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.

Half-Way Review

Overview

The season felt like it was starting several weeks too early for us with our opening game against Swindon Town feeling more like a pre-season friendly than a competitive fixture, given how many key spots in the starting XI needed to be filled. That lack of preparedness in time for the opening day was compounded by a grueling run of fixtures in August, as well as a series of transfer targets appearing to slip through our fingers.

Tony Mowbray almost seemed content to declare the first month of the season as a false-start, but the problem was that when this supposed actual start to the season came round in September, we still didn’t seem anywhere near ready. It quickly became apparent that we had an inexperienced team lack in a presence in every area of the pitch. Despite some fairly decent performances at times, that determination and nous to ensure the ball went into the opposing net rather than ours was clearly missing.

It was apparent long before Tony Mowbray resigned after the 2-2 draw with AFC Wimbledon that he had no idea how to mould the set of players he had assembled into a winning team. His refrain upon his resignation of ‘you can’t build a club off loans’ felt a dire warning about the state that the club was in, but was, at least partially, also an indictment of his his over-reliance on loan players during his 18-month spell at the club.

With no process seemingly in place to appoint a new manager, Mark Venus shuffled awkwardly into the fray as caretaker manager. His position on the board and lack of prior managerial experience meant that a sizeable number of fans were going to struggle to warm to him, but a convincing win away at Port Vale was a promising early sign.

Despite an improvement in results, it was only the performances away at Port Vale and at home to Oxford that truly merited victories. The home wins against Rochdale and Chesterfield were particularly unconvincing, with the opposition spurning some excellent chances before we managed to snatch a few chances on the break. Nevertheless, Venus’ decision to stick with a settled line-up looked to have allowed the team to build the understanding required to win narrow games.

However, that improved form was emphatically proven to be something of a mirage. A narrow loss at home to league leaders Scunthorpe saw Venus begin to tinker unnecessarily with the starting line-up, leading to a heavy defeat away at Oxford, before narrow, but dispiriting, defeats against Bolton and MK ‘Dons’ to end any sense of optimism that we might avoid a relegation battle this season.

An utterly embarrassing 4-0 to Cambridge United in the FA Cup was probably the end of Mark Venus’ prospects of landing the job on a permanent basis and December played out with a series of lacklustre and lifeless performances with the team devoid of confidence and in the knowledge that their manager didn’t want to be there.

The appointment of Russell Slade as Tony Mowbray’s replacement looks to have provided a lift, with the losing streak ended at Peterborough and 2-2 draw against Bolton in our last game that we were unfortunate not to win. Time will tell whether the improved performances will augur to a run to survival, but things are already looking more optimistic than they were a couple of weeks ago.

Who’s Played Well?

The only player who stands out as having played consistently well this season is Ben Stevenson. I remember watching him in in pre-season, the technical ability was clearly there but he struggled to cope with the physical side of the game and I thought he probably wasn’t quite ready for the first-team. Every game he’s played since then has defied that initial impression I had of him. It’s not just that he’s so technically adept, but it’s that he’s been able to screen the defence so well with his reading of the game in a physical division that has been especially remarkable. It’s been apparent that he’s simply a class above, and sadly it seems he’ll almost certainly leave this month with barely 20 first-team appearances to his name.

As for the others, no-one’s been anywhere near as convincing as Stevenson has been. Gael Bigirimana looked like a completely different player to the one he was last season when he came back in August, but he has reverted to type somewhat over the past few months and is now out of the team under Russell Slade. The since-departed Marvin Sordell was better than the modest pre-season expectations most had of him, but not to the degree that his departure is that much of a blow to the team.

Elsewhere, Andy Rose did really well when he returned from injury but hasn’t replicated that impact over the past month or so. He seems to be at his best when given licence to make late runs into the box, but Russell Slade appears to be playing him as the deeper-lying midfielder in a central two, which may limit his effectiveness. Jordan Willis seems to have gotten a lot of praise this season for a few decent performances, but I find it hard to believe many Championship clubs would be as keen on signing him as many seem to believe.

Who’s Been Rubbish?

If we do go down, the single biggest on-field decision to have contributed to it will have been Tony Mowbray’s call to replace Aaron Martin with Jordan Turnbull. He doesn’t dominate physically and he’s nervous on the ball, Turnbull has consistently cost us points with a series of basic errors. Mowbray let a solid and reliable League One centre-back go to bring in someone who, and this is being nice to him, still has a lot to learn.

The three key players that I identified in my season preview as being key for us heading into this season have all disappointed in different ways. Reice Charles-Cook was dropped from the side by Mark Venus having failed to build on some excellent performances towards the end of last season, and appears to be second-choice under Slade too. Jodi Jones looks a threatening player but makes poor decisions in the final third and is going to have to work hard to get back into the side. Then there’s Vladimir Gadzhev, a Bulgarian international who’s played in the Champions League, who just hasn’t looked up to the pace of English football.

What Do We Need To Survive?

It would be dangerous to read too much into a single performance, but the showing against Bolton, just one day after Russell Slade had made his first few moves in the transfer market, was highly encouraging. There seemed to have been an increase in intensity and the work-rate of the team, with Stuart Beavon in particular seeming to demonstrate the qualities Slade wants to bring to the side. That being said, Bolton’s two goals came from sloppy pieces of defending, which signals that there is still plenty of work still to be done by Slade.

With only one point, with a game in hand, separating us from safety, the improvements Slade needs to make shouldn’t have to be too drastic to ensure survival. If Nathan Clarke and Kevin Foley’s experience help tighten up the defence, that will go a long way to making the task ahead for us more straightforward. In attack, Stuart Beavon’s work-rate looks like it’s going to be a major asset, especially if he can sustain 90 minutes on a consistent basis, but we probably need a few reliable players in front of goal to benefit from Beavon’s selflessness.

With Ben Stevenson and Cian Harries looking likely to be sold, as well as the loan players returning to their parent clubs, we’re witnessing a very quick transformation in the identity of this team. We’re going from a very young team that, had Mowbray got his summer transfer business right, would have attacked this division with style and panache, to a more experienced and cautious set-up. Mowbray’s set-up had a thinner margin between success and failure, while Slade’s should at least ensure survival for a year or two, but not much better.

Slade’s appointment and machinations in the transfer market thus far seems to be an acceptance that we’re going to, hopefully, be a League One team for several years to come. It’s encouraging in the short-term of this survival battle and depressing for the longer-term that we’re selling our most talented youngsters at the earliest possible opportunity to bring in older players who’ll be of use for a season or two.

The focus right now at this football club is clearly not on the long-term, there is no plan to get out of this division, we don’t know where we’ll be playing after next season, and there’s a realistic prospect that there won’t be a club to support in a few years’ time. We should survive, and hopefully there’ll be some memories of good performances to be made along the way, but there’s this feeling in the pit of most Sky Blues fans’ stomachs that this might be some kind of last hurrah.

Preview: Millwall

A limp defeat to Fleetwood last week was the addendum to a miserable summer to be a Coventry City fan. With the hope that we can source significant improvements to the team extinguished with the closing of the summer transfer window, it’s hard not to feel like that performance last Saturday wasn’t a strong taste of what is to come for the rest of the season, or at least until the January transfer window or should Tony Mowbray leave the club.

Heading into a daunting away trip to Millwall, there’s are few tangible reasons to believe that we can get a result in what is our toughest game of the season thus far. The only real hope is that something has clicked on the training pitch now that Tony Mowbray has had time to rest players and focus on implementing a workable game-plan. However, it feels like we lack the quality at either end of the pitch to get result even if we successful tactical plan.

16-09-10-millwall-a

Possible Line-Up

In terms of the team for this game, the main selection issues are in midfield and attack, aside from Sam Ricketts being restored to the starting XI ahead of Cian Harries. While the Chris McCann-Vladimir Gadzhev central midfield partnership hasn’t convinced thus far, McCann’s likely absence from this game will surely see Mowbray go for a central three of Bigirimana, Stevenson and Gadzhev, which is likely to struggle physically despite having a numerical advantage against Millwall.

The repercussion of playing a central three is that it neuters our blunt attacking threat further. Dan Agyei and Marcus Tudgay have performed the best out of our attacking options this season but I wonder whether the threat those two pose would suit Millwall’s slow but physical defence. The return of Jodi Jones to fitness is a big boost, it’s just whether we can offer him enough support to stop him being isolated against Millwall’s big, burly defenders.

Last Time We Met

After two defeats against us last season, I would imagine that Millwall will be keen for revenge considering the manner of both games. The first game against them last season was one of those golden afternoons that are all too rare in football, those days where everything goes your way. With Lee Burge saving an early penalty and Adam Armstrong opening the scoring with a lob from 35 yards, it was clear that the afternoon was ours from very early on. A pulsating performance of attacking verve and incision from messrs Armstrong, Lameiras and Maddison eviscerated Millwall in a glorious 4-0 victory for the Sky Blues.

The tables had been turned when Millwall visited the Ricoh back in April, Neil Harris’ side were comfortably in the play-offs while we were in the midst of a tail-spin that had taken us from the top of the table to the middle of it. When Millwall scored from a corner after typically negligent set-piece defending from the Sky Blues, there looked to be only one winner. That was before Millwall’s Shaun Williams needlessly lashed out at Ruben Lameiras in an off-the-ball incident and we managed to grind a resolute Millwall side down with a display of controlled football that resulted in a 2-1 win thanks to a John Fleck stunner and Marcus Tudgay scoring when set through one-on-one.

How Are They Doing?

Millwall were last season’s losing play-off finalists and as such, have been expected by many to be one of the stronger teams in the division this season. Thus far, it looks like that expectation is justified with the Lions sitting comfortably in the play-offs, although a heavy defeat away to Peterborough a couple of weeks ago suggests that this isn’t a team without glaring weaknesses.

Last season, the goals of Lee Gregory went a long way to turning around a sluggish start to the campaign. A combination of injury and rustiness has seen Gregory muster just one goal in four appearances this season and it’s been his veteran strike partner Steve Morison who’s moved into the limelight with four goals from six appearances, making him the league’s joint second-top scorer. In terms of style, both are fairly archetypal lower league centre-forwards – very physical, very competitive and who come to life in the penalty area.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Millwall’s game-plan under Neil Harris is a fairly simple, but effective, 4-4-2 system based around winning physical battles over the pitch and getting crosses into the box. Ben Thompson in central midfield is a classic scrapper who loves to get stuck-in and be the pantomime villain for the opposing fans. Out wide, Harris prefers hard-working and energetic players who can get crosses in the box at every available opportunity in the form of David Worrall, Aiden O’Brien and Shane Ferguson.

While Millwall’s style of play is simple but effective, they can struggle against teams that play with pace and can get in between the lines of their formation. Their defence is made up of grizzled warriors with the giant Byron Webster and captain Tony Craig a formidable, but slow, partnership in the centre. However, with the impressive Jordan Archer in goal, it’s not as simple as beating Millwall’s defence for pace, we’re going to have to find quality with our finishing too.

Prediction

Although I think Millwall are a fallible side, I just don’t think we have the weaponry to take advantage of their weaknesses. With a physically weak defence, we need to find quality in the final third to get anything out of this game, as well as almost every other game in this division, which I don’t think we have.

Millwall are clearly the stronger side, they’re playing at home and they’re in good form – we’re the exact opposite. There isn’t much else to consider before predicting a heavy defeat for us – 4-1 to Millwall.

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