MATCH OVERVIEW

Cheltenham Town and Morecambe´s promotions were achieved last season through tactical nous and hard work, outperforming sides with sizeable bigger budgets in League 2. 

Michael Duff was rewarded with League Two Manager of the Season, whilst Derek Adams further enhanced his reputation for building winning sides, with nothing short of a miracle promotion for The Shrimps. 

Story from BBC https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/56912563 & image from Getty Images

Stephen Robinson is now responsible for steering The Shrimps with the same goal as Duff – put simply – survival in League One. Anything more than that would be seen as a bonus. 

I’m delighted to have the input of Robins expert Dave Cohen to bring his knowledge to the first ever League One meeting between these sides. Dave reflects on the past meetings and expects another mouth-watering tie,

¨Cheltenham and Morecambe had been regular opponents in League 2 before their promotions. All games, to my recent memory, have been tight, edgy affairs. Morecambe this season however have been in the goals, both for and against, with 22 scored but 21 conceded. Cheltenham meanwhile are struggling on a minus 8 goal difference, looking particularly vulnerable from set pieces. The return of captain Will Boyle on Saturday did much to shore up the defence. I think this season could buck the recent trend of low scoring games between the two, and could be a really entertaining match.¨

It’s worth giving context to the negative goal difference in that three of the toughest fixtures you could ask for – Wigan away, Sunderland away and Rotherham at home – were all without Boyle and they conceded nine without scoring. Having lost experienced centre back Ben Tozer to big spending Wrexham in the National League, they rely on Boyle’s experience at the back.

Since those fixtures their captain returned for their home game to Accrington on Saturday and they managed a one-nil victory with an improved performance. 

It´ll be fascinating to see how this plays out from a style perspective. Both sides average less possession than their opponents with 43.2% and 45.8% for The Robins and The Shrimps respectively, according to Wyscout. 

Wyscout Possesion Stats

Both sides have one the lowest intensity presses in the division, according to The Analyst, with 16.1 and 15.6 PPDA from Cheltenham and Morecambe respectively.

The definition of PPDA is: PPDA = Number of Passes made by Attacking Team (oppoenent) / Number of Defensive Actions. The PPDA metric is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed by the defending team by the total number of defensive actions.

A high PPDA demonstrates a low insensity press overall, so both The Shrimps and The Robins tend to allow opportunities for the opposition to build their attacks.

Duff’s side has become famous for their 3-5-2 or 5-3-2, hard battling and at times direct approach. According to Wyscout, they have made the second highest long passes with 775 (behind Accrington with 801) with the second lowest success rate 49.4% (behind Doncaster on 48.2%).

During the summer transfer window they acquired two Kyles to add physical presence to their attack. Kyle Vassell came in from Rotherham, while highly rated Swansea loanee Kyle Joseph came in after a successful loan spell at Wigan last year. In League One, he scored 5 in 18 appearances. Alfie May tends to partner one of those and at 5 foot 9 doesn´t offer the same physical threat, but he’s a terrier and covers every blade of grass.

We´ll next review the key selection decisions for both managers, then after dig into Cheltenham´s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities against them and Threats from them.

The Shrimps´ Selection 

This has been by far the hardest predicted selection of the season!

We come into this fixture on the back of a disappointing 135 minutes defensive display. Two games ago, we led Wycombe Wanderers 2-nil at half time with a fine defensive and attacking display. Since then, we´ve conceded 7 and costly decision making coupled with lapses of concentration have resulted in two losses. 

The manner of the defeat against Burton Albion will be the most concerning as the 3-2 scoreline flattered us on the chances created.

FOTMOB statistics

The 13 shots to 6 inside the box (according to FOTMOB) is particularly concerning, but we also need to not be too knee jerk and ´throw the baby out with the bathwater´.

Regardless of the last two results, there´s plenty of positives to take from both individual performances across the pitch and team performances as a whole so far this season.

16th position provides a solid start for a new promoted side with 17 new players, in a new division managed by a new manager.

In Robbo´s pre-match interview he suggested tweaks as opposed to revolution, 

¨..It may be changing the personnel slightly or maybe changing the system slightly. I won’t be coming away from my principles in how we play, pass the ball or press.¨

Image courtesy of thevisitor.co.uk

My gut feeling would be that he´d like to keep it tighter, as we´ve been on the receiving end of the high scoring games – including 4-3 losses to both Wimbledon and Wycombe; and Burton 3-2 last game. Yet, we have many players who can cause damage when given the slightest chance with 15 goals from open play from an expected goals of just 8.1 (according to Wyscout). 

Burton marshalled Cole Stockton brilliantly, however he still scored his tenth goal in just 12 games and carved out a chance which he narrowly put wide. We also have Jonah Ayunga who will shoot given half a chance and Adam Phillips who loves arriving late in the box.

My concern if we go with our more favoured 4-3-3 is that we could end up with 3 vs 3 down our spine. Our two centre backs, plus defensive midfielder would match-up with their two centre forwards and their one more offensive central midfielder. For this reason bringing in an extra man at centre back and matching systems with Cheltenham means we´re less likely to be overloaded, yet have plenty to cause them issues offensively. 

Alfie McCalmont, who was comfortably our best player against Albion, apparently had to skip our last training session so I’m presuming he´ll be out. Fortunately, Shane McLoughlin is back from his three game suspension and I predict he´ll come straight back in for his energy, hard-tackling and box-to-box involvement. 

Greg Leigh would offer strength defensively, athleticism and eagerness to get balls in the box from left wing back. Despite coming on in the 58th minute, he still put in 6 crosses. 

Greg Leigh in action on the wing against Doncaster. Image courtesy of Morecambefc.com

In this system, I’m torn between Jonah Ayunga and Arhur Gnahoua to partner Cole. I’m a huge fan of Arthur, appreciate his huge improvement, but Jonah´s shades it based on his physicality against a strong Robins back 3. 

Another area which may be discussed is bringing in Jökull Andrésson for Kyle Letheren. Kyle could have arguably done better for Burton´s third goal, whilst also not having his best game against Wycombe a week earlier, but I tend to think the Gaffa  will be patient. 

The Robins´ Selections

Dave´s insights on how Duff will set-up, 

¨Cheltenham have struggled with injuries this season, with star midfielder Callum Wright expected to be out until January, a big loss. Taylor Perry also fell injured on Saturday, so Duff may have some thinking to do in midfield. The back 5 will be settled, with Charlie Raglan still on the road to recovery. Vassell was excellent up top on Saturday, but his partner Alfie May looked a bit out of the game. That being said, Duff has very rarely dropped May since he joined.¨

The Robins´ Strengths

Whilst the formation looks the same way each time, Dave has seen different ways it can be utilised, 

¨Cheltenham deploy a  3-5-2 or 5-3-2 system that has been a mainstay for most of Duff’s tenure. Town are capable of playing the ball out from the back and along the floor. For example, in a 2-1 away win against Charlton they had 57% possession and 81% pass success. The team is also able to play a more long ball style, often against stronger teams. For example, Town had 35% possession and 65% pass success in a 2-1 home win over Ipswich.

Duff rarely changes formation, but occasionally opts for a 4-1-2-1-2 formation when chasing the game, which in all honestly has rarely worked this season. In terms of individuals to watch for, the recent addition of Dan Crowley has sparked much needed creativity in the side. Crowley was excellent on Saturday vs Accrington in a deep role, but playing him in advanced positions could cause real problems.¨

According to Wyscout, Crowley made 8 out of 9 successful forward passes with 3 out of his 4 passess successful into the final third. 

Crowley´s forward passes vs Accrington from Wyscout

Having had a brief chat about Crowley with two Birmingham City experts, Ryan Deeney and EFL Guru Gab Sutton, he comes highly rated from what they saw of him having played 45 times for The Blues. 

Ryan believes he has lots of ability, self-confidence, good link-up play and he is able to find a yard of space for himself, but sometimes his lack of physicality was an issue and he didn’t quite fit into their system at times.

Gab sees him as a player who could ´light-up League One´ and could see him potentially fitting into a number ten role.

Dave also sees really strength in their defensive players,

¨Will Boyle is not only a rock at the back, but also excellent from attacking set pieces. Alfie May’s relentless pressing from the front is also likely to cause problems.

Blair and Hussey, at RWB and LWB respectively, have been mainstays this season. Blair, in particular, has been constantly marauding down the right, showcasing exceptional pace and stamina at the age of 32. Hussey is not quite at the level he was in League 2, but still retains a quality set piece delivery and defensive solidity.¨

Blair´s attacking intent can be clearly seen by the position from which he has received and made passes (number 17).  He’s on the half-way line, whereas Hussey (number 3) was more in line with their centre backs.

Blair´s passmap vs Accrington

The Robin´s Weaknesses

Dave considers a mutual weakness with both sides,

¨The biggest weakness in the sides this season has definitely been the set piece defending. Cheltenham are joint highest with Lincoln and Morecambe (!) in conceding from set pieces: 7 being the unlucky number in question.   Given Town’s excellent defensive record in League 2, this has come as quite a surprise to many supporters.

Town are 10th in open xG created in the league and 9th in set piece xG, and oftentimes could be guilty of not getting a final goal to see out a victory, or win a point. Alfie May has been particularly guilty of this, accumulating the 6th highest xG per 90 in the league with 0.51, but only scoring 0.22 per 90.¨

https://dataviz.theanalyst.com/season-reviews/2021/?competition_id=11&season_id=2021

Opportunities Against The Robins

According to Dave, their biggest chances will come due to their style of play, 

¨Flinders in goal has been excellent in pure shot stopping, but has struggled a bit in his distribution this season. If Morecambe could put pressure on him, they could easily force a mistake and be rewarded. Cheltenham sometimes deploy a high line, and there is a lack of pace in the back 3. If the likes of Gnahoua or McDonald can get in behind or on the counter, it could cause real problems. Most of Sunderlands 5 goals in their 5-0 win over Town came in this manner.¨

Against MK Dons earlier this season, Scott Twine combined particularly well with Daniel Harvie at left wing back and Peter Kioso at right back. Daniel produced two successful crosses and Peter one.

MK Dons cross map in their fixture vs Cheltenham.

This is part of the rationale for selecting Greg Leigh, but equally well if Robbo decides to go with a 4-3-3 then – as Dave says – Gnahoua and McDonald could exploit these gaps. Phillips would act as both the provider and one of the players who could find themselves on the end of a cross into the box.

The Robins´ Threats

Dave predicts one new partnership could cause havoc,

¨Dan Crowley’s excellent vision and creativity has the potential to unlock any defense in the league. Coupled with Vassell’s pace and power up top, I think this duo could cause real problems for the Morecambe back line.¨

Kyle has scored 3 goals this season, averaging 0.56 goals per 90 minutes, with all of his goals from inside the box. 16 of his 21 shots have been inside the box and averages 4.81 touches in the box per game, so he’ll be a player the visitors will have to pay close attention to. 

Shotmap (left) Vassell´s shot map 21/22 from Wycout & goal vs Accrington (right) courtesy of Gloucester Live

Dave envisages their wing-backs to be involved in attack,

¨If Blair and Hussey can push up high and wide and get crosses into the box, that could also be a real danger to the Morecambe defense.¨

Chris Hussey averages 2.24 crosses per game, whilst Matty Blair averages 1.64 crosses according to Wyscout. Their heat maps demonstrate how eager they are to get involved in attacks.

Chris Hussey (left heat map) and Matty Blair (right heat map) from Wyscout

LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE!

I´ll be honest, I´m a lot more certain how Cheltenham will be set up than The Shrimps. Robbo has shown he’s a manager who´s willing to adapt and experiment with formations, whilst sticking to his fundamental principles. I´ve predicted a 5-3-2 – with Greg Leigh playing slightly further forward than Ryan Cooney – but wouldn’t be shocked or in any way disappointed if we went with our more common 4-3-3.

If we´re to get a result, it´ll be through hard work and guile as Michael Duff´s side never gives less than 100%. Both managers will see this as an opportunity to gain 3 vital points against a potential relegation rival, so will be demanding their players leave everything on the pitch. 

You’d never predict against goals in a game with Morecambe involved. League One games involving the Shrimps have averaged an incredible 3.58 goals – 22 scored and 21 conceded. Therefore if either side can keep a clean sheet, they´ve a significant chance of taking all 3 points.

I would like to say a thank you to Dave Cohen for his fascinating insights.

I particularly enjoyed his analytical review of their tactics from their League Two Championship winning year.

Don´t forget to follow him on Twitter

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