Preview: Mansfield Town

It’s hard to be particularly angry at a defeat away at Premier League opposition, but our passiveness in the first-half renders any positives to take from the fight-back we sustained in the second-half moot – Brighton had already won the game before we started playing. It’s a fourth defeat in a row now, but the main hope is that taking time out of the league and then having a week’s rest will restore the confidence and focus that has been lost over the past few weeks.

That’s because we’ll need every iota of confidence and focus for the task ahead of us this week, with games against three teams currently sitting above us in the table. If we can take five or more points from these games, we’re starting to make up ground again in the play-off chase, anything less than three points then we’re going to need string together a run of four or five wins as soon as possible in order to put ourselves back into play-off contention.

With the first two of this run of three games coming on the road, and to teams challenging for automatic promotion, it’s absolutely crucial that Mark Robins rectifies our terrible recent away form. What’s strange about it is that it’s uncharacteristic of a Mark Robins side to be so poor away from home – we’ve even had recent evidence of a perfectly-executed away performance in the FA Cup win over MK Dons.

The first task is to end the leaking of goals that has set in since the start of November – we’ve kept just two clean sheets in our past 16 league games. It hasn’t been helped by the number of injuries we’ve sustained at the back, but there is a worrying lack of organisation and concentration in this defence – which is somehow still the best in the division.

Possible Line-Up

The second task is to find the right balance in attack to give us a threat on the counter. Recent team selections with Jordan Shipley, Tom Bayliss, Josh Barrett, and Peter Vincenti in wide positions have robbed us of pace on the break, which has placed the attacking burden on Maxime Biamou winning headers and Marc McNulty conjuring a finish from somewhere. Kyel Reid’s reintegration into the first-team provides pace and direct running from out wide, while Jonson Clarke-Harris provides a more mobile, less aerially dominant but potentially more prolific strike partner to McNulty than Biamou does.

Whatever team is selected, it has to have had forethought gone into it and it has to be given games to integrate if it looks like being successful, chopping and changing (although some of it necessary) has curtailed what had been a strong run of form for us.

Last Time We Met

It had been a characteristic of our season up until November that when we’d lose games, we had at least been the better team. Along with the away defeat to Accrington Stanley, the loss to Mansfield earlier in the season was one we deserved. Our back four looked rattled by Mansfield’s combination of direct balls forward and pace in wide areas, Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis were constantly caught under high goal-kicks while Jack Grimmer in particular was tortured by Mansfield’s lithe winger CJ Hamilton.

Nonetheless, we looked to have weathered the storm somewhat – albeit while creating next to nothing – until Mansfield’s Alex MacDonald leathered in a stunning effort from distance past Lee Burge to earn his side a deserved three points.

How Are They Doing?

Mansfield had been heavy promotion favourites heading into the season – mainly off the back of signing a lot of League One journeymen players early in the summer – and had struggled to live up to that billing. They spent the first few months of the season looking disjointed, with manager Steve Evans struggling to find his preferred line-up and often playing players out of position, however, they have quietly moved up through the gears now that their team is more settled and are on a run where they have lost just twice in their past twenty games and only once at home all season.

Evans spent much of the summer making it very clear he was after a mythical 20-goal a season striker to fire Mansfield to promotion. However, it’s transpired that the 20-goal calibre forward Evans was after was right under his nose in the form of Danny Rose. A good all-round striker who is strong in the air for his height, energetic and a strong finisher, Rose plays a key role in not just scoring goals but facilitating their creation.

Rose is partnered by Kane Hemmings – who was signed by towards the end of the summer after other preferred striker targets fell through. While Hemmings hasn’t been as prolific as expected, his pace and ability to run the channels and in behind cause teams plenty of problems. Given our tendency to play something of a high defensive line, Hemmings’ pace could be our undoing.

Possible Line-Up

While Mansfield tend to play a direct style of football, it’s based more on the energy and tempo of their football than simply hoofing it forward to a big target-man (which they don’t have). They have pace and energy in wide areas in the form of CJ Hamilton, Alfie Potter and Alex MacDonald, while Joel Byrom in the centre is a real tyro who can wreak havoc with his drive from midfield.

At the back, Mansfield have experience and physicality at centre-back by the bucket-load in the forms of Zander Diamond, Krystian Pearce, David Mirfin and Rhys Bennett. With winger Paul Anderson having been converted fairly successfully to right-back, and Mal Benning an attacking option at left-back, Mansfield can really overload teams down the flanks.

Prediction

Mansfield are a fearsome prospect and hardly the team you to play – especially at Field Mill – when seeking the win to rekindle your season. However, we have consistently seen this team pick up results at just the moment it looks like the season is falling apart, particularly when up against the better teams. Mansfield will want to play on the front-foot, which, in theory, plays into Robins’ strengths as a counter-attacking manager.

A lot rests on how confident and organised our defence is after recent results, if we can hold tight long enough to get the first goal, this could be yet another backs-to-the-wall win at one of the division’s better teams. If we continue our streak of sloppiness and passiveness in defence, this could be the kind of defeat that kills a season.

Somehow I think we can get a result from this encounter, I’m going to tip us to draw this 1-1

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Preview: Colchester United

The result and performance against Accrington on Saturday in such an important match and in front of a big crowd feels like it will go down in the pantheon of infamy that the Crewe JPT game and Burton match under Mowbray exist in. Just when we were starting to believe this team could achieve promotion, the season is in danger of spiralling out of control.

The injuries and illness that left Mark Robins suddenly without several key players has to be taken into mitigation, but it was the lack of a game plan – or even concentration on avoiding errors – that was disappointing regardless of the 11 players on the pitch in their various conditions.

With this game against Colchester United coming so quickly off the back of Saturday’s debacle, it makes Mark Robins’ task of instilling the basics into what will remain a makeshift and unfit side especially difficult. However, it’s a game that we have to get a result, preferably a win, in to prevent things spiralling further into a full-on crisis.

There will be the temptation for Robins to change things up for this game but that could only serve to further the disjointedness of the past couple of performances. A lot of players have been introduced – or re-introduced – into the side over the past month, which has unsettled the balance we once had. Any changes Robins makes have to be necessary and with a specific game-plan in mind, rather than just throwing another collection of players together to see what works.

The injuries at the back mean that Mark Robins can only really drop Dion Kelly-Evans from the side, and that would only be to play Jordan Willis at his weaker right-back position. It’s 50-50 to me whether Kelly-Evans is given a chance to redeem himself after what can charitably be described as a rusty performance on Saturday.

Further forward, Saturday’s midfield duo of Liam Kelly and Tom Bayliss both showed signs of rustiness. The problem is that with Doyle’s injury and Ben Stevenson’s sale, the alternatives are playing Jordan Shipley in the centre – which leads to further changes out wide – or bringing in the inexperienced Callum Maycock for his first league start of the season. Kelly in particular needs to get back to the level he’s capable of otherwise Doyle’s injury could be especially costly.

Possible Line-Up

Jordan Shipley’s move into a central position would allow Robins to bring pantomime villain Kyel Reid back into the side on the left-wing – which is the only position he can really play. Bringing Peter Vincenti into the side on the other wing should offer whoever plays at right-back extra protection and the team in general some much-needed experience at this time.

Up front, unless Marc McNulty is unfit, it would be too disruptive to bring Jonson Clarke-Harris in to start. Purely because his style of play is so different from McNulty and Biamou, it’s going to take time to figure out how to bring the best out of him. Clarke-Harris looks like he has something to offer, but this is a game we need to get a result out of, not one to experiment in.

Last Time We Met

Our game against Colchester earlier in the season was an utterly unremarkable game during a period where we were low on confidence. The only notable thing to come from the game was Colchester’s Tom Lapslie picking up a bizarre second yellow card for hand-ball while appealing for a free-kick just minutes after receiving his first yellow.

How Are They Doing?

Colchester are having a slightly frustrating season, struggling to maintain consistency despite showing the quality at times to be in the top seven. Like us, they’ve had good patches of form, but have consistently stumbled whenever they’ve had the chance to secure a place in the play-offs.

Attacking midfielder Sammie Szmodics was in excellent form in November and December, a technically-gifted player who finally added goals and assists to his game, however he has tailed-off in recent weeks and manager John McGreal has dropped him to the bench. That’s because young winger Courtney Senior has really come to the fore, in his six league appearances this season, he has three goals and three assists. A tricky and skilful winger with the determination to create and score goals, he’s the man we’ll have to nullify.

The presence of the powerful Mikael Mandron up front is another key element of this Colchester side. Mandron is fairly similar in style to Maxime Biamou, and while he is more of a goalscorer than Biamou, there is a sense that Colchester would be doing a lot better this season if Mandron was more clinical.

Possible Line-Up

Tom Lapslie and Sean Murray in central midfield offer Colchester composure on the ball, with Lapslie playing a deep role and Murray offering forward drive. Wolves’ move to send Ben Stevenson straight into this Colchester side probably had in mind that they are one of few League Two side that would give a young ball-playing midfielder the platform to express himself. Stevenson scored within minutes of making his debut for Colchester, seemingly having been given more licence to roam forward than he had with us.

Colchester generally like to play a back three, with the powerful Tom Eastman an important presence for them in dominating the back-line. With the vastly experienced Luke Prosser having returned from a long-term injury recently, there is further determination at the back from Colchester to cope with the physical side of the game. However, a lack of pace could well be an area we should be looking to exploit.

Prediction

We’re going to have to produce a performance of some kind here. It’s probably too early still to be talking about make-or-break games, the defeat on Saturday feels like it could be really damaging psychologically unless we harness that frustration quickly in a galvanising manner. It doesn’t help that at the moment our away form is poor, but the way this season has gone for us, it feels like you can’t read into these things too heavily.

I think Mark Robins will set the team up to get a draw here – which would be our first draw in 12 league games. Unless a Marc McNulty or a Jonson Clarke-Harris or a Kyel Reid produces something inspired out of nowhere, I think we might be able to eke out a turgid 0-0.

Preview: Accrington Stanley

In this reverse travellator of a promotion race in League Two, forward progress only serves to maintain your position while any stumble can send you back a long way. Two wins in a row had us one point away from an automatic promotion place, yet the defeat against Forest Green saw us slip outside the play-off positions.

This coming month though should begin to see things fall into a more definitive place for us and the rest of the division. This week sees us against 3rd and 10th before we take on Brighton in the FA Cup, then it’s 5th, 2nd and 9th, if we can average our current rate of two wins out of three, we should still be in the promotion race, anything less and we’ve not only dropped points, but handed them to direct promotion rivals. In three weeks time this could either be one of those seasons that promises much but fails to deliver, or we could be on track to end nearly half a century without a top six finish.

It feels like the first match of this run of six games will set the tone. With a bumper crowd at the Ricoh Arena, this is the opportunity to create some special memories that could boost the mood and atmosphere around the club for not just the rest of the season, but win over some lifelong fans experiencing their first day out at the football. However, the number of casual and very young fans in attendance could lead to a very strange atmosphere which could play drastically against us.

Possible Line-Up

The defensive injuries sustained in last week’s defeat to Forest Green could further increase that sense of tension. Tom Davies, Jack Grimmer and Chris Stokes are all reported to have picked up knocks of varying degrees of seriousness during the Forest Green game, which is further compounded by back-up right-back Dion Kelly-Evans also struggling with an injury. A back four of Jordan Willis, Dominic Hyam, Rod McDonald, and Ryan Haynes could very well pick itself, unless Robins switches to a back three or brings young right-back Jak Hickman or centre-back Jordon Thompson into the mix.

Elsewhere, I would imagine that Mark Robins will stick with the attacking line-up that played against Forest Green. The experience of Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle could well be important in protecting a makeshift back four, while Tom Bayliss and Josh Barrett look dangerous coming off either wing – despite the preference clearly being for Bayliss to operate in a more central position. Although Jonson Clarke-Harris scored for the under-23s this week, it still feels way too hasty for him to come in and break up the Biamou-McNulty strike partnership.

Last Time We Met

Accrington were the first team this season to comprehensively out-play us – something that has only happened on three or four occasions since. We were simply unprepared for the rapidity and slickness of Accrington’s attacking play, with Sean McConville scoring the only goal of the game early on after one of several attacking moves that left our defence at complete sixes and sevens was finally rounded off.

It only serves to make our cobbled together back-line for this game all the more ominous.

How Are They Doing?

Accrington are almost a boring team to write about because their style of play, key players and perennial overachiever status are so well-established. Forget the name ‘Accrington Stanley’, forget the journeyman careers of the likes of Billy Kee, Sean McConville and co, pay attention to their third-place position in the table and third-best attack. This is not an easy game for us in any way, shape or form.

John Coleman has this Accrington side perfectly drilled in their attacking play, they can sweep forward in fluent passing moves, creating overloads, before exploiting the gaping holes they leave in opposing defences. Star striker Billy Kee is absolutely pivotal in their system – no other player in League Two has been directly involved in as many goals as Kee has (that’s 18 goals and eight assists). There are two other players in Accrington’s squad – Kayden Jackson and Sean McConville – in double figures for combined goals and assists, only Marc McNulty from our ranks is on that level.

Possible Line-Up

While Accrington’s attacking play can be very eye-catching, they have some experienced campaigners further back that can make things awkward for opponents when Stanley take the lead. Seamus Conneely and Scott Brown a fierce, snarling defensive midfielders, while the veteran Mark Hughes at centre-back is not only a war-horse but someone who is a threat at the other end of the pitch on the end of set-pieces.

Accrington’s biggest weakness though is at the back, where they tend to leak goals, which should provide some hope that the game won’t necessarily be over should we fall behind. However, they are a side that tends to end games better than they start them – in first-halves of games this season they have a -1 goal difference, they are +17 in second-halves.

Prediction

Just how the bumper crowd for this game affects things remains to be seen, it could either be a really positive positive or a really negative negative. Regardless, this is a really tough game for us against one of the division’s best teams, and we’re having to make do with a makeshift back four – the signs already are fairly ominous.

The hope is that we can continue our ability to win out in big games – this run of six fixtures could potentially be an amazing run for us in that regard – but this game has for me too many negative omens going into it than positive ones. I think we’ll lose this 3-1, putting extra pressure on the next five games.

Preview: Forest Green Rovers

While it was a winnable game against Cambridge on Tuesday night, it would have been utterly predictable for a Coventry City side to fail to build on our FA Cup run and put in a half-hearted performance to lose the game. It is an indication of the confidence and fortitude of this side at the moment that we made fairly swift work of our opponents to keep ourselves right in the promotion mix.

This coming month is likely to prove pivotal to our promotion hopes – with games against fellow promotion contenders Accrington, Colchester, Mansfield, Wycombe and Lincoln around the corner – which makes it especially important that we take the maximum number of points in this away trip to struggling Forest Green in order to keep the points and momentum ticking over.

Possible Line-Up

Mark Robins has generally having rotated the side through these runs of Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday games, which is why we can probably expect changes to Tuesday night’s winning team. There’s surely the temptation to through Jonson Clarke-Harris straight in, but I’m concerned that his style of play is too different from what we currently have to fit seamlessly into the side – also he’s played very few minutes this season.

Instead, I would expect the changes to be in wide areas – where Robins has been able to rotate over the past month or so without hindering our momentum. With Liam Kelly rested on Tuesday night, it seems to make sense to me that he’s restored to the centre of the park to give us more solidity in an away game with Tom Bayliss pushed on to the right-wing, where he was impactful against MK Dons. Although Jordan Shipley got onto the scoresheet against Cambridge, I can see Josh Barrett given another go on the left-wing after a promising debut last Saturday.

Last Time We Met

After a fairly underwhelming run of form in October – particularly in front of goal – we faced a struggling Forest Green side on a Tuesday evening at the Ricoh Arena with the expectation that they were the perfect opponents to easily kick ourselves out of our funk. Instead, we started the game both nervously and sloppily, with Forest Green winger Keanu Marsh-Brown able to take advantage of our frayed edges with a speculative shot that was dropped into goal by Lee Burge.

The rest of the game became exponentially more frustrating as the minutes passed, as we struggled to convert possession into meaningful chances to test an opposition happy to sit on a one-goal lead. This game then descended into farce when a fan managed to enter the pitch for slightly too long while the ball was in play – a slight over-reaction to a frustrating evening if you ask me, also, he was very close to being set upon by Michael Doyle.

How Are They Doing?

Forest Green have been absolutely terrible this season, and are in danger of being the first ever side promoted from the National League to be relegated in their first Football League season. The scariest thing about their season – from a Forest Green perspective – is that they’ve actually been lucky to even be within a chance of survival, creating the fewest chances, conceding the most, but somehow being the team with the most wins from losing positions.

Remarkably for a side that creates very little, they have one of the division’s top scorers in Christian Doidge. With 14 league goals to his name, Doidge has scored 45% of all the goals Forest Green have scored, while setting up a further four – they would be dead and buried without him. Doidge is a striker who can score all types of goals, strong, mobile, and an excellent finisher both inside and outside the box. If he has even a sniff of goal, he’ll probably score.

Forest Green have attempted to rectify their struggles this season by spending fairly big in the January transfer window, with Exeter’s Reuben Reid – someone who has been one of the best strikers at this level for a number of seasons, but has scored one goal since the middle of November – a notable addition. Strangely though for a side who look to build from the back, they went out and signed a number of physical but limited centre-backs, leaving them in a situation where they regularly end up playing four or five centre-backs in their starting XI.

Possible Line-Up

Of those limited centre-backs, Haydn Hollis and ex-Sky Blue Farrend Rawson are likely to line up as a pairing. As we saw with Rawson while on loan with us last year, he can be dominant in the air but struggles with the ball anywhere near his feet, Hollis is a similar sort of defender. At left-back is likely to be Gavin Gunning, an excellent defender at this level on his day, but with an erratic streak in his discipline. They are set to be protected in midfield by Lee Collins – another centre-back – and Isaiah (brother of Isaac) Osbourne, who is someone that requires a compass to navigate past.

While there are mistakes in Forest Green’s back-line that are there to be punished if we press high enough against them, they have the threat from out wide to punish us on the counter if we’re too gung-ho. Keanu Marsh-Brown’s pace, skill and eye for the spectacular make him someone with the ability to play higher than League Two if he was remotely consistent. On the other flank, Dayle Grubb – signed from non-league Weston-Super-Mare in January – has hit the ground running and is another winger capable of scoring goals.

Prediction

This is a game that we have to be confident in being able to win, and with the minimum of fuss. Forest Green’s ability to occasionally pull a big result out of the bag makes them a side that should never be written-off, but if we put in a professional performance and look to exploit their sloppiness at the back, this should be a comfortable win.

I think we’ll win this 2-1.

Preview: Cambridge United

Although we’re hoping that this FA Cup run doesn’t provide the definitive memories of this season, it hasn’t half enlivened the feeling around the club. Casting our minds back to December, despite being within touch of the promotion spots, it still felt like there was something missing about this season. Those victories over Stoke and MK Dons have not only demonstrated there is genuine quality about this side, but a character and team spirit to go out there and battle for results.

Heading straight back into league action carries the risk of another ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ that we saw against Exeter, but it’s also a chance to strike while the iron (the iron of momentum, that is) is still hot and grab a victory that puts us into automatic promotion contention. While Cambridge United are going to be very different opposition to MK Dons, we should be looking to attack this game with a similar sense of purpose and confidence.

The burgeoning form of Maxime Biamou and Marc McNulty up front is proving to be a real boon for us right now. The two have come a long way both individually and as a partnership since the start of the season, but they are currently looking like a major piece of the jigsaw that was missing earlier on.

Possible Line-Up

The next thing to fall in place now would be goals from midfield. Jordan Maguire-Drew and Josh Barrett both have looked like they might play a useful role for us in their minutes on the pitch thus far, while Jordan Shipley and Peter Vincenti are also capable of adding goals to their game. Hopefully this extra competition for places out wide leads to the respective players raising their games.

The wide player conundrum is added to after Tom Bayliss demonstrated on Saturday that he is more than capable of being effective while played on the right. The freedom from defensive responsibilities gave Bayliss further licence to push forward, while allowing Mark Robins to bring Liam Kelly back into the side. With Kelly being unable to last the 90 minutes on Saturday though, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bayliss pushed back into a central position.

Last Time We Met

Our meeting with Cambridge back in September was typical of many of our defeats this season, where a lack of composure in front of goal saw us drop points. A slow start saw Cambridge take the lead via a deep cross to the far post nodded down by Jabo Ibehre. After several excellent chances to equalise, a raking cross-field pass from Peter Vincenti to Duckens Nazon was smashed emphatically by the Haitian into the near post.

The game seemed to have swung in our favour, with several opportunities spurned to take the lead. However, it was another cross into the box – this time headed home by Uche Ikpeazu – that undid all our good work.

How Are They Doing?

Having had promotion aspirations in each of the past two seasons under Shaun Derry, the manager’s inability to consistently get goals from his side has cast Cambridge United into mid-table also-rans. Although they are currently on a run of one defeat in their past six games – three of those six having been draws – both Cambridge and Derry seem to be operating on the understanding that the manager will be leaving in the summer.

With hopes of mounting a late season surge towards the play-offs starting to fade, the pressure is off Cambridge somewhat. While a recent 5-2 defeat to Forest Green showed how this can manifest itself in a negative manner, they drew 3-3 with Notts County last month, showing that they are still capable of making life difficult for their opponents.

Those two results notwithstanding, Cambridge have found goals hard to come by this season. This is fairly surprising given they have two bruising, powerhouse centre-forwards in Jabo Ibehre and Uche Ikpeazu to call upon, both of whom are capable of getting into double figures at this level. Furthermore, summer signing Jevani Brown – plucked from non-league St Neots Town – has been a revelation this season in an attacking midfield position, possessing an excellent eye for a pass and scoring some spectacular long-range goals.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Cambridge are experienced and can be formidable when they have a lead to defend. The experience of centre-back pairing Greg Taylor and Leon Legge has been important for them, although academy graduate Harry Darling (amazing name, by the way) has stepped up ably in recent weeks after an injury to Legge. In goal, the veteran David Forde is capable of completely shutting up shop when the mood takes him – it was his heroics that were vital in Cambridge winning the last meeting between these two sides.

Moreover, Shaun Derry has built a reputation as a manager for being ultra pragmatic in trying to scrape out results. His pre-match interview suggested that he’s seeing this as a big game at a big stadium, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cambridge set out to completely spoil the game from the off. Although he’s unlikely to achieve anything with Cambridge this season, he has a managerial reputation to salvage.

Prediction

I’m fairly confident heading into this game that we can build on the momentum from the MK Dons game. With the draw against Brighton a decent one without being overly distracting, the players must know that it’s all about putting a run together in the league. While this is a winnable home game, Cambridge are fully capable of exploiting any lapses in concentration and holding onto a 1-0 scoreline.

Given the struggles in front of goal of both sides this season, this is unlikely to be a classic and it seems set to be a game decided by the first goalscorer. I’m going to be back us to be that team.

Preview: Swindon Town

The cold hard return to reality after being Premier League Stoke couldn’t have been starker than losing away 1-0 to a shocking goalkeeping error and slipping from 3rd in the division to 8th in the division. It seemed to sum up how our season has gone thus far, every opportunity we’ve had to make things assert our status as promotion contenders has been allowed to slip. We now head into a home game against the team with the best away record in the division with every chance now that we could find ourselves in mid-table and three points away from the play-offs.

We’re at the stage of the season where results start to define our end-of-season hopes, there has been no greater pressure to win – or at least, avoid defeat – than this Swindon game. While we have tended to come up trumps this season when the pressure has been ratcheted up, the goalscoring situation at the moment challenges our ability to continue to do so.

Possible Line-Up

While Marc McNulty’s recent run of form has been hugely welcome, one player cannot be expected to carry the entire goalscoring burden of a side challenging for promotion. We’re reaching a stage with Maxime Biamou where his function in the side as someone who facilitates attacking play has to be counterbalanced by his utter inability to put the ball in the back of the net. It’s reached the point where bringing Stuart Beavon back into the side isn’t completely out of the question.

Getting goals from midfield has to be seen as an area of priority for Mark Robins, with our two January signings – Josh Barrett and Jordan Maguire-Drew – under pressure to integrate quickly in to the side. The early signs seem positive, Maguire-Drew has caught the eye in his two appearances thus far, while Josh Barrett scored a hat-trick for the under-23s on Monday from a left-midfield position. Barrett could well have played himself into a starting position ahead of Jordan Shipley, provided he feels fully-fit.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Rod McDonald comes back into central defence alongside Jordan Willis, despite Tom Davies having been fairly solid (albeit not with the ball anywhere near his feet) over the past few games. With Swindon Town posing more of a threat with pace than physicality, that could give McDonald the edge.

Last Time We Met

After so many points dropped away at Swindon over recent years, winning at the County Ground felt like a landmark moment for us this season. Not only did we beat Swindon at the County Ground, but we did so after falling behind early on to an expertly-taken strike from Luke Norris.

Step up, Michael Doyle. The captain enjoyed an interesting September evening, first equalising during an uncharacteristic raid in the opposing penalty area, and then, characteristically, finding himself caught in the middle of an incident – that looked very much like a bite on the bum – that saw Swindon’s James Dunne sent-off. Duckens Nazon stepped up soon after, curling in a typically audacious long-ranger, to secure the win.

I would imagine that James Dunne won’t have forgotten about that evening, expect this game to be round two.

How Are They Doing?

Swindon have been a perplexing team this season, their home form has been atrocious, while their away form has been near-immaculate. As one of the better-resourced sides in the division, they should have been among the automatic promotion challengers, but inconsistency has dogged their season. Currently though, they are on a run of four wins in five and could move into third-place – and with a game in hand over much of the division – with a win in this game.

Top-scorer Luke Norris has kind of summed up this current iteration of Swindon Town under David Flitcroft. Despite an impressive tally of 11 goals this season, with some wonderful strikes among them, Norris has frustrated Swindon fans with a lack of reliability in front of goal and his tendency to flit in and out of games.

Norris is supported by a cavalcade of nippy forwards in David Flitcroft’s counter-attacking strategy. Keshi Anderson, Paul Mullin and Kaiyne Woolery are all fairly quick players who are probably more suited to playing as central strikers, but have been shoe-horned into playing as a three behind Norris, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Swindon have added to their attacking threat by signing proven League Two goal poacher Marc Richards from Northampton Town.

Possible Line-Up

With two defensive-minded midfielders in James Dunne and Amine Linganzi, getting the ball forward on the counter or hitting teams from set-pieces is an important element of Swindon Town’s threat. Former Premier League free-kick wizard Matthew Taylor has supplied nine assists this season, despite being clearly lacking in mobility. Taylor is one of several set-piece experts in Swindon’s squad, with Ollie Banks, Ellis Iandolo, and the likely to miss this game ex-Sky Blues fans’ favourite Chris Hussey all on the books too.

A more fondly-remembered ex-City player in Reice Charles-Cook has been in excellent form in goal for Swindon after first-choice keeper Lawrence Vigouroux was dropped for disciplinary reasons. Given Mark Robins barely gave Charles-Cook a look-in, he may be turning up to prove a point to an ex-manager.

Prediction

Far be it for me to be pessimistic, but I’ve got the heebie-jeebies heading into this game. Swindon’s away form cannot be ignored and they are a team in good form in general, while our lack of luck/ability in front of goal is in danger of puncturing our hopes this season at this most crucial phase.

If we can’t win this game, we need to develop a tougher streak in at least avoiding defeat than we have in a lot of tight games this season. The minimum we need to take from this game is a clean-sheet, I’m hoping that can see out a 0-0 draw but I’m fearful we could lose this 2-0.

Preview: Exeter City

The result against Stoke was something that only happens once every six or seven years and deserves to live long in the memory. However, it should be apparent to everyone around the club that it should only be the second-biggest achievement this season if everything goes to plan, starting with three points away this weekend at our direct promotion rivals, Exeter City.

For Mark Robins, the task is to ensure that we can take the momentum that comes with beating a Premier League side but avoid the ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ that can happen in the game after a big result. Inconsistency has prevented us from establishing ourselves more firmly in the promotion race and now that we’ve played ourselves back into a prime position, it has to be avoided at all costs.

Possible Line-Up

Since the win over Cheltenham in the middle of December, the team has settled into a nice balance. Chris Stokes and Tom Davies have stepped into the defence ably at left-back and centre-back respectively, Tom Bayliss has been a revelation in midfield, adding the drive and dynamism we lacked with the Michael Doyle-Liam Kelly partnership, while Marc McNulty’s form has ultimately been the biggest factor in our run of three league wins out of four.

Aside from restoring Lee Burge in goal, Mark Robins should have little temptation to change what is a functioning side. It’s only the additions to the squad of Jordan Maguire-Drew and Josh Barrett that change the equation somewhat, but Maguire-Drew put in a strong performance as a Jodi Jones replacement on his debut, while there’s a need to have at least one game-changer on the bench now that Duckens Nazon has left, which time will prove whether Josh Barrett can fit the bill.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Exeter saw us produce our best performance of the season at that point. With our opponents the then-league leaders having started the season in scintillating form, we managed to completely nullify almost all attacking threat they posed. A pre-game injury to Stuart Beavon and an in-game one suffered by Peter Vincenti forced Mark Robins into a makeshift front four of Jodi Jones, Devon Kelly-Evans, Duckens Nazon and Maxime Biamou, who clicked almost immediately.

We went ahead early in the second-half after Exeter’s Troy Brown diverted a Jodi Jones cross into his own net. Jones then carried the ball forward on the counter later in the second-half before setting Devon Kelly-Evans up for his first and, thus far, only goal for the club.

How Are They Doing?

While Exeter remain around the play-off places – and with a game in hand – there’s been the sense that things have not been quite the same since that game back in September against us. It coincided with a long-term injury to key centre-back Jordan Moore-Taylor and star striker Reuben Reid losing his goalscoring form – he has since been sold to Forest Green Rovers.

Of the two factors, the loss of Moore-Taylor has been more keenly felt as the defender gave Exeter better defensive stability and composure, currently, the less-mobile pairing of Danny Seaborne and Troy Archibald-Henville have come unstuck at times. Reid’s loss of form though has been absorbed by that of Jayden Stockley in attack, a striker who provides more of an all-round threat with his physicality and hold-up play than Reid did.

Paul Tisdale though will still have to adjust to losing Reuben Reid as a forward option will be key over the coming weeks and months. Against West Brom in the cup, he went for a 4-1-4-1 which left Jayden Stockley isolated, but switched to a 4-4-2 diamond, which gave them more attacking threat but left space in the middle of the park.

Possible Line-Up

Pace has been a key missing ingredient in this Exeter side this season, which probably helps explain why their away form has been so poor (15th in the division) versus their home form (3rd in the division). Wingers Jake Taylor and Lee Holmes are no slouches, but lack a level of explosiveness to their games. Exeter other forward options such as Ryan Harley, Hiram Boateng and Liam McAlinden look to be useful players but can lack an end product at times.

In goal, Exeter have two very good options for this level in young academy product Christy Pym and the more experienced Paul Jones who has just returned to the club on loan from Norwich. Tisdale was known to rotate his goalkeepers last season depending on who he saw as more suited to each game, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for current first-choice Pym to drop out of the side.

Prediction

It has been a characteristic of us this season to produce our best performances against the better teams, which I suppose has been evidenced by the win over Stoke. Despite Exeter’s impressive home form this season, this is a game that doesn’t hold as much fear for us as it would a lot of other teams in this division.

However, it would be typical of us this season too to produce a dull, spluttering performance now that we’ve given ourselves a chance to assert our position in the automatic promotion race.

Against my pessimistic instincts, I think we’ll win this game, 1-0.