Tomorrow night brings a huge game for City against Portsmouth, but the bigger picture is beginning to form beyond our clash with Kenny Jackett’s side.
Going into tomorrow’s tie we have four players absent who would, more likely than not, be in the first-team picture. Joe Walsh must be the only defender ever to have played four, conceded none for City, but he looks likely to be ruled out until, the New Year, which is a blow. However, considering the flexibility we have at the back, his absence is perhaps one we can cover. Left-back Max Melbourne is still out too, a player who I strongly suspect would start in place of Tayo Edun, were he fit. With young Sean Roughan chomping at the bit too, even two defensive injuries are not as significant as they might be for other clubs. Remember, even if we need to pull TJ Eyoma into the centre, Robbie Gotts can cover. In the two matches we have lost this season, I haven’t seen the defence as being to blame, and I am comfortable with the squad coverage we have there.
The balance at the back does impact us going forward though. One stats that gets overlooked is who passes to who, and at the weekend Tayo Edun was involved in the most passes between two teammates (Adam Jackson and him exchanged 29 passes), and the second most (Jorge Grant and him swapped the ball 26 times). Edun is comfortable in passing and it shows the steady build up on that side of the field, with 55 passes in that ‘triangle’. On the other side, TJ Eyoma’s links with James Jones and Lewis Montsma produced just 31 altogether. Edun was very busy, his relationship with Johnson produced 16 passes, as did his time with Theo Archibald. More on him shortly.
The other two injuries we are carrying are more significant. Certainly, losing Liam Bridcutt is a big blow, or at least it seems it on the evidence of Saturday afternoon. When you drop Jorge Grant deeper, you lose arguably our most creative player. Grant started deep at the weekend but looked more effective when he pushed further up the field at half time. If Bridcutt is injured, the likelihood is Jorge Grant will move further back, robbing us of a bit of creativity. Conor McGrandles is a player who always seems to have an off day when I praise him pre-match, and I do wonder if a shakeup is going to happen in the middle. With Bridcutt out, perhaps Grant drops back and Robbie Gotts finally gets a start. If Melbourne were fit, which he isn’t, Tayo could drop in there as well. Like our style of play, our team selection is fluid, but reliant on certain key components, Liam Bridcutt being one. he isn’t flexible, not in terms of our approach, he is the anchor around which everything else revolves.
Another injury we’re carrying that people may not realise is significant is that of Callum Morton. I’m genuinely gutted to see he is likely to need an operation now, because we are lacking a different approach up top. I don’t see Scully as a number nine, he might be a ten, but he’s not an out and out striker in the same vein as Hopper, or Morton. Hopps is playing well from a work perspective, but it’s two in 13 for the striker. He’s had chances and I feel if one goes in, three or four will, but that lack of clinical finishing, not just from Hopps, might end up costing us. Eventually, the penalties will dry up and you’ll get games like Saturday where we should have perhaps scored and didn’t, or games like last Tuesday where our profligacy in front of goal will cost us badly. I feel if Morton were close, he would be a different type of nine to Hopps and give us more options and methods towards goal. Young Jamie Soule looks energetic and eager, but I’m not convinced he is up to senior men’s football, yet. I would love to be proven wrong and I confess I haven’t seen of much of him as Michael in training, so I’m happy to be corrected.
That leaves us really needing at least Bridcutt back, with Melbourne another I feel will be big when he returns. After tomorrow, we have the FA Cup tie with Forest Green, but then seven days until Steve Evans’ bruisers come knocking. That’s ten days for players MA is willing to rest for the cup game to recover before the serious business gets underway. I say that, Forest Green is perhaps as serious for the club in terms of finances, with good money available for progression. A cup run, however damaging to the squad, is just what we need to help settle a few nerves behind the scenes for those tasked with keeping us financially viable. However, I strongly believe we have players on the bench who can rise to the occasion on Saturday, which brings me back to Theo Archibald.
Well, it does, but let’s jump to Brennan Johnson first. he is the one player I feel always looks like he might score from open play for us. I’m not convinced anyone else, bar perhaps Harry, looks confident in terms of having a pop, but Johnson forces things and makes it happen. When Hopps, or James Jones bag one, I think they’ll get a hatful, but I wonder if there’s a concern that we’re not quite bagging enough from open play. Someone on the forum noted that without penalties (and the rebound from a penalty) we have scored the second-fewest goals in the division. We’re not playing badly and, in fairness, those penalties came from pushing into the box, but it is Johnson’s spark that looks most likely to light the fire. I think that is where Theo Archibald comes in. Okay, he missed a glorious chance at the weekend, but it was his first touch of the ball. I still get the sense he is our Brennan Johnson, a player we own with that same ‘va-va-voom’ on the ball. It would be poetic if he got his first home start against the same side he played against us for a couple of seasons ago, and announces himself in style to the non-existent home support.
Even if it isn’t Archibald, it might be Gotts, Soule, Howarth or Anthony Scully who get the nod for Forest Green at home; it might be all of them. Whoever it is, I hope some of the brave souls who have played a majority of the 15 games in just two months get a rest to recuperate and recover in time for a run of games in which I see our season hinging. Are we real promotion challengers, or is top ten the realistic aim? Personally, and I know I’ll get called a pessimist, but I think signs are pointing to the latter being a realistic, and hugely admirable target. You’ll know much more after Gillingham and Wigan (H), Swindon, Rochdale and Accrington (A). Right there is the crux of our season; whatever the outcome tomorrow, 12 points from those five games is possible and that would leave us on around 34 going into Sunderland at home. After that, it’s Shrewsbury, Northampton and Burton, all three struggling sides I firmly believe we are better than. By my maths, and I know I’m reaching, by the time Hull visit on December 29th, we could have as many points as we gathered all last season.
To do that, we need our troops fit and ready to go after this en day lay off. Whatever happens tomorrow night, the start to the season has been wonderful and there is a lot more to come from this young and aspirational side. If we get to 2021 on around 40 points and head into a transfer window with an FA Cup 3rd round tie to prop up the finances, then I think we’ll all agree a horrible year has reached a half-decent conclusion.
All ifs and buts, I know, but so much rests on keeping the squad fit and using resources wisely. I believe in MA to do just that, and whatever the team tomorrow night, or at the weekend, I will trust his judgement. The last 15 matches have been example enough that we’re on the right track, with the right man at the helm.