Preview: Chesterfield

It was an odd game against Shrewsbury on Tuesday night. The first-half performance was bad, but not bad enough to deserve being two goals down. The second-half performance was better, but not better enough to deserve scoring two goals. Then the game was won by Shrewsbury with a brilliant free-kick.

What was apparent against Shrewsbury, as has been apparent in our past few games, has been a lack of intensity in our attacking play. While Doyle and Kelly protect the defence well, they slow the play down too much, allowing opposing defences to re-set and mark our forwards out of the game. The improvement against Shrewsbury came when the composed Callum Maycock and the forward-thinking Tony Andreu were paired together. It seems unlikely Robins will allow that partnership to develop heading into this upcoming league game against Chesterfield.

If Robins isn’t going to pick a dynamic midfield, finding the right combination in the front four positions becomes vital. A creative wide player was probably the main missing ingredient from our transfer business, but Robins now has to find a way in which our best attacking players – Jodi Jones, Tony Andreu, Marc McNulty and Duckens Nazon – can function as an effective unit.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, Rod McDonald’s return would be welcome, after two defensive performances from the side lacking in authority. While McDonald is hardly a Ben Turner-style dominant centre-back, he is the closest to that type of player we have at the moment – without having seen what new signing Tom Davies can offer. Although, the addition of Davies may well suggest McDonald is out for longer than expected.

The big decision for this game though is whether Lee Burge continues in goal. Despite conceding three against Shrewsbury, Burge came out of the game pretty much unscathed and currently seems less of a risk than Liam O’Brien, given the latter’s recent high-profile errors. It would be a surprise should Robins restore O’Brien to the side.

Last Time We Met

There was hope heading into our previous meeting with Chesterfield that Russell Slade was the right man to keep us in League One. After being unlucky to take three points against Bolton in the previous game, with Stuart Beavon catching the eye, a managerless and struggling Chesterfield side seemed the perfect opportunity to jump out of the relegation zone and really get our survival bid going.

In the event, we saw a depressing sign of what was to come under Slade with the team making little attempt to pass the ball, instead hoofing it up to an ineffectual Marcus Tudgay and a fatigued Stuart Beavon. A late goal decided the game and, less than a month after arriving at the club, signalled the beginning of the end for Russell Slade.

How Are They Doing?

Despite earning a confidence-boosting win in that relegation six-pointer back in January, Chesterfield somehow managed to not only be relegated, but finish below us in the table. Credit for that achievement has to go to manager Gary Caldwell, who was appointed in the week after that game and won just two of the remaining 18 games of the season.

In spite of some poor moves in the transfer market and even more questionable tactical decisions, Chesterfield’s board stuck by Caldwell and entrusted him to build the team that would get them out of League Two at the first attempt. Thus far though, that faith looks to have been somewhat misplaced, with the Spireites winning just one of their opening four league games to leave the club bottom of the division and leaving many fans completely disillusioned with the running of the club (there are also bigger issues relating to current owner Dave Allen that don’t fit into the scope of this preview).

However, there are signs that Chesterfield are in a slightly false position despite this poor start to the campaign and questions over the acumen of their manager. In sticking to Caldwell’s ethos of passing football, Chesterfield have created a lot of chances over their opening few games and have been unlucky to an extent not to have scored more goals and taken more points.

Experienced target-man Chris O’Grady in attack looks a high-calibre signing at this level of football, given that he’s spent much of the past four or five years in the Championship. His role is as the focal point of an attack to allow younger, more dynamic players space to hurt the opposition.

In that regard, box-to-box midfielder Jordan Sinnott has really caught the eye thus far this season. After spending last year at then-National League North side Halifax Town, Sinnott has stepped effortlessly up to Football League standard, with his drive from the centre of the park already a key part of Chesterfield’s play.

Possible Line-Up

Two young creative players with links to Sheffield United also will need to be kept quiet. Both Louis Reed and Diego de Girolamo were tipped for big things at Bramall Lane before struggling to establish themselves as regulars. Reed is a jaw-droppingly gifted central midfield schemer who was being linked with the likes of Tottenham before picking up a few injuries. De Girolamo is more of a forward with an end product than Reed and has impressed in loan spells at this level in previous years before being snaffled up by Bristol City’s development squad.

Chesterfield’s style of play will mean that they’ll take risks and leave gaps at the back, which is a sea change from previous opponents. However, in Ian Evatt and Tommy Lee, they do have a defender and a goalkeeper of proven quality at this level and higher who could prove stubborn customers should Chesterfield take the lead.

Prediction

Like Newport and Yeovil in recent weeks, Chesterfield are a side that hasn’t had too much problem scoring goals, but have struggled to keep them out. What we’ve seen is that despite our defensive solidity, our more free-flowing opponents have had the edge as a result of their belief that they can score goals.

Unlike Yeovil and Newport though, Chesterfield are likely to be much more open. Hopefully too, the goals we scored against Shrewsbury on Tuesday night will give us that belief in our attacking play that we’ve needed – especially after falling behind.

However, I think Chesterfield may well end up getting that win they’re in desperate need of, by 2-1.

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Preview: Shrewsbury Town

After slipping to back-to-back defeats in League Two, we return to a competition that delivered the club one of its greatest days in recent history. However, given the farcical nature of the Checkatrade Trophy, this game feels more important for the opportunities it gives Mark Robins to change things up than it does the beginning of a defence of silverware.

Following another high-profile gaffe from Liam O’Brien in goal at the weekend, this game comes at a good time to drop the keeper without the same level of significance that it would have for a league game. If Lee Burge can came through this game without having made any major errors of his own, he’s quietly back in the side. If Burge doesn’t pass the test, it doesn’t cost us league points and O’Brien stays in the side.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

Arguably the more pressing concern for Mark Robins than the goalkeeping situation though is our attacking play. While goalkeeping mistakes turned the past two games against us, our inability to create and take chances was the reason why those mistakes cost us points.

Despite the calls from some fans for Robins to sign Carl Baker and another striker before the window closes, we really do have plenty of options in attack. By my reckoning, we have nine first-team players to fill the four attacking slots in the side. The likes of Tony Andreu, Jodi Jones, Duckens Nazon and Marc McNulty have demonstrated both for us and at other clubs that they should be too good for League Two, it’s about Mark Robins figuring out the best combinations and right shape to play them in.

Last Time We Met

A goalless draw at Shrewsbury back in March was notable mainly because it was Russell Slade’s final game in charge of the club. Ironically, it was that it was a better standard of performance than we had seen throughout much of Slade’s reign that was the final nail in the coffin for him. Injuries had forced Slade to utilise Ben Stevenson and Gael Bigirimana in midfield, and the gulf in quality between those two and Slade’s preferred options of Kevin Foley, Andy Rose and Callum Reilly demonstrated just how poor our soon-to-be former manager’s judgement of what was required to win games of football.

How Are They Doing?

After struggling for much of last season, Shrewsbury Town have started the new season in League One in fine form. Unlike Russell Slade, Shrewsbury boss Paul Hurst very much knows a good player when he sees one, and what it takes to get the best out of them. Despite making the majority of his signings from non-league, League Two and some very raw Championship youngsters in the loan market, Hurst can not only exploit gaps in the market, but seems to be able to figure out specific roles for his players in order to maximise their strengths and minimise their limitations.

Shrewsbury have won three out of their opening four league games – drawing 1-1 with Oxford on Saturday – with their six goals coming from five different players, demonstrating their lack of star players and the emphasis Hurst places on the overall team effort. Ahead of this Checkatrade Trophy tie, the former Grimsby manager, is likely to ring the changes and allow some of his fringe players an opportunity to stake a claim for a more regular place.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

That makes my task of picking out Shrewsbury players to keep an eye on difficult. Nonetheless, Jon Nolan, if selected, in midfield has really caught the eye this season since arriving from Chesterfield. Having played under Hurst at Grimsby, the Shrewsbury boss clearly knew what he was getting from Nolan, a creative, driving presence in midfield with the quality to perhaps even play in the Championship in the coming seasons.

With a surfeit of attacking options, Shrewsbury are likely to give the likes of Wolves youngster Niall Ennis, former Kidderminster winger Arthur Gnahoua, and Swansea winger Daniel James a run-out. Shrewsbury look weakest in defence, where the inconsistent Aristote Nsiala and full-back Mat Sadler have often been used as a central defensive partnership.

Prediction

The nature of this competition and the likelihood that both sides will be massively changed makes it difficult to predict. While Shrewsbury, as the higher division side, our favourites, I don’t think there’ll be too much to pick between two teams likely to be going through the motions.

I’ll put this down as a 1-1 draw.

Preview: Yeovil Town

It’s too early into the season to really be reading too much into the last week’s defeat – it was, after all, effectively decided by a goalkeeping blunder – but it wasn’t so far below the level of performance we’d seen at times this season to be able to brush it off as a one-off.

The question is whether the balance of the starting XI is quite right at the moment. Players like Peter Vincenti, Michael Doyle and Chris Stokes are undoubtedly useful players to have, but against Newport, we needed more players like Ben Stevenson, Tony Andreu and Duckens Nazon on the pitch for the 90 minutes to open the game up against determined opposition.

The plus side, is that we’ve seen that we have players available who can add the dynamism and creativity we’ve lacked at times this season, the question is whether Robins can find room for enough of them in his tactics without going too far the opposite way. In this upcoming game against a defensively porous Yeovil side, this could be an opportunity to unleash a more creative line-up.

Which players and where they are used is the selection headache for Mark Robins this week. Tony Andreu made the most compelling case to start this game after he injected from the bench some much needed thrust to a lifeless performance against Newport. While his inclusion will probably necessitate the dropping of a striker, Andreu’s mobility, drive, and, most importantly, creativity adds a missing element to the side in place of a strike partnership of Beavon and McNulty that simply hasn’t worked thus far.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

Of the two strikers, Beavon is probably the most likely to be dropped given that McNulty is more likely to thrive off Andreu’s creative presence. Given that this is an away game, I doubt that Stevenson and Nazon will be started ahead of the more solid Liam Kelly and Peter Vincenti, despite poor performances last week. It would possibly be a mistake to go from an overly solid starting XI to a more flair one a week later.

There is a decision to be made over whether to back Liam O’Brien in goal after last week’s rick against Newport, or to restore Lee Burge to the starting line-up. While the intention this summer was clearly for O’Brien to be Burge’s back-up, O’Brien has been solid enough since coming into the side to warrant his run in the side prior to the error. Unless Robins is certain that Burge is a massive improvement on O’Brien, it sets a dangerous precedent to drop a keeper after one high-profile error and thus O’Brien should be given at least one chance to show he’s learned from his mistake.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting in the league against Yeovil was a dismal 0-0 draw at Huish Park in the final days of Steven Pressley’s reign as manager, featuring a penalty miss from Gary Madine, which saw us sink further into relegation danger.

More recently, we faced Yeovil in the then Johnstone’s Paint Trophy during Tony Mowbray’s first full season in charge. A heavily-changed Sky Blues side laboured to a 0-0 draw and a defeat on penalties away to Yeovil. It was a game probably most notable for being the much-loved Ivor Lawton’s one and only appearance for the club and also for a cameo from none other than Lateef Elford-Alliyu.

How Are They Doing?

Despite having been in the Championship as recently as the 2013/14 season, Yeovil Town have quickly settled down in recent seasons into a status as perennial strugglers in League Two. An 8-2 defeat to Luton Town on the opening day looms large over the club, and although they recovered a week later to beat Accrington 3-2, they blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads last week at Forest Green to lose 4-3, suggesting that their mentality is still fragile.

For manager Darren Way, it has been a struggle over the past few months to find the right balance between defence and attack. Having started last season so well with a counter-attacking game based on the skills of Otis Khan and Ryan Hedges (now at Barnsley) out wide, losing those two saw the team struggle for an attacking threat and Way subsequently made the team overly defensive in order to eke out the results required to survive. However, in an attempt to restore an attacking threat over the summer, that defensive solidity has been completely lost.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

On the plus side for Yeovil, their attacking play has been pretty impressive this season. The return of the aforementioned Otis Khan to full fitness has supplied the team with a pacey, industrious and direct wide player capable of getting among the goals. Khan forms a front three with lower-league journeyman maverick Francois Zoko and pacey Southampton loanee Olufela Olomola. Thus far this season, Khan has two goals, and both Zoko and Olomola have three.

Ex-Luton and Crystal Palace winger Jake Gray is another to look out for, although he has been sacrificed by Darren Way in an attempt to find balance between defence and attack. Yeovil also brought in former Sky Blues midfielder James Bailey, who impressed on loan here and has subsequently seen his career decline in ever-decreasing circles.

While Yeovil’s defence is clearly an issue, goalkeeper Artur Krysiak has been a good player at this level in the past and was an important part of when Yeovil were tighter at the back last season. Left-back/centre-back Nathan Smith is similarly another decent performer at this level who was solid as part of Yeovil’s defence last season.

Prediction

As mentioned earlier, Yeovil’s defensive shortcomings could make this a good opportunity for us to find some fluency in attack. However, Yeovil’s attacking threat leaves the danger that they could catch us cold and score enough goals to render their defensive ineptitude moot. Additionally, their manager’s seemingly increasingly desperate attempts to find the right balance could see them set-up in a way completely unanticipated by Robins. While this is clearly a winnable game for us, there are still reasons to be wary of our opponents.

Nonetheless, I still feel that there is more than enough quality within our ranks to overcome Yeovil Town and this is a game I expect us to win. As for a scoreline, 3-1.

Preview: Notts County

The re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager back in March was all about how ready we would be for the start of this season. Getting those few wins towards the back end of last season, and especially that wonderful afternoon at Wembley, was important in re-energising the fan-base, but the hard work of winning promotion back to League One at the first attempt begins now.

It has been an almost complete overhaul of the squad over the summer, with just four of the starting XI at Wembley likely to start this forthcoming game against Notts County – three, depending on whether Lee Burge is fit. Instead of relying on a relatively young squad packed with a number of homegrown talents, Robins has decided to employ a different model leaning towards more experienced and proven performers, with a veteran Michael Doyle being the poster ‘child’ of this new side.

It means that we are starting from square one as a team this season, although, having had the majority of the squad in place for the entirety of pre-season may hasten the gelling process. They key areas of the squad are whether Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis can form an effective central defensive partnership, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly can provide dynamism in addition to their sturdiness in central midfield, and whether Marc McNulty is capable of scoring the goals to get us out of this division.

Possible Line-Up

We already have a strong idea of what team Mark Robins is going to pick for this game, based on his team selections in pre-season. The aforementioned five players will provide the spine of the side, along with the experienced Peter Vincenti on the right wing and Stuart Beavon playing slightly ahead of McNulty in attack. Jack Grimmer at right-back is also almost certain to start and, thanks to an injury picked up by Ryan Haynes, Chris Stokes will make up the back four.

After some reasonable performances in pre-season without being overly tested, Liam O’Brien may get a chance to stake a claim for the starting spot in goal if Lee Burge doesn’t prove his fitness in time. The decision to sign O’Brien over a more experienced keeper was a big call from Mark Robins this summer, and it could seriously hamstring us if both he and Burge don’t cut the mustard.

Finally, Jodi Jones’ performance in the final pre-season friendly against Nuneaton where he scored and provided an assist for Stuart Beavon should win him a start on the left wing ahead of Devon Kelly-Evans. This is a big season for Jones after failing to provide a consistent final product last season, he could prove to be one of those players who really benefits from dropping down a level to become a central player for the club.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Notts County was a drab 0-0 draw at Meadow Lane during Tony Mowbray’s attempts to keep us in League One following his arrival back in 2015. Our attacking threat had been stunted by the recent loss of Dominic Samuel to injury, leaving a toothless strike force of Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson to labour in vain against a Notts County side soon to be doomed to relegation.

Notts County’s last trip to the Ricoh Arena was another drab affair on the face of it, however, it was a game memorable for some of absolutely top notch time-wasting and gamesmanship on the part of a Notts County side then flying in the top six of League One under Shaun Derry. With the Sky Blues in a torpor at the time under Steven Pressley, an error for Andy Webster was ruthlessly punished late in the second-half to hand Shaun Derry, Roy Carroll and the merry men of Notts County all three points.

How Are They Doing?

Notts County are attempting to build something more stable after a soap opera of a past decade which has seen a revolving door of players and managers fail to sustain the occasional promising run of form. Back in January, the club were in a transfer embargo and in danger of dropping into the relegation battle in League Two, however, a takeover by local businessman Alan Hardy and the appointment of Kevin Nolan as manager has seemingly put the club back in right direction.

The January transfer deadline day signings of Shola Ameobi and Jorge Grant – along with left-back Marc Bola who has since joined Bristol Rovers – provided the team with an injection of quality required to make Kevin Nolan’s organisation of the team effective. Ameobi in particular played a crucial role as the figurehead in attack, holding the ball up due to his physical presence and technical skill to bring others into play – he’ll be partnered in attack by the equally experienced Jon Stead, who provides a lot less outside the area for his team.

Possible Line-Up

The aforementioned Grant was a big beneficiary of Ameobi’s hold-up play, coming in off the wing and scoring some excellent goals over the course of the second-half of last season.  Notts County have done well to re-sign the Nottingham Forest youngster on loan, and he’ll be a big danger man for this game. That threat coming in off wide positions has been further bolstered by the arrivals of Lewis Alessandra and Gibraltar international Liam Walker over the summer, who are both potential match-winners at this level on their day.

Notts County’s main area of weakness is in defence, where they lack pace and composure on the ball. The agricultural ex-Sky Blues loanees Carl Dickinson and Richard Duffy could well start this game, and it seems like a sensible game plan to try and press high in order to force errors at the back for Notts rather than try and break them down with a slower style of play. Furthermore, goalkeeper Adam Collin had a difficult previous season and we should be looking to keep him as busy as possible.

Prediction

With Notts County an experienced and physical side, this will be early acid test of our League Two credentials. My main area of concern is in defence, where I’m not sure Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis are capable of standing up to a physical battering from both Shola Ameobi and set-piece situations. If we’re slow and ponderous on the ball too, this has all the makings of a classic Ricoh Arena away team smash and grab, only this time it will be in League Two.

Overall, I’m expecting this to be a real ‘welcome to League Two’ experience for us – similar to the game we played against a recently-relegated Wigan side in League One two seasons ago. If we can show we’re capable of controlling games and creating enough chances, that would be the least I want to see from us in this game. If not, it may be an indication that this could be a harder season than anticipated.

I think Notts County will win this game 2-0.