Preview: Cheltenham Town

A defeat at Morecambe has really put our season thus far into sharper focus. Whereas we have spent much of the season waiting for this side to really click into gear, the nature of the performance last Saturday suggested that things might actually be set to go the other way.

Since Jodi Jones’ injury there has been a lot of focus on how Mark Robins sets about replacing the creativity and penetration that our star player offers, however, the loss of defensive solidity over the past month might actually be a far bigger concern. We have conceded in every league game since the start of November, and in a side that struggles to score goals, that could be terminal for our season if it continues.

The loss of Liam Kelly in recent weeks has probably played a big role in that loss of sturdiness at the back. Most weeks we’re up against teams that look to sit deep, having Kelly alongside Doyle as that midfield axis meant that we could break up counter-attacks much more effectively. Although Kelly made us a ponderous side in the centre of the park, having his steel in midfield meant that we only needed a few good attacking moves per game to win.

Possible Line-Up

Worryingly, losing Kelly and bringing in Ben Stevenson hasn’t had the benefit of improving our attacking play either. Duckens Nazon is pretty much the only player at the moment who looks like providing the team with a much-needed attacking spark, but Mark Robins not only substituted him at half-time against Morecambe but bizarrely singled him out for criticism. Without Jodi Jones in the side, we don’t have anyone else except from Nazon who can sow doubt in opposition defences.

This could well be a team selection with a few surprises as Mark Robins looks to scrabble around for a solution to the two big issues we’re facing at the moment. The main hope heading into this game is that last week’s defeat sparks a big enough reaction from the side to lift us out of the torpor we’re in.

Last Time We Met

While we haven’t yet met Cheltenham Town in a competitive fixture, we did play against them in a pre-season friendly ahead of the 2013/14 -a.k.a. Sixfields – season. A Sky Blues side featuring Lee Burge in goal, Jack Finch and Jordan Clarke in defence, Leon Lobjoit and Billy Daniels in midfield and a strike pairing of Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson triumphed 2-0 at Whaddon Road, with Leon Clarke and Cyrus Christie scoring the goals.

Here’s an image to prove it.

Embed from Getty Images

How Are They Doing?

On the face of it, Cheltenham are enjoying a fairly reasonable season thus far, having been tipped by many to be among the lower echelon of teams in League Two this season, to be in a fairly comfortable mid-table position represents a decent start to the campaign for Gary Johnson’s side. However, only Luton have created more chances this season in this division which has engendered a sense that they Cheltenham could be performing a lot better than they are.

Despite that wastefulness in front of goal, Cheltenham’s strikers will be the key players for us to contain. Mohamed Eisa – signed this summer from non-league Greenwich Borough – started the season in electric form, and has started to re-gather that momentum after a lean spell. His pace and unpredictability will make him a big threat on the counter-attack.

Gary Johnson has opted to rotate between two target-men strikers as Eisa’s partner in attack, Danny Wright and Brian Graham. Both are fairly rudimental tall strikers, but do tend to win a lot in the air and have been able to chip in with the odd goal, primarily from set-pieces.

Possible Line-Up

It is from dead ball situations that Cheltenham will look to supplement their counter-attacking threat. The loan signing of Joe Morrell – from Bristol City, managed by Gary Johnson’s son, Lee – has proved to be a bit of a revelation in that regard, with his set-piece deliveries and box-to-box play supplying Cheltenham with more of an attacking end product than they’d otherwise have. There is further energy from midfield in the form of Kevin Dawson and Harry Pell, while right-back Carl Winchester has a good motor on him too.

With a fairly slow back-line, it will be of little surprise to see Cheltenham look to sit fairly deep against us. It’s likely to be an occasion reminiscent of Mark Robins’ final game of his first spell in charge – against Gary Johnson’s Yeovil – where he came unstuck against a side capable of repelling the crosses into the box that were central to Robins’ attacking plan at the time. Robins is likely going to have to show more flexibility in his preferred game-plan on this occasion.

Prediction

Given the way we’ve played for much of this season against bottom half teams at the Ricoh Arena, the script for this game already looks to have been written. We’ll be ponderous and slow on the ball, our opponents will hit us on the counter-attack, have something to defend, making us even slower and more ponderous. Mark Robins has demonstrated in his two spells with the club that he can organise a defence, now he’s got to show that he can do the same in attack, or the remaining life in this campaign will seep away.

Without any cause at the moment to believe that we are about to turn a corner, I can see us losing this game 1-0.

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Preview: Morecambe

Having emphatically avoided a potentially embarrassing cup exit to Boreham Wood last week, attention turns back on the league, and finally mounting the kind of run to put ourselves into genuine promotion contention.

Like many of our wins this season, the performance against Boreham Wood was hardly a complete one, but we clicked at the right moments in order to ensure victory. Given our strength at the back, we don’t need to control games and pummel the opposition with shots, however, that lack of consistent attacking fluency has often left us struggling for ideas when our opponents are capable of nullifying our plan A.

Possible Line-Up

Mark Robins will be hoping that the line-up of the attack deployed against Boreham Wood is one that can solve the problem of what to do without Jodi Jones. Maxime Biamou as the focal point in attack played an important role in allowing Duckens Nazon and the, now in-form, Marc McNulty to get into the game, while Jordan Shipley on the left-wing looks to be further staking his claim for a regular spot in the starting XI. However, it is an attacking solution that involves playing either Nazon or McNulty on the wing, which could run into issues.

Fitness issues surrounding Liam Kelly and Rod McDonald are the main selection issues for the rest of the side. While Ben Stevenson has shown in the past couple of games that he has a role to play as a ball-playing central midfielder, Kelly’s experience and solidity could prove invaluable in this potentially bruising upcoming game against Morecambe. As far as McDonald’s concerned, Tom Davies’ recent performances have shown that we can get by without him for the odd game.

Last Time We Met

Our most recent meeting with Morecambe came in the FA Cup last season, back in the days when we were still muddling through with Mark Venus. We were probably lucky to come away from the Globe Arena with a replay, with Jamie Sterry scoring a late equaliser, but made relatively light work of Morecambe at the Ricoh Arena, despite falling behind early on, with Marvin Sordell (remember him?) scoring twice.

How Are They Doing?

Morecambe are famed at this level for starting the season strongly before falling off the rails over the course of the campaign. This season, they’ve failed to start the season in anything resembling decent form and the worry is that they’ve lost an important cushion to avoid relegation that they’ve usually been able to depend upon.

They are also a club in a dire financial situation, following a ‘takeover’ by a mysterious Brazilian businessman last summer which turned out to be too good to be true. While things looked to have settled down from the parlous state they were in last season, Morecambe’s manager, Jim Bentley, recently revealed that the club has been struggling to find a regular venue for training.

Bentley though is a manager well-accustomed to working with meagre financial resources, and has generally turned to a core of veterans to keep his side going. Target-man/winger Kevin Ellison sums up this Morecambe side, now at the age of 38, Ellison continues to produce the goods and is their leading goalscorer this season.

There is further experience in attack in the form of Garry Thompson (not the one that played for us in the 80s) while the talented but inconsistent Adam McGurk offers some spark to an otherwise functional team unit. However, Morecambe have struggled badly for goals this season – they are the division’s lowest scorers – which is another worrying sign for the club as under Jim Bentley, they have had a reputation for scoring loads and struggling to keep it tight at the back.

Possible Line-Up

However, that trend has brought the benefit that Morecambe have been better than usual in defence this season, regularly deploying a back three/five – although injuries and suspensions mean they may lack the personnel to utilise it for this fixture. Summer signings Sam Lavelle – suspended by the FA for this game for ‘deceiving a match official – and Steven Old have added defensive steel to an experienced unit with their 35 year-old goalkeeper, Barry Roche, enjoying a good season as well.

Elsewhere, former Cardiff City youngster Aaron Wildig has consistently been a class act in midfield for Morecambe over the past few years. A box-to-box midfielder with a bit of quality on the ball, he is probably one of the few players in this side who could do something at a higher level.

Prediction

I’m not particularly worried about this side this season not being able to deal with a physical tussle on a difficult away day, we have typical thrived in these kind of fixtures this season. It’s all about whether we can put away the chances we’ll inevitably get in this game, but it appears that Duckens Nazon and Marc McNulty have come into decent form over the past few weeks, so I’m confident about us in that regard too.

Put simply, I expect us to win this game. I doubt it will be a classic, but I think we’ll get the job done, by a 1-0 scoreline.

Preview: Boreham Wood

A point at home against Crawley continued an encouraging streak this season of (occasionally) winning points from losing positions. However, a tepid first half wherein the team struggled to adapt to a new system has done little to convince that we can absorb the blow of losing Jodi Jones for the season.

This FA Cup game is another opportunity for Mark Robins to experiment with the line-up and formation to find the solution of how to cope without Jones. However, the sense of occasion of this FA Cup Second Round tie – for our opponents at least – makes this far from a pressure-free environment to try some things out. If we do find ourselves behind, it will be a team playing for their biggest ever result against one struggling for a sense of purpose and ideas in attack.

As discussed last week, the creativity of Duckens Nazon and Ryan Haynes is especially important at the moment – underlined by how they combined for McNulty’s equaliser against Crawley. Ben Stevenson though was almost glossed over by myself, an encouraging second-half cameo shows how useful a ball-playing midfielder such as Stevenson can be for a team playing against a deep and organised opposition defence. A year ago we wouldn’t have accepted £1 million for him, now he’s in need of some big performances to get into a League Two side, individual footballing fortunes can change incredibly quickly.

The biggest selection decision is likely to be whether Mark Robins sticks with a back three that didn’t really work in the first-half against Crawley, or reverts to a back four. While there are different ways to play back threes that don’t require ball-playing centre-backs, the Crawley game demonstrated how difficult it can be to play out with a back three against a side sitting off you. Given that this Boreham Wood game is likely to be more of the same, Mark Robins will surely ditch the back three experiment, for now at least.

The make-up of our attack, particularly in the wide positions, will be intriguing. Mark Robins appears resistant to deploy Ryan Haynes as an out-and-out winger, while it also seems as if he’s aware that he can’t really shoe-horn in Duckens Nazon or Marc McNulty to a wide berth. That could hand Devon Kelly-Evans an opportunity to be our dynamic wide player in the set-up, particularly if Jordan Shipley or Peter Vincenti are played on the other flank.

Last Time We Met

It may surprise you to know that we haven’t played Boreham Wood in a competitive fixture, and it seems we haven’t even come up against them in a friendly game.

Weirdly though, we have played and won at their ground, in a friendly victory over Watford in the post-Callum Wilson phase of Steven Pressley’s reign. It was a showing that offered hope that we could make a 3-5-2 system work, hope that proved to be entirely false.

How Are They Doing?

After a few fairly underwhelming years in the National League, Boreham Wood have really come to the fore this season. The Hertfordshire side sit seventh in the table, are 11 games unbeaten, and came from behind to dump Blackpool out of the FA Cup in the earlier rounds.

They are a team packed with quick players who had shown promise in their early careers with much bigger clubs, only to lose their way a little. Ex-QPR winger Bruno Andrade had led the way for the Wood this season with nine goals, while they have depth in wide positions in the form of ex-Sky Blues winger Blair Turgott and another former QPR youth-teamer Angelo Balanta.

Given the career trajectories of some of their more talented players, it’s likely that several Boreham Wood players will be looking to prove a point in this game that they can make it in the Football League. The three aforementioned wingers have shown earlier in their careers during Football League loan spells that they can be match-winners on their day, and a big performance from anyone of those three could provide their careers an immediate shot in the arm.

Possible Line-Up

Someone else likely to be setting out to prove a point is ex-Sky Blues youth-teamer Shaun Jeffers – at one point rated higher than Callum Wilson in the academy pecking order. Jeffers has taken time to adapt to senior football, but earned a move to Boreham Wood over the summer after an impressive 21 goals in 42 appearances in the division below with Chelmsford City. He has however, struggled to get on the scoresheet consistently since his summer move.

Additionally, their right-back, Kane Smith, was on trial with us last summer when Tony Mowbray was still manager, but was not offered a contract.

With pace in attack, Boreham Wood have some experienced campaigners further back, with Dean Wells in central defence and defensive midfielder Tom Champion proven performers over several years at National League level. Given the balance of the side, it’s highly likely that Boreham Wood will look to sit deep before hitting us on the counter, which is likely to be a further indication that Mark Robins cannot play a back three of fairly slow (except Jordan Willis) centre-backs who aren’t the best on the ball.

Prediction

Our ongoing creative issues – inexorably exacerbated by Jodi Jones’ injury – makes it hard to be confident heading into what is, in theory at least, a relatively kind FA Cup draw. As mentioned earlier, if we concede the first goal in this game, we could find ourselves in a Ricoh Arena bear-pit fighting to avoid a cup elimination and the pressure starting to mount on our wider season.

I can’t tell whether I think we can come through this test or whether I’m simply hoping we do. Regardless, I can see this being a dull and edgy 1-0 win, which is all that really matters in these kind of cup ties.

Preview: Maidenhead United

After an unexpectedly brilliant win away at the then league leaders Luton, a looming crisis of confidence has been averted. However, this FA Cup tie in what could be an especially soulless Ricoh Arena against non-league opposition could quickly render McNulty’s header, Shipley’s free-kick and Nazon’s late coup de grace at Kenilworth Road into distant memories.

After humbling exits in each of the past three years – Cambridge last year, Northampton the year before, and notably, Worcester the year before that – it should be abundantly clear that a tie against a supposedly lesser club in the FA Cup is far from straightforward. Mark Robins hasn’t treated the cup competitions seriously thus far this season but given the tradition of the FA Cup, as well as the revenue a good run would generate, it would be negligent for him to disregard this competition.

Moreover, the squad has had a week’s rest heading into this game and there’s only a Checkatrade Trophy tie to play the following midweek. There are no excuses for not naming our strongest line-up here and treating it as we would a normal league game, albeit one that takes us a step closer to a potential trip to a big Premier League side.

Possible Line-Up

Just what our full-strength team at the moment is something of a debate, despite the performance against Luton. While the back six or seven players looks to be fairly settled, the make-up of our strongest attacking line-up is yet to be resolved. While there is the temptation for Robins to stick with a winning team, Maidenhead United are going to be vastly different opponents to Luton Town, and he may consider adjusting the personnel accordingly.

In an ideal world, this is probably a game to bring Ben Stevenson into the midfield in place of either Michael Doyle or Liam Kelly so that we have someone who can get their foot on the ball and orchestrate extended periods of possession more comfortably – that’s not going to happen though. I would expect Maxime Biamou to come in for Jordan Ponticelli in order to give the side a focal point to aim crosses into the box. A more dynamic wide option than Peter Vincenti is another must, but that could mean shunting Duckens Nazon or Marc McNulty onto the wing.

Last Time We Met

We’ve never played Maidenhead United in a competitive fixture, not once.

How Are They Doing?

A town most famous for its Isambard Kingdom Brunel-built bridge and for being the constituency of the legendary UK Prime Minister Theresa May, its local football club are on the up. Promoted into the National League last season as National League South champions, Maidenhead stormed the opening month of the National League campaign thanks to the goals of Dave Tarpey.

Tarpey, reportedly offered the chance to sign for us over the summer, scored a suspiciously impressive 44 goals in 41 appearances for Maidenhead in the National League South last season. After seven goals in six appearances at the start of the season, Tarpey took the decision to sign for Barnet, before picking up a serious injury in his second appearance for the club.

Maidenhead manager and former West Ham legend Alan Devonshire is a wily operator in non-league, having turned part-time Braintree into a competitive outfit in the National League in his previous managerial posting. Devonshire has struggled at times to adjust his side to the loss of their goal machine, although midfielder Adrian Clifton has helped ease the burden with six goals from the centre of the park this season.

Possible Line-Up

Clifton looks the biggest danger-man among Maidenhead’s ranks, an attack-minded central player with skill and pace with the ball. In a counter-attacking unit, Clifton is important in not only carrying the ball forward but in supplying an end product in and around the penalty area. Winger Harry Pritchard is another key element of Maidenhead’s counter-attacking play, while the pacey Moses Emmanuel out wide has been a reliable National League goalscorer in recent years.

Even in the National League, Maidenhead look to defend deep and try and nick something either on the break or from set-pieces – with centre-backs Jake Goodman and Alan Massey someone we’ll need to make sure to mark. It was already apparent from the respective statures of the sides that this game would be about us looking to break-down a dogged and determined part-time side, but we are up against one with plenty of practice doing so this season.

Prediction

Not to be patronising towards Maidenhead, but this game, and certainly the stadium, will be their biggest in a long time. While they are a part-time side, they are only in the division below us so the gulf in quality between the two sides isn’t going to be as large as the respective histories of the clubs would suggest. This is a dangerous game for us if we show up expecting to stroll to victory.

Even if we do show the right attitude, this game presents the challenge of breaking down an organised defence at the Ricoh, which we’ve struggled on multiple occasions already this season. If we can get an early goal to settle the nerves, this game should be more straightforward than I fear it will be.

This is a game we should win, and I’m going to back us to get the job done with a 1-0 scoreline.

Preview: Forest Green Rovers

If confirmation was still needed that we are in League Two this season, then Saturday’s defeat to Accrington – if only for the reputation of the opposition – was provided it. It was also a rare occasion this season where we deserved to lose – we not only struggled to score, but it was a game where our defence looked shaky too.

The chief concern at the moment though is those struggles in front of goal. Whether it’s a lack of creativity or a lack of a killer instinct in front of goal that’s the specific reason why we’re struggling in front of goal, improving either will resolve our problems. As we appear to lack a cold-hearted goal poacher, we either need someone to step up and become that kind of player or we simply need to improve the quantity and quality of chances we’re creating.

This upcoming game against the league’s worst defence would appear the perfect opportunity to build some confidence in front of goal. For Mark Robins, it’s a case of either hoping the front four that seemed to work during our recent run of three straight wins will click back into gear or twisting and trying to integrate someone like Marc McNulty or Peter Vincenti into the starting line-up.

Possible Line-Up

With Devon Kelly-Evans having a quiet game against Accrington, he seems the likeliest candidate to be taken out of the side. Marc McNulty has shown he can operate out wide to a reasonable level of effectiveness, which would have the benefit of adding an extra striker to the dynamic and also keeping Duckens Nazon in a central position where he’s more effective. However, playing Peter Vincenti out wide could Robins to pair McNulty and Nazon together without losing a physical presence in attack.

Liam Kelly’s absence from the side was a blow on Saturday and his potential return for this game would be welcome. While Ben Stevenson clearly has something to offer this team, the defensive protection Kelly offers via his physical strength and ability to win first and second balls makes us a more composed team-unit, and there isn’t really a debate to be had over whether he should return.

Last Time We Met

For the third game in a row (or two in three depending on your opinion on the reformation of Accrington Stanley) we’re up against a club that we’ll be facing in the league for the first time ever.

How Are They Doing?

When Forest Green won promotion from the National League last season, their chairman declared that ‘reaching League One will be easy’, however, it’s been a disaster of a campaign thus far on a multitude of levels (second-bottom, league’s worst defence, and having recently released their captain) putting paid to such ambitions, at least in the short-term.

Despite a blitzing play-off final victory last season, the cracks that have been exposed at a higher-level this season were apparent during that promotion-winning campaign. Manager Mark Cooper seemed to develop a habit of turfing out some of his more expensive signings at any sign of poor form but was able to turn to the emergency loan window to bail himself out. Without that luxury – and the club having to abide by financial fair play regulations – it seems to be a very unhappy camp at the club.

Possible Line-Up

As mentioned earlier, club captain Liam Noble was recently released by the club. Not only did Forest Green turn down £100,000 for him from Notts County (who he’s recently signed for on a free) but he was one of their most pivotal players in their promotion-winning campaign as a driving force from midfield. Of the dynamic front four of Christian Doidge, Kaiyne Woolery, Keanu Marsh-Brown and Liam Noble that blew Tranmere away back in May, only the excellent all-round centre-forward Doidge is likely to line-up in this game.

The rest of Forest Green’s side is even harder to predict after Mark Cooper reportedly vowed to play some of the club’s younger players, following a 4-0 defeat to Newport County at the weekend. It’s the indication of a manager clearly feeling the pressure and is rapidly running out of things he can say and do to the side in order to get a reaction. However, the one thing Cooper is sticking with is a passing style of football – which has been another major contributing factor to the club’s terrible season thus far.

Prediction

This is as close to an open goal kind of game as it’s possible to get. If we can get an early goal, the floodgates could really open and allow us to build some confidence in front of goal. Although, Forest Green did recently take a point that was nearly all three away to Notts County recently, indicating that they do have a decent performance up their sleeve under the right conditions.

Overall though, this is a game that we have to be confident of winning. I’m going for a 2-0 scoreline.

Preview: Walsall

A third win in a row, and the first-time that we’ve won all three games in a three-game week since 2001 . The league campaign has really hit lift-off now, with this upcoming Checkatrade Trophy tie with Walsall feeling more like a distraction than a chance to mount another run towards Wembley.

With this being the fourth game in the space of 10 days – and with a league game to be played on Saturday – Mark Robins is almost certain to stretch the competition’s rules on rotating the side to the maximum. After losing the opening group game of this competition, if we lose this game and Shrewsbury win theirs, we are out.

Running through the potential changes to the side, while this game could be a good opportunity for the likes of Liam O’Brien and Dion Kelly-Evans to get a run-out, Robins may end up prioritising other positions in which to rest the incumbents in order to keep within the competition’s rules.

Possible Line-Up

Chris Stokes seems the likeliest member of the back five to be rested, and although Ryan Haynes has only just returned to training, Mark Robins can choose from Chris Camwell and Jordan Shipley – who have both acquitted themselves well at left-back in cup games this season. With Doyle and Kelly both likely to be rested, Ben Stevenson is certain to come into the team and his midfield partner probably depends on whether Shipley is used at left-back, with Callum Maycock more than capable as an alternative central midfield option.

This game is also a chance for Marc McNulty, Stuart Beavon and possibly Peter Vincenti to make returns to the starting line-up after recent injuries. McNulty is the likeliest player to come in for Nazon for the upcoming league game against Barnet, so Robins will surely will want him to get minutes under his belt. Maxime Biamou looked jaded towards the end of the Crewe game, which enhances the case for Beavon to start. Vincenti, if fit, seems likely to come in for Jodi Jones, who it wouldn’t hurt to keep fresh for more important games.

Last Time We Met

Although relegation had already been confirmed by the time we last played Walsall, the players produced a performance of character and quality to display that they hadn’t downed tools. Most notably, the forgotten man Vladimir Gadzhev had an excellent game in central midfield, and George Thomas scored the only goal, which ultimately further secured his future away from this club. There was also a red card for Walsall in the second-half of that game which effectively ended the contest.

How Are They Doing?

This season has seen Walsall continue their inconsistent form under manager Jon Whitney. Whenever things look like breaking out into all-out crisis, Whitney always somehow manages to stumble across a winning formula to ease the pressure on him – although Walsall have only won one game out of their past six in the league.

Possible Line-Up

While Erhun Oztumer is still, by far, Walsall’s key attacking player, their attacking options this season have been bolstered via the loan signings of Tyler Roberts and ex-Sky Blues forward Dan Agyei. Agyei seems to have improved slightly on the inconsistency he showed with us last year, but Roberts has stood-out more with his pace and direct-running adding an extra dimension to Walsall’s attacking options.

The nature of this competition though means that Jon Whitney is likely to give opportunities to some of Walsall’s more promising younger players from their fairly successful academy. The likes of Liam Kinsella and Reece Flanagan have had a fair few first-team opportunities in recent years without establishing themselves in the team, while there are hopes around the club that defender Kory Roberts and winger Maz Kouhyar (once on the books at Coventry City) will develop into first-team regulars over the next few years.

Prediction

Walsall as both the home side and the higher-division side start are favourites for this game by default. On any other occasion though, we would see this tie as a chance to spring something of an upset, but with Robins likely to name a heavily-changed side, it all depends on how seriously Walsall are willing to take this game too.

If Walsall name a full-strength XI, they’ll win this fairly comfortably. If some of their better attacking players are rested, there’s probably a fair chance that a spirited Sky Blues side packed with youngsters looking to stake a first-team claim could go out and get the win – especially given the fairly positive mood around the club. Being my usual pessimistic self though, I’m going for a 1-0 defeat.

Preview: Southend United

Any hope that the feted ‘new manager bounce’ would give us the faintest of hope of beating the drop was extinguished on Saturday. It wasn’t just that we loss to Bradford, it was the manner of it -the baffling team selection, the inability to capitalise on a brief spell of being on top, the sloppy defending, the poor response of the team to salvaging anything from the game – that was concerning, it was exactly like watching a Russell Slade Coventry City team.

After barely a week in charge of the team, it was perhaps to be expected that there was little Robins could change about the side. However, the team selection decisions such as playing Kwame Thomas on the wing, starting the ineffectual Charles Vernam or picking Kevin Foley over Dion Kelly-Evans were bad calls that didn’t have to be made. Additionally, putting on another defender to replace the injured Chris Stokes at 2-0 down was overly negative for someone who is, in theory, here to lead us to promotion next season. Robins needs to demonstrate in these remaining games that he can play a team that not only functions, but can take the game to the opposition.

In the situation we’re in, it probably behoves Robins to assess as many of the options available to him in the squad, than it does to quickly settle on an XI in an attempt to grind out results. The question about the starting line-up for this upcoming game against Southend is not about which players will come into the team, but who did enough on Saturday to merit another start.

Of the starters against Bradford, only really Jordan Turnbull and Ben Stevenson appeared to acquit themselves effectively, although George and Kwame Thomas probably deserve some marks for effort. Dion Kelly-Evans was a real bright spark when he came off the bench, and with Kevin Foley likely to be out long-term, the door has opened up to establish himself as our first-choice right-back heading into next season.

It’s anyone’s guess who’ll come into the side, although Jodi Jones, Gael Bigirimana and possibly Kyel Reid seem the likeliest benefciaries of sweeping changes to the starting line-up.

Last Time We Met

The Southend away game back in December was towards the end of a run of form under Mark Venus that had extinguished any optimism that our start to the season had been an aberration. Southend cruised to a comfortable 3-1 victory at Roots Hall, taking the lead very early on in the game and then scoring twice in five minutes before Dan Agyei mustered a consolation goal. A spiky post-match interview from Mark Venus indicated that we not only had several players who didn’t want to be at the club, but a manager as well, somehow things have gotten worse since that day.

How Are They Doing?

Phil Brown has done a remarkable job at Southend this season in getting them around the play-off places, mainly down to some excellent work in the transfer window. After losing key players in the summer and starting the season fairly slowly, Southend mustered a remarkable run of form over the winter to put them into play-off contention, but have failed to win their past three games and will be looking to kick-start a flagging top six bid with a win over the division’s bottom club.

The star of this season has been former Reading and West Brom striker Simon Cox, who has scored 11 and assisted eight goals thus far, picked up on a free in the summer after several lean years. The controversial Nile Ranger, free transfer after over a year out of the game, had provided an effective foil up front for Southend before getting suspended by the club. In Ranger’s stead, Marc-Antoine Fortuné, free transfer after an underwhelming spell at the Ricoh Arena, has stepped up to the mark with four goals and five assists in 26 appearances this season.

Southend have goals from midfield in the form of Anthony Wordsworth, Stephen McLaughlin, Ryan Leonard and Will Atkinson. However, it’s the energy and competitiveness of the midfield that’s been the real hall-mark of Southend’s success under Phil Brown in recent years. The former Hull manager likes to rotate the squad and formation, but whoever plays and in whatever shape, they always look to press, physically intimidate and frustrate opponents in the centre of the park.

Possible Line-Up

In Jason Demetriou and Ben Coker, Southend have two of the division’s best attacking full-backs. Both have excellent delivery and are capable of taking set-pieces, Coker is a more orthodox attacking full-back in that he’ll run in straight lines and cross from deep, Demetriou is more marauding and can get to the by-line or into the box and cause all-round confusion if not properly dealt with.

It’s generally been Adam Thompson and Anton Ferdinand at the back this season for Southend, with young goalkeeper Ted Smith making his breakthrough into the first-team this campaign following Daniel Bentley’s departure for Brentford over the summer. Phil Brown is capable of switching between a back four and a back three, which makes the job of predicting their line-up very difficult. but in general, Southend are physical and no-nonsense in defence, so will eat up crosses for breakfast.

Prediction

Like most of the games at this level of football, we’re up against a team with experience and physicality all over the pitch who have the potential to really bully us. In particular, I’m worried that we’ll allow time and space on the ball for Southend’s attacking full-backs, which will lead to crosses, and we struggle to defend crosses. However, attacking full-backs should mean space in behind if we can counter quickly, particularly as Southend appear to lack pace in their squad. A good game-plan could win us this game, it’s just whether the players can be motivated to follow it in the knowledge that relegation is all but certain.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about our hopes at the moment, and I can’t see much reason to deviate from that feeling. 2-1 loss.