Preview: Maidenhead United

After an unexpectedly brilliant win away at the then league leaders Luton, a looming crisis of confidence has been averted. However, this FA Cup tie in what could be an especially soulless Ricoh Arena against non-league opposition could quickly render McNulty’s header, Shipley’s free-kick and Nazon’s late coup de grace at Kenilworth Road into distant memories.

After humbling exits in each of the past three years – Cambridge last year, Northampton the year before, and notably, Worcester the year before that – it should be abundantly clear that a tie against a supposedly lesser club in the FA Cup is far from straightforward. Mark Robins hasn’t treated the cup competitions seriously thus far this season but given the tradition of the FA Cup, as well as the revenue a good run would generate, it would be negligent for him to disregard this competition.

Moreover, the squad has had a week’s rest heading into this game and there’s only a Checkatrade Trophy tie to play the following midweek. There are no excuses for not naming our strongest line-up here and treating it as we would a normal league game, albeit one that takes us a step closer to a potential trip to a big Premier League side.

Possible Line-Up

Just what our full-strength team at the moment is something of a debate, despite the performance against Luton. While the back six or seven players looks to be fairly settled, the make-up of our strongest attacking line-up is yet to be resolved. While there is the temptation for Robins to stick with a winning team, Maidenhead United are going to be vastly different opponents to Luton Town, and he may consider adjusting the personnel accordingly.

In an ideal world, this is probably a game to bring Ben Stevenson into the midfield in place of either Michael Doyle or Liam Kelly so that we have someone who can get their foot on the ball and orchestrate extended periods of possession more comfortably – that’s not going to happen though. I would expect Maxime Biamou to come in for Jordan Ponticelli in order to give the side a focal point to aim crosses into the box. A more dynamic wide option than Peter Vincenti is another must, but that could mean shunting Duckens Nazon or Marc McNulty onto the wing.

Last Time We Met

We’ve never played Maidenhead United in a competitive fixture, not once.

How Are They Doing?

A town most famous for its Isambard Kingdom Brunel-built bridge and for being the constituency of the legendary UK Prime Minister Theresa May, its local football club are on the up. Promoted into the National League last season as National League South champions, Maidenhead stormed the opening month of the National League campaign thanks to the goals of Dave Tarpey.

Tarpey, reportedly offered the chance to sign for us over the summer, scored a suspiciously impressive 44 goals in 41 appearances for Maidenhead in the National League South last season. After seven goals in six appearances at the start of the season, Tarpey took the decision to sign for Barnet, before picking up a serious injury in his second appearance for the club.

Maidenhead manager and former West Ham legend Alan Devonshire is a wily operator in non-league, having turned part-time Braintree into a competitive outfit in the National League in his previous managerial posting. Devonshire has struggled at times to adjust his side to the loss of their goal machine, although midfielder Adrian Clifton has helped ease the burden with six goals from the centre of the park this season.

Possible Line-Up

Clifton looks the biggest danger-man among Maidenhead’s ranks, an attack-minded central player with skill and pace with the ball. In a counter-attacking unit, Clifton is important in not only carrying the ball forward but in supplying an end product in and around the penalty area. Winger Harry Pritchard is another key element of Maidenhead’s counter-attacking play, while the pacey Moses Emmanuel out wide has been a reliable National League goalscorer in recent years.

Even in the National League, Maidenhead look to defend deep and try and nick something either on the break or from set-pieces – with centre-backs Jake Goodman and Alan Massey someone we’ll need to make sure to mark. It was already apparent from the respective statures of the sides that this game would be about us looking to break-down a dogged and determined part-time side, but we are up against one with plenty of practice doing so this season.

Prediction

Not to be patronising towards Maidenhead, but this game, and certainly the stadium, will be their biggest in a long time. While they are a part-time side, they are only in the division below us so the gulf in quality between the two sides isn’t going to be as large as the respective histories of the clubs would suggest. This is a dangerous game for us if we show up expecting to stroll to victory.

Even if we do show the right attitude, this game presents the challenge of breaking down an organised defence at the Ricoh, which we’ve struggled on multiple occasions already this season. If we can get an early goal to settle the nerves, this game should be more straightforward than I fear it will be.

This is a game we should win, and I’m going to back us to get the job done with a 1-0 scoreline.

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Preview: Colchester United

There seems fine margins at times between a good performance and a terrible one. On the opening day, we could barely string three passes together for long periods of the game but were apparently set to walk the league. While it’s a stretch to say we played well on Tuesday, there was a pretty determined reaction to falling behind which, on another day, might have precipitated a stirring comeback.

There is no defending the opening 20 minutes of the performance against Tuesday night, easy passes were going astray, poor decisions were made in attack, and then Lee Burge crystallised it all by dropping the ball into his own net. Against a team struggling for confidence and leaking goals, we should never had found ourselves in the situation we did, but we really should have scored at least one of the several opportunities we laboured to create.

We’re getting to that stage of the season though (and especially after the two scoreless games beforehand) where creating good chances and not taking them is less encouraging. A month or so ago, you could perhaps relax in the hope that there will be games to come when the ball hits the back of the net rather than the post or keeper’s hands, there isn’t that patience now that games are starting to matter that little bit more.

Possible Line-Up

For this upcoming game against Colchester, Mark Robins faces the decision of sticking with what threatened to be a dangerous front four of Maxime Biamou, Jodi Jones, Duckens Nazon and Marc McNulty or twist on a Peter Vincenti or Jordan Ponticelli and hope that something clicks. Personally, I saw enough on Tuesday to give the same front four another go in the hope that more match experience together will lead to more fluency, but there is a desperation for an immediate solution to our goal-scoring woes that could lead to Robins changing things up yet again.

There isn’t really much cause for making other changes without risking further disruption to the dynamic of the side. Lee Burge’s error – at a time when he was starting to gain some trust – could lead to calls for his dropping, but it would be in favour of another goalkeeper who we we’ve seen is prone to sloppy errors too. As I’ve argued before, dropping a goalkeeper after just one error will do more harm than good.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting against Colchester was another frustrating midweek game at the Ricoh Arena. Colchester, who at the time were all but condemned to relegation to League Two, were up against an out-of-form Tony Mowbray Coventry City but one that still had a shot at making the play-offs. An early goal for Colchester winger Gavin Massey set the tone for a laboured performance for the Sky Blues, with Jacob Murphy missing a penalty and Jodi Jones the only real bright spot from the performance.

How Are They Doing?

I had high hopes for Colchester heading into this season. They had narrowly missed out on the play-offs last year, mainly due to a nightmare run of injuries over the course of the campaign, and had a young and improving squad. However, following the loss of experienced centre-forward Chris Porter to Crewe over the summer, Colchester lost that momentum from last season and have been incredibly inconsistent thus far.

Manager John McGreal has probably displayed some of his inexperience as a manager – with last year his first managerial campaign – with formations and line-ups fairly inconsistent thus far, as well as splurging out on a series of loan signings on the final day of the transfer window that appear to have disrupted the side more than they’ve added quality.

Nonetheless, Colchester have some exciting young players in their squad and could be well-set to cause us some serious problems in this game. In particular, they have pace and quality on the break in the form of wingers Drey Wright and Sammie Szmodics. Wright is a direct and skilful winger who has been a reliable attacking threat this season and could well earn a move to a higher level over the next 12 months. Szmodics also has that potential, although he operates more centrally and has more goals in his game. Both though are doubts for this game through injury.

Striker Mikael Mandron has been key for Colchester this season as Chris Porter’s replacement. Mandron’s greater level of mobility as a target-man in theory makes him a more talented player than Porter, but as a much less-experienced player and being less of a goalscorer, Colchester have still felt the impact of Mandron’s loss.

Possible Line-Up

In midfield, Colchester have a level of quality and control that few other League Two sides have. The diminutive Tom Lapslie can really dictate games from deep in midfield, with ex-Watford prospect Sean Murray playing more of a box-to-box role. Murray in particular has been in good form this season, while Colchester also have Craig Slater – who had a superb last season – and the experienced Doug Loft to call upon.

In defence, Colchester are relatively inexperienced with academy products Frankie Kent and Kane Vincent-Young fairly key players. Ryan Jackson at right-back has more experience and was recently a key player for Gillingham when they were challenging for promotion from League One. Jackson is not only incredibly quick (like, really quick) but also possesses a powerful long throw which we’ll have to contain.

Prediction

A fast start to this game could well be imperative in easing some of the tension that has descended at the Ricoh Arena at this moment in time. Rightly or wrongly, the crowd were very quick to turn on the players on Tuesday night, and anything less than a win here (no matter what level of performance) will only serve to make the pressure more suffocating for future games.

Colchester’s pace on the counter scares me, particularly as we’ve shown at times this season that we labour when allowed time on the ball against a team sitting back against us. I’m desperate for us to win this game just to allow the atmosphere around the club to calm down, however, I think this may be a frustrating 1-1 draw.

Preview: Forest Green Rovers

If confirmation was still needed that we are in League Two this season, then Saturday’s defeat to Accrington – if only for the reputation of the opposition – was provided it. It was also a rare occasion this season where we deserved to lose – we not only struggled to score, but it was a game where our defence looked shaky too.

The chief concern at the moment though is those struggles in front of goal. Whether it’s a lack of creativity or a lack of a killer instinct in front of goal that’s the specific reason why we’re struggling in front of goal, improving either will resolve our problems. As we appear to lack a cold-hearted goal poacher, we either need someone to step up and become that kind of player or we simply need to improve the quantity and quality of chances we’re creating.

This upcoming game against the league’s worst defence would appear the perfect opportunity to build some confidence in front of goal. For Mark Robins, it’s a case of either hoping the front four that seemed to work during our recent run of three straight wins will click back into gear or twisting and trying to integrate someone like Marc McNulty or Peter Vincenti into the starting line-up.

Possible Line-Up

With Devon Kelly-Evans having a quiet game against Accrington, he seems the likeliest candidate to be taken out of the side. Marc McNulty has shown he can operate out wide to a reasonable level of effectiveness, which would have the benefit of adding an extra striker to the dynamic and also keeping Duckens Nazon in a central position where he’s more effective. However, playing Peter Vincenti out wide could Robins to pair McNulty and Nazon together without losing a physical presence in attack.

Liam Kelly’s absence from the side was a blow on Saturday and his potential return for this game would be welcome. While Ben Stevenson clearly has something to offer this team, the defensive protection Kelly offers via his physical strength and ability to win first and second balls makes us a more composed team-unit, and there isn’t really a debate to be had over whether he should return.

Last Time We Met

For the third game in a row (or two in three depending on your opinion on the reformation of Accrington Stanley) we’re up against a club that we’ll be facing in the league for the first time ever.

How Are They Doing?

When Forest Green won promotion from the National League last season, their chairman declared that ‘reaching League One will be easy’, however, it’s been a disaster of a campaign thus far on a multitude of levels (second-bottom, league’s worst defence, and having recently released their captain) putting paid to such ambitions, at least in the short-term.

Despite a blitzing play-off final victory last season, the cracks that have been exposed at a higher-level this season were apparent during that promotion-winning campaign. Manager Mark Cooper seemed to develop a habit of turfing out some of his more expensive signings at any sign of poor form but was able to turn to the emergency loan window to bail himself out. Without that luxury – and the club having to abide by financial fair play regulations – it seems to be a very unhappy camp at the club.

Possible Line-Up

As mentioned earlier, club captain Liam Noble was recently released by the club. Not only did Forest Green turn down £100,000 for him from Notts County (who he’s recently signed for on a free) but he was one of their most pivotal players in their promotion-winning campaign as a driving force from midfield. Of the dynamic front four of Christian Doidge, Kaiyne Woolery, Keanu Marsh-Brown and Liam Noble that blew Tranmere away back in May, only the excellent all-round centre-forward Doidge is likely to line-up in this game.

The rest of Forest Green’s side is even harder to predict after Mark Cooper reportedly vowed to play some of the club’s younger players, following a 4-0 defeat to Newport County at the weekend. It’s the indication of a manager clearly feeling the pressure and is rapidly running out of things he can say and do to the side in order to get a reaction. However, the one thing Cooper is sticking with is a passing style of football – which has been another major contributing factor to the club’s terrible season thus far.

Prediction

This is as close to an open goal kind of game as it’s possible to get. If we can get an early goal, the floodgates could really open and allow us to build some confidence in front of goal. Although, Forest Green did recently take a point that was nearly all three away to Notts County recently, indicating that they do have a decent performance up their sleeve under the right conditions.

Overall though, this is a game that we have to be confident of winning. I’m going for a 2-0 scoreline.

Preview: Barnet

After a win that was not technically a win against Walsall in the Checkatrade Trophy, we return to league action with the benefit of most of our first-choice XI having had a rest after a hectic couple of weeks.

Importantly too, Tuesday night’s penalty shoot-out win allowed players returning from injury minutes to gain match fitness, while some of the younger fringe players demonstrated that they can make an impact if called upon. Cult hero Jordan Ponticelli’s first goal for the club obviously caught the attention, but for the short-term at least, McNulty making a decisive impact in the game could help ease the burden of Duckens Nazon’s absence for this upcoming game.

Possible Line-Up

Nazon’s absence is probably the biggest variable between us stretching this good run of form further or not. Not only have his goals been vital over the past few weeks, but his mercurial presence in attack has given Jodi Jones, Maxime Biamou and Devon Kelly-Evans room to really come into their own. There is extra pressure on Jones then to be even more important than he already is to our creative play, but it would help if McNulty and/or Biamou make a step-up in this game as well.

Elsewhere, it’s hard to see any reason for Mark Robins to change the rest of a team that has won three league games in a row. The one big call that could be made may be to restore Peter Vincenti to the starting XI over Devon Kelly-Evans. It would seem an absurd one to make for a multitude of reasons, but I wonder whether Robins’ pragmatism may see him opt for experience over youth.

Last Time We Met

We have never played Barnet in a competitive fixture in either cup or the league. However, I did find evidence that we played the Bees in a pre-season friendly back in 1990 – if that isn’t thorough research, then I don’t know what is.

How Are They Doing?

Barnet are looking to put their days of perennial struggle at the foot of League Two to an end and are going through a bit of a transitional period at the moment. Since moving into their new facilities at The Hive four years ago, the club have been going through a modernisation process as a result of having additional revenue streams and a productive youth academy.

Last season they went through four different managerial spells before return to their second manager – Rossi Eames – who had them challenging for the play-offs around the mid-phase of the season and playing some pretty decent stuff. While there weren’t lofty expectations heading into this season, there were hopes that a full season under Eames would have Barnet putting together a more concerted bid for promotion. However, a poor run over the past month has tempered that optimism.

One of the biggest reasons behind Barnet’s slow start has been two successive injuries to John Akinde, that have reduced one of the most lethal strikers at this level to just two appearances thus far. While the pacey front-pairing of Shaq Coulthirst and Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro have had their moments this season, neither are particularly consistent finishers in the manner that Akinde is.

Possible Line-Up

Playing just behind that front two this season has been veteran winger Jamal Campbell-Ryce – a consistent thorn in our sides over the years. While he’s lost the pace he once had, he has been fairly successfully converted into a central player who can on occasion drive at defenders still with his dribbling ability. Mauro Vilhete is another quick midfield player who can pop up with goals and assists.

Pace and power are key tenets of this Barnet side, although a criticism of them this season is that they’ve perhaps been slightly too cautious in their set-up in an attempt to hit teams on the break. Without Akinde in attack, they’ve lacked a presence up front who can hold the ball up and relieve pressure on the side, while an injury to first-choice keeper Jamie Stephens has also undermined their defensive efforts.

Prediction

All the signs point to an away win here – mainly, the simple mathematics of us being in good form and Barnet being on a bad run – however, football doesn’t always work like that, and we can’t start getting complacent now that we have a chance to assert ourselves in the automatic promotion places. Having already beaten Luton this season, Barnet have shown they have the capability to beat some of the better teams at this level.

Duckens Nazon’s absence is another reason to doubt things going to plan for us, however, Marc McNulty – a player who has shown he can be lethal at this level – is not a bad replacement to have. Despite the potential for this to be something of a banana skin for us, I’m going to err on the side of caution and go for a 1-0 win.

Preview: Exeter City

There are some defeats that linger in the mind for days on end, there are some that are easier to move on from, last week’s loss against Cambridge was the latter. This team had been criticised for not creating enough, we certainly did that against Cambridge, the opposition just so happened to have scored more goals than we did.

While we should have taken at least a point last week, there has to be some concern that we conceded two fairly soft goals that saw us defeated. The danger now is that one unfortunate result last week could easily, and quickly, be the start of a poor run of form given our run of fixtures over the next week – the league leaders, followed by a trip to Swindon where we never win, and then a fairly strong Crewe side, who also happen to be a bit of a bogey team for us as well.

I would imagine that over the next week we’ll get a truer sense over whether our strong defensive record thus far has been down to good play on our part, or the result of having played some of the weaker teams at this level. While we’ve conceded few goals, we haven’t been put under the cosh for extended periods in games thus far. If we can continue to avoid the issue as we have been this season over the next week, we’ll stand in good stead, however, this could be where the cracks start to appear.

Possible Line-Up

On the positive side, it is encouraging that we seem to have become more fluent in attack over the past few weeks. The inclusion of Duckens Nazon into the side, and in a central position, has added something to the team – not least the sense that he draws some of the attention away from Jodi Jones, who has been excellent of late. Additionally, Liam Kelly seems to have taken the handbrake off in recent weeks, adding some dynamism to the centre of the park, and Peter Vincenti has been getting in better positions too.

Not only because of the attacking improvements we’ve made in recent weeks, but also because of our injury list, Mark Robins is unlikely to change the side at all. Stuart Beavon is probably the only player in that starting XI who is underperforming, however, his work-rate could prove an asset against an Exeter side who’ll look to get on the ball against us.

Last Time We Met

Although you have to go back some time for our last league meeting with Exeter City, we did face them a few years ago in the then Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. It was during our first season back at the Ricoh Arena where we were in the midst of a run of defeats when Steven Pressley gave run-outs to some of our most promising young talents – James Maddison, George Thomas and Jack Finch – and an Aaron Phillips brace saw us run-out comfortable victors.

The game was also notable for seeing Ollie Watkins – Exeter’s star player of last season and now a regular in the Championship with Brentford – score his first goal for the club.

How Are They Doing?

Exeter’s run to the play-off final last season was seen by many (well, at least me) as something of an outlier, a case of a club on limited resources stumbling across some stand-out talents and riding the crest of that wave for all it was worth. Despite losing in disappointing fashion to Blackpool, Exeter have gone from strength-to-strength this season and are not only currently top of the division but are on an ominous run of six league wins in a row.

That is despite losing their two star attacking players from last season in Ollie Watkins and David Wheeler, and, to a lesser extent, the inconsistent winger Joel Grant and wunderkind Ethan Ampadu – who made his debut for Chelsea this week. A club of Exeter’s resources is always going to find it hard to rebuild, but Paul Tisdale deserves immense credit for having done it almost seamlessly this season.

Despite signing target-man Jayden Stockley for a club record fee, along with the talented ex-Crystal Palace defensive midfielder Hiram Boateng, on the final day of the transfer window, Paul Tisdale has kept the starting line-up fairly similar to last season. Crucially, League Two goal machine Reuben Reid has been kept fit despite his reputation for being injury-prone – he now leads the league with seven goals already this season. In addition, wide men Jake Taylor and Lee Holmes provide Exeter with two direct wingers on either side of the pitch who are capable of chipping in with the odd goal.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, Exeter have the excellent Jordan Moore-Taylor who is one of the most adept defenders at this level in passing out from the back. Behind him, there is Christy Pym in goal who has won caps at youth-level for England and is developing into one of the best goalkeepers at this level of football. Exeter also have the sturdiness and experience of the likes of Troy Brown and Craig Woodman, as well as the experienced Dean Moxey – who is yet to feature this season.

While Exeter are in incredible form at the moment, they have been fairly open in their style of play. It’s one of those games where if we can grab the early goal, there will be chances to hit our opponents repeatedly on the break. If Exeter score first though, you’d wonder whether we’d have the ability to get back into the game.

Prediction

Exeter are ominous opposition for us, they’re riding the crest of the wave and a victory at the Ricoh Arena for them would be a coup de grace to crystallise the good feeling around the club. However, I wonder whether Robins’ pragmatism, his ability to instill a good defensive shape and set a counter-attacking game-plan could prove to be an asset for us here. This is one of few games this season against an opponent at the Ricoh Arena who’ll set out to bring the game to us.

Nonetheless I am fairly tentative about our chances for this game, I have this down as a 2-1 loss.

Preview: Port Vale

We continue to splutter. Both struggling to create chances and take the few that come our way. At least there wasn’t a major goalkeeping rick against Chesterfield, and at least we didn’t lose another game.

It’s very early in the season to be too concerned about anything at the moment, a couple of victories or defeats can easily change the way we view performances. Against Chesterfield for example, had McNulty taken one of the several chances he had, we would be talking about a solid away win rather than a concerning draw against bottom of the division (who, as if to highlight the futility of league positions this earlier in the season, then moved out of the bottom two as a result of that draw). I seem to remember Mark Robins making a similarly slow start to his first spell in charge of the club before things all of a sudden fell into place.

The issue for Mark Robins at the moment is clearly how to form a fluent attacking unit out of the options available. Individually, we have some useful attacking players, but they are yet to demonstrate that they can function as a team-unit. The hope is that our defensive solidity will continue to hold out and eventually things will click into gear up front and we’ll become a ruthlessly efficient winning unit – a la that team Robins put together in his first spell.

Possible Line-Up

As for the team selection for this meeting with Port Vale, the back five looks pretty much settled, although if Rod McDonald is back from injury, he’ll replace Tom Davies in central defence. Robins also appears set on having Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly as the central midfield partnership, so that will stay in place. Jodi Jones is the only direct runner in our attack, so he’ll stay in place. McNulty is the only out-and-out ‘goalscorer’ in the side, so he’ll stay in place.

Essentially Robins has left himself with a selection between either Tony Andreu or Stuart Beavon to play in just behind McNulty, and either Duckens Nazon or Peter Vincenti out wide. Personally, I think we’d look better with Nazon playing in behind McNulty, although there is an issue of who is there to hold the ball up, and with Andreu playing in a deeper central position instead of one of Kelly or Doyle. However, Robins is a pragmatic manager, so I don’t think the starting XI for this game is going to be as risky as the one I’d like to see.

Last Time We Met

Confidence was at an all-time low heading into our last clash with Port Vale, back in March of this year. Mark Robins’ return to the club had failed to deliver an impact and relegation looked set to be confirmed within weeks. Somehow though, we produced a really composed performance, buoyed by two fantastic goals – first, a speculative 30-yard lob from Kyel Reid, second, an impudent backheel from Kwame Thomas – we cruised to victory, despite a subdued Port Vale mustering a late goal.

How Are They Doing?

Port Vale were relegated alongside us at the end of last season, admirably taking things until the final day of the campaign and drawing 0-0 with promotion-challengers Fleetwood Town. Their relegation was largely the result of a failed gamble on a largely foreign squad and manager with little experience of English football and manager Michael Brown – who took over as caretaker back in December – has had to spend the summer building an almost entirely new squad.

While Brown has been put in a difficult position, his squad-building over the summer has been more than a little chaotic, leaving a fairly unbalanced squad. There are currently six wingers on the books, but just three central midfielders, additionally, they lined up with a back four comprised entirely of centre-backs in their most recent game.

The, quite literally, biggest player to look out for in the Port Vale side will be club stalwart Tom Pope in attack. A classic lower-league target man, Pope’s physicality and ability to hold the ball up has been a key part of Port Vale’s play this season, complementing the pace they have due to the sheer number of wingers in their squad.

Of those wingers, Cristian Montano could prove the biggest thorn in our side due to the combination of pace and end product he demonstrated at this level with Bristol Rovers two seasons ago. In addition, Ben Whitfield, on loan from Bournemouth, has really caught the eye this season with his technical skill, while Marcus Harness, a Coventry-born Burton loanee, has looked both quick and industrious thus far.

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, Nathan Smith in defence is someone who clearly shouldn’t be playing in League Two. Not the tallest or even the quickest of defenders, but Smith is an incredibly composed customer with excellent positioning who often carries the impression of being able to deal with opponents without breaking a sweat. He’ll be alongside the experienced Antony Kay as a central defensive partnership.

Another key player for Michael Brown’s Port Vale side is Brown’s former midfield colleague at Sheffield United and Leeds, Michael Tonge. The vastly experienced playmaker impressed in the early weeks of the season with his set-piece deliveries proving to be a key element in their opening day win over Crawley Town and as part of an ill-fated comeback against Wycombe the week later.

Prediction

This game should really be seen as an opportunity to kick-start our season after our recent poor run. Port Vale’s are a side similarly struggling to create chances as we are, and you would hope that would allow Robins and the players to be more proactive in taking the game to the opposition. However, there is pressure from the stands for us to go out and win this game, and in a fairly convincing manner – Port Vale don’t have the same pressure, despite their own poor start.

I’ll think we’ll come away with a win, but it won’t be a pretty game of football. 1-0 to the Sky Blues.

Preview: Grimsby Town

Any illusions that we might make a game of it against Blackburn on Tuesday night were quickly dispelled when the line-ups revealed Mark Robins had opted for a weakened team. While the performance of Duckens Nazon in attack threatened to things interesting, the sad reality was that we were easily beaten by a (top-drawer) League One side playing in second-gear.

Blackburn are clearly going to be far better than any side we’re going to face in League Two this season, but what was close to a first-choice defence will maybe feel like they could have avoided at least two of Blackburn’s three goals. Whether that was because the midfield struggled to impose themselves on the game is a debate to be had, but I left that game feeling like there was a clear need for a leader in that back four.

The returns of Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle to the midfield should hopefully mitigate for some of those defensive wobbles for this trip to Grimsby. Jordan Willis could well return too, and although it feels like he’s still to show he can be a top-class centre-back in a back four, he would be an improvement on Dominic Hyam who’s done to stake a more regular spot in the side. Additionally, on what could be a difficult away day, Peter Vincenti’s height could prove a useful asset in giving us a reliable out-ball if we’re struggling to keep the ball.

The main selection debate will be which strike partnership to pick from the options of Stuart Beavon, Duckens Nazon, Maxime Biamou, and Marc McNulty (if available for selection after dental surgery). Nazon really should be the first-choice out of those four – not only is he clearly our most skilful player, but he has a drive and awareness to his game which marks him out as something more than just a fancy-Dan. McNulty doesn’t seem a natural partner for Nazon, but could benefit from the space he opens up, Biamou struggled to make an impression against Blackburn, which probably means Beavon is the likeliest strike partner for Le Duck.

The signing this week of goalscoring midfielder Tony Andreu adds something different to the mix, although it’s hard to see him being played with Nazon just ahead of him through the middle, in an away game especially. Unless Robins moves Nazon out wide, as he did later on during Tuesday’s game, where he seems less effective, Andreu may have to start his Coventry City career on the bench.

Last Time We Met

Grimsby will probably be best remembered as an opponent for us in recent-ish times as having handed us a 1-0 defeat at Highfield Road in the first season after relegation from the Premiership in the final days of Gordon Strachan’s reign at the club.

Grimsby hung around in the second-tier for one more season after 2001-02, but were twice beaten by Gary McAllister’s Sky Blues as they suffered a relegation from a level to which they haven’t returned to since.

How Are They Doing?

Grimsby steadily dropped through the divisions and into non-league after 2002-03, before winning promotion back to the Football League two seasons ago via the play-offs. Last season was an odd one for them, where they lost the manager and goalscorer that won them promotion but then sacked their next manager for not picking up results in what was clearly a transitional year, and then appointing Russell Slade.

Slade’s appointment seemed to suggest a degree of ambition at Blundell Park to put together a side capable of challenging for the play-offs, however, the summer transfer activity has only really seen incredibly old veterans and incredibly raw youngsters brought into the club on loans and free transfers. Unless Slade can summon up a strong team-spirit, it’s hard not to conclude that Grimsby have a fairly uninspiring squad that could well see them in danger of the drop.

The main exciting talent at Grimsby this season is winger Siriki Dembele – brother of Celtic wunderkind Karamoko Dembele. Siriki has caught the eye over pre-season having not played professional football until joining Grimsby, and carried that form over into the opening day of the season with a wonderful half-the-length-of-the-pitch assist to help Grimsby to a win over Chesterfield. Dembele’s ability to carry the ball on the counter and deliver a final product makes him a major danger-man.

Possible Line-Up

Sam Jones, brought in by Russell Slade’s predecessor, Marcus Bignot, is another attacking talent to watch. The midfielder scored seven in 18 appearances after signing in January and has been deployed as more of a striker by Slade thus far this season. A bit of a physical presence and an excellent finisher, Jones will have to be well-marshalled.

With a slow and old defence – with Nathan Clarke at 33 years-old likely to partner Danny Collins at 37 in central defence – and a target-man to lump it up to in Scott Vernon, Grimsby are likely to defend deep, play direct and try and hurt us on set-pieces. Knowing what we do about Russell Slade’s tactical approach, they will only sit deeper and deeper should they take the lead, so we’re going to have to ensure we start strongly and try to force them to chase the game.

Prediction

Although Grimsby should be the kind of team we should be beating as a matter of routine if we have serious aspirations of promotion, we are still gelling as a team and this game could prove an early lesson in how to deal with a robust and physical League Two team keen to claim our scalp. I’m still far from convinced by our defence based on the opening two games of the season and they could be found wanting against a direct side if they continue to show poor positional discipline and aggression in their play.

Since returning to the club, Mark Robins is yet to win an away game for us – although away wins were the main feature of his first spell at the club. Getting that first away win of the season before it comes a thing is important. However, I can see this being a frustrating 1-1 draw.