Preview: MK ‘Dons’

Having managed to be both physically and psychologically detached from the past two games, I return to find us looking nervously over our shoulders, rather than the counting the gap between us and the play-offs. Football changes quickly.

I wasn’t fully convinced that the upturn in form following Tony Mowbray’s departure had seen us become a genuinely good team, the past few results have confirmed that feeling. We’d managed a decent defensive record with a defence that looked to have errors in it. We’d been scoring a fair few goals without looking to have a clear idea in attack.

For a number of reasons – from his position on the board of directors, his lack of past managerial experience, to his pre and post-match comments – Venus has struggled to win over the fans, regardless of the actual results, but the past few games have confirmed to many why Venus isn’t a long, medium or short-term option. Another defeat in this upcoming game against MK ‘Dons’ could well make his position almost untenable for the majority of fans.

When Venus first took charge, stability in player and tactical selection led to an improvement in results. The past four or five performances have gotten almost progressively worse due to Venus tinkering with the line-up and tactics. The past two games have seen him start with a back four, switch to a back three and then return to a back four. It’s exactly the same failings that Tony Mowbray had in his final months in charge.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Having Andy Rose available for selection would be a massive boost for Venus as it would allow him to play with a midfield three in the same way he did during the recent good run of form. Without Rose available – and it seems like it will be a close call – the call will be whether to stick with the 4-2-3-1 which almost got us a point on Tuesday night or the 3-4-3 that’s only really worked for the under-23s this season.

Jamie Sterry’s suspension should mean a start for Dion Kelly-Evans at either right-back or right-wing back – the latter’s lack of height may push Venus towards the 3-4-3. With Marvin Sordell also suspended, it could well be a chance for Jack McBean, although his target-man style of play could make it difficult to shoehorn Dan Agyei – who Venus doesn’t seem willing to drop – into the same side.

Last Time We Met

Well, when we last played MK ‘Dons’ we were in a somewhat similar situation to now, in a state of managerial limbo and needing a win to boost our prospects of survival. After a run of seven games without a win Steven Pressley had just been sacked and our opponents were hunting down promotion to the Championship. Football did its trick of defying predictability as the Sky Blues raced out of the blocks thanks to the pace and directness of Dominic Samuel in attack to take a two-goal lead within the opening 12 minutes. The final 78 minutes of the game were pretty much one-way traffic, but we managed to scrape a vital and unlikely 2-1 victory.

How Are They Doing?

Having gone on to secure promotion to the second-tier, MK ‘Dons’ lacked the resources to compete at a higher level and were swiftly relegated last season. Many thought the combination of a decent squad and the stability and pedigree of Karl Robinson in the managerial dug-out meant they would compete for at least the play-offs this season, but, just like in our last game against them, things haven’t panned as expected.

In retrospect, it’s easy to point out that MK ‘Dons’ were fired to promotion from League One two years ago thanks to stand-out performances from Dele Alli, Benik Afobe and Will Grigg, having been a mid-table side in the couple of seasons beforehand. However, they still had a strong squad for this level heading into this season and shouldn’t have been anywhere near the relegation spot they currently occupy.

That they are shows that it’s probably more important at this level to have at least two or three star players in your side than spreading the quality out more evenly. Ed Upson, Ben Reeves and Samir Carruthers in central midfield would get into most teams at this level, Kieran Agard, Dean Bowditch and Daniel Powell are all useful attacking players. However, they isn’t really anyone in their squad who’s capable of winning a game all on their own with one moment of magic.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Winger Ryan Colclough is the closest MK ‘Dons’ have to that kind of player, the Wigan loanee can be a fairly inconsistent player but his level of directness is something that a side coached to play patient, possession-based football lacks. Right-back George Baldock offers energy and directness from full-back, with the sturdy and reliable Dean Lewington on the other side. Former Arsenal youngster Chuks Aneke could be a real wild-card having gotten to full fitness following his summer arrival from Belgian side Zulte Waregem, the giant attacking-midfielder was a force to be reckoned with at this level a few seasons ago while on loan at Crewe.

Another undoing has been defensive errors, as well as a lack of a physically imposing figure at the back. The signing of Walsall’s Paul Downing to replace the defensive leader Kyle McFadzean has not worked out at all with Downing currently on the substitutes’ bench. Joe Walsh is a mobile and composed central defender but is someone who would look a lot better with a commanding and reliable defensive partner alongside him.

Prediction

Although MK ‘Dons’ have had a poor season, they have the division’s sixth-best away record and have squad still teeming with quality. With only two home games between now and the start of the next calendar year, there is extra pressure for us to get a win in what is already a relegation six-pointer, given how terrible our away form has been this season.

I would imagine there’ll be some kind of reaction after the past few defeats but I’m doubtful whether that will be enough to win this game. I can see this being a 2-1 defeat and a terrible, cold Saturday afternoon at the football.

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Preview: Scunthorpe United

An amazing turnaround against Wycombe on Wednesday night has put a different complexion on what looked to be two rather underwhelming performances in the cup. Not only should the turnaround give us a sense of impetus heading into our toughest league fixture of the season but we look to have a decent level of strength in depth, which is never a bad thing.

This Scunthorpe game though is going to test just how much we can read into the Wycombe turnaround, our impressive home form and the modest improvements made since Tony Mowbray’s departure. The fixture list has been fairly kind to us this season, especially at home where we’ve played three of the current bottom four and just one of the current top six, which is why it still doesn’t quite feel like we’ve justified looking towards the play-offs rather than the relegation zone. Getting something out of this game – points or a really good performance – will provide that validation we’ve been missing thus far.

Possible Line-Up

With only the injuries of Chris Stokes, Chris McCann and Kwame Thomas to contend with, Mark Venus is free to pick what he feels is his strongest side for this game. The performances of Ryan Haynes, Jodi Jones and Jack McBean provide the temptation to deviate away from a formation and team selection that led to our recent improvement, Venus has to decide whether those players have provided a convincing enough case to justify potentially disruptive changes to the side.

Ryan Haynes is probably least likely out of the three to come in, simply because the defence appears to have gelled over the past five or six league games. A lot of our good attacking play against Wycombe involved Jack McBean’s hold-up play, but with Rose back in a three-man midfield, those qualities may not be as important as pace to hit Scunthorpe on the counter. Jodi Jones has a much better shot given that Venus doesn’t seem to have found the best combination in the front three, but could struggle against a physical Scunthorpe defence.

Last Time We Met

Scunthorpe inflicted upon us a 2-1 defeat that was our third in a row and which heralded our collapse from promotion contenders to mid-table also-rans last season. Scunthorpe put in a well-disciplined away performance, blocking the centre of the pitch, countering with intent and taking their chances to hold us at arm’s length for most of the contest. A late Adam Armstrong penalty wasn’t enough to reverse the tide and just days later James Maddison was sold to Norwich to make the unravelling even worse. Also, Stephen Hunt played for us that day.

How Are They Doing?

Scunthorpe showed against us in January that they had a really solid base to build on and since Graham Alexander’s appointment as manager in March, they’ve managed to convert that solid base into a ruthlessly efficient team-unit. While former manager Mark Robins deserves a modicum of credit for putting most of this squad together, Alexander has done incredibly well at making sense of the squad he inherited and making a few additions of his own to make them even better.

Despite being runaway league leaders for much of the campaign, Scunthorpe aren’t a particularly flash side but are physically-imposing, incredibly hard-working and lethal in the final-third. They’ve scored a lot from set-pieces and on the counter, but have also demonstrated the ability to grind teams down through efficient spells of possession too. Even though last season’s top-scorer Paddy Madden is likely not to feature in this game, one of the main attributes of this Scunthorpe side has been how many goals so many different players have scored for them.

Left-winger Josh Morris is the club and the division’s current top-scorer, with most of his goals being incredibly well-hit set-pieces and long-range efforts – this was a player Bradford let go for free this summer. Powerful Dutch striker Kevin van Veen never really lived up to the hype under Mark Robins but has returned from a loan in his native country as a key focal point in attack, scoring some beautiful goals of his own but also providing a physical presence up-front and creating chances for his team-mates. Former Leicester youngster Tom Hopper has also chipped in with his fair share of the goals this season and is another typically hard-working player on Scunthorpe’s books.

Possible Line-Up

The energy from midfield provided by captain Stephen Dawson and the young American winger Duane Holmes has allowed Scunthorpe to over-run teams at times. Holmes looked a big prospect at Huddersfield before struggling to nail down a starting place but has offered Scunthorpe a real outlet on the counter, as well as the ability to track-back and protect his full-back. Dawson, with the burly Neal Bishop alongside him, is part of that solid spine of the team that Graham Alexander inherited at Glanford Park.

The central defensive duo of David Mirfin and Murray Wallace is one of the most solid partnerships in the entire Football League. The veteran Mirfin is a classic physically-imposing brute who’s enjoyed a renaissance at the club under Graham Alexander when Mark Robins had been keen to let him go. Wallace is a more mobile defender who can also bring the ball out from the back but is first and foremost an incredibly competent defender. Alexander is spoilt for choice at full-back with Jordan Clarke and Scott Wiseman at right-back and Conor Townsend and Harry Toffolo at left-back all capable of walking into any other League One back four.

Prediction

Overall, I’m just not convinced that this recent upturn in form is enough to go out and beat the league leaders. We seem to have developed a habit of starting games lackadaisically and against a team with quality in the final third and a rock-solid defence, we would struggle to get anything out of this game if we fall behind.

I’ve got a feeling this will be the game that shows just how far away we are from being a genuinely good side again. Scunthorpe to win 3-1.

Preview: Wycombe Wanderers

Let’s not bury the lead here, this is a meaningless game in an already pretty meaningless competition, the only thing at stake is whether we play home or away in the next round.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Mark Venus has promised changes from what was already an under-strength team that faced Morecambe on Sunday. Callum Maycock and Jack McBean both proved themselves to be competent at first-team level and are likely to start this game. I would imagine Cian Harries will get a chance to impress the manager, with Kyle Spence, Devon Kelly-Evans and George Thomas also likely to be rewarded for some impressive form at under-23 level.

Last Time We Met

Back when we last played Wycombe – and in this very competition – we were a couple of days away from the grand homecoming game at the Ricoh Arena and the then-Johnstone’s Paint Trophy still had a shred of relevance to it. Josh McQuoid scored the only goal in what was a terrible game and the main thing of note to come from that September evening was that nine of our players who ended the game came through the academy (well, actually eight because Kyle Spence was signed from Crystal Palace)

How Are They Doing?

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Wycombe went on from our last meeting to make the League Two play-off final, only to lose in a penalty shoot-out to Southend. Since then, Gareth Ainsworth’s side have seemed to have lost that competitive edge that made them one of the toughest teams to play against in the fourth-tier. While the effort has rarely gone amiss, a lack of creativity and goals saw Wycombe finish 13th last season and now has them sitting perilously in 21st position in League Two.

The main players of note for the Chairboys come in defence, where the commanding centre-back Aaron Pierre and hard-working right-back Michael Harriman are players who could and should be playing at a higher-level. Left-back Joe Jacobson has his moments too, especially when delivering a dead ball. There’s also the world-famous Adebayo Akinfenwa up top who is a fairly effective League Two striker but struggles to last 90 minutes these days.

Prediction

Wycombe’s small squad makes it harder for Gareth Ainsworth to rotate his side in the same way Mark Venus will be able to with ours. It could prove to be a case of men against boys, or it could be age versus youthful exuberance. With little at stake, Wycombe may not be as compelled to impose themselves physically on us as they might otherwise have been. I reckon we’ll win 2-0.

Preview: Morecambe

After a first-half on Tuesday night to make you question the concept of football as entertainment, we managed to secure all three points via a scramble from a corner that wasn’t really a corner and a counter-attacking goal of genuine quality. While the outlook is a lot rosier than a month ago, we’re still not out of the woods with just a three point cushion above the relegation zone and a difficult run of fixtures ahead.

Just how safe we are in the league though is a concern for another day with our next two fixtures coming in the FA Cup and EFL Trophy respectively. Maintaining a sense of momentum to take into those difficult league fixtures could prove to be an important edge, in addition to the glory of advancing to the next rounds of the cup competitions.

An away trip to a team in a lower division presents something of a banana skin if we’re unable to match the intensity of our opponents. While we’ve showed an ability to stand up to a physical inspection of our credentials in the wins against Rochdale and Chesterfield, Mark Venus has to contend with a depleted squad for this trip to Morecambe.

 

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Suspensions to Lewis Page and Gael Bigirimana, along with injuries to Chris McCann and Vladimir Gadzhev, as well as Dan Agyei being made unavailable by his parent club leave us short in midfield and defence in particular. Jamie Sterry has been made available for the FA Cup by his parent club and with Ryan Haynes reportedly not fully fit to take advantage of Lewis Page’s suspension at left-back, Sterry is likely to slot in on the left of the back four, like he did in the closing minutes against Chesterfield and for most of the game against Charlton.

That would likely mean Sam Ricketts would step into the back four to play central defence alongside Jordan Turnbull, with Jordan Willis moving to right-back. Elsewhere, Andy Rose is likely to move into a deeper midfield position to play alongside Ben Stevenson due to a lack of other midfield options. Mark Venus may be tempted to hand opportunities at some point in the game for George Thomas, Jack McBean and Devon Kelly-Evans who have each scored seven goals at under-23 level this season.

Last Time We Met

The most prominent memory that Coventry City fans will have of playing Morecambe will have been in the League Cup back in 2010 where Aidy Boothroyd’s Sky Blues were dumped out of the competition in a poor 2-0 defeat. However, our most recent meeting with Morecambe came in this competition at the Ricoh Arena back in 2012. Mark Robins’ resurgent Coventry City professionally put their League Two opponents away thanks to a Gary McSheffrey penalty and a Carl Baker goal either side of half-time.

How Are They Doing?

Morecambe have been caught in a recurring loop in League Two for most of manager Jim Bentley’s five years at the club. They always tend to start the season really well, scoring goals from all over the place, and then drop off but never quite to the extent where they’re overly threatened by relegation. This season looks like panning out in pretty similar fashion, they won four of their first five league games before tailing off when September came around.

The Shrimps have particularly struggled at home this season, having won just two of their eight home league games, and have been much better away, sitting fourth in the League Two away table. However, that may be more indicative of a side best suited to being the underdog rather than one with a genuine mental block.

The main strength of this team is their strikers, with Jim Bentley seeming to have a knack of getting the best out of forwards who have struggled elsewhere. Their top-scorer Cole Stockton is on loan from Tranmere, who are in the league below Morecambe, and is a strong, mobile young forward with the occasional wonder goal in his locker. Liverpool loanee Jack Dunn started the season in excellent form and is smaller, quicker type of striker. Former Blackpool youngster Tom Barkhuizen has also chipped in with a decent return this season and is a quite quick and hard-working player who can also operate out wide.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It would be remiss not to mention Kevin Ellison, who is almost the most typical League Two striker currently operating. Aged 37, Ellison is an expert of drawing fouls, getting into the faces of defenders and being a general nuisance to opposition defenders and fans. If Morecambe are to pull off an upset, it will be because he’s done a real number on Turnbull and Ricketts at the back.

It’s as you would expect from a low-budget League Two side elsewhere, with most of the side filled-out with journeymen lower league players. Peter Murphy in midfield can chip in with the odd goal from the centre of the park and his central midfield partner Michael Rose has a good set-piece delivery on him. Former Blackburn youngster Ryan Edwards in central defence has been watched by clubs at a higher-level but hasn’t been in great form over the past year or so in a defence that is hardly water-tight.

Prediction

It’s a cliche but one that I think is relevant for this current Sky Blues side, whoever gets the first goal is highly likely to win this game. If we start strong and take the lead, the increasing composure on the ball and effectiveness on the counter-attack we’ve developed in recent weeks should see us through. If we’re start sloppily and Morecambe take the lead, I’m not sure we have the ability to grind a team defending for their lives down.

The depleted squad further adds to the difficult dynamic that the FA Cup brings to a fixture that you would ordinarily expect us to win. If Mark Venus can keep the amount of changes to the side to a minimum and we can approach this game as we have done our recent league games, I would still expect us to come out with the win against a Morecambe side who aren’t in great form and have been poor at home this season.

Coventry City to win 2-0.