Preview: Charlton Athletic

Last Saturday’s win over Peterborough was perhaps the most enjoyable home game of the season. The game itself was a fairly mediocre one that we slightly edged, however, it was the atmosphere brought on by the good weather, legend’s day, and the chance to congratulate our Wembley heroes that made it such a wonderful afternoon.

Already, that’s feeling like a distant memory following the announcement of the season ticket prices this week. Personally, I don’t feel like they’re as scandalous as it’s being made out, but I also appreciate that people making a decision with their own money may feel differently. Regardless of the actual pricing of the tickets, the announcement has seen the battle lines drawn for what’s inevitably going to be a summer of mud-slinging and what could be a really difficult next season ahead.

Possible Line-Up

While the Peterborough game was an opportunity to bask in the sunshine and forget about the reality of the situation we’re in, this Charlton game where they’ll be protests and relegation could be confirmed looks set to serve as a cold, hard dose of reality. For Mark Robins and the players, it’s about displaying that they can cope in a less advantageous atmosphere, potentially having to deal with disruptions to the game, which could be a truer mark of their ability to produce the goods next year.

After a hectic list of fixtures in recent weeks, Robins should benefit from having a better rested squad than the past few games. Hopefully, the likes of Jordan Willis, Kwame Thomas and others dealing with minor knocks will be fit enough to enter contention for selection, potentially offering the manager some difficult decisions to make.

With Ruben Lameiras in good form over the past few games, it’s hard seeing even a fit Kwame Thomas taking his berth just behind Beavon in the starting line-up. The main selection quandary could well be whether to hand Jodi Jones a rare start ahead of Kyel Reid, even though the latter has been much-improved under Robins.

Last Time We Met

As I tried to locate the away end at The Valley back in October I heard a mysterious cockney voice utter “beware of flying pigs” darkly into the South London air. Thinking nothing of it other than that Londoners are weird, I took my seat for a game of football that I hoped would kick-start a season that hadn’t exactly gone to plan yet.

That cockney wisdom soon came to make sense when the referee blew his whistle to start the game and pigs did indeed fly (well, fall in style). Point made, the game resumed after a lengthy period where rubber pigs were removed from the pitch by the players and we proceeded to lose 3-0 to a team managed by Russell Slade. In fairness, it wasn’t actually a terrible performance, but we were too weak at the back and lacked the ability to convert possession into goals, however, it was a display that screamed relegation.

How Are They Doing?

Charlton have been beguiling this season, at times they have been one of the best teams in the division but they’ve so often been sub-par and appearing to be lacking in motivation that they now find themselves in mid-table with nothing to play for. A high level of squad turnover this season hasn’t helped, first in Russell Slade clearing out the mess of a squad he’d been left after relegation from the Championship, and then Karl Robinson making sweeping changes after replacing Slade in November.

While Karl Robinson has the excuse of not working with a squad entirely of his own choosing, Charlton’s performances under him at times have questioned the concept of him being a good up-and-coming young English manager. He’s got a very strong squad to work with, possibly one of the best at this level, yet he’s only picked up 20 points from the 21 games he’s had in charge – 10 fewer than Slade managed with the same number of games.

The quality in Charlton’s squad comes mainly comes from midfield/attack, where Ricky Holmes has been the star player this season. Remarkably for a player who’s never played as high as this level before, Holmes has looked a cut above in his wing play and end product. Former Swindon winger Nathan Byrne provides further quality out wide, while the attack boasts the physical prowess of Josh Magennis and Lee Novak, as well as the enigmatic former Celtic striker Tony Watt.

Karl Robinson’s big signing Jake Forster-Caskey has been a class act in a deeper midfield position, supplying creativity alongside academy product Joe Aribo who was rather exuberantly likened to Dele Alli early in the season by Robinson. The experienced Andrew Crofts provides a physical platform at the base of midfield to build from, while there’s also club captain and hero Johnnie Jackson to call upon despite his advancing age.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Charlton have an array of high-calibre centre-backs who could all really be playing at a higher-level. Patrick Bauer and Jorge Teixeira are domineering presences in central defence and the only random foreign players to last Russell Slade’s summer cull. There’s also Jason Pearce who has excelled in the past at Championship level, while Ezri Konsa has emerged as a big prospect this season after playing in a number of positions in defence and midfield.

There’s also the reliable Chris Solly to call upon at right-back, who has stayed loyal over the years despite previous links to Premier League clubs, and Declan Rudd in goal, who made several appearances last season in goal for Norwich in the top-flight. All in all, this is a time that shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table in League One.

Prediction

There are similarities between this Charlton side and the Peterborough one we faced last week. Both have aspirations of playing pretty, passing football and have a number of dangerous attacking players, but both have appeared to lack a cutting edge to their play and have a soft underbelly that can be exposed with proper organisation and the right mentality.

I would be confident predicting a win in this game, however the potential protests present an unknown factor both in how they may happen and whether it will have any effect on the team. Given that it is an unknown factor, I’m going to stick to my guns and tip us to win this game 2-1.

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Preview: Milton Keynes Dons

In an awful season, Tuesday night’s performance against Southend did well to stand out as probably the worst performance of them all. It wasn’t just the half-hearted defending that allowed Southend to saunter to a comfortable two-goal lead, it was the complete lack of attacking ambition or anyone even looking like they were playing for pride.

We all know what the situation is, we’re going down and we’ll probably finish bottom too. Mark Robins is here to build for next season, but it’s hard to see right now whether it will actually make any difference that he was appointed last Sunday rather than at the end of this season. Most of this squad won’t be here next season and I’m not sure whether you can lay meaningful foundations when both you and the players know that there’s neither no chance of salvaging the season or of the group staying together come August.

A Combination Of Players That We Have

As a fan though, it still hurts to see us lose as meekly as we did on Tuesday night. The criticism of Russell Slade was that it was boring football that wasn’t working and we were going backwards. Tuesday was probably as bad, if not worse, than some of the tripe we saw under Slade. There’s nothing to lose by throwing caution to the wind now, and it would probably help if Robins attempted to get the fans back onside with some entertaining performances between now and the end of the season.

A big issue contributing to our lack of attacking threat I think has been the exclusion of players who actually create chances, such as Jodi Jones and Ruben Lameiras, and to a lesser extent Kyel Reid. We have too many strikers in the squad, but none of them offer pace, creativity, physical threat, or are a reliable enough threat in front of goal to get away with lacking those qualities. Attempting to shoehorn as many strikers in has made us into a team with no obvious threat. Jones, Lameiras and Reid should at least be given a go to remedy this situation, I also think Devon Kelly-Evans has been harshly overlooked given his performances for the under-23s.

Last Time We Met

Heading into our last meeting with MK Dons, we were looking to get back to winning ways after back-to-back league defeats for the first time under Mark Venus. It was a fairly even contest between two teams looking to build their confidence, however, our achilles heel in preventing and defending crosses into the box allowed MK Dons to take the lead via Ed Upson heading in a centre from Dean Lewington.

Ben Stevenson levelled the game with a typical Ben Stevenson goal, returning a poor clearance from MK Dons’ keeper David Martin into the top corner. However, it was Stevenson’s reckless tackle that earned him a red card that proved the game’s decisive moment, with Ed Upson once again benefiting from poor defending in our penalty area to score the winner just four minutes after Stevenson’s dismissal.

How Are They Doing?

It’s been what might be described as a ‘transitional season’ for Milton Keynes Dons following relegation from the Championship last season. The long-serving Karl Robinson left the club in November after a poor start to the campaign which saw them struggling at the wrong end of the division thanks to a series of poor displays at home. Robinson was eventually replaced in December by ex-Hearts manager Robbie Neilson, who is a friend of Steven Pressley’s and trained with the Sky Blues back in the summer of 2013.

While Neilson has steadied the ship somewhat at MK Dons, it has seemingly been on the assumption that he’ll be able to put together a more concerted bid for promotion next season with more of his own players in place. There have been some decent performances in the four months he’s been in charge, but not on a consistent basis – probably down to a squad rotation policy – and they still need three or four wins to ensure League One status next season, making this game must-win for them.

The team is still transitioning away from the possession-based, and sometimes naive, approach under Robinson towards a slightly more robust approach under Neilson. There are still the intricate attacking midfielders in place such as Ben Reeves, as well as ball-playing defenders such as Joe Walsh and Paul Downing, but Neilson has brought in more physical players such as the towering strikers Robbie Muirhead and Maecky Ngombo and the industrious Stuart O’Keefe in midfield, but has made a nod towards the previous era in signing the talented Leicester attacking midfielder Harvey Barnes on loan.

Possible Line-Up

MK Dons are likely to dominate this game with extended spells of possession, but with more of an attacking impetus than before. Neilson has tended to play either a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond formation with more of a physical presence in attack, which means they can move more quickly from defence to attack than they have done before. However, retaining some of those ball-players means they’re capable of holding onto possession and dragging us out of position.

Having quality attacking full-backs also helps MK Dons mix things up, offering support in possession, as well as the ability to put in telling deliveries into the box. At right-back, it’s a choice between George Baldock, who could well play at a higher-level in the next couple of season, and George Williams. At left-back, there’s the reliable Dean Lewington and the promising youngster Ben Tilney to pick from.

If MK Dons play to their potential, they’ll beat us comfortably, however, they’ve struggled in recent weeks due to the loss of the inspirational maverick Chuks Aneke. Yet, they do have Kieran Agard who is a proven striker at this level and has 11 goals to his name this season, so I’m sure they’ll find some way to deal with our robust defensive block.

Prediction

This is a game that MK Dons should win and win with ease. I find it odd that they have struggled to pull away from danger given the strength they have in their squad and that they have a good mix between creative players and physical players. Perhaps it will help us that they’ll look to control the game, which should offer us space on the counter, this is the exact type of games Robins’ previous Coventry City side would have relished.

However, we don’t have David McGoldrick, Franck Moussa and Carl Baker, we don’t even have Steven Jennings or Billy Edge. I’d be surprised if they were taking bets on this win. 4-0 MK Dons win.

Preview: Bristol Rovers

A Christmas changing of the guards at Coventry City has seen Mark Venus shuffle back upstairs to make way for Russell Slade. Appointing an experienced manager who tends to focus on the defence is either going to be just this inexperienced, team that can’t defend needs, or the exact opposite.

With Slade tending to prefer hard-working and committed players over the fleet-footed creative types that Tony Mowbray attempted to build this squad around, expect to see some former favourites marginalised. Ruben Lameiras in particular looks like he’ll need to impress the new manager over the next couple of games to ensure his continued stay at the club, although Jodi Jones and maybe even someone like Gael Bigirimana could find surprisingly find themselves struggling to get into the team.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

However, the arrival of a new manager also tends to provide an opportunity for some of the fringe players in the squad to jump up the pecking order. It’s hard to tell who exactly that might be but I can see Slade giving Marcus Tudgay and Kyel Reid more regular football over the next couple of months and this could maybe be the time that the likes of George Thomas and Ryan Haynes finally establish themselves in the starting 11.

In terms of team selection for this game, there is only so much that Russell Slade can change right now. The biggest decision is probably which keeper he sees as his number one, there isn’t a great deal to pick between either Lee Burge or Reice Charles-Cook. Aside from that, he can’t really change the defence, Ben Stevenson is available again in midfield and it’s a complete guess what kind of attacking line-up he goes for.

Last Time We Met

As tends to happen every season, we come up against a team that we haven’t met in a competitive match in a few generations. Our last meeting against Bristol Rovers came in 1964 in the old Third Division (League One nowadays) at Bristol Rovers’ old Eastville Stadium. A single goal from Ken Hale decided the contest which came during the run-in for our Third Division title-winning campaign under Jimmy Hill.

How Are They Doing?

It’s been an eventful past few seasons for Bristol Rovers, especially for their manager Darrell Clarke. When he stepped into the job towards the end of the 2013/14 season, Bristol Rovers had looked to have done enough to survive in League Two for another season only for a final-day defeat to Mansfield Town and a victory for Wycombe Wanderers to send Rovers to non-league. The then-inexperienced manager Darrell Clarke was seen crying on the pitch, probably contemplating whether he was cut-out for this management business.

A slow start to their National League campaign the following season didn’t augur well for Clarke, only for his side to develop a defensive resilience to mount a long unbeaten-run that took the title race against Barnet to the final day. Although Rovers lost out on automatic promotion by one point, they triumphed on penalties in the play-offs to secure an immediate return to the Football League. The momentum from that promotion carried over into last season which saw Bristol Rovers finally come out on top in a final-day dog-fight to win promotion from League Two.

Darrell Clarke’s man management and tactical skills have been key for the past few years for Bristol Rovers as he’s developed an amazing team spirit at the club while also making them one of the toughest teams to suss out due to his tendency to make big personnel and tactical alterations from game to game. It was a formula that had seen Rovers start this season in the third-tier in form good enough to challenge the play-offs, but they have hit the buffers slightly over the past month or so, with Clarke admitting that some of the stalwarts from their National League days are probably not quite good enough for this level of football.

The biggest issue Bristol Rovers have at the moment is in goal, where former PSV and Nuneaton goalkeeper (yes, you read that right) Kelle Roos, on loan from Derby, has made some really costly errors at times this season and his replacement, Will Puddy, is even worse. Trying to put whoever Darrell Clarke opts for in goal under the slightest modicum of pressure looks like being a good approach here.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It’s tough to predict what shape or personnel Bristol Rovers will use, however star striker Matty Taylor is probably the only certain pick in the side. After an okay season with Rovers in the National League, Taylor caught fire in front of goal in League Two last season and is currently the division’s second top-scorer. Taylor is nippy striker with plenty of pace to his game who comes to life in the penalty area.

Chris Lines in midfield the other main crucial player, due to his set-piece delivery and leadership in the centre of the park. Chelsea loanee Charlie Colkett has caught the eye as an attacking-midfielder at times this season but has perhaps lacked consistency. While centre-back, Peter Hartley, has proved a useful source of goals from set-pieces this season.

Prediction

It’s hard to see how much difference Russell Slade could possibly make without the opportunity of the transfer window, or even that much time on the training pitch. I imagine that he’ll attempt to play for a clean sheet and hope that we nick something on the counter-attack as he looks to put the building blocks in place for the survival battle ahead. This game will be all about our defence can be trusted to keep a clean sheet, which seems doubtful.

I can see this being a 2-0 defeat and a fairly turgid performance, Merry Christmas everyone.

Preview: Oxford United

In a continued trend of late, we managed to win another game that we started slowly in on Tuesday night. While it’s encouraging that we’ve managed to win a game after falling behind, there is a worrying tendency towards sloppiness in our play at times which leads to the concern that this revival may not be sustainable.

The next three games are going to set the benchmark for the rest of the season. Starting with an Oxford side in desperate need of a win in this upcoming fixture, we then face a daunting away trip to promotion-chasing Bolton before playing MK ‘Dons’ at home in what will either be a relegation six-pointer or a chance to put ourselves in the play-off picture. This week will either completely transform our prospects this season or could put us back in a relegation battle we thought we’d left behind.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Mark Venus settling on an attacking line-up that works is looking like it will be the crucial element. We’ve struggled for cohesiveness in attack over the past few games, which is hardly surprising given that Venus has fiddled with the front three for each game. Good attacking play is not only about great individuals but it’s about having an understanding of what your teammates are going to do, that understanding is tough to develop without consistency of selection.

Marvin Sordell displayed on Tuesday night that he’s our best option through the middle and there should be no reason to tinker there. Kyel Reid provided a wonderful assist for Sordell’s first goal and should probably stay in the side too. Although Jodi Jones didn’t deliver a final product against Morecambe, he did provide a goal threat and should be given at least this game to prove he’s worth a regular starting spot. Without any great other options, sticking with Tuesday night’s attacking line-up makes the most sense.

Last Time We Met

Thanks to some rather odd fixture scheduling, Oxford are the first team we’ll have played twice in the league this season, having played them barely a month ago. It was a game where we needed a win to stay in touch at the bottom of the league and we ended up producing our best, most composed, performances of the season. Ben Stevenson scored a jaw-dropping 25-yard effort to set us on our way, before Marvin Sordell capitalised on a defensive howler to make it 2-0 before half-time. Although Oxford managed a goal back late in the second-half, the poise and control we exerted on the proceedings made sure it was merely a blot on our copybook for an excellent night’s work.

How Are They Doing?

Back in October, Oxford were in good form and looking to get into the play-off picture. Manager Michael Appleton looked to have navigated both a step up in quality from League Two and the loss of last season’s stars Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda with some shrewd additions in the transfer market that had given the U’s quality, as well as strength in depth. That defeat at the Ricoh Arena has augured an awful run of form which now sees Oxford just two points above the relegation zone.

That early season form possibly papered over some of the difficulties in replacing Roofe and O’Dowda, as well as the more experienced, less flashy, Danny Hylton and Jake Wright. Michael Appleton has struggled to find a way to get the best out of what is still clearly a talented squad, with big tactical and personnel changes from game to game clearly not helping.

The one player who has managed to maintain a high level of performance has been Chris Maguire, but it still feels like Appleton doesn’t quite know the best place to utilise his talents. It’s a problem that has plagued Maguire throughout his career, despite his very obvious talents, he’s not quite a striker, not quite a winger and not quite a number 10. Because Oxford have so many other good options in attack, out wide and attacking midfield, Michael Appleton has moved Maguire and his other players around in the hope that something will eventually click.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It really is a cavalcade of attacking options for Oxford, Dan Crowley and Liam Sercombe offer quality on the ball and runs into the box from midfield, Marvin Johnson is a tall, pacey and direct winger, while Kane Hemmings and Wes Thomas are quick, strong strikers who have shown they can score goals at this level with other clubs. Maybe it’s because Maguire is such an attack-minded player as well, that the problem has been a lack of player to link it all together rather than a lack of quality.

Defensive injuries haven’t helped Oxford this season either with their two big summer central defensive signings, Curtis Nelson and Aaron Martin, spending much of this season on the sidelines. While Chey Dunkley and Charlie Raglan have done a decent job while Nelson and Martin have been out, the constant changes at the back have led to the kind of errors of communication that allowed Marvin Sordell an open goal at the Ricoh Arena last month.

Prediction

We should be wary of Oxford, despite their poor recent form, this is still a team that plays good football and has dangerous attacking players, they will turn things round and this game could be that turning point for them. As for us, not getting a good result from this game cranks up the pressure on the next two games and could see this upturn in form start to unravel.

I’m not feeling positive about this game at all and I can see us losing this one 2-1.

Preview: Bury

Can a performance where you had chances but didn’t take them be described as good? While we certainly created more chances over the 90 minutes than Shrewsbury, our opponents may also be considering whether they put in a good performance after they had chances themselves to take all three points. I feel I’m going to write this a lot over the next few weeks, but it’s too early in the season to tell whether that performance on Saturday was good or bad, or unlucky or lucky.

The positives on Saturday were some bright individual performances, the fluidity of our front three and the sense that we’re closer to being an effective team than many had imagined. Add a decent striker to the team that played on Saturday and we probably would have won that. The negatives were the failure to score after some promising chances and the worrying lack of physical strength in this side which allowed a limited Shrewsbury side to create some glorious opportunities.

Getting a first win of the league season in this Tuesday night game against Bury will probably dictate the emotions about the Shrewsbury result. A win would ease the tension around the club, possibly giving way to the hope that we can grow into the season once the transfer window closes. A defeat, or a draw, just adds to the fear that this could be a very difficult season for us.

With the physical threat that Bury are going to offer in this game, I doubt that Tony Mowbray is going to hesitate that much over replacing Ben Stevenson with the now-available Chris McCann in central midfield. Stevenson certainly has the technical ability and attitude to become a great player at this level, but we need to ease him into first-team football carefully.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The only way Stevenson isn’t replaced by McCann in the side is if either Ricketts or Willis are deemed unfit for this game. With Jordan Turnbull having not been signed in time for this game, we’re asking a lot of a back three that is a combination of not 100% fit and inexperienced to make it through this game. You feel that we’re going to have to score more than one goal against a physical Bury side to come out with the win.

With a front three of Kyel Reid, Ruben Lameiras and Jodi Jones likely to start in this game, they are going to need to add cutting edge to their promising approach play. Marcus Tudgay looks to be the only fit, alternative option up front and he could be a useful focal point in attack but I’m not sure who out of Saturday’s front three should be taken out of the side in favour of him.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Bury offered hope that we could move back up the gears after stalling last winter. On Legend’s Day and on the same weekend as the Jimmy Hill memorial service at the cathedral, there was a special atmosphere heading into the game despite having failed to win the previous five games.

It was a near-perfect performance from the Sky Blues with two early goals scored from set-pieces via Chris Stokes and Baily Cargill. James Maddison scored a classic James Maddison goal, drifting past a few defenders and curling the ball accurately into the corner of the net from outside the box. There was time for Leon Clarke to fluff some excellent chances before John Fleck made it four with a long-range effort. The second-half was played at near-walking pace with Adam Armstrong bagging a brace with two identikit goals on the counter-attack.

How Are They Doing?

Bury have been paying the price over the summer for failing to achieve promotion after big splurge in the transfer market last year. The spending on players such as Leon Clarke, Peter Clarke and Tom Pope was reportedly funded by high interest loans secured against the club’s ground and most of the big-earners (barring Tom Pope) have been off-loaded over the past few months.

However, the cloth cutting hasn’t been as dramatic as had been expected, with the proven League One/Championship-level performers in the form of Neil Danns, Ben Williams and Leon Barnett brought into the club to replace the quality they’ve lost. While it’s hard to say that Bury are stronger than they were last season, they certainly aren’t as weak as many thought they would be.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The biggest question mark against this Bury side is not the strength of the squad, but the ability of manager David Flitcroft. Flitcroft is a bit like Chris Coleman, in that his teams can be dire for months on end but occasionally flicker into life over a period of 10 or so games. Bury started last season well only for Flitcroft to fail to arrest a slump that nearly saw them involved in the relegation battle.

As mentioned earlier in this preview, Bury are a team packed with big, physically strong players. Nathan Cameron in central defence, along with a midfield of Tom Soares, Jacob Mellis, Neil Danns and Kelvin Etuhu, with Tom Pope up front will look to impose themselves on the game with physical strength over technical ability.

In comparison to Shrewsbury though, Bury have a little more dynamism and pace to their team via wingers Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail – both of whom tend to lack in end product – and Greg Leigh at left-back, possibly at the cost of being less secure defensively. We’re going to need to score in this game, but if we can get one early, more should come.

Prediction

Having Chris McCann available to call on for this game is a massive boost given the general lack of physical presence in the side on Saturday. However, we’re still lacking an attacking and defensive physical presence which makes will make this game tougher than it might otherwise be. Bury will be looking to bully us and live off Tom Pope’s knock-downs, we’ve got to stand up to the test and make sure we put the ball into the net when we’re on top.

I’m really struggling to decide on a prediction here. I feel like it’s a game where an early goal for us could lead to an easy win but the longer it stays goalless, Bury are more likely to score. I’m going to sit on the fence and go for a 1-1 draw.

Preview: Shrewsbury Town

As wins over weakened League Two sides go, Tuesday was as important as it could possibly be. With all the negativity around the football club at the moment, a defeat to a League Two side wouldn’t have played well. I dread to imagine what the atmosphere heading into this first home league game of the season would have been like. While the League Cup may not be incredibly important, we have averted an early season crisis at the very least.

The significance of that win over Portsmouth ultimately rests on how we do in this meeting with Shrewsbury. Although we made hard work of a heavily-rotated League Two side, there isn’t a lot we could have done about their two goals and the three goals we scored demonstrated a level of attacking threat and spirit that questioned this current Sky Blues side could produce.

The performances of Ryan Haynes and Ben Stevenson on Tuesday night may have caused Mowbray to re-think his squad options. Most thought the arrival of Lewis Page on loan would see Ryan Haynes phased out of the side, possibly for good, but a performance that recaptured Haynes’ breakthrough displays two seasons ago means there is genuine competition at left wing-back. Stevenson’s assurance on his debut may have convinced Mowbray to make the youngster fourth-choice central midfielder once Chris McCann returns from suspension. Stevenson could well start this game should Mowbray go for Rose over Dion Kelly-Evans at right wing-back.

Possible Line-Up

The impact of Kyel Reid and Jodi Jones from the bench on Tuesday demonstrated how important those two are going to be this season as our attacking threat. If Reid is fully match-fit in time for this game, it’s then a question of whether Mowbray wants a striker in Marvin Sordell who can take advantage of what those two will create or Ruben Lameiras who look to exploit their pace with paces in behind Shrewsbury’s defence.

Although there were defensive signings rumoured to be on the way, no-one has been signed in time for this game. Similar to last week then, it leaves us sweating on the fitness of Sam Ricketts and Jordan Willis, which could either see Jack Finch involved or force Mowbray to alter his tactics. Given that we were potentially going to be handing a debut to Juhani Ojala, a player with no experience of English football and hasn’t played since last October, we may have avoided giving a player a baptism of fire, albeit at the cost of having to play potentially unfit players in his stead.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Shrewsbury at the start of March was perhaps one of the most frustrating games of last season. Having lost the past three games, our hold on sixth-place was slipping and a big performance was needed to re-invigorate the season. A big performance came, Aaron Martin gave us an early lead, we had a few decent chances to extend it, even Marc-Antoine Fortuné was having a good game. Two poor defensive errors allowed the home side to claim a lead they didn’t relinquish.

Our last home game against Shrewsbury was more satisfying, a game that was possibly Marc-Antoine Fortuné’s other good performance for us. It was just an exercise in the superior attacking quality we had over a quotidian League One side, Shrewsbury were probably on top before Armstrong gave us the lead. Fortuné extended it from the spot and Armstrong added a third after half-time, all without us playing particularly well. It was also a game notable for it being the league debut for Reice Charles-Cook in goal, he hasn’t relinquished his first-choice status since.

How Are They Doing?

A lot of casual observers have noted that Shrewsbury signed a lot of players this summer, and early on in the transfer window. However, the players they’ve signed are largely journeymen from around this division so they are question marks as to whether the squad is any better. In particular, the departure of Crystal Palace loanee Sullay Kaikai severely reduces their attacking threat after the youngster almost single-handedly kept Shrewsbury up last season with his goals and assists.

What manager Micky Mellon has tried to do is make Shrewsbury a more resilient, robust side, in the hope that a loss of attacking penetration can be compensated for by improved defensive solidity. Players like Gary Deegan, Jim O’Brien and Adam El-Abd are going to make Shrewsbury fierce competitors in this game and we’re going to have to stand up to a more physical test of our credentials than we have faced in the opening two games.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Although Shrewsbury lack pace on the counter-attack, they play some neat, overlapping football to create opportunities after soaking up pressure. New loan signing Ivan Toney from Newcastle will be key in holding the ball up in attack, while also being the only genuinely pacey player that Shrewsbury have on their books. Although Ajay Leitch-Smith, Louis Dodds and Jim O’Brien are all decent enough players to be supporting in attack.

Shrewsbury’s defence will be marshalled by Adam El-Abd, who was nicknamed El-Bad during a particularly poor spell with Bristol City but is a grizzled, muscular, albeit immobile, centre-back who suits teams who defend deep and narrowly. Goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler is one of the better ones at this level, although he had a shocker against MK ‘Dons’ whenever he had the ball at his feet. Weirdly for Shrewsbury’s defensive style of play, they have two attack-minded full-backs in Joe Riley and Junior Brown and we should be looking to isolate them against Jodi Jones and Kyel Reid.

Prediction

Shrewsbury are more or less built to put in a classic League One team away day at the Ricoh Arena, where they’ll look to bully us, block the middle of the pitch, defend deep and hit us on the counter. Although we came from being a goal behind against Portsmouth on Tuesday, playing against a full-strength side in the same division as us with points at stake is an entirely different prospect. I would imagine that if we fall behind in this game, it’s going to be tough to get back in it.

In an earlier draft of this preview when it looked like Juhani Ojala was set to make his debut for the club, I predicted that we would lose due to the likelihood of a defensive lapses. Although it’s frustrating we haven’t managed to bolster our threadbare defence, it’s probably better to go with what we’ve got rather than throwing someone in at the deep end. Altering my prediction somewhat, I can see us edging this 1-0.

Preview: Swindon Town

A new season is upon us but it still feels like the squad is far from ready for the long road ahead. Just about every position could do with strengthening and thus this opening game of the season feels more like a free-hit, another pre-season friendly than it does a regular season match.

The transfer activity this summer has not been what was expected, particularly as we gave ourselves a head-start by bringing in Jodi Jones and Vladimir Gadzhev last March. When players like Aaron Martin and Romain Vincelot were allowed to move on, you would have thought that some quality replacements had been lined-up to have made those decisions. Instead, whether it’s been down to broken promises, bad luck or poor planning, we have a paper-thin squad heading into this away trip to Swindon.

To be in a position where we’re sweating on the fitness of Sam Ricketts is particularly troubling. Unless Tony Mowbray moves away from the 3-4-3 he’s used in every pre-season game and barring a new defensive signing, youngster Darragh Leahy is the alternative should Ricketts fail to recover in time. With Chris Stokes out too, these opening few games could be a big chance for Ryan Haynes, Cian Harries and Dion Kelly-Evans to impress Mowbray before, you presume, more senior defenders arrive.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Given the lack of numbers in defence, you might be thinking that Mowbray should change to a four-man back-line. However, we’re also short on central midfielders with Chris McCann suspended for the first three games. Mowbray could deploy the team in a 4-2-3-1 shape, but you wonder whether there’s safety in numbers with playing a 3/5 in defence given the lack of experience at the back.

The only real selection dilemma is in attack. Jodi Jones, Ruben Lameiras and Marvin Sordell are likeliest to start in those front three positions of the 3-4-3, Marcus Tudgay and George Thomas were both in the goals during pre-season however, meaning the aforementioned three are not guaranteed starters for these opening games. Not to forget Kyel Reid either, someone who’s consistently made a big impact at this level but whose arrival has been overshadowed by the panic over the lack of new signings.

Last Time We Met

Not taking all three points against Swindon last March was pretty much the end of our play-off hopes, despite there being nine games left to play afterwards. Swindon were flying high at that point but were probably there for the taking had Tony Mowbray not set us up so negatively and with such little threat on the counter. Darius Henderson missed a great chance in the dying embers of the game but it was a fair 0-0 result.

It’s always worth mentioning that we haven’t beaten Swindon in the league since 1964 and haven’t won at the County Ground since 1960. In each of our last four visits to the County Ground we’ve been in great positions late on, only to throw three points away. We drew 2-2 having been 2-0 up in 2012, lost 2-1 having been 1-0 up in 2013, drew 1-1 having been 1-0 up in 2014 and last year drew 2-2 having been 2-0 up with just five minutes left.

How Are They Doing?

Given our struggles to bring players in this summer, we couldn’t really have picked better opponents for the opening day than Swindon Town, hoodoo notwithstanding. The Robins are operating a similarly threadbare squad heading into the new season, with a couple of injury concerns further weakening their position.

Their manager, Luke Williams, is heading into his first full season as a full-time manager having been a highly-regarded coach at the club responsible for the development of players such as Ben Gladwin and Massimo Luongo. Swindon were streaky under his tutelage during the second half of last season, playing some pretty, possession-based football but struggling to find the balance between patience and defensive stability.

The loss of their top-scorer Nicky Ajose is undoubtedly a massive blow for a side that struggled to convert domination into goals last season. However, Jon Obika should be expected to step up into the goalscoring mantle at the County Ground having been an effective strike partner for Ajose last year. Obika is strong and quick, capable of linking the play or bursting beyond the shoulder of the last defender, he’ll have to be well-marshalled.

In midfield, the key man is Yaser Kasim, who conducts the midfield from a deep-lying position. Hard to ruffle, if we can break his rhythm, Swindon are going to be in for a long, hard afternoon. Watch out for summer signing John Goddard too, scorer of 17 goals in the Conference with Woking last season, he’ll play just behind Obika up front and look to make runs beyond Swindon’s focal point in attack.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Swindon are short on numbers in defence but should be able to call upon captain Nathan Thompson despite a recent injury scare. Thompson isn’t the biggest of defenders but competes very well by either winning soft free-kicks or leaving his boot in to remind opponents that he’s there. One of those centre-backs who’s more at home in a back three rather than a four, injuries could mean that Swindon will have to use Thompson slightly out-of-position.

There are a few others with potential to come good this season for Swindon to keep an eye out on. If Luke Williams plays four at the back, it offers the chance for James Brophy and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill to link up down the left, two very attack-minded players who can interchange between full-back and on the wing. There’s also Conor Thomas who, given the opprobrium against him from a large section of Sky Blues fans, is destined to score in this game, if selected.

Prediction

The opening game of the season is always the toughest one to predict, pre-season rarely gives you an insight of how a team is going to do, players you think are great can end up having terrible seasons, players who you’ve written-off can suddenly decide that this is their year. Despite both teams failing to bring in too many players in the transfer market, these are two different sides from the ones that ended last season.

Although we’re playing Swindon at a great time, we’re not in great shape ourselves, especially if Sam Ricketts is out and we can’t bring anyone in in time. In spite of the curse we seemingly have at the County Ground, I’ve just got this sneaky feeling we might sneak this 1-0.