Preview: Scunthorpe United

We’ve reached the final game of a season where so much has happened but strangely has felt like it never really got going. From the waiting for quality signings that never came in August, the wait for a replacement for Tony Mowbray, the wait for Russell Slade’s reign to take-off, the wait for Russell Slade to be shown the door, the wait for Wembley, to now, the wait for the start of next season.

In a sense, it will be a relief when it’s all over and Mark Robins can get on with the task of getting us out of League Two. However, given the constant flow of bad news around the club over the past few weeks, there’s the strong feeling that relegation is less an opportunity to rebuild the club and more the opening of another dark chapter in our history. As fans, we can only hope that Mark Robins is the right man to trust at such an important juncture for this football club.

Possible Line-Up

As for this final game of the season, it’s probably the case that Robins has already decided who he wants to keep and who he’s planning to move on. In fact, it would be a tad concerning where he to be swung by one good or bad performance from players in this game. While someone like Vladimir Gadzhev impressed last week, one decent showing in a pressure-free game shouldn’t be considered representative of a player’s level of performance over the course of a long and hard season.

As has been the case since the Checkatrade Trophy final, this is likely to be a team selected on a basis of who is fit rather than managerial preference. Ideally, Robins would not be picking loan players or those whose contracts he will not renew, however, players like Kevin Foley, Marcus Tudgay and Farrend Rawson may have to be used in order to get 11 players on the pitch.

Last Time We Met

Despite losing to Scunthorpe at the Ricoh Arena back in November, the performance looked to have further demonstrated Mark Venus’ ability to pull us further away from danger after a run of four wins in six games. In a fairly close game where both sides had about us much attacking threat as each other, it was Scunthorpe’s star man Josh Morris who ghosted in at the near-post to secure victory for the then-league leaders.

How Are They Doing?

 

In a manner familiar to Sky Blues fans, Scunthorpe have struggled over the second half of the season after starting it in blistering form. Unfamiliar though is that Scunthorpe have managed to reverse that slump over recent weeks, winning their past four games to salvage a play-off spot.

 

While it may have been the case that Scunthorpe over-performed in the first half of the campaign – with Josh Morris scoring some absurd goals at a ridiculous rate – not to have held onto a top six spot would have been criminal given the strength of the starting XI. Manager Graham Alexander seemed to struggle with the pressure of the slump, making unnecessary signings and too many changes to the side, but has regained his composure in recent weeks to scrape out a few wins and restore confidence.

Winger Josh Morris remains the key player for this Scunthorpe side, despite a drop-off in his rate of goalscoring. His delivery from set-pieces and open play have been a regular source of goals over the second half of the campaign, demonstrating Scunthorpe’s meticulous organisation and physicality. His fellow impressive wide-man from the first half of the season, Duane Holmes, however, has struggled to get into the side over the past few months.

Possible Line-Up

Scunthorpe have an incredibly solid spine to the team, largely thanks to Mark Robins’ underwhelming spell at the club. The dominant centre-back Murray Wallace and the energetic midfield tyro Stephen Dawson were both brought to the club by Robins and have probably been the two other key players for Scunthorpe behind Josh Morris. Wallace’s defensive partner, David Mirfin, adds further experience and physicality to the back-line, while Neal Bishop in midfield offers something similar in the centre of the park.

While the changes Graham Alexander made over the second half of the season seemed to disrupt the balance of the side, the loan signings of Ivan Toney in attack and Matt Crooks in midfield have played a large part in this recent run of good form. Toney’s goalscoring form has come at a crucial time where other strikers have struggled for goals. Crooks has also scored some crucial goals, but also offers an important element of control and presence in midfield – although he is now injured of the rest of the season.

Prediction

It’s been an encouraging run recently, but the end-of-season feel to many of the games we’ve played during that run has to be considered an important factor. While Scunthorpe have ensured themselves a top six spot already, so have nothing to win or lose in this game, they’ll be keen to avoid a potentially demoralising defeat to an already-relegated side as they look to head into the play-offs with momentum.

With that in mind, I can see this being a 3-0 loss.

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Preview: Scunthorpe United

An amazing turnaround against Wycombe on Wednesday night has put a different complexion on what looked to be two rather underwhelming performances in the cup. Not only should the turnaround give us a sense of impetus heading into our toughest league fixture of the season but we look to have a decent level of strength in depth, which is never a bad thing.

This Scunthorpe game though is going to test just how much we can read into the Wycombe turnaround, our impressive home form and the modest improvements made since Tony Mowbray’s departure. The fixture list has been fairly kind to us this season, especially at home where we’ve played three of the current bottom four and just one of the current top six, which is why it still doesn’t quite feel like we’ve justified looking towards the play-offs rather than the relegation zone. Getting something out of this game – points or a really good performance – will provide that validation we’ve been missing thus far.

Possible Line-Up

With only the injuries of Chris Stokes, Chris McCann and Kwame Thomas to contend with, Mark Venus is free to pick what he feels is his strongest side for this game. The performances of Ryan Haynes, Jodi Jones and Jack McBean provide the temptation to deviate away from a formation and team selection that led to our recent improvement, Venus has to decide whether those players have provided a convincing enough case to justify potentially disruptive changes to the side.

Ryan Haynes is probably least likely out of the three to come in, simply because the defence appears to have gelled over the past five or six league games. A lot of our good attacking play against Wycombe involved Jack McBean’s hold-up play, but with Rose back in a three-man midfield, those qualities may not be as important as pace to hit Scunthorpe on the counter. Jodi Jones has a much better shot given that Venus doesn’t seem to have found the best combination in the front three, but could struggle against a physical Scunthorpe defence.

Last Time We Met

Scunthorpe inflicted upon us a 2-1 defeat that was our third in a row and which heralded our collapse from promotion contenders to mid-table also-rans last season. Scunthorpe put in a well-disciplined away performance, blocking the centre of the pitch, countering with intent and taking their chances to hold us at arm’s length for most of the contest. A late Adam Armstrong penalty wasn’t enough to reverse the tide and just days later James Maddison was sold to Norwich to make the unravelling even worse. Also, Stephen Hunt played for us that day.

How Are They Doing?

Scunthorpe showed against us in January that they had a really solid base to build on and since Graham Alexander’s appointment as manager in March, they’ve managed to convert that solid base into a ruthlessly efficient team-unit. While former manager Mark Robins deserves a modicum of credit for putting most of this squad together, Alexander has done incredibly well at making sense of the squad he inherited and making a few additions of his own to make them even better.

Despite being runaway league leaders for much of the campaign, Scunthorpe aren’t a particularly flash side but are physically-imposing, incredibly hard-working and lethal in the final-third. They’ve scored a lot from set-pieces and on the counter, but have also demonstrated the ability to grind teams down through efficient spells of possession too. Even though last season’s top-scorer Paddy Madden is likely not to feature in this game, one of the main attributes of this Scunthorpe side has been how many goals so many different players have scored for them.

Left-winger Josh Morris is the club and the division’s current top-scorer, with most of his goals being incredibly well-hit set-pieces and long-range efforts – this was a player Bradford let go for free this summer. Powerful Dutch striker Kevin van Veen never really lived up to the hype under Mark Robins but has returned from a loan in his native country as a key focal point in attack, scoring some beautiful goals of his own but also providing a physical presence up-front and creating chances for his team-mates. Former Leicester youngster Tom Hopper has also chipped in with his fair share of the goals this season and is another typically hard-working player on Scunthorpe’s books.

Possible Line-Up

The energy from midfield provided by captain Stephen Dawson and the young American winger Duane Holmes has allowed Scunthorpe to over-run teams at times. Holmes looked a big prospect at Huddersfield before struggling to nail down a starting place but has offered Scunthorpe a real outlet on the counter, as well as the ability to track-back and protect his full-back. Dawson, with the burly Neal Bishop alongside him, is part of that solid spine of the team that Graham Alexander inherited at Glanford Park.

The central defensive duo of David Mirfin and Murray Wallace is one of the most solid partnerships in the entire Football League. The veteran Mirfin is a classic physically-imposing brute who’s enjoyed a renaissance at the club under Graham Alexander when Mark Robins had been keen to let him go. Wallace is a more mobile defender who can also bring the ball out from the back but is first and foremost an incredibly competent defender. Alexander is spoilt for choice at full-back with Jordan Clarke and Scott Wiseman at right-back and Conor Townsend and Harry Toffolo at left-back all capable of walking into any other League One back four.

Prediction

Overall, I’m just not convinced that this recent upturn in form is enough to go out and beat the league leaders. We seem to have developed a habit of starting games lackadaisically and against a team with quality in the final third and a rock-solid defence, we would struggle to get anything out of this game if we fall behind.

I’ve got a feeling this will be the game that shows just how far away we are from being a genuinely good side again. Scunthorpe to win 3-1.

Preview: Scunthorpe United

Two limp defeats in the wake of an already poor run puts pressure on the team not only to win this upcoming game against Scunthorpe but to follow that up with a winning streak. We know this side is more than good enough to be leading the pack, to be in danger of falling entirely out of the race for promotion is more than a little embarrassing.

There are issues but there is more than enough time left to sort things out and give this season the finish it deserves. We could do with maybe one or two signings, some tactical tweaks and Mowbray settling on his best team, but above all, it’s about desire and intensity if we are to return to the swagger with which we started the season with.

I do go into our issues and possible solution in more detail here, so onto the more specific matter of beating Scunthorpe United. With no new signings looking like arriving in time for this game and the possibility of another Murphy and Armstrong-less affair, Tony Mowbray’s going to have to work with what he’s got.

Maybe, Might Be, Could Be, Possible Line-Up

Maybe, Might Be, Could Be, Possible Line-Up (To Be Taken With A Pinch Of Salt)

In defence, that means that an unchanged back four is almost dead certain given that Aaron Phillips looks set to be on the naughty step for quite a while. It may not necessarily be the worst thing in the world despite the makeshift nature of it, it might be better to settle on a four at the moment to give them time to learn from their mistakes rather than cause more disruptions and tinkering with the side again.

With John Fleck still suspended, Bigi is going to have to put in a much better performance but could do with some help from Vincelot in aiding his efforts to get the ball moving from the back. Further forward, only Tony Mowbray knows who’s going to line up in those front positions? Surely James Maddison has to start but right now the only surprise would be an unsurprising team selection, which raises an interesting paradox if you think about it.

Last Time We Met

For the second season running we gave a Scunthorpe manager’s ailing tenure a shot on the arm with an unexpectedly abject performance. Mark Robins’ side, packed with almost as many ex-Sky Blues as Bury, did a number on us. Pressing us high up the pitch, restricting us to just three shots (all off target), somehow we escaped Glanford Park with just a 1-0 defeat. John Fleck made an avoidable error in front of his own goal, not that he’s prone to doing that sort of thing, and Paddy Madden scored a typical poacher’s finish.

How Are They Doing?

Once again Mark Robins proved himself to be a manager with a limited shelf-life at a football club. When he arrived last season he made some sensible decisions, signed some good loan players and had Scunthorpe flying for a bit. Yet once the initial surge wore off, Scunthorpe became a fairly dull, obdurate League One side, despite the club’s chairman backing Robins fairly strongly in the transfer market.

A 5-0 defeat to Blackpool two weeks ago confirmed at last to Scunthorpe’s chairman Peter Swann that things weren’t ever going to improve under Robins. Under caretaker charge last week, Scunthorpe beat Colchester 3-0, which is pretty impressive although three goals against Colchester’s leaky defence is like half a goal against most other League One sides.

Scunthorpe should be feeling pretty confident about exploiting our tetchiness regardless though considering the talented squad that Robins assembled. The most recognisable name in that squad (aside from our ex-players) is Paddy Madden who is an energetic striker and an excellent finisher who guarantees goals at this level. Robins spent much of his reign trying to convert him into winger.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

In further, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’ news, Gary McSheffrey has returned from injury in time to come into contention for this game. Jordan Clarke is out of favour at the moment and is unlikely to start in this game. They do also have ex-loanee Luke Willliams who didn’t have the best of times with us but looked close to being a pretty good player and could be looking to make a point here.

Murray Wallace in defence is a commanding presence at the back who played a big role in cutting off our entire attacking threat in the last meeting between these two sides. The competitive Stephen Dawson and Neal Bishop in midfield give Scunthorpe a very solid look to them down the middle which will make them especially awkward to play against. Despite Scunthorpe’s lowly position, there is more than enough about them for them to cause us real problems.

Prediction

Talk of instantly returning to our old swagger and swatting away one of the division’s also-rans is well wide of the mark. Scunthorpe have everything about them to set up just like Burton did, shut off the middle of the pitch and wait for us to make errors at the back. Or they could be more proactive and press us to turn an anxious home crowd against their team. This isn’t going to be good viewing, especially if either or both of Armstrong and Murphy remain unavailable for selection.

You would expect some reaction here and I think talk of a collapse is both premature and melodramatic. I really have no idea what kind of performance we are going to produce here, we could return to that old trend under Mowbray of just getting a result when the pressure is starting to build or this could set the tone for the rest of the season.

So I’m going to pick a scoreline out of thin air here (aside from the usual scientific approach I take with these previews) and call this a 2-1 win for the Sky Blues because why not?

Preview: Rochdale

Not that we’re in the position right now to be turning down points of any kind, but it was pretty useless to get just the one against Yeovil last Saturday. A missed opportunity in the context of the game itself due to the missed penalty. But also in the context of the fixtures ahead and the relegation battle, this was a chance to put some points between us and the relegation zone ahead of a tough schedule ahead.

Hope is all we have right now.

Hope is all we have right now.

Instead, we head into this home fixture against Rochdale more in hope than in expectations. With a team lacking confidence, we are hoping that for some inexplicable reason everything clicks. Without Gary Madine, we are hoping that a youngster with just four games of first-team experience will prove to be a good signing. We are hoping that Rochdale will revert to the level that was expected of them pre-season. We are hoping that we won’t be sucked into a relegation battle. We are hoping that Wasps owning the Ricoh Arena will be a good thing. I could go on.

If we weren’t already in a relegation battle, a loss against a very good Rochdale side will put the matter beyond a shadow of a doubt. Whilst this league is a fairly even one, fixtures in February against the likes of Preston, Sheffield United and MK ‘Dons’ do not bode well. We could very well find ourselves in March, when the ‘easier’ fixtures do indeed present themselves, without a league win in eight games. Were that to happen, it would be tough for Pressley to salvage anything from this situation and it may be better to take a gamble on the new manager ‘bounce’.

Madine’s, possibly permanent, absence does not mean that we are lacking striking options it’s just that those that are here are not very inspiring. The imminent arrival of Sanmi Odelusi could free Frank Nouble up to play as a central striker. Then it would be a case of Pressley deciding whether Nouble is the pace-man or the link-up-man.  The big-billing Marcus Tudgay has received over the past month suggests that Tudgay will provide the link-up play in attack and the veteran may be handed the start here against Rochdale.

Aside from that, there are no real selection issues for Pressley to consider. Jamie Jones reportedly impressed despite having little to do against Yeovil, Jordan Willis looks back to his normal, composed self at right-back and Reda Johnson is our lucky charm. The midfield is still a cause for concern but it seems that there is very little that can be done right now other than to hope that O’Brien, Fleck and Thomas raise their respective games.

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-2) Jones; Willis, Martin, Webster, Johnson; O’Brien, Thomas, Fleck, Odelusi; Nouble, Tudgay.

Last Time We Met

Our first league meeting with Rochdale in nearly 90 years ended in a 1-0 defeat for the Sky Blues at Spotland. In was in the early part of a winless run which appears to have defined our season, the game was decided by disorganisation in our five-man defence leading to a penalty converted by Dale. There was an onslaught of sorts for most of the rest of the game but it wasn’t convincing enough to put our hosts under any undue pressure and Rochdale ran out fairly comfortable winners.

How Are They Doing?

Rochdale have been the team this season that everyone in this division has been waiting to see drop-off. They shouldn’t be this good. They sold their top-scorer in the summer and chose not to reinvest the money in the team (note to SISU: this usually doesn’t work). Instead, some good management from Keith Hill has seen a team that looked best equipped for mid-table League Two challenge for the play-offs.

13 league goals isn't bad for a former emergency left-back.

13 league goals isn’t bad for a former emergency left-back.

The form of top-scorer Matty Done sums up just how brilliant Keith Hill is at man-management and tactical organisation as a football manager. An emergency left-back last season, Done has been converted into a ‘false 9’ style centre-forward that allows others behind him to get involved in the goal-scoring action. Whilst Done has now scored more this season than in the entirety of his career before it, he has also helped the gifted Ian Henderson and Peter Vincenti into double figures too.

Henderson himself deserves a special mention. A player who never really made the grade at Norwich, Henderson made a strange move into Turkish football before putting together a decent spell with Colchester United. It has been at Rochdale, a move that came about because his girlfriend found a job in the Northwest, where Henderson has shown what a supremely talented footballer he is. He possess a delicate touch and intelligent movement that makes him capable of both creating and scoring goals, Henderson makes it happen in attack for Rochdale.

The other key man for Rochdale, is Stephen Dawson in central midfield. A tigerish player who chases down everything in the centre of the park, making himself known to his opponents. Dawson is another player who found his way to Rochdale more by accident than design. Having impressed at Championship level at Barnsley, Dawson was expected to secure a move to a bigger second-tier side in the summer before his reputation was slurred by match-fixing allegations which have now been proven to be false. He will be playing with the fire in his belly that only a man who has been unjustly wronged will have.

Possible Line-Up: (4-1-4-1) Lillis, Rafferty, Eastham, Lancashire, Tanser; Bennett; Vincenti, Dawson, Camps, Henderson; Done.

Prediction

Something has to improve surely now. The players must be hurting after our recent form and will want to prove a point. Unfortunately, we are up against a team in Rochdale who we will need to be much more than simply hungry to beat. If we lose this game it could be a very nasty atmosphere around the Ricoh Arena and it may make Steven Pressley’s position untenable. There are no excuses for even being near a relegation battle with the squad he has at his disposal and it is starting to look like he is holding this team back.

Will desire and hunger be enough to overcome the organisation and confidence that Rochdale will have? I am going to be the optimist here and say yes it will be, 2-1 Coventry City.

Preview: Rochdale

Everything was going to plan for the first 25 minutes on Tuesday night. We were expected to beat a demoralised Scunthorpe side with ease and with an incisive move featuring a weighted through-ball from Simeon Jackson to Frank Nouble to open the scoring, it seemed we were set to cruise to victory. However Reda Johnson’s red mist descended, he butted his head toward Lyle Taylor and the referee was left with little choice but to send him off.

Reda's red has dampened our recent hot streak.

Reda’s red has dampened our recent hot streak.

Whilst we could have perhaps still have taken a point at the very least from Glanford Park, any analysis of the game has to be heavily caveated with Reda Johnson’s red card. Scunthorpe may or may not have come back into the game 11 vs 11 but we will never know that because of a stupid red card. Overall it feels like a massive missed opportunity not only to move into third and look like bona fide promotion contenders but to put together arguably our first 90 minute-long convincing display this season.

If Steven Pressley has got his recruitment right this season though, Saturday’s trip to Rochdale should see the team brush aside Tuesday night’s loss and beat a team which many view as one of the weakest in the division. Last season this would have been a situation in which we may have capitulated as confidence seemed to be quite brittle in that team. By bringing hard-working and experienced players, we may be able to forget and move on from Scunthorpe.

With Reda Johnson now suspended for the next three games, Seb Hines is presented with a chance to stake a claim for a first-team spot. The Middlesbrough loanee was said to have looked quite composed and assured on Tuesday but we will seemingly lose a physical presence for set-pieces which may be crucial if the next two league games are quite tight. However Johnson does have limitations as a defender, particularly against pace, so despite being captain, he could potentially be kept out of the team if Hines impresses.

Elsewhere there should be little change, if any at all, Nouble and Jackson looked like forging a dangerous strike partnership and should now be given the chance to play 90 minutes together against Rochdale.

Possible Line-Up: (5-3-2) Allsop; Clarke, Willis, Webster, Hines, Haynes; Thomas, Fleck, O’Brien; Nouble, Jackson.

Last Time We Met

Considering that Coventry City and Rochdale have been several divisions apart since we last met in the league in 1926, it’s not surprising that this is a rare fixture in Football League history. Coventry City have only beaten Rochdale once, in the League Cup in 1991 and never at Rochdale’s home ground of Spotland.

The last meeting between the two sides was at Spotland in the FA Cup in 2003. Gary McAllister’s Coventry City were dumped out of the cup thanks to goals from Paul Connor and Gareth Griffiths.

How Are They Doing?

After selling last season’s top-scorer Scott Hogan to Brentford this summer and replacing him with Calvin Andrew (scorer of 14 league goals in 10 seasons) Rochdale were looking to be almost certain candidates for relegation. However the managerial expertise of the returning Keith Hill has seen Dale sit comfortably in 11th place in the league whilst playing some exciting and attractive football on a minuscule budget.

The additions of Stephen Dawson, who was part of Keith Hill’s Barnsley side, and Jack O’Connell, returning after a loan spell from Blackburn last year, have provided a real shot in the arm for Rochdale’s hopes this season. Dawson, who impressed at Championship level with Barnsley and probably should be still playing in the second-tier, has played a box-to-box midfield role which allows Rochdale to win the ball high up the pitch and enforce their passing style of play. O’Connell is another in the category of ‘should be probably be playing Championship football’ and is a fairly classy presence in the centre of defence.

Ian Henderson is the star and creative fulcrum of this Rochdale side.

Ian Henderson is the star and creative fulcrum of this Rochdale side.

The star player of last season, Ian Henderson, remains at the club also. The former Norwich, Colchester and Ankaragucu forward joined Rochdale 18 months ago when his girlfriend found a job in the Manchester area. This quirk of fate has allowed Dale to secure a supremely talented footballer for the level of football that they play at despite their limited resources. Henderson can really pull the strings at the tip of a midfield diamond or roaming from one of the wings.

A surprise stand-out performer this season has been Matty Done. Previously a fairly innocuous left-winger who could only get into the team as an emergency left-back last year, Done has found his true calling this year as a striker. He currently tops their scoring charts with five goals and his work-rate and off-the-ball movement have beguiled several opposing defences thus far.

As well, Rochdale have started producing a few products from their academy who have become mainstays of their team this season. Jamie Allen is dynamic and versatile midfielder who can operate out wide or through the middle. Scott Tanser has nailed down the left-back position at Rochdale despite not playing too big of a role in their recent promotion from League Two. Tanser offers good delivery from set-pieces, a reason why we might miss Reda Johnson for this fixture.

Possible Line-Up: (4-3-3) Logan; Rafferty, Eastham, O’Connell, Tanser; Hery, Dawson, Allen; Henderson, Done, Vincenti.

Prediction

This game could be much tougher than many would assume against a hard-working Rochdale side who can really choke sides with their ball retention and off-the-ball movement. Last season they thoroughly outplayed a Championship side in Leeds in the FA Cup and their form this season shows that they aren’t to be taken lightly. The midfield battle will be key as we should be looking to cut off the supply to Rochdale’s forwards who will be making awkward runs for a three-man defence to defend.

On the other side though, Steven Pressley will be hoping that the understanding in attack between Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson can continue from before they were rudely interrupted by Reda Johnson’s sending-off. Those two should possess a quality that is too much for League One defences to contain and if we can keep them together we have a genuine shot at at least the play-offs if not automatic promotion.

I really think that this will be a tough game and one that a few other teams at the top of League One will also struggle with. I’m going to stick with my prediction from this week’s Nii Lamptey show and say it will finish 1-1.