Preview: Colchester United

There seems fine margins at times between a good performance and a terrible one. On the opening day, we could barely string three passes together for long periods of the game but were apparently set to walk the league. While it’s a stretch to say we played well on Tuesday, there was a pretty determined reaction to falling behind which, on another day, might have precipitated a stirring comeback.

There is no defending the opening 20 minutes of the performance against Tuesday night, easy passes were going astray, poor decisions were made in attack, and then Lee Burge crystallised it all by dropping the ball into his own net. Against a team struggling for confidence and leaking goals, we should never had found ourselves in the situation we did, but we really should have scored at least one of the several opportunities we laboured to create.

We’re getting to that stage of the season though (and especially after the two scoreless games beforehand) where creating good chances and not taking them is less encouraging. A month or so ago, you could perhaps relax in the hope that there will be games to come when the ball hits the back of the net rather than the post or keeper’s hands, there isn’t that patience now that games are starting to matter that little bit more.

Possible Line-Up

For this upcoming game against Colchester, Mark Robins faces the decision of sticking with what threatened to be a dangerous front four of Maxime Biamou, Jodi Jones, Duckens Nazon and Marc McNulty or twist on a Peter Vincenti or Jordan Ponticelli and hope that something clicks. Personally, I saw enough on Tuesday to give the same front four another go in the hope that more match experience together will lead to more fluency, but there is a desperation for an immediate solution to our goal-scoring woes that could lead to Robins changing things up yet again.

There isn’t really much cause for making other changes without risking further disruption to the dynamic of the side. Lee Burge’s error – at a time when he was starting to gain some trust – could lead to calls for his dropping, but it would be in favour of another goalkeeper who we we’ve seen is prone to sloppy errors too. As I’ve argued before, dropping a goalkeeper after just one error will do more harm than good.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting against Colchester was another frustrating midweek game at the Ricoh Arena. Colchester, who at the time were all but condemned to relegation to League Two, were up against an out-of-form Tony Mowbray Coventry City but one that still had a shot at making the play-offs. An early goal for Colchester winger Gavin Massey set the tone for a laboured performance for the Sky Blues, with Jacob Murphy missing a penalty and Jodi Jones the only real bright spot from the performance.

How Are They Doing?

I had high hopes for Colchester heading into this season. They had narrowly missed out on the play-offs last year, mainly due to a nightmare run of injuries over the course of the campaign, and had a young and improving squad. However, following the loss of experienced centre-forward Chris Porter to Crewe over the summer, Colchester lost that momentum from last season and have been incredibly inconsistent thus far.

Manager John McGreal has probably displayed some of his inexperience as a manager – with last year his first managerial campaign – with formations and line-ups fairly inconsistent thus far, as well as splurging out on a series of loan signings on the final day of the transfer window that appear to have disrupted the side more than they’ve added quality.

Nonetheless, Colchester have some exciting young players in their squad and could be well-set to cause us some serious problems in this game. In particular, they have pace and quality on the break in the form of wingers Drey Wright and Sammie Szmodics. Wright is a direct and skilful winger who has been a reliable attacking threat this season and could well earn a move to a higher level over the next 12 months. Szmodics also has that potential, although he operates more centrally and has more goals in his game. Both though are doubts for this game through injury.

Striker Mikael Mandron has been key for Colchester this season as Chris Porter’s replacement. Mandron’s greater level of mobility as a target-man in theory makes him a more talented player than Porter, but as a much less-experienced player and being less of a goalscorer, Colchester have still felt the impact of Mandron’s loss.

Possible Line-Up

In midfield, Colchester have a level of quality and control that few other League Two sides have. The diminutive Tom Lapslie can really dictate games from deep in midfield, with ex-Watford prospect Sean Murray playing more of a box-to-box role. Murray in particular has been in good form this season, while Colchester also have Craig Slater – who had a superb last season – and the experienced Doug Loft to call upon.

In defence, Colchester are relatively inexperienced with academy products Frankie Kent and Kane Vincent-Young fairly key players. Ryan Jackson at right-back has more experience and was recently a key player for Gillingham when they were challenging for promotion from League One. Jackson is not only incredibly quick (like, really quick) but also possesses a powerful long throw which we’ll have to contain.

Prediction

A fast start to this game could well be imperative in easing some of the tension that has descended at the Ricoh Arena at this moment in time. Rightly or wrongly, the crowd were very quick to turn on the players on Tuesday night, and anything less than a win here (no matter what level of performance) will only serve to make the pressure more suffocating for future games.

Colchester’s pace on the counter scares me, particularly as we’ve shown at times this season that we labour when allowed time on the ball against a team sitting back against us. I’m desperate for us to win this game just to allow the atmosphere around the club to calm down, however, I think this may be a frustrating 1-1 draw.

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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: Accrington Stanley

Ever since relegation to League Two seemed certain, it was inevitable that this day would come – Accrington Stanley, away.

While we have adjusted to life in League Two reasonably successfully and look at least capable of getting out of this division at the first attempt, simply seeing Coventry City line up in a league match against a club famous for not being famous is going to be difficult for many to stomach. However, this is a match that counts for just as many points as all the rest, so let’s not dwell on the fact.

We head into this game on the back of a four-game unbeaten run, albeit after a slightly underwhelming performance away to Barnet last week – which we somehow ended up dominating by 16 shots against three. Leaving aside Accrington’s stature in the game, they are going to provide probably the sternest test, away from home, of our ability to sustain a promotion push. Come the end of the day we may have a better indication whether this defensive toughness has been more down to luck/playing weak opponents or the actual organisation and individual quality of this side.

What was apparent at Barnet was that lack of cutting edge in the final third, with Duckens Nazon’s absence keenly felt. Marc McNulty got into some promising positions – particularly when moved out onto the right-wing – but lacked the confidence/decision-making to get the goal from open play that he so desperately needs. Meanwhile, Jodi Jones was a peripheral figure, and Maxime Biamou and Devon Kelly-Evans tried but perhaps lacked a bit of quality in their execution.

Possible Line-Up

Nazon’s return to the side – fatigue from international excursions permitting – should boost our fluency and potency in attack, but it still feels like we’re somewhere shot of gelling as an attacking unit. If Nazon is fully-fit, it seems likely that he’ll take Marc McNulty’s place in the side, which would be a further set-back for the latter’s integration into the side. However, if McNulty stays in the side and someone else is dropped, we lose either the physical presence of Maxime Biamou or the energy of Devon Kelly-Evans. Restoring a front four that recent won three games in a row seems the logical decision.

There are no selection decisions to be made throughout the rest of the side, although Ryan Haynes’ return to fitness potentially provides us with another useful option from the bench for this game.

Last Time We Met

You could be forgiven for believing that this will be our first ever competitive meeting against Accrington Stanley, but that is incorrect (well, technically it is correct because the original Accrington Stanley folded in 1966, but we have played a team named ‘Accrington Stanley’ before).

We have been in the same division as them in two previous seasons – 1925-26 and 1959-60 – and we have won three of the four encounters. The most recent was at Highfield Road back in February 1960 when goals from Alan Daley and Ken Satchwell earned a narrow 2-1 win for Billy Frith’s Coventry City, back in the days before we were the Sky Blues.

How Are They Doing?

Despite famously having one of the smallest budgets and attendances in the Football League, Accrington have been one of the better teams at this level over the past few seasons – narrowly missing out on the play-offs last year and automatic promotion the year before. Just why Accrington have consistently over-performed over the past few years has been down to the management of John Coleman – now in his second spell at the club, having led them up from the National League in his first spell.

In a similar manner to Keith Hill at Rochdale, Coleman’s organisation of the side, along with a keen eye for talent and the ability to maximise that talent have been crucial to Accrington’s success. Although they have an element of niggliness to their game, they have been able to dominate their opponents with possession and chances on a pretty consistent basis. Those expecting a game against dogged minnows looking to sit back and hoof it will be in for a rude awakening.

The core of this Accrington side have been in place for a few years now, albeit while losing some key players to bigger clubs along the way. Mark Hughes in central defence is a veteran at this level, while Seamus Conneely playing just in front of the back four provides good protection, in attack, the wide-play and set-piece deliveries of Sean McConville are crucial, as is the all-round centre-forward play of Billy Kee – the latter three in particular have arguably been among the best performers in League Two over the past two or three seasons.

Possible Line-Up

The rest of the team is made up of pretty interchangeable and disposable loan signings and free transfers, although John Coleman’s eye for talent means that there is still quality outside of the core of the team. Stanley have been particularly enlivened this season by the pace of Kayden Jackson in attack, who has combined with Billy Kee for 13 goals this season. While the creative Jordan Clark and the presence of Liam Nolan in midfield have helped supply the bullets for Kee and Jackson.

Accrington also have Farrend Rawson in their ranks, which is slightly surprising despite him not having an amazing spell with us last season given that he still looked useful enough to deserve at least another season in League One. With Sean McConville’s set-piece deliveries, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get on the scoresheet against us.

Prediction

As should be clear from this preview, Accrington are going to be a a big challenge for us – although they did fold rather meekly against Luton at home last week. The experience and professionalism of our squad means we’re unlikely to be over-awed by the setting of the game so it should be a case of how we’ll deal with Kee and Jackson in Accrington’s attack and whether the return of the Duck can make us more clinical than we were last week.

I can see this game ending in a 1-1 draw.

Preview: Crewe Alexandra

A week ago, I was worried that we could be set for a three or four game winless run. A week later, the question now is whether we can win a third game in a row and cement our status as promotion candidates. These three game weeks can very quickly change the complexion of a season – especially at this early stage.

A first away win at Swindon since the invention of the steam engine has further fuelled the sense that this team has the mental fortitude that previous Coventry City sides have lacked. While we had the better of the chances, it wasn’t a particularly dominant or convincing win – taking a red card and wonder goal from Duckens Nazon to settle the contest in our favour – however, getting wins on those difficult Tuesday night away games when you’re not playing your best football is what teams that win promotion do.

Possible Line-Up

There is still a long way to go this season, but we’ve got to milk this momentum for everything that it’s worth. We’re up against a Crewe side in this upcoming game that are struggling for confidence, but have several dangerous attacking players, which would make this a bad game to take lightly.

In terms of team selection, once again, there is little reason for Mark Robins to change the team up – both due to a lack of options due to injuries, and the form we’re in at the minute. Marc McNulty made it back onto the pitch on Tuesday after a spell out with injury, but even if he was fully-fit, Maxime Biamou and Duckens Nazon have both been in impressive form over the past couple of games – Biamou is looking a real powerhouse (albeit, not in terms of finishing) now that his fitness has improved, while The Duck very much remains The Duck.

Last Time We Met

While Crewe have bloodied our noses on a number of occasions in recent years, Tony Mowbray’s Sky Blues produced two of their better performances in our past two meetings to hopefully consign that sense of hoodoo to posterity.

The most recent meeting was a comfortable evisceration just after New Year’s Day in 2016 that seemed to signal a return to form following a blip over the previous month. With Joe Cole and James Maddison pulling the strings in midfield, it was left to Adam Armstrong and Jacob Murphy to put Crewe to the sword, Armstrong notching a hat-trick and Murphy getting a brace.

Earlier in the same season, Tony Mowbray’s side also dominated much of the game against the same opponents, only for some sloppy defending to allow Crewe to be within seven minutes of a point. That was until Jim O’Brien returned a poor defensive clearance from Crewe with interest, cueing delirium in the stands at a first ever victory over Crewe at the Ricoh Arena.

How Are They Doing?

Things were going so well for Crewe since the sacking of the loathed Steve Davis back in January and his replacement by ex-player David Artell. After taking the defensive shackles off the side and getting some of Crewe’s talented youngsters playing with confidence, Artell then added some important experience to the squad over the summer transfer window, supplying the belief that Crewe were play-off candidates this season at the very least.

However, things have gone off the rails for the Railwaymen over the past month, with Crewe now on a run of four consecutive defeats. Crewe’s form seems to have highlighted David Artell’s lack of experience as a manager – particularly his failure to sign adequate defensive cover over the summer, leaving the side playing a right-back in central defence and central midfielders at full-back, after a few injuries and suspensions.

Furthermore, Artell has altered the style of play slightly from the fast-paced attacking football that provided a real lift to the club towards the end of last season, attempting to shoe-horn in the experienced target-man Chris Porter into the side. While Crewe have still been an exciting team to watch at their very best this season, teams seem to have figured out how to stop them getting into a rhythm, and their defence has been run ragged at times.

As should be apparent from the above, Crewe’s strengths lay in attack. In particular, winger/forward George Cooper is up there with Jodi Jones as one of the most exciting and devastating young attacking players at this level of football. Cooper first broke through into Crewe’s team in 2014, where he scored a superb free-kick against us at Gresty Road, and looked set to become the club’s next big talent to emerge from their production line. However, his career stalled under the management of Steve Davis, but he has flourished again since David Artell’s appointment and will give our full-backs an absolute nightmare if he’s allowed to run directly at them.

Possible Line-Up

Crewe have experience and reliable quality in their strikers via the aforementioned Chris Porter, as well as ex-Sky Blues loanee Chris Dagnall. Porter was, quite literally, a big signing for Crewe this summer after his exploits at a similarly young and exciting Colchester squad. Porter’s goals and presence in the side as an attacking focal point were a big reason behind Colchester’s eighth-place finish last year. Dagnall is much smaller but, as we saw during his time at Coventry City, he’s an incredibly hard-working player and one that has found goals easier to come by now that he’s dropped down into League Two.

Despite having been part of some poor Crewe defences over recent years, Ben Garratt in goal is someone who has been tipped for a bright future in the game. He is one of those goalkeepers who can, on occasion, completely shut up shop and make it a frustrating afternoon for the opposition.

Prediction

This game will be another test of the mentality of this side. On paper, this looks a regulation home win against a Crewe side struggling for confidence, however, it’s these kinds of games against teams you’re expected to beat that can prove to be something of a banana skin once you’ve started to string a couple of wins together. If the players take the foot off the pedal, then we could be outside of the play-offs at the end of the game – emphasising how early it still is in the season.

Nonetheless, I think this Coventry City side has the wherewithal not to take this game overly lightly, so I’m going to back us to win this game 2-1.

Also on the site this week:

Jack Grimmer – 10-game review

Liam Kelly – 10-game review

Jod Jones – 50-game review

Preview: Swindon Town

A comfortable victory over the league leaders looks a real shot in the arm for our season. While it has been far from a terrible start to the campaign, that win over Exeter was probably our most complete performance thus far – and there was still room for improvement.

Praise has to go to Mark Robins for just how well-drilled the team looked with each player seeming to have clear idea of what was expected from them in their position. Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis excelled against one of the division’s best strikers, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly not only provided their usual midfield sturdiness but looked miles more comfortable in possession than they had been at the start of the season. All of which gave a platform for Jodi Jones torment another opposing back-line, supported by the committed performance of Devon Kelly-Evans and the occasional flashes of inspiration Duckens Nazon provided.

Possible Line-Up

The challenge now is to build on Saturday’s win, to ensure that a victory over the league leaders is not just one-off display but one that cements our status as promotion candidates. Standing in our way, are Swindon Town – a club who have inflicted some frustrating afternoons upon better Coventry City vintages than this current one.

The starting XI against Exeter was one thrown together at, almost literally, the last minute due to the amount of injuries we’re carrying at the moment. Mark Robins will almost be forced to stick with a winning team for this game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of cover in certain areas of this squad could be troubling if we pick up one or two more injuries over the next few games.

Last Time We Met

2012: 2-0 up with 13 minutes left, draw 2-2.

2013: 1-0 up with four minutes left, lose 2-1.

2013 (again): 1-0 up with 13 minutes left, lose 2-1.

2014: 1-0 up with 18 minutes left, draw 1-1.

2015: 2-0 up with five minutes left, draw 2-2.

What else is there to really say about our past encounters against Swindon Town other than they’ve been utterly miserable for us?

Last season we were so abject that we didn’t even get the opportunity to throw away a seemingly comfortable lead against them in either encounter. First off, it was a drab opening day defeat at the County Ground that seemed to set the tone for the first half of our season. Then it was an even more dismal defeat at the Ricoh Arena that effectively ended our survival hopes and was almost certainly the final straw for Russell Slade, even if he did continue for a few more games afterwards.

How Are They Doing?

That win back in February did Swindon little good as they went on to join us in relegation from League One. Like us, it has been a near complete overhaul of the playing squad over the summer, like us, it has also been a bit of an inconsistent start to the season, but also like us, they are showing signs of clicking into gear.

Manager David Flitcroft (once a contender to take over at Coventry City last year following Tony Mowbray’s departure) has a something of a reputation for producing inconsistent sides. A bit like Mowbray, Flitcroft has a tendency to tinker with his line-up when it isn’t particularly required, although he’s more in the Chris Coleman mode of unnecessarily playing players out of position.

Nonetheless, Flitcroft seems to have stumbled across an attacking formula over the past few weeks that has proven effective. The frustrating but surprisingly technically adept front-man Luke Norris is currently being supported in attack by a mobile and nippy trio of Kellan Gordon, Keshi Anderson and Paul Mullin. Norris in particular has been in strong form this season – only Reuben Reid has either scored or assisted as many goals (8) as he has in League Two thus far.

Possible Line-Up

The tigerish James Dunne and the more creative Derby loanee Timi Elsnik have also seemed to have settled into a good partnership for Swindon in recent weeks. While Flitcroft has another useful card to play from the bench in former West Ham and Portsmouth man Matthew Taylor – while his legs seems to have gone, his set-piece deliveries are still Premier League quality and could cause us big problems in the closing stages of this game.

Swindon also have another player with great delivery to watch out for – none other than former Coventry City fans’ favourite Chris Hussey. Hussey though makes up a back-line that hasn’t been particularly convincing this season due to a lack of pace with three fairly old and slow defenders in the form of Ben Purkiss, Chris Robertson and Olly Lancashire – although all three are a threat from either Hussey’s or Taylor’s set-pieces.

Finally, Swindon brought in Reice Charles-Cook from us over the summer, however, he’s had to play second-fiddle to former Spurs and Liverpool youngster Lawrence Vigouroux in goal. A Chile youth international, Vigouroux is a similar sort of keeper to Charles-Cook in that he can be an excellent shot-stopper with great distribution of the ball, but can be slightly over-eccentric at times – although he has been pretty good thus far this season.

Prediction

Our terrible record against Swindon shouldn’t really matter, after all, these are two very different squads from even the ones that faced each other last season. Somehow though it does seem to matter because a number of very different Coventry and Swindon squads have faced each other over down the years and produced similar results.

With the more experienced and savvy squad that Mark Robins has assembled this season, I would imagine that this is a Coventry City side least likely to care about a silly hoodoo. However, due to my superstitious and pessimistic nature I can see this being a 2-1 loss, and possibly a game where we take somehow manage to lose despite taking the leading in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

Preview: Exeter City

There are some defeats that linger in the mind for days on end, there are some that are easier to move on from, last week’s loss against Cambridge was the latter. This team had been criticised for not creating enough, we certainly did that against Cambridge, the opposition just so happened to have scored more goals than we did.

While we should have taken at least a point last week, there has to be some concern that we conceded two fairly soft goals that saw us defeated. The danger now is that one unfortunate result last week could easily, and quickly, be the start of a poor run of form given our run of fixtures over the next week – the league leaders, followed by a trip to Swindon where we never win, and then a fairly strong Crewe side, who also happen to be a bit of a bogey team for us as well.

I would imagine that over the next week we’ll get a truer sense over whether our strong defensive record thus far has been down to good play on our part, or the result of having played some of the weaker teams at this level. While we’ve conceded few goals, we haven’t been put under the cosh for extended periods in games thus far. If we can continue to avoid the issue as we have been this season over the next week, we’ll stand in good stead, however, this could be where the cracks start to appear.

Possible Line-Up

On the positive side, it is encouraging that we seem to have become more fluent in attack over the past few weeks. The inclusion of Duckens Nazon into the side, and in a central position, has added something to the team – not least the sense that he draws some of the attention away from Jodi Jones, who has been excellent of late. Additionally, Liam Kelly seems to have taken the handbrake off in recent weeks, adding some dynamism to the centre of the park, and Peter Vincenti has been getting in better positions too.

Not only because of the attacking improvements we’ve made in recent weeks, but also because of our injury list, Mark Robins is unlikely to change the side at all. Stuart Beavon is probably the only player in that starting XI who is underperforming, however, his work-rate could prove an asset against an Exeter side who’ll look to get on the ball against us.

Last Time We Met

Although you have to go back some time for our last league meeting with Exeter City, we did face them a few years ago in the then Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. It was during our first season back at the Ricoh Arena where we were in the midst of a run of defeats when Steven Pressley gave run-outs to some of our most promising young talents – James Maddison, George Thomas and Jack Finch – and an Aaron Phillips brace saw us run-out comfortable victors.

The game was also notable for seeing Ollie Watkins – Exeter’s star player of last season and now a regular in the Championship with Brentford – score his first goal for the club.

How Are They Doing?

Exeter’s run to the play-off final last season was seen by many (well, at least me) as something of an outlier, a case of a club on limited resources stumbling across some stand-out talents and riding the crest of that wave for all it was worth. Despite losing in disappointing fashion to Blackpool, Exeter have gone from strength-to-strength this season and are not only currently top of the division but are on an ominous run of six league wins in a row.

That is despite losing their two star attacking players from last season in Ollie Watkins and David Wheeler, and, to a lesser extent, the inconsistent winger Joel Grant and wunderkind Ethan Ampadu – who made his debut for Chelsea this week. A club of Exeter’s resources is always going to find it hard to rebuild, but Paul Tisdale deserves immense credit for having done it almost seamlessly this season.

Despite signing target-man Jayden Stockley for a club record fee, along with the talented ex-Crystal Palace defensive midfielder Hiram Boateng, on the final day of the transfer window, Paul Tisdale has kept the starting line-up fairly similar to last season. Crucially, League Two goal machine Reuben Reid has been kept fit despite his reputation for being injury-prone – he now leads the league with seven goals already this season. In addition, wide men Jake Taylor and Lee Holmes provide Exeter with two direct wingers on either side of the pitch who are capable of chipping in with the odd goal.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, Exeter have the excellent Jordan Moore-Taylor who is one of the most adept defenders at this level in passing out from the back. Behind him, there is Christy Pym in goal who has won caps at youth-level for England and is developing into one of the best goalkeepers at this level of football. Exeter also have the sturdiness and experience of the likes of Troy Brown and Craig Woodman, as well as the experienced Dean Moxey – who is yet to feature this season.

While Exeter are in incredible form at the moment, they have been fairly open in their style of play. It’s one of those games where if we can grab the early goal, there will be chances to hit our opponents repeatedly on the break. If Exeter score first though, you’d wonder whether we’d have the ability to get back into the game.

Prediction

Exeter are ominous opposition for us, they’re riding the crest of the wave and a victory at the Ricoh Arena for them would be a coup de grace to crystallise the good feeling around the club. However, I wonder whether Robins’ pragmatism, his ability to instill a good defensive shape and set a counter-attacking game-plan could prove to be an asset for us here. This is one of few games this season against an opponent at the Ricoh Arena who’ll set out to bring the game to us.

Nonetheless I am fairly tentative about our chances for this game, I have this down as a 2-1 loss.

Preview: Carlisle United

Getting the win against Port Vale was all-important after our recent run. Despite making hard work of it – both in not taking the several opportunities we had to put the result beyond doubt, and the nervy final 10 minutes after Rod McDonald’s red card – it should be viewed as a solid performance from which we can build on.

Things still aren’t quite clicking in attack, and we were lucky on Saturday that Port Vale were the first team in a while not to double-up on Jodi Jones, but there were some encouraging signs from that game that maybe we will find that fluency soon. The goal itself, despite being a moment of individual brilliance in the finish, came from a good period of possession for us. Furthermore, we created some good chances in the second-half which could easily have made the result more comfortable.

Just how important that result against Port Vale is depends on how much confidence that gives us going into a fairly tough run of games coming up over the next few weeks. In particular, this home game against Carlisle is a chance to further assert the home advantage that we’ll need to ensure that we’re in the promotion race at the end of the season.

The loss of Rod McDonald to suspension is a big blow, not only is he a more composed presence in defence than either Tom Davies or Dominic Hyam, but his ability to bring the ball out from the back is an under-rated part of his game. Given that the nature of many games this season will be opponents sitting off us, having defenders who are comfortable in possession is all-important. With the decidedly less-composed in possession Tom Davies likeliest to come into the side, we could find it tougher than we already do to build attacks from the back.

Elsewhere, Robins’ selection is likely to be influenced by just how bad the injuries that Marc McNulty and Tony Andreu sustained against Port Vale are. As mentioned earlier, Stuart Beavon coming in for McNulty might actually enhance the side as Beavon is more suited to hassling defenders and chasing balls down the channels that Robins asks of his lone striker. Andreu’s injury could open the door for Duckens Nazon to play through the middle, where he’s much more effective. Potentially, those two injuries could make us a better side, although it would leave us with little on the bench.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Carlisle United came at Sixfields when we were in the midst of the post-Leon Clarke collapse that nearly saw us relegated from League One. Despite Franck Moussa giving us the lead against the Cumbrians, two second-half goals saw the away side take three points to enhance their own survival prospects – although they were eventually relegated from League One that season anyway.

How Are They Doing?

Current Carlisle United manager Keith Curle was appointed a few months into their first season back in League Two and oversaw gradual improvements that put Carlisle into the play-offs last year, where they were defeated in the semi-finals by Exeter City. Nonetheless, Carlisle’s form since around January when they sold star striker Charlie Wyke to Bradford has been abysmal at times and they have endured a mixed start to this season, winning two and drawing one of their opening six games.

In addition to losing Wyke in January, Carlisle lost a good keeper at this level in Mark Gillespie on a free transfer to Walsall and one of the division’s best strikers in Jabo Ibehre to Cambridge United over the summer. With a fairly underwhelming set of incoming transfers over the summer, there was an additional sense around the club heading into the campaign that this could be a really tough season.

However, that perhaps ignored some of the talent still on the books – particularly winger Nicky Adams, who is one of the best wide players at this level. Carlisle have a strong set of options in midfield for League Two, with the rapid winger Reggie Lambe, the box-to-box Jason Kennedy, the energetic Mike Jones, the ball-playing Luke Joyce, and playmaker Jamie Devitt.

Possible Line-Up

Up front, Carlisle have a few useful options in ex-Sky Blues striker Shaun Miller, the pacey Hallam Hope and target man Richie Bennett. While, in particular, Miller and Hope have shown at times in their careers that they can be dangerous strikers at this level, they’ve lacked the consistency to be convincing options.

Defence has consistently been an issue for Carlisle under Keith Curle, with high-scoring games at both ends having been a feature of his tenure at the club. A back four of Tom Miller, Tom Parkes, Mark Ellis, and Danny Grainger should be reasonably solid at this level, but the manager seems to lack the organisational capability to make that as effective a unit as it should be. Furthermore, the loan signing of Brentford’s Jack Bonham has led to several glaring goalkeeping errors in the opening weeks of the season.

Prediction

While Carlisle haven’t started the season in particularly blistering form, the quality they have in midfield makes this no less of a difficult game for us. Nonetheless, this game should be viewed as an opportunity to build on Saturday’s win, but we’ll need to sustain more of an attacking threat for longer in the game to ensure that we’re not relying on another moment of Jodi Jones magic to nick the game.

Being slightly pessimistic, I’m going to have this down as a 0-0 draw.

*Due to work commitments this preview was written on 10/09/2017 and thus any up-to-date team news has not been included.