It’s been a frenetic week, has it not? Firstly we watched as a superb Coventry side dismantle us in a thrilling 2-1 win, then 72 hours later the complete opposite, a dire Colchester side put an even worse Lincoln City in our place. Danny rages, social media imploded, Danny gives a superb press conference, everybody laps it up.
It does seem an awful long time since we beat Crewe, but it isn’t. We’re still tucked in where we want to be, we all know where our shortcomings are and I’m convinced Danny and Nicky know what we need. The undertones from the press conference were simple; some players are not performing and they’ve got 40 (ish) days to sort themselves out.
40 days is a long time in football, but 24 hours is not. That’s how long, give or take an hour, until in-form Port Vale come to the Bank looking to continue their impressive run. 4-0 thrashing at Mansfield aside, they’ve experienced a real resurgence under Neil Aspin, a refreshing situation given his National League background. I’m actually quite pleased they’ve done well, they’ve turned to the ‘old guard’ and things have improved. As Danny said, they’re not a bottom of League Two side, they’ve got good players and offer, in my opinion, a sterner test than Colchester. The one thing we do have going for us is that big crowd, but it can be a hinderance as well. If we don’t start well, how quickly before some sections turn? It would be wrong, but you and I know there are people amongst our fan base eager to see us fail so they can put their oar in.
Port Vale like to play direct, get from back to front quickly with balls laid off to Tom Pope to bang home. He’s in real form, Player of the Month for October and racking up goals like nobody’s business. It really is frightening to think where we might be now with a Tom Pope in our side. Frightening, but also pointless. We don’t have him, so we have to work around our deficiencies and accentuate our strengths.
We’re organised and, if Michael Bostwick is back, we’re solid too. We shouldn’t concede many goals whether Tom Pope, Danny Hylton or Harry Kane is attacking us. Josh Vickers has been a star recently and he’s on hand to pick up any pieces the defence may leave. I’m wondering whether Raggs has one head in his Norwich move though, he’s not been as commanding as usual. That’s not to say he’s been poor, but he’s a young man with a big impending move and currently he’s in limbo. That said, on his day he’s as good as any defender in this league.
If we’re going to get three points tomorrow we need to fight fire with fire. That means going long, looking for Rheady and utilising the strengths we do have. We’ve tried playing it on the floor, bringing ‘playmakers’ like Billy Knott or Elliott Whitehouse to the table and looking for Ollie Palmer’s feet. It doesn’t work. What we can do, what we know we can do efficiently, is aim for Rheady and pick up the pieces. Tomorrow, that is what we have to do.
Maybe there is a fear of us being sneered at as a long ball side, maybe we want to refine our approach but right now it is horses for courses. In early winter on damp, heavy pitches with the limited resources we have, we have to do what we know best. Hitting Rheady means bringing Matt Green in alongside him, none of this ‘freshen things up’ malarkey either. Ollie Palmer wasn’t brought in to freshen things up on Tuesday, he’d only been dropped one game. I understand why it is packaged and sold to us in this way, but Matt Green was dropped because he didn’t perform against Coventry. The manager won’t say it, the press won’t either but I will. It’s the same reason Paul Farman has been rested for four months, Luke Waterfall too. Matt Green is a good footballer and he needs an extended run with Rheady up front. I thought we looked alright against Coventry, he might not have had the run in front of goal but he got in at least two good positions to miss chances. Can you honestly tell me Ollie Palmer has even got in the positions to miss?
Danny made a big statement at half time against Colchester, switching from players looking to keep it on the deck to players who thrive off a quicker approach to getting forward. I hope he stands by that this weekend because Port Vale won’t have any problem whacking it up top for the boys in the final third to do their bit. If we persist in trying to play it back out we could find ourselves doing an awful lot of work that isn’t effective.
The big question is who to have on the wings and whether Bozzie plays. Firstly, the wingers pick themselves if fit. Nathan on one flank, Harry on the other. There’s no question for me, Nathan was superb against Coventry last weekend, clever in his movement if not clinical in his attacking. Harry is different class, big and strong, bullish and single-minded. They’re our first-choice wingers, Cameron Stewart has an awful lot to prove and Josh Ginnelly needs to be patient.
If Bozzie is out then I fear a ‘weak link’ in the side. I took some stick for saying Elliott is really not up to it at present, I stand by that. He’s a more favourable option than Billy on current form, but we’re light in midfield. It’s a telling reflection on our season that the back six or seven pick themselves but the remaining four or five cause arguments all the time on social media. We’ve not kept a clean sheet in a while but I don’t put that down to bad defending, just small errors which wouldn’t go punished last season. No, the issues lay in front of Woodyard and Bostwick. We haven’t found an effective link between the defensive third and the attacking third and we don’t have suitable options to try. That being the case, let’s just cut it out altogether and land the ball on the big man. We know he’s effective, we know he lacks mobility but if we can get Nathan and Harry doing the running for him we’ll be a tough prospect for Port Vale.
Lots of people saying that the number one player for us to sign in January is a centre forward, I disagree. We need one, no doubt, but for me the top priority must be a midfielder that plays further up the park to Bostwick and Woodyard, links the forwards, wingers and defensive players and conducts our orchestra of attacking options. Dare I say, almost a ‘Alan Power’ style player. I’m not saying we miss Alan (although we miss the depth he gave us in the squad) but we do need an attacking midfielder as quickly as a centre forward. I’ll get some flack here, but I firmly believe Matt Green is the 20-goal a season player he was billed as, if only we stop him doing so much running and get him in positions he can score goals from. Trust me, if he gets one he’ll go on a run of grabbing four or five and we’ll be flying again.
No more analysis, no more ifs, buts or whys. We need to go back to what we did well last season, be big, strong, physical and most of all, use Matt Rhead. He’s unique, a talented player with a huge frame. Just have a word, tell him to stay on his feet and don’t foul the opposition. After all, so far this season we’ve committed 271 fouls, the second most in the league after Wycombe. Coincidence they have a big man up top also?
Interestingly we’ve had 203 shots with 80 on target whereas Vale, with Tom Pope remember, have had 177 and 67 on target. That figure sees them in the bottom four for shots and bottom two for on target. We’re 16th for shots and 13th for on target. We’re 17th for goals scored too.
Guess who is top of shots on target, total shots and second for goals scored? Wycombe. Guess what style they play? Hit the big man and let the others work off him. He might foul but if you’re consistent in your approach the bits will work themselves out. It might not win you awards for style, but it works.
Incidentally we’re third in the tightest defence table and Wycombe are 16th. Imagine if we could do what they’re doing up front but keep doing what we’re doing at the back. This league is far from over and if we play to our strengths, we’ll be back in the mix by the time the fat guy is squeezing down your chimney.
One quick final word on Jodi Jones. Yes, he scored past us and yes, he celebrated in a way that made me say ‘f*ck’ a lot. Rheady did the same against everyone last season, but would we really wish injury on him? Jones is a great player, one we’d love at Lincoln and his talent deserves to be on the field, not on a recovery room table. I was pretty disgusted by posts on social media glorifying his injury the other day. It’s a game, get a grip. He’s good, he’s arrogant and if we had him we’d bloody love him. How would we have reacted if Rheady had suffered that injury and the fans he’d goaded had revelled in it? Hope Jones recovers just after our clash later in the year and gets back to being the player he threatened to be, just never against us.
Thanks to Graham Burrell and Lincoln City for the pictures