bags of potential: the versatile Matty Foulds (now at Everton), Jacob Bedeau (first with Aston Villa U23s, now with Scunthorpe United), Emeka Obi (Wigan Athletic), and his teammates Shotton and Allardyce. Very much in the ball-playing mould, the symmetry he provides the trio makes it less predictable as to the destination of the eventual pass they play out from the back. Still in his first year, the maturity he’s displayed both on and off the pitch stand him in the best stead possible to make it as a professional footballer, and he’s not afraid of advancing forward to push up the defensive line… or to attempt to score a screamer:

I still think Kidd and Litherland will go with the 4-3-3 at the outset, but they can at least be assured that the flexibility and familiarity has been instilled in the group to switch things up during the match.

There are other options they can turn to on the bench – Copping or Hill (as already mentioned), plus the likes of Callum Jones (who’s been playing deeper in midfield since signing back in October than he had for either TNS or Oswestry Town in Wales), Aaron Brown (a mobile striker/wide forward capped by Northern Ireland U17s), and Cedric Ondoa, who would be able to provide more of a focal point in attack with his height and build.

Liverpool U18s 1819

As far as Barry Lewtas’ charges go, I enlisted the help of a couple of others who have more closely watched them in action, including Connor Rowden, a youth football expert who appeared on the popular ‘Not the Top 20’ podcast in January to talk at length about the state of it in England.

As you’d probably expect, their squad and probable XI has no real weak spots in it, and have not experienced too many issues competing on three fronts (with many of their ranks also appearing in the U19 UEFA Nations League). The lack of much width on the roster has been bypassed with a 4-4-2 that reinforces the strength of the spine of the XI.

Custodian Vítězslav Jaroš recently trained with Jürgen Klopp’s first team roster at Melwood; signed from Czech side Slavia Prague in 2017, he’s become the #1 choice for both the U18s and U19s, with his distribution of the ball being equally vital to his shot-stopping.

At centre back, there’s likely to be Morgan Boyes and Rhys Williams. The former can also turn out on the left flank, and will undoubtedly be tasked with containing Seriki. The latter evokes comparisons with Virgil van Dijk, which is a lot to live up to! Hugely impressive on the ball and in the tackle, he has stepped up on occasion to the U23s under Neil Critchley’s watch.

On the left, Algerian Yasser Larouci has been converted from a striker, which is a reversal of the usual trend. Not massively tested in the FA Youth Cup thus far, it might be something Kidd can look at as a means of pushing Jones onto him in order to curb his attacking prowess and leave Seriki more free in the same motion. Neco Williams (no relation to Rhys) is also a new face to the backline, having dropped back from the wing. He’ll play on the front foot and try to smother Adams out of the game.

Rarely seen at U18s level is a midfield diamond, but Lewtas has boldly admitted that he doesn’t have the personnel at his disposal to go with convention and put three in the middle. At the base, it will be a contest between Leighton Clarkson and Edvard Tagseth to get the nod. Clarkson is very much in the deep-lying playmaker mould, and won’t offer too much physical protection to the back four. Tagseth would offer more off the ball, but he’s only returned from injury.

Abdi Sharif places more emphasis on the defensive aspects of the narrow diamond, acting as a mid-block alongside Elijah Dixon-Bonner. The pair will fan out into the channels out of possession to attempt to force Bury’s full-backs inside, where the Reds’ numerical superiority will greatly aid them at winning back the ball to start counters. Dixon-Bonner complements Sharif with his creative mindset, and will target captain Paul Glatzel with raking passes forwards, should Jake Cain be marked closely by Hill or Skinner.

Cain is an all-round attacking midfielder, and possesses equally strong feet, making the angles of his passes to the strikers more obtuse and varied. He will need to be picked up to prevent an unchecked late run into the box just as much as his eye for a final ball will, too.

Bobby Duncan has maintained his potency throughout the age ranks, bagging 16 in 24 matches across all competitions for Liverpool U18s this season, and adding to that tally with five for England U17s

Bobby Duncan might be a familiar name to some readers. A Liverpool lad and cousin of legend Steven Gerrard, he was prised away from the academy of rivals Manchester City with the promise of a better pathway (even sacrificing a year of playing time to force the transfer), which is a pattern also seen with more high-profile figures like Jadon Sancho and Brahim Díaz in the past year. Prolific in his partnership with Glatzel, he has the qualities to fulfill his immense potential, despite not being exceptionally pacey or strong at this point in time. He and Glatzel are similar players, which goes some way to explaining how they dovetail so well together. Interestingly, their left feet are stronger than their right, which might have the effect of shifting their attacks into that channel as a result, opening up an alley on the opposite side, and will be a constant nuisance to Bury’s backline.

As for a prediction, it’s difficult to foresee Liverpool not scoring, such is the level of talent in their lineup. However, in one-off games such as this, they can be beaten. Almost all of the Reds will at some stage sign professional deals, even if it’s away from one the most famous sides in world football – that speaks volumes about the concentration of ability in their group. Bury are unlikely to match that, but are steadily improving their reputation and ‘pull’, year on year. The fixture will be the biggest some of the Shakers’ contingent will ever play in, and they can use that as a platform to upset the odds. I can see it being edged by the visitors… but only after being pushed all the way to extra time.

If you’re in the area and your Wednesday night, I implore you to attend the match in person at Gigg Lane, regardless of whether you’re a Bury or Liverpool fan. The players for both teams deserve all the support that’s on offer, and spectators will be treated to two technical outfits that might differ in stature but not desire to win. If you’re like me and you’re unable to see it in person, the game should be streamed by the FA on their website and YouTube channel.


Bury vs Milton Keynes Dons: Preview

Tomorrow, I’ll be making the trip north for what currently amounts to an annual pilgrimage to Gigg Lane to watch Bury take on Milton Keynes Dons, with both sides currently occupying spots in the automatic promotion places a little way back from leaders Lincoln City. Paul Tisdale’s charges have a two-game and single point advantage over their hosts. However, on recent form, it’s by no means a given that they’ll make full use of those fixtures.

Ryan Lowe will be looking to build on a fruitful January, with his side having played twice since the Buckinghamshire outfit were in action, and won all three clashes in the month thus far. He is likely to revert to the XI that started the 1-0 away triumph over Yeovil Town, with only Caolan Lavery a possible absentee after a knock to his thigh on Tuesday night.

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The best candidate to take the Sheffield United loanee’s place is Dom Telford, fresh from scoring an impressive brace in the stirring comeback victory over Accrington Stanley to become this season’s current top goalscorer in the EFL Trophy. His interchanges with Nicky Maynard showed a good understanding between the two forwards, and the direct running in from the right half-space of ‘Mr. Checkatrade’ is bound to make Baily Cargill ponder just how much he’ll step out of the visitors’ three-man defence to cover for captain Dean Lewington’s dashes forward.

Further back, much will depend on how often Tisdale instructs his three strikers to press the Shakers’ backline when the latter are in possession. We have already seen marked success for opposition sides in employing this tactic, and it might mean Danny Mayor will have to start from deeper on the field than he’d like to, in order to disrupt that plan.

Similarly, Neil Danns will have to be vigilant when considering the movement of languid dangerman Chuks Aneke, as he has a tendency to drop off from the spearhead of attack to either receive the ball himself or find pockets of space to anticipate a knockdown or loose pass coming his way.

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Though the Dons had hitherto stuttered in the league, a ruthless display in their 6-0 pasting of Cambridge United has renewed their fans’ confidence, even now that Rhys Healey has departed to Cardiff City (for the time being). Tisdale’s recent comments in the media suggest little movement in the transfer window, although he does remain hopeful of re-singing the Welsh frontman once a couple of weeks have passed, and his parent club have assessed him fully in training.

Like Bury, MK build from the back. The vast majority of custodian Lee Nicholls’ passes are short to his back three, 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, and in spite of conceding six goals in the last four, he and his teammates can still boast the joint tightest defence in the division.

The 11-day gap between games should be sufficient for Jordan Moore-Taylor to be fit enough to be restored to the lineup, which might mean George Williams is deployed back out on the right flank in place of Conor McGrandles. One of the shorter centre backs in the league, he nevertheless wins more than his fair share of aerial duels, and his strong left foot gives the defensive trio good balance, with both him and Cargill able to shift over slightly to their favoured side to see off threats. The latter is highly suspectible on the ground when faced with a direct threat, barely winning a fifth of his duels, hence why Lowe will surely opt for Telford over Byron Moore. That said, he’s still a very promising player, and he assists Lewington greatly down the flank, offering an outlet to put in crosses to the far post.

Mathieu Baudry, an experienced summer signing from Doncaster Rovers, has had to bide his time to get back into the reckoning, not helped by being sent off seven minutes into his debut against Crewe Alexandra, and a subsequent lengthy spell on the sidelines. He’s looked impressive on scant evidence so far, reading the play well with some timely interceptions… but never being too far from a rash challenge. He’s almost certain to have Mayor cut inside and across him first, so that could be something to watch for.

The aforementioned Lewington is the club stalwart, and it doesn’t seem as though he’s going to be under too much pressure from Mitch Hancox for his jersey anytime soon. The 34 year-old remains an important component of the team, and has contributed six assists from wing-back. Defensively, he’s much more apt to lose the ball in enemy territory, which could be used as an opportunity to counter. He’ll lap up any punts from Will Aimson down his channel, and is sure to have the beating of Telford off the floor at least.

George Williams’ versatility is one of his greatest assets, being able to perform admirably anywhere down the right side of defence in any configuration. He will rove up the flank and give Callum McFadzean little respite, and a lot could ride on how their clash plays out.

Robbie Simpson probably won’t start tomorrow, but offers a different kind of threat to the likely front three for MK – he will battle for space, and pounce on any second balls

In midfield, Jordan Houghton offers perhaps the best pivot in League Two, tasked with recovering and recycling the ball to either Alex Gilbey or the on-rushing wing-backs. He has had cameos at centre back in recent weeks as well, underlying Tisdale’s unwavering faith in his ability to thwart his adversaries and be a platform to take a stranglehold on the tempo. Gilbey’s tireless running and work rate make him the ideal person for a shuttling role between the lines of midfield and attack, and 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 once more, he cannot be allowed the freedom that the Shakers often seem to afford playmakers to face away from his own goal to pick out teammates.

Healey’s (temporary) absence could be the opportunity for Osman Sow to worm his way back into prominence, having had to be content with sporadic appearances from the bench during 2018/2019. Milton Keynes’ front three will doubtlessly be fluid in their movement, but he will normally be in the middle of them, the combination of strength and speed being a very effective weapon when he’s on song. He only needed a single chance in his last outing to underline his qualities, peeling off his marker at the near post to stroke home.

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 13 already. He could start as the left prong in attack, even if it’s not a position he’s accustomed to. 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.

However, Aneke is perhaps the biggest danger of all. He will have the upper hand in most air wars with Adam Thompson or Chris Stokes, but he is most skillful in shaking off detection in the area, like any truly predatory striker. He averages more than four shots per game, nearly of which find their mark. As I said before, 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. Like Agard, he also has 13 to his name, making the duo the most potent across the fourth tier. His attitude has been previously called into question several times, but he seems happy to see out the season in white, gold, and red (his contract expires this June).

As for a prediction, I’m going to go with a 1-1 draw. Both managers are canny operators from a tactical perspective, although Tisdale is more inclined to shuffle the pack if things aren’t going his way. It’s hard to foresee either side’s attack being completely shut out, and a more entertaining game is on the cards than the first encounter served up back in August.



Cambridge United vs Bury: Preview

Joe Dunne’s Cambridge United will welcome an extremely potent Bury outfit to the Abbey Stadium tomorrow, which I will be watching in person, hopeful (but not expectant) of a performance akin to their last four outings, which have yielded 16 goals across three competitions.

Prior to last weekend’s 3-1 reverse away at Oldham Athletic, they had been on something of a mini-revival in the league, having claimed 10 points from a possible 12, kickstarted by an extremely creditable 1-1 draw at then-leaders Lincoln City before bagging three impressive wins in a row. That spell aided their hitherto paltry efforts in attack that had them flirting dangerously with the bottom two places.

Dunne will doubtlessly be wary of the Shakers’ recent exploits, but can ill-afford to simply instruct his charges to sit back, especially at home and with three sides below them (and Cheltenham Town looked to have turned a corner).

There have been plenty of rumblings over the form (and even the condition) of custodian David Forde, and the identity of the #1 on the teamsheet at around 14:00 tomorrow is far from certain. Bulgarian Dimitar Mitov has seemed a little more assured in the recent matches he has featured in, but the problems are wider than just in goal.

The full-backs are tasked with providing all the width in the side. Jake Carroll, who Bury fans might recall during a brief loan spell five seasons ago, hasn’t been wholly convincing on the left flank this campaign, as is evidenced by the multitude of chances created down that channel (the 4-3 upset caused by Guiseley in the FA Cup a fortnight ago only reinforced that concern). On the opposite wing, Brad Halliday probably won’t be fit in time, and you can perm one from three individuals as to who will replace him if that comes to pass; I’ve gone with Liam O’Neil, who has only just returned from the treatment table himself. He should have the stamina to get forward, as well as being able to track Danny Mayor.

George Taft bemoaned the Amber & Black Army’s ‘collapse’ after the Latics defeat, as he and his teammates were made to pay for very basic errors in their own third. The tall centre-back will almost certainly triumph in any aerial duel with the likes of Nicky Maynard and Dom Telford. How much his strength in that area will be called upon, however, is another matter entirely. Unusually, both likely starters in the heart of defence are left footed, which may or may not result in an unconscious shift several yards to that flank, and they will need to ensure the gap between the right-back and the other three doesn’t become too wide, as their adversaries have the right mix of attackers that enjoy running into space with the ball.

Captain Gary Deegan takes no prisoners as the pivot in midfield, and will have his work cut out to stem the onslaught, unless his compatriots drop back when possession is lost to recover it in a timely fashion. When he does regain it, he’ll look to recycle it to the ‘wider’ players in the narrow diamond.

Like O’Neil, Reggie Lambe might re-enter the fray from the outset. The Bermudan can play anywhere across the middle of the park, has plenty of pace and good balance, which will help no in end in repelling Bury’s advances centrally. George Maris will be hoping the Shakers’ coaching staff have overlooked what he can do with time and space outside the area, as he showed to devastating effect last time out. Jevani Brown will sit off the front two when they’re out of possession, and join in quickly whenever there’s a turnover. Top scorer in the league with four to his name, he’s bound to make the visitors’ midfield two think twice about galloping forward with abandon.

Ade Azeez is yet to recapture the form he showed at AFC Wimbledon several years ago, and has not netted this term since a brace on the 11th of August. Nevertheless, he cannot be ignored as a threat, and he’ll always look to beat any offside trap, using his agility to take on a defender in a one-on-one situation. Jabo Ibehre, far from prolific either, has the physicality that the back three in dark and light blue tomorrow have struggled badly with thus far. If the target man can bring the likes of Azeez and Brown regularly into play, it will totally interrupt the Lancashire outfit’s gameplan.

The conundrum for Lowe to ruminate on will be whether to include Neil Danns in the XI; ‘fresh’ from scoring for Guyana in the CONCACAF Nations League as Tuesday turned into Wednesday back in England, there will be some doubts about how fit (and jet-lagged) the veteran midfielder will be. Celebrating his 36th birthday today, his omittance would be a small shot in the arm for Cambridge, because although Callum Styles deputised ably (but not spectacularly) in his absence against Stevenage, he just doesn’t have the same presence in the centre of the pitch, despite his tackling improving considerably in the last few months.

The rest of the starting lineup will almost certainly be unchanged from the four-star victory, apart from perhaps up top. Eoghan O’Connell’s cameo and quality finish probably won’t be enough by itself to shift any of the defence (or Styles), but he might be called into action from the bench once more, especially if the physical advantage for the U’s is getting too much for the loanee and Jay O’Shea.

Nicky Adams will have plenty of opportunities to run at (and beyond) Carroll, and although Maynard’s hot streak in front of goal has cooled a touch, neither his work-rate nor contribution in the final phase have. I imagine Lowe might favour Telford or Byron Moore over Chris Dagnall for this game, given the bedlam in the amber backline when faced with quick runners on the dribble.

As for a prediction, I believe this will be another instance in a long line, where Bury’s opposition sit back to a degree and pay a kind of tactical respect. I can’t see a way of the Shakers not peppering the goal with good quality shots (and scoring), but stranger things have happened. Lowe has done his damnedest to squash rising expectations in public, but in private, he must be quietly confident of notching another win if the dual threat of Maris lurking with intent outside the area, and the hold-up stylings of Ibhere can be nullified. That might give rise to the mentality of the squad being called into question by their manager publicly again.

I have seen five live games to date this season in one fashion or another, but have yet to witness a single victory. I think that will belatedly change, but the scoreline will be a closer one than what has characterised an extremely fruitful November to date. 4-2 to the Shakers.

Lincoln City vs Bury: Preview

The final few minutes have decided the outcome of all four matches in Bury’s season to date, and manager Ryan Lowe will possibly be hoping it doesn’t come to that once more, as he prepares to take his charges east for the trip to joint-top Lincoln City. No side in League Two has a perfect record after three games, but Danny Cowley’s men have perhaps come the closest, earning an excellent opening day victory against Northampton Town, and following it up in even more impressive fashion against Swindon Town. The derby encounter with Grimsby Town was always likely to be a close affair, and the mood around the cathedral city remains buoyant, as evidenced by the swell in support the club have received since the management team arrived in May 2016.

The Shakers have had one win, one draw and one defeat in their first set of fixtures, with the main pluses being a much more resolute look to the defence, which had hitherto been on the porous side, and a greater collective harmony and effort on the pitch.

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The hosts must contend with several injury concerns at present; custodian Josh Vickers did play on Saturday, but doesn’t look to be fit enough to keep his place. Scott Wharton might also miss the cut, and the swashbuckling style of Shay McCartan will be absent from the gaze of Sincil Bank’s floodlights, too.

The positional and tactical flexibility they possess throughout the predicted XI are chief reasons for their ability to adapt their style to both venue and opposition. At home, they’ll revert to a flat back four and neither Harry Toffolo or Neal Eardley are likely to be pressed in their own defensive third with regularity. The full-backs can flit between more advanced roles at will, and should have the freedom to get forward and provide outside options for the wider attacking midfielders.

Vickers and Wharton will be missed in goal and the heart of defence respectively, and most of Jason Shackell’s time will be spent trying to contain Gold Omotayo, or at least reduce the instances and effectiveness of the Swiss giant’s flick-ons and movement. Michael Bostwick will need to be watchful of him or Dom Telford’s runs in behind, as two other sides have already found to their cost this campaign by means of a red card. The former Peterborough United stalwart is extremely aggressive in the tackle and poses a massive danger in the opposition penalty area to boot.

Lee Frecklington uses every bit of his experience to dictate the tempo of a game from deep areas. He has an eye for goal from range if given the time and space by the opposition to saunter up the pitch unchecked. Similarly, Michael O’Connor might provide a double pivot option to help out his teammates and soak up the pressure. Watch out for his direct free-kicks and positional flexibility – the latter is a coveted commodity in a tight-knit squad that already has a few unavailable.

McCartan could be replaced by moving Tom Pett higher up, and he should be able to perform well with plenty of space to work in. Very agile and a technical dribbler, he’ll make one of the Shakers’ back three step out perhaps more than they’d want to, which could create gaps down the sides in the half-spaces.

Harry Anderson can operate on either flank, but will start on the right. He’ll have the beating of Chris Stokes for pace all day long, and is also deceptively strong for a player of his stature. Bruno Andrade’s signature was desperately wanted by a plethora of teams in the EFL’s lower leagues and for good reason. 22 goals from attacking midfield was an astonishing return for Boreham Wood in 2017/2018, and all the evidence to date suggests he has made the step up without breaking a sweat. It helps that he has John Akinde (or Matt Green from the bench) to aim for, and he likes nothing more than bursting into the area and checking back on his right foot for a clipped cross to the far post. All three goals Bury have conceded to date have come from a lack of closing down the spare man on their left.

Akinde is very strong and loves nothing more than using that to back into his marker to shield the ball, but it’s his anticipation and movement which elevates him in comparison to other strikers of similar stature. Both of his strikes have been from the spot in the league, but you’d be a fool to discount his threat in open play – the calm way he stole the ball in the EFL Cup from Nathan Smith and finished into the bottom corner might make Eoghan O’Connell a bit more wary of the time he has on the ball to start a move.

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Assuming Tom Miller and Chris Dagnall are still out, I can only foresee one change from the draw against Forest Green Rovers. Lowe must be cognizant of the numbers Lincoln will have in midfield, so he could either revert to one up top or, more likely, bring back Stephen Dawson into the XI. Stokes will have his work cut out from a defensive point of view, and given Nicky Adams’ unnatural fit for his current role, the width in attack, such as it is, will probably only come from Danny Mayor.

As for a prediction, I’m going for a keenly fought, narrow 2-1 win for Lincoln. The middle three in dark blue, no matter how they’re made up, must press as a team to ensure the likes of Frecklington and Pett are not allowed sufficient thinking time to look up and spot runners down the channels. The onus will be on the home side to set the tempo, and a repeat of the dogged performance away at Nottingham Forest will be required to glean even a single point from this match. It’s far from impossible, but given the dearth so far of clear-cut chances and goals, they might have to rely once more on the defence to restrict the opposition, more than on their own ability in attack.

Milton Keynes Dons vs Bury: Preview

I will be making the short train journey into Buckinghamshire to watch Bury take on Paul Tisdale’s MK Dons. Although both teams won on opening day, the hosts are undoubtedly the favourites, and certainly looked more dangerous than the Shakers in their respective matches, even though Ryan Lowe’s charges were up against the nine men of Yeovil Town for the last quarter of their encounter.

Not everything went Tisdale’s way during their trip to Oldham Athletic, however. No fewer than four players sustained knocks or injuries, forcing them to see out the final few minutes at Boundary Park a player light themselves.

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Bereft of several starters, the strategy is unlikely to change all that much, the emphasis still firmly placed on keeping possession, only looking to play riskier balls in the final third after working it between the more advanced midfielders. Lee Nicholls favours throwing the ball out in open play, which is a good fit for the setup. Even without Callum Brittain, there’s a good balance to the back four; captain Dean Lewington will get forward when he can, although his speed is understandably not what it once was. Joe Walsh is also left-footed, and will look to pass to his central defensive partner Jordan Moore-Taylor to make more refined use of the ball. George Williams could start out on the right, and will use his aerial prowess to compensate for his lack of height, as well as getting up the pitch to support the wide man on his flank.

Jordan Houghton will anchor the midfield, and he will need to keep tabs on Danny Mayor’s drifting runs inside. Ryan Watson will act as the go-between in the centre of the park, keeping things ticking over. Alex Gilbey dictates the tempo, and his early return to fitness after a protracted spell on the sidelines is a major plus. Unafraid to get stuck in to win the ball back, he then will gallop into the final third where he has several options: Kieran Agard peeling off his marker, Ryan Harley on one side and Chuks Aneke on the other, or he can shape to shoot, as he’s apt to do from range, and accurate to boot.

Harley scored on his debut last week, making an unopposed run to the back post after some intricate build-up. He probably won’t find Bury’s defenders quite as accommodating, but he too is a threat in the air as well as on the dribble. Aneke has been the subject of continued speculation linking him with a move away from stadium:mk, but at the time of writing, he remains in situ. Without Peter Pawlett, he could start on the right, he will look for Agard’s runs to create space for him to run into, and he most certainly can out-muscle his marker and that power translates to his shots.

Agard needs plenty of support from his teammates to be productive in a lone striker role. He doesn’t tend to create chances for himself, but his impressive agility and work rate should ensure that if some of his supply is cut off, it will be hard for Lowe to devise a method of doing it completely, even if he’s faced with three centre backs.

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I’ve talked extensively about the 5-2-2-1 in a tactical article I published earlier today, and I see no reason why Lowe will suddenly change it, even if by not doing so, he’s playing into the hands of Tisdale’s possession-heavy strategy. Chris Stokes and Tom Miller will have their work cut out on the flanks to get forward with any purpose, and the defensive line should sit fairly deep to counter Agard’s pace.

That said, the rest of the team cannot afford to do the same. Gilbey will find time and space in between the lines and have the Shakers chasing shadows if they’re not carefuul. He in particular must be pressed into at least making hasty decisions on the ball, if not mistakes. Neil Danns is the likeliest candidate to do that if the XI that started last Saturday remain the same. Callum Styles, in his first game officially on loan after moving to Barnsley, will need to pick his passes carefully to Mayor and Adams, as both he and Danns will be at a numerical disadvantage in midfield.

Mayor will need a consistent supply on the floor to get the better of Williams. Even if he beats his man, he’ll probably have at most two in the box to aim for. Nicky Adams should use Lewington’s reluctance to join his side’s attacks against him, crossing from different angles and areas to try to draw him out. If Lowe persists with Chris Dagnall, he needs the inside forwards to remain high up in close support. Gold Omotayo or Dom Telford are better fits for the system MK employ; the former because he’ll cause concern with his physicality, the latter because his pace and direct running would increase the gap between the backline and Houghton.

As for a prediction, I’m going for a 1-0 win for the home side. Even without some of their best talents, it’s hard to foresee how Bury can hurt them if Lowe sets his side up as he did in the opener. The defence looked solid against Yeovil, and will surely be tested to a far greater extent. Avoiding falling behind early will be crucial to head home with a positive result. In some ways, this is the clichéd ‘ideal time’ to be playing against MK Dons: a new manager, a long list of unavailable players, and the ones who are present are still adapting to Tisdale’s philosophy and in some cases, their new surroundings… but does the novice manager in the away dressing room have the nous to make the most of that ‘opportunity’? I have my doubts.

Portsmouth vs Bury: Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bury vs AFC Wimbledon: Preview

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

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

AFC Wimbledon vs Bury 1718

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

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

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

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



Northampton Town vs Bury: Preview

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

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

Northampton vs Bury H 1718

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

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

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

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

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

vs Northampton A 1718

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

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