Preview: Sheffield United

How to put Sunday into words? It was just a beautiful day and 43,000 Sky Blues fans were there to witness it. For a while, it didn’t feel like any other game of football, and by the time that it did, we were a goal up and were then not only playing at Wembley, but were winning at Wembley.

While Oxford were clearly the better team, the difference between the two teams on the day was that it mattered more to us. Seven academy players played for us, two got on the scoresheet and one lifted the cup – it was very much a homegrown triumph. What we witnessed was a group of local lads coming together to win something for their city, that made the win especially sweet.

If ever you needed reminding though how fleeting moments of success in football are, look no further than to this upcoming midweek game against Sheffield United. While Mark Robins and the players are outwardly stating that they still feel survival can be achieved, we would have to break the club’s record league winning streak in order to do so and still have to hope that other results fall in our favour. This game is more about Sheffield United winning a game to potentially secure promotion than it is about winning a game to keep us in this division.

Possible Line-Up

Making things even more difficult for Mark Robins is the current injury situation. Kwame Thomas and Callum Reilly were both out injured for Sunday’s game and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back fit for this game. Jordan Willis limped off injured in the closing stages on Sunday and may not recover in time for this game. Then Robins has got to contend with the fatigue that comes with playing games in such quick succession – especially as so many put everything on the line for Sunday’s triumph.

There is a decision to be made in defence where Farrend Rawson and Nathan Clarke have both done well in the past few league games but Jordan Turnbull and Chris Stokes excelled in central defence against Oxford. With all four players presumably available for this game, Robins may be tempted to keep at least Jordan Turnbull in the side from Sunday given that he not only played so well, but is contracted for next season. Equally though, Sheffield United’s physical threat may see Robins plump for Rawson.

Last Time We Met

If you wanted another reminder of what a terrible season this has been, cast your minds back to December 2016 when we last played Sheffield United. Sky TV cameras were in attendance to capture a sparsely-attended game that was heavily disrupted in the second-half by a pitch invasion led by fans protesting SISU’s ownership of the club. The game looked like somehow playing out into an unlikely 1-1 draw, before Sheffield United won the game in the final minutes to make a depressing evening even worse from a Sky Blues perspective.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sheffield United are on the verge of a long-awaited promotion back to the Championship, with a win in this game possibly enough to seal it. Having spent the past five seasons with one of the division’s biggest budgets and best attendances, this has been an inevitable moment that has somehow been delayed by a combination of bad managerial appointments, rewarding average players with expensive salaries and bad luck. This season has been different thanks to the appointment of Chris Wilder, cutting the dead wood from the squad and dominating games to the extent that luck has rarely been a factor.

Wilder was ruthless in the summer in releasing and transfer-listing unwanted players, making a few smart additions to the squad and quickly establishing a winning formula. Much like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, some poor performances in the early part of the season led to a change to a three-man defensive system which has turned the team into an irresistible force.

The goals of Billy Sharp have been a huge factor in Sheffield United’s bid for the League One title this season. He has 26 to his name this campaign, with the next highest-scoring striker in the squad being Caolan Lavery with four goals. However, goals have come from all areas of the team with wing-back Kieron Freeman on an impressive 10 goals for the campaign and centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell on five.

Possible Line-Up

Another key player for the Blades has been Mark Duffy, who leads the team with nine assists this season. Duffy played a major role in Burton’s promotion from this level last season as a winger, but has played just behind a front two for Sheffield United for much of the campaign. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield both offer creativity from a deeper-lying position, while the wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty provide valuable width.

At the back, the signing of Simon Moore in goal has proved to be a pivotal moment of Sheffield United’s campaign. Academy graduate George Long had looked set to be the number one goalkeeper this season after a promising previous campaign, however, some sloppy errors in the opening few games saw Chris Wilder act decisively in bringing Moore in from Cardiff before the end of the summer transfer window and Wilder has never been offered pause for thought on that decision following some solid goalkeeping displays from Simon Moore.

Prediction

It’s a shame that we’ve got to play such a difficult away game just days after the club’s greatest triumph in a generation. It would be easy to take the foot off the gas for this game as we’re not expected to win and the players could easily point to fatigue as an excuse. However, Mark Robins is clearly someone who’s not going to accept taking such a mentality, and he may see this game as an opportunity to assess which players he can trust for next season.

Taking a rational look at how these two teams compare against each other, Sheffield United are clear favourites for this game and should be able to win with ease. I think this will be a 2-0 loss.

Preview: Sheffield United

We’re properly crap at the moment. We lost 3-1 to Southend at the weekend and it wasn’t even suprising. We’re heading into a game against one of the most in-form sides in the division, who also happen to be Sheffield United, it’s also going to be on a Thursday night for some reason, so no-one’s going to be there and we have a manager who doesn’t want to be there either.

The attempt to appoint Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink this week has signalled that we are actively looking for a new manager, which is something. How much we should be concerned that the talks ultimately fell through is probably something we’ll only really know when we finally know the identity of our next manager and how long it takes to get to that point.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This upcoming game against Sheffield United feels more like an obligation than it is an opportunity to give our season a shot in the arm. With the focus having shifted from Mark Venus salvaging his managerial hopes to ensnaring the next chump, the excuse for the players mentally not turning up for this game is already there. Something crazy would have to happen for Sheffield United not to win this game.

As for what team we’ll play, that continues to be anyone’s guess. If James Sterry is unavailable at right-back, Dion Kelly-Evans will continue in the side and will inevitably be targeted by a physical and experienced Sheffield United side. Dan Agyei’s consolation goal against Southend will probably see him continue in the side with Marvin Sordell out wide. Jodi Jones’ assist for Agyei’s goal seems like it will be enough for him to start this game. Lee Burge’s injury on Saturday could well see Reice Charles-Cook return in goal.

Last Time We Met

Following a sloppy away performance at Doncaster towards the end of last season, we headed into our previous meeting with Sheffield United knowing that the unlikely prospect of salvaging a play-off spot was past us. Against a Sheffield United side still harbouring their own faint play-off hopes we played an experimental 3-4-3 system featuring a front three of Fortuné, Lameiras and George Thomas with Stephen Hunt at wing-back, which somehow saw us fly out of the blocks to take an early 2-0 lead. A cumbersome Blades side laboured to get a goal back in the second-half, only for a swift counter-attacking move involving Jodi Jones and Aaron Phillips, finished by Ruben Lameiras, see us take a decisive 3-1 lead in the final minutes.

How Are They Doing?

As always seems to be the case at Bramall Lane, a disappointing season at this level saw a summer change in manager and most of the squad with the promise that this would be the year that they sorted it all out. Unlike the past five seasons though, this iteration of Sheffield United actually looks they’ve sorted it all out.

After a difficult start to the season, former Northampton manager and ex-Blades player Chris Wilder has turned Sheffield United into a ruthlessly efficient team-unit. It hasn’t been that they’ve just lost one of their past 17 games and scored 37 goals in the process, it’s that they’ve absolutely dominated almost every game they’ve played during that period.

The early season jitters Sheffield United suffered came from a series of sloppy defensive errors which saw Chris Wilder act decisively in jettisoning left-back Chris Hussey and keeper George Long for the squad, bringing in the towering centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell from Wolves and keeper Simon Moore from Cardiff City and switching to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Not only have the changes seem to have eradicated the defensive weaknesses but they have made the Blades a more effective, dominant and attacking team overall.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty in the two wing-back positions have supplied energy, width and excellent delivery from wide areas. John Fleck and Paul Coutts have offered composure and penetration on the ball from the centre of the park to allow Mark Duffy, who has played almost his entire career as a winger, to flourish as a roving, in-your-face number 10.

Up front, Sheffield United have an array of options but have generally stuck with the energy of Matt Done alongside the pure finishing instincts of Billy Sharp. However, with Leon Clarke’s physicality and link-up play and the pace of Caolan Lavery to bring on from the bench, Chris Wilder has several ways in which he can change the game up should Plan A somehow fail to work.

Prediction

I cannot envision which circumstances would lead to victory for us in this fixture. Sheffield United are by far a better team than us in every area of the pitch and they are in excellent form. This game has a 4-0 loss written all over it.

Preview: Bradford City

At least we put an end to the winless run, we’re still likely to finish woefully short of where we should have after an excellent start but it was just nice to see us win again. The red card undoubtedly helped us but it still took plenty of commitment and desire to eventually force the result against a resolute Millwall side.

Tony Mowbray had the right idea in attempting to stretch the play against Millwall’s ten men, only it meant that we were forced into crossing situations where we had neither the crossing ability to put in telling deliveries nor the players to actually head the crosses in. John Fleck‘s stunning equalising goal, was just reward for displaying the endeavour to pen Millwall back, even if the application to match the ideas and effort wasn’t quite there.

Fleck’s performance was a reminder just what we’ll be missing when he moves onto pastures new in the summer. Not only did he score a wonder-goal and have a big hand in the winning goal but he simply took control of the game. The caveat is that his influence was exerted against ten men who weren’t putting pressure on him but it still showed great character to orchestrate the proceedings.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This Tuesday night fixture against a Bradford side with still an outside chance of automatic promotion, and likely to last the 90 minutes with 11 men, is going to be a stern test of both the mentality of this side and its organisation. If we defend set-pieces as poorly as we did against Millwall, we’re not going to get the chance to make up for it at the other end against one of the division’s best defences.

I’ve got no idea what Tony Mowbray’s thinking is going to be heading into this game. I still think he got the starting 11 wrong against Millwall, playing Romain Vincelot in an attacking role meant moving Joe Cole to the wing and leaving us without any real penetration to assist Adam Armstrong up front. If Cole starts again, I would like to see him in his more influential central role and with three players ahead of him of genuine pace and movement. We should look to play to our strengths rather than attempting to match a successful robust League One side for physicality.

Last Time We Met

In a sense, our last meeting with Bradford was one of our more disappointing results of the season, even if we didn’t actually lose the game. Hot off the back of that handsome win over Gillingham, Tony Mowbray decided to completely disrupt a winning team, far too cautious in his attempts to rest players. In a common theme of our mid-week matches this season, the approach was self-preservation rather than momentum-building. A flat performance until the late introduction of Ryan Kent began a run of poor results characterised by defensive errors that saw us fall off the pace at the top of the division.

How Are They Doing?

Talking of flat, that was how Bradford’s season was panning out until the last couple of months. Having been expected to challenge for promotion this season, partially down to having one of the better squads and managers, partially down to an incredible season ticket sales drive of around 18,000, Bradford started the season slowly and struggled for goals even as they picked up a little.

Manager Phil Parkinson’s effective, uncomplicated gameplan has eventually come good as the season has wore on. The Bantams have won four of their past five games, and were unlucky not to beat a Shrewsbury side who scored a late equaliser with their only chance of the game on Saturday. That ability to win games in the season’s final stages has turned a season that threatened a late play-off push at best into one where they still have an outside chance of automatic promotion.

Undoubtedly, Bradford’s strength this season has been their rock solid defence, marshalled by the impressive West Ham loanee Reece Burke. They have the joint-second best defensive record in the division, but since Burke’s arrival at the end of August, they actually have the joint-best. Burke not only is an impressive, dominant centre-back but his performances have coincided with improvements in his defensive partner Nathan Clarke and goalkeeper Ben Williams who have excelled this season.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

A key move in the transfer market in January has given Bradford an extra element in attack that they lacked earlier on. It seemed a strange move to have exchanged Devante Cole, who started the season in impressive form and looked to be a player of great potential, for Fleetwood’s Jamie Proctor, who had struggled for goals for much of his career, yet it’s proven to be an inspired decision. Proctor has been a more mobile target-man than James Hanson which has made Bradford that bit tougher to defend against. Devante Cole meanwhile is yet to score in 11 appearances for Fleetwood.

Proctor though is a doubt to start this game, which would give our perennial thorn in our side James Hanson the chance to stake a claim in the side again for Bradford’s final promotion push. With the skill of Billy Clarke in support, the pace of Kyel Reid on the left wing and the deliveries of Tony McMahon on the right, whoever starts in that target-man role for Bradford is going to have plenty of quality in their service.

Prediction

Mathematically, we can still make the play-offs despite having won just four of our last 24 games. It would require us not only to win all our remaining games, we’ve only won four of our last 24 games, and collapses in form from at least three teams above us in the table to happen. Anything is just about possible still, but we’ve only won four games from our last 24.

Bradford are a big, physical side in form and with something conceivably attainable to play for, you just can’t look at this game as an opportunity to build a late play-off push. I would love to be proved wrong here but I just don’t think we’re equipped to win this game. A 1-0 defeat and the last ember of our play-off hopes extinguished for those who still commendably have belief.

Preview: Chesterfield

We got the result against Port Vale, and after some hard luck stories in recent weeks, that was the most important thing. Now the task is to get another win to build some momentum heading into the new year.

The performance against Port Vale left plenty to be desired, starting sluggishly and in real danger of letting the game slip away before we eventually found our nerve. We saw in that game that we’re decent enough defensively, even in a bit of an off day, to restrict an average League One side to a very small amount of chances in most games and have that extra bit of quality in the final third to make that defensive competency count.

Until his introduction, we really missed Jim O’Brien‘s energy in midfield as we struggled to put pressure on Port Vale higher up the pitch. The decision not to play him was most likely with this away game just two days afterwards in mind and having got the result without him starting, it was a calculated gamble that came off.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Given Tony Mowbray’s penchant for rotating the side during these congested runs of games, I would expect to see at least two other changes to the starting line-up from the Port Vale game. I would guess that one of those changes would be to start with Marc-Antoine Fortuné with Armstrong either moved into a wide position or onto the bench. As much as many fans despair at his inclusion nowadays, this seems like one of those games where Fortuné could make a real impact.

Elsewhere, Joe Cole is almost certain to be rested having looked notably blustered from 20 minutes onwards against Port Vale. It may still be too soon to actually start James Maddison in Joe Cole’s place but it’s likely that we will see him introduced earlier. Which would probably leave Ryan Kent and Jacob Murphy competing for a starting sport in the side..

Finally, there’s a chance that John Fleck could return to the starting line-up for this game depending on how fit Tony Mowbray sees him as being. We know that Gael Bigirimana is an able back-up but there is no doubting that we do lose something without Fleck in the side.

Last Time We Met

For the first time in the league this season, we play a side that we’ve already faced earlier on in the campaign. Back in September Chesterfield travelled to the Ricoh Arena to face a Sky Blues side still learning their own strength. Coventry City dominated much of the 90 minutes but it took until the 50th minute for Adam Armstrong to put away one of the many chances that we created. The game was also notable for a sending off for Chesterfield’s Mani Dieseruvwe who inexplicably punched the ball.

This trip to Chesterfield is also the first time we’ve travelled there since the Sky Blues won 3-2 back in March to secure Tony Mowbray’s first win as manager. Marcus Tudgay opened the scoring and Frank Nouble managed a goal and assist in the second-half which proved to be the difference between the two sides. Only one player from that side, Aaron Martin, played in the Port Vale game.

How Are They Doing?

It’s been a tumultuous season for Chesterfield, who finished last season in the play-offs. After losing the influential manager Paul Cook to Portsmouth in the summer, almost every decent player from last season’s side was sold off. Cook was replaced by Dean Saunders, a deeply unpopular appointment, and key players were replaced by freebies and loan players.

Things started off well enough for Chesterfield who thrashed then hotly-tipped Barnsley on the opening day of the season. The mistrust between the fans and the owners for the club’s actions of the summer though proved to not be conducive to maintaining that decent start and things began to deteriorate from the autumn onwards. Saunders has since been sacked, with the side four points above the relegation zone, and after a protracted recruitment process former player Danny Wilson was appointed as his replacement.

Today’s game is Wilson’s first in charge of Chesterfield which will give them an element of the unknown about them, although Wilson will realistically have only had a maximum of two days to convey his ideas to his new side. Danny Wilson generally gets his sides playing decent enough football, although they have a habit of being somewhat goal-shy.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Sylvan Ebanks-Blake is an easy to recognise name in Chesterfield’s squad and he is their top scorer this season with seven goals. He has though struggled for service of late, failing to score in his last six appearances for the side. The bigger danger could well be Jay O’Shea on the wing who is skilfull and a good set-piece taker, which looks to be Chesterfield’s best bet for getting on the scoresheet in this game.

Sam Morsy will return to the side in midfield after a two-match ban for picking up his 10th yellow card of the season. A creative deep-lying player with an excellent range of passing, he is one of the few remaining stars from the recent happy times at Chesterfield. Another important player is Tommy Lee in goal who is coming up to 300 league appearances at the club and is one of the better keepers at this level of football.

Prediction

The new manager effect at Chesterfield makes this a tougher game to call than it might otherwise be. Danny Wilson might attempt to shut up shop as a safety-first measure before he really gets to know his squad or he might decide that this is something of a free hit and get his players to express themselves, what impact that approach will have on the players is anyone’s guess. Regardless of whatever reaction there is from the Chesterfield players, this game is all about us demonstrating just why we’re competing at the top of the division.

Other than the random factor of Chesterfield’s new manager, there is little reason really not to think we can go out and win this game fairly easily. I am predicting a 3-1 win for the Sky Blues.

Preview: Doncaster Rovers

Whilst it’s hard not to feel that a draw is simply a game you didn’t win, a point away at Bradford on a cold Tuesday has to be seen as a point earned. Whether the few good chances we spurned to take all three points on the night are seen as a missed opportunity or not, depends on whether we get the win in this forthcoming game against Doncaster.

By everything I have read and seen of Tuesday night’s performance, there are few signs that a poor run of form is imminent. The defence was solid thanks to Ben Turner‘s continued presence in the team and a few excellent saves from Reice Charles-Cook. Gael Bigirimana was an able replacement for John Fleck in the centre of the park, showing that he has much more to offer than a somewhat concerning cameo against Gillingham last Saturday. Even though the front four didn’t quite click on the night, we created several great chances against one of the division’s best defences.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

With Tony Mowbray having rested a couple of players on Tuesday night, we can head straight into this Doncaster Rovers game with less fatigue than we otherwise might have had at the denouement of a Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday schedule. John Fleck’s predicted return to the line-up will allow the Scot to continue his impressive season having avoided an injury scare. The wide-men Jim O’Brien and Ryan Kent will be fresh having been spared a full 90 minutes on Tuesday night.

Ryan Kent in particular appears to be coming to the fore after a frustrating start to his loan spell here. Ever since his substitute appearance against Peterborough, Kent has appeared to be much more productive in the way he uses his trickery and pace. Several great chances at the end against Bradford were as the result of his direct running and ability to beat a man. If he can continue this trajectory, we will have one hell of a player on our hands over the next couple of months.

Last Time We Met

Doncaster inflicted upon us last season two of our most chastening defeats. The first came on Boxing Day last season where Steven Pressley’s Coventry City travelled to Doncaster in reasonably confident mood having witnessed an uplift in form following the embarrassing cup exit to Worcester. Doncaster, having failed to win a home game all season at that point, scored two early goals and watched a limp Coventry City side attempt a riposte. The Sky Blues ended the game with nine men, Adam Barton and James Maddison both sent off for two yellow cards, and failed to register a single shot on target.

A repeat of that debacle looked unlikely in the return game, especially after Tony Mowbray’s Coventry City dominated the first-half and scored a well-worked opener via Dominic Samuel. Failing to capitalise on that dominance proved to be costly as the team proceeded to capitulate almost entirely in the second-half. The defence sent out a welcome committee for Richie Wellens to allow Doncaster to equalise, Chris Stokes was caught in possession to allow Doncaster to take the lead and Aaron Martin‘s brain fell apart to allow Doncaster to walk the ball in for a third goal. It was a miserable afternoon in a miserable season which made it hard to believe anything remotely like this season was on its way.

How Are They Doing?

That win for Doncaster had them near the play-offs late into the season before failing to build momentum, thanks in part to the overly negative tactics of Paul Dickov. Dickov was then handed a healthy budget in the summer to improve the team but once again demonstrated his limitations as a football manager, losing his job in September.

After a protracted recruitment process, which did little to keep the team away from precariously bobbing around the relegation places, Darren Ferguson was appointed as Dickov’s replacement last month. In typical Darren Ferguson style, it has been all-or-nothing since his arrival with Rovers winning five and drawing four of his nine games in charge. In non-typical Darren Ferguson style, that run of form has been built on the foundations of a solid defensive unit.

Ferguson has implemented a 5-3-2 formation in recent weeks to much success with Rovers winning four out of their last five games in all competitions. Andy Butler in the central of that defensive unit has been as solid as his reputation as a high-calibre, no-nonsense League One centre-back would suggest. Craig Alcock, standing at five foot eight, is an unconventionally built central defender but makes up for his lack of height with his reading of the game and playing dirty. Thorsten Stuckmann in goal is another reliable presence in that back line having joined this summer after three and a half seasons of able service at Preston North End.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Doncaster also have two Everton loanees in midfielder Conor Grant and full-back Felipe Mattioni. Grant has caught the eye in recent weeks with the forward thrust and energy he offers the side in midfield. Felipe Mattioni was playing in La Liga last season with Espanyol and was loaned to Doncaster to build up match-fitness before joining his Everton team-mates in January.

Big summer signing Andy Williams has sparked into life since Darren Ferguson’s arrival, scoring five goals in his last eight appearances since the change in manager. Very much a confidence player, Williams can be an incredibly lethal forward at this level when he’s at his best, which he showed last season when he mustered 21 league goals for Swindon.

Prediction

Doncaster are a dangerous side at the moment but we have to regard this as a game we should win given our opponent’s league position. Now that we have proven we can get the big wins in the games that really matter, it’s back to the business of converting these kind of games into three points. If we are serious about winning promotion, we have to look at games against mid-table teams as chances to demonstrate just how good we really are.

The mentality of the players and fans heading into this game will be all-important, we can’t afford to get over-confident, nor should we be afraid of the favourites’ tag. Whether this current run is simply good form or the quality of this team coming through is impossible to tell at this stage of the season. Now’s the time to milk whatever this is that is going on for absolutely everything. I’m predicting a 3-1 win for the Sky Blues.

Preview: Swindon Town

Two draws in a row is always a good way to find out which of our fans our optimists and which of our fans our pessimists. Whilst we are in the midst of the season, there is no context to define whether we should be happy that we’re two games unbeaten or disappointed that we’ve failed to win for the past two games. At the moment we’re both at once, we’re Schrödinger’s football team.

Tony Mowbray’s quantum physics experiment travel to Swindon Town for our next game with a great opportunity to open that box and reveal an unbeaten side ready to continue a promotion push. The main positive is that we’ve looked solid at the back, although we perhaps rode our luck against Rochdale, with Aaron Martin, Reice Charles-Cook and Chris Stokes in good form over the past few weeks, there’s hope that there is life without Reda after all.

There are however reasons to believe that in that box is a dead cat (or a rubbish football team? I’m not sure what the next extension of this metaphor is). Reda Johnson is a massive loss, as impressive as Martin, Charles-Cook and also Stokes have been, you worry that they’re one error away from losing the confidence they’ve been oozing of late. If we continue our recent inability to create or take clear-cut chances, that’s going to put increasing pressure on our defence to stay strong. Right now, we’re either waiting for our attack to suddenly click or our defence to fall apart to define this run of results.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The introduction of Joe Cole has changed the dynamic of how our forward options can be utilised. You would imagine that he would prefer to have Armstrong to play in that striker position ahead of him to spring the forward’s pace in behind the opposing defence. With Cole wanting to put his foot on the ball more in the final third, there is less of a need for the battering force of Marc-Antoine Fortuné. However configures the forward line though, there has to be more of an emphasis on getting players in support of one another as it’s been a little too disparate of late.

John Fleck returning to starting contention is a welcome boost though, offering our defence the comfort of playing it out from the back a little more calmly and our attack better quality ball to feed off. With Joe Cole now playing ahead of him, we have an axis of creativity running through the team which should help bring our exciting young forward players into the game much more rather than they having to do everything on their own.

Last Time We Met

Given our strong start to the season and Swindon’s poor one, this game comes as almost a complete reversal to where the two teams were back in January. In front of the Sky cameras, Swindon were at the top of their game as they completely passed us off the park, pausing only to score the requisite number of goals to kill off any vain hopes we had of winning. It was probably that game on a freezing Monday night at the Ricoh Arena that saw Steven Pressley lose the majority of support from home fans, ironically instigating the changes that have seen our fortunes change so markedly since then.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned above, Swindon are having an absolutely torrid time of it this season having reached the play-off final in the previous campaign. Since being eviscerated by Preston back in May, all but seven of the 18-man squad have left the club (although a further three have since returned on loan) which has meant they’ve had to completely rebuild the squad with a bunch of free transfers and loans of players with little pedigree at League One level.

Things got off to a decent start though with Nathan Byrne banging goals in and winning games almost on his own. Byrne though was sold off to Wolves and things have unravelled at pace, helped on by an injury crisis that has at times taken as many as 11 first-choice players out of contention. The team’s form and performance levels have gotten worse and worse as the season has progressed, culminating in manager Mark Cooper’s sacking last Saturday.

Possible-Line-Up

Possible-Line-Up

If you were unaware, Cooper has been replaced on a caretaker basis by chairman Lee Power. Power is not your ordinary chairman though, heavily involved in signing players and reportedly in tactics and team selection too, he is a proper football man with strong views on how the game should be played. As the previous sentence would suggest, the sacking of Cooper may not herald that big a change to how things are going, especially too as first-team coach Luke Williams is reportedly the key figure on the training ground.

Despite the complete gutting of last season’s successful side, Swindon do still possess quality that could sting us in what looks like an eminently winnable fixture. They key players will be in midfield where Yaser Kasim, an international with Iraq, has a passing range to rival John Fleck and has Ben Gladwin playing slightly ahead of him who can provide further inspiration. Attacking left-back Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, a former Arsenal youngster, can beat defenders at will and may be played further forward with the classy Jordan Turnbull returning from suspension to fill in at full-back. There is also Nicky Ajose who is a useful striker at this level, probably not worth the opprobrium that surrounded our failure to sign him back in August.

Prediction

There has to be a strong degree of confidence heading into this fixture, we’re in pretty good shape at the moment and Swindon are decidedly not. Perhaps the biggest reason to see this game as a potential win for us is that Swindon are still looking to play the ball out from the back rather than attempt to set up shop and nick points for their relegation battle. We’ve tended to do much better against teams with ambitions of playing good football and thus leave space for us to exploit at the back.

As someone who sat in those cold Ricoh Arena stands back in January and questioned just what the point of watching football even is, it would be nice to see us inflict some form of payback against the Swindon lot. I’m fairly confident that we’re competent enough as a team to take advantage of another’s complete loss of form, even despite our current lack of goals. A 2-0 win for the Sky Blues is my call.

Finding The Right Formula

A stirring comeback against a strong Peterborough United on Saturday side has ended a desperate winless run in the league for the Sky Blues. The original intention of this post was to posit some theories as to how to get the best out this squad. Steven Pressley on Saturday though displayed why he is the professional in charge of tactics and why I am the one whose role it is to lay the plaudits on him for getting so emphatically right.

Confusion. The responsibilities being asked of the team in a 5-3-2 shape.

Confusion. The responsibilities being asked of the team in a 5-3-2 shape.

Controversially to some of our fans, Steven Pressley had utilised a 5-3-2 formation in all but one game prior to last Saturday. The criticism of the system was mainly that the two in attack were often very isolated. In addition, the wing-backs were being asked to provide too much of the team’s creativity and the midfield had to work incredibly hard to maintain possession, protect the defence, press the opposition and, when they had some free time, get into the penalty area.

Some of the best sides in this division play a version of the 5-3-2 system, just over a month ago we were sitting in third place playing 5-3-2. However we never fully convinced over the course of 90 minutes whilst playing in the system and with the defence increasingly making sloppy individual errors, we were no longer receiving the benefit of more confident defensive displays than the previous season.

A degree of credit then has to go to Pressley for recognising that the system was not producing the expected results. The decision was certainly made easier by poor recent results but given that he spent most of the summer planning to play 5-3-2, it takes some guts to admit when you got it wrong in such a high profile position. Even better than identifying a problem, Pressley took the important next step in finding the solution.

The team's 4-4-2 shape in the second-half on Saturday against Peterborough.

The team’s 4-4-2 shape in the second-half on Saturday against Peterborough.

The key player tactically on Saturday was Ryan Haynes playing from the left-back position in a 4-4-2. For a long time this season I had been wondering whether Haynes was fortunate that by playing as a wing-back, his defensive deficiencies were less exposed and that in a back four he would struggle. Pressley appeared to accommodate for this by playing the defensive-minded Jordan Willis at right-back as well as another two defensive minded players in the central midfield areas in Adam Barton and Conor Thomas. He also had Reda Johnson playing as a left-sided central defender, a player whose physicality and confidence have been a major factor in helping Haynes through his early appearances for the club.

This meant that Haynes could do what he is best at, making surges into the opposition half and putting in high quality crosses. Whilst he was unable to provide an assist himself, his forward bursts gave the team an important outlet in attack. The fact that he scored from open play showed that he was free to get deep into the Peterborough half of the pitch and make the same kind of decisions an attacking player would do. I firmly believe that having a full-back scoring in open play is the sign of a team playing with self-belief, which is remarkable given that we were two goals down at the time Haynes scored.

The midfield were also balanced very well, playing narrowly and in way where each of their talents could be used to full effect. John Fleck on the left had Ryan Haynes supplying the width outside of him, this meant that Fleck could move inside into the ‘hole’ where he is capable of hurting the opposition, it also left him with fewer defensive responsibilities than when he plays in a two-man midfield. It was no coincidence that Fleck contributed his first two assists of the season and had a number of chances to score himself, this is what we expected from him when he arrived.

Adam Barton in a deep-lying role meant that Jim O’Brien an Conor Thomas were able to press the opposition without leaving the defence exposed. Barton’s calmness in possession is fast becoming a platform for the rest of the team to build from. Often Pressley has been unable to play him in a midfield two because Thomas and Fleck better fitted the pressing game that he wants from his team. In the current system Barton has energetic players all around him that will win him the ball and now we are starting to see him deliver on the promise that has always been apparent.

The second-half attacking duo also played a key role in the comeback on Saturday. It certainly aids a striker’s performance when he has support from midfield players getting forward but Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson once again looked like a truly devastating strike partnership for this level of football. Although Jackson was not on the score-sheet, his substitution was important as he gave the opposing centre-backs more to think about with his positioning and intent compared to Josh McQuoid.

Nouble though is looking like the next in the line of David McGoldrick and Leon Clarke. Whilst less concerned with playing with his back to goal, Nouble is quick, strong live-wire that League One defenders cannot deal with when on form. He generally played to the right but he floated from wing to wing when the inspiration took him. A major worry is that his loan spell expires in January but let’s enjoy him even if he’s only here for a while.

The showed the spirit it had looked like missing in recent weeks.

The showed the spirit it had looked like missing in recent weeks.

Whilst the victory on Saturday was in part down to the role of the team’s tactical shape, even more important was the spirit and desire that the team played with in the second half. It’s hard to win football games when your team can barely pass to each other and struggles to win possession back in the midfield area. After witnessing that first-half performance, few would have felt that the team would have been able to turn the game around.

If we have learned anything from last season though, it is that it is better to end well than to start well. Look at Sheffield United and Bristol City compared to us this season. A dreadful start forced them to put things in order after seasons of underperformance. The head-start we had last season with our early form allowed us to become complacent, nearly costing us our place in the division.

In the first half Conor Thomas looked slow, ponderous and devoid of confidence. In the second half he worked harder to win the ball back and was a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps it took the introspection caused by a two-goal deficit in the game to inspire such a turnaround in application. Momentum is important in football, we will now be looking forward to next Saturday and Peterborough will be the ones doubting themselves this week.

Things can be improved upon heading into the Leyton Orient game and there are still some areas of weakness that need to be addressed. The left of our team for instance looks vulnerable defensively and it appears that we certainly need a new goalkeeper after Lee Burge’s howler. Saturday showed though that confidence, momentum and desire can transform a team’s performance. Whilst it was only one win, there are signs that perhaps a formula for success has been found for this season and this squad.