Match Overview

For another week, we write this preview with an element of doubt whether this crucial relegation scrap goes ahead. At the time of writing, this is one of only fixtures that remain from ten in League One due to the highly contagious OMICRON strain of COVID-19 decimating squads up and down the country! 

Alexandra boss Dave Artell takes his side on the road to his former club having not played a game since the 2-nil home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday back on December 11th. Their last away trip was over a month ago at Ipswich on the 28th November. 

Having lost the last five away and not having won away from The Mornflake Stadium all season, it would be completely understandable for Crewe fans to be a tad despondent coming into this fixture. 

I’m extremely grateful to have Tim Robinson and Stuart Price from The Railway Men Podcast to bring their expertise to this preview. Whilst performances have been below par, their contributions have been top class! 

What are they expecting?

Tim,

“It’s difficult to know. I thought we were better than the scoreline suggested in the 1-3 defeat at Gresty Road but you took advantage of our weak spots expertly. We haven’t played since a 0-2 reverse at Gresty Road against Sheffield Wednesday on 11th December, after COVID outbreaks in the Gillingham and Wigan camps meant our games with those two sides were postponed. 

Prior to the game with Wednesday there were some green shoots of recovery in the nuclear wasteland of our season. It’s difficult to know whether the enforced break will have helped the squad develop, or wiped out the admittedly small amount of momentum we’d built up. 

As for Morecambe, I think we could be playing you at a good time, and if we weren’t so poor it could be a chance for us to get our first away win of the season. I know you’ve had a terrible time recently after a cracking start to the season, but we just do not have the quality of Sunderland, or Ipswich, or Portsmouth. We’re probably more on the level of Buxton, so that’s the sort of game you should be looking forward to on Wednesday. 

Quality-wise, it’s hard to argue that we are anything other than a mid-table League 2 side. I think you are probably a bottom half to mid-table League One side, but is your confidence on the low side? 

I still expect Stockton to shoot from everywhere, and it wouldn’t surprise me, given that our goalkeepers are definitely not as good as most in League One, if he smashed one in. What we’d give for a confident and capable striker like Goal Stockton at Gresty Road right now! 

I don’t see it being a thriller. Storm Corrie is due to hit us anytime now (rather apt name for a match between two North West teams) and neither side have been prolific in front of goal in recent weeks. It could be 1-0 either way. 

We haven’t won away all season, but as Echo and The Bunnymen sang “Nothing Lasts Forever”. I’m not sure whether McCulloch and Sergeant had this fixture in mind when they wrote that song but Crewe must win away somewhere at some stage. Maybe it will be here, 0-1 with a Chris Porter penalty from a bad decision, or a 2-yard tap in from a keeping error. 

Or maybe the amount of Advocaat and Amarone in my bloodstream is simply getting the better of me?”

Stuart,

“I’m hoping that we give Morecambe a bit more of a game than we gave them during the home game in September. There was a feeling before the game that Crewe had maybe found some sort of rhythm and a team that worked, having finally got their first league win of the season, against Burton, the game before Morecambe came to South Cheshire. That feeling lasted 8 minutes when Morecambe went ahead. I think there was a feeling that it was back to square one when Gnahoua made it two in the 27th minute. 

I think there is a possibility that Crewe have now improved, however, not massively, whilst I would still not say they are going to go and win 4-0, there is hopefully a chance that they will at least make the game competitive.

Lastly, I think, after hearing how Cole Stockton has taken to life in League One, Crewe did well to control him, and I will be looking out to see how he does in this game. The January transfer window is only a few days from opening.”

Shrimps’ Selections

The first huge obvious caveat with any of these selections is the fact that there may be players missing due to COVID-19 precautions which are not known and are impossible to predict. 

Robbo didn’t mention any positive cases in his press match interview, but it also wasn’t mentioned that we don’t have any. 

Assuming we have all the same playing squad we had against Fleetwood in our last outing, I don’t foresee there being any changes but wouldn’t be shocked if there is the odd change. The performance was generally better against Fleetwood, and we saw some improvement from the Portsmouth display with a 3-4-1-2 line-up. Whilst we have used three at the back on occasions this season, we have predominantly set up with four.

However, centre forward Jonathan Obika’s availability, after his horrendous hamstring injury which kept him out for five months, now means we have a natural partner for Cole Stockton. 

He will take time to get up to speed, but there were positive signs against both Portsmouth and Fleetwood. For example, against the Cod Army he received a pass just inside the opposition half and drove forward with the ball (the fog made viewing a little awkward as you can see!). 

Jon quickly progressed the ball and played a weighted pass behind the Fleetwood defence for Cole Stockton to run behind onto. 

The idea was right, but the execution was a tiny bit off and was a little too heavy for Cole Stockton.

I’m sure with more minutes he’ll be both sharper with the final ball and get some more shots off of his own. 

Our back three – which consisted of two fullbacks (Liam Gibson in LCB and Ryan McLaughlin at RCB) – were a solid unit and restricted Fleetwood to very few opportunities. 

Both Ryan Cooney and Liam Gibson were crucial players in our League Two promotion-winning side, but have been somewhat restricted in minutes this season due to the signings of Greg Leigh at left-back and Ryan McLaughlin at right back. Liam has played 42.7% of available minutes and 55.5% of possible League One minutes. 

Gibson and Cooney have been involved in the second most defensive duels per 90 minutes according to Wyscout, with 10.5 and 10.23 respectively. 

Whilst there were no stand-out performances from the midfield three – Alfie McCalmont, Shane McLoughlin and Adam Phillips – I don’t see a major reason to change any of them. 

That being said, any one of Callum Jones, Toumani Diagouraga or Aaron Wildig could come and slot in without any major changes to the calibre of player on the pitch. 

Crewe’s Selections

Tim,

“The main one would be whether to incorporate some of the higher profile but hitherto disappointing signings, or to stick with the team we’ve seen in our last few games, comprised primarily of relatively inexperienced youth team players. 

The youth team guys have, to a certain extent, succeeded where their more illustrious colleagues have failed, in that they’ve finally started to string together one or two decent results. Admittedly, a couple of the wins came against weakened opposition, as Gillingham and Lincoln were both down to the bare bones, but compared to what had gone before these wins seemed glorious.

The 3-5-2 we have finally settled on is far from ideal, but being brutally honest, it seems less awful than every other system we have tried. Moreover, the academy graduates we’ve drafted in seem to both care and have met each other before kick off. There were too many games in the early part of the season when neither of those fundamentals really seemed to apply.

It will probably be Richards in goal. It could be Jaaskelainen, if truth be told neither keeper is good enough. Jaaskelainen is probably the better shot stopper and ball player, but Richards is the man in possession.

If you’d told me in August we’d be playing a back three of Offord, Williams and Sass-Davies, I’d have laughed you all the way to Burslem. Tommie Hoban (our free transfer signing from Aberdeen in the summer) retired from football weeks after arriving and both Terrell Thomas (free from Wimbledon) and Donervan Daniels have been woeful. If those two’s travails have proved anything, it’s that alliterative names should not be the first thing you look for in a League One centre half.

So Offord, Sass-Davies and Williams are in. Luke Offord is pretty small for a centre half, but the right of a three seems to suit him well. Blonde giant Billy Sass-Davies (21), and his fellow Welsh youth international Zac Williams (17) have come in more recently, and despite the latter two’s inexperience, the three of them together have done ok. It’s all relative, but they definitely deserve to keep their places.

Youth team left wing back Rio Adebisi has been one of the very few positives this season. His defensive game is easily good enough for this level, but he still needs much development with his offensive game and due to the players lost over the last year or so he’s been asked to carry far more responsibility than he should at this stage of his development. 

Right wing back has been a much more problematic position though. We started with Kayne Ramsay, a loanee from Southampton. He did well, but has been out injured for several weeks following a calf injury. Since then a number of different shaped pegs have been tried in that round hole with limited success, including striker Scott Kashket, winger Callum Ainley, midfielder Josh Lundstram and academy graduate Travis Johnson. At least Johnson was a right back, but he’s a little behind the level of his counterpart on the left Adebisi. If Ramsay is back to full health (he came off the bench against Wednesday) he should be nailed on for the right midfield role. 

We have an abundance of central midfielders at the club, but none of them have really impressed this season. Luke Murphy is a club legend, having scored the opener at Wembley in a 2-0 Football League Trophy win against Southend in 2013, and a big part of the team that won the League 2 play off final the previous season (a midfield of Nick Powell, Ashley Westwood and Luke Murphy was a League 2 cheat code) before a £1m move to Leeds United. He is among our most combative midfielders, and our club captain, but his form has been up and down and at the moment he is out of favour. Madger Gomes has failed to impress since joining at the end of the August window after a mixed spell at Doncaster last season. 

Callum Ainley has the best part of 200 Crewe appearances under his belt but no-one is sure whether he’s a midfielder, forward or winger and even before the bad muscle injury he sustained in September his form was well off the standard needed to hold down a spot. He is not just drinking in last chance saloon, he is at the end of his available credit, and sipping his last drink.

The midfielders in possession of the jerseys as of our last match are Oli Finney – a midfielder who offers nothing except goals, and so far this season he hasn’t offered many of those. He suffered a serious leg break against Shrewsbury last season and has at times seemed like he is still searching for form and fitness. At his best he’s a game changer, but that elusive ability to appear unmarked in the box and tuck away a chance can also mean the game bypasses him somewhat. Scott Robertson – A committed loanee from Celtic who was superb in his first few games but his form has tailed off to an extent. He’s had a spell out of the team with suspension and injury so hopefully he can come back to his best. Tommy Lowery – a brilliant, diminutive ball playing midfielder. Lowery is by far the best player in this current Crewe team but he has played his part in the club’s difficulties. His ongoing contract wrangles saw him sidelined from the first team for the first half of the season and although our ongoing woes eventually meant Dave Artell had to backtrack and play him even without a resolution, Lowery’s inevitable departure, either in January for a cut-price fee, or on a free in the summer, is an ongoing dark cloud hovering over the club. Despite the downside his presence causes because of the existential questions he poses about the academy model, the hole we are in means he has to play.

The bizarre loss of form of Mika Mandron, consistently superb last season, has been another inexplicable contributing factor to our struggles this season. He’s still our top scorer with five goals but the fact that 37-year old Chris Porter has often started ahead of him says all you need to know about where his game is. Mandron’s off-field discipline seems to have let him down as well, and it seems perfectly possible that he won’t feature much in the second half of the season. 

Chris Long has been decent, but often injured. When available, he adds energy and mobility to Porter’s knowledge and positioning, and they have started to form a decent partnership. It’s likely Artell will look to reconnect them on Wednesday if they’re both available, after both missed out against Wednesday. Porter doesn’t offer a huge amount in the build up these days but does his best work in the 6-yard box. If Kyle Letheren does drop or parry one, you can expect the old man to be waiting. “

Stuart,

“Finding 11 players that can be competitive in League One would be a good start. 

The reality is that Crewe haven’t been able to name the same XI in consecutive games this season, with Covid, injuries, form and off field reasons all playing their part. I think this shows part of the answer to why it has been a season of such struggles, so far. 

So what selection decisions does he have to make? I would imagine the same as he has made all season, finding 11 players who he believes will get a result. This doesn’t sound like rocket science, but going off from what’s already happened this season, it has proved quite difficult. “

Crewe’s Strengths

Tim,

“The only real strength we have is our academy, which consistently churns out players in numbers year after year. Even though we’ve lost prominent academy graduates such as Kirk, Ng, Pickering, Dale and Wintle in recent months, we are still fielding 7 or 8 players who started their career at Crewe. However, there are clouds on the horizon. The conduct of Owen Dale and Tommy Lowery calls the whole system into question. 

When players who are made in Crewe, and who would probably never have made it as professional footballers elsewhere, throw their toys out of the pram and demand a move as soon as they have played 20 first team matches, it makes the whole academy philosophy highly questionable. If Crewe can’t command fees for the players they produce the system is unsustainable. The academy kids in the current team with the highest ceilings are Rio Adebisi, who could be anything, and Zac Williams. 

The other thing to mention is our fans. For a relatively small club, especially one having an abysmal season, we have travelled in superb numbers, given we haven’t seen a win yet away from the Porridge Bowl. I’d expect us to take 400-500 on Wednesday. “

Stuart,

The same thing Crewe fans have been saying for years, the academy. 

There are lots of different players in this team, who didn’t play against Morecambe the first time round. The reason being is they are the next players that are coming through the academy, and breaking into the first team. 

The back line are all academy players. The three centre halves that I expect to line up are 21, 21,17. This obviously has its flaws, but the constant ability of Crewe to turn young lads into professional footballers is something that I along with the vast majority of Crewe fans take immense pride in. Adebisi is another young left back who came in to replace Harry Pickering, who left in the summer for Blackburn. He, again, is still learning, but this is what happens at Crewe (if everything works out), they come into the first team raw, and then when they are ready they move on. 

Another player you won’t have seen in the first game is Regan Griffiths, another young player just starting to make his mark in the Crewe midfield.

Considering Crewe have the 3rd lowest goals scored with nineteen goals, they have a slightly higher number of key passes across this League One than expected with 59. This represents the 8th lowest and compares to the league average of 68, but is considerably higher than Gillingham’s 33 who have the lowest.

That being said, it could be argued that whilst the Key Pass figure is higher than expected the quality of the chances created is low. Their expected goals is the third-lowest in the division with 22.90, one place better than The Shrimps’ expected goals of 20.39 according to Wyscout. 

Crewe’s Weaknesses

Tim,

“Where to start…? This could take some time. Once we go behind it’s virtually curtains. We have the worst xG ratio in the division, we have the worst xG from open play, we haven’t won away all season.

The average age of our back three is 19 and a half. Our best striker is 37. We’re vulnerable to crosses. As you saw at Gresty Road, we are vulnerable to overlapping wide men, and fullbacks who come forward. Greg Leigh had great joy down the left and Arthur Gnahoua thrived in the channels between our centre-halves and full-backs. Our goalkeepers both fail to command their six-yard box. “

Stuart,

Whilst the academy is undoubtedly an integral part of the ‘Crewe Way’ it does mean that we have these periods which have become known as the bottom of the cycle.

This term represents the period when Crewe have lost the last crop of academy players and before the time that the next group have really hit their stride. This is where Crewe currently find themselves, having lost 5 key players from the side that we’re able to finish comfortably mid-table last season.

To elaborate on the point Tim makes about the inability to come back from a deficit, Crewe have an equaliser rate of 23.5% according to soccerstats.com. This means that when they go behind, they equalise less than a quarter of the time which is the second-worst (behind Doncaster’s 17.6%) in League One. The Shrimps have an equaliser rate of 40%.

The lack of quality chances created in open play is an issue for both sides. The Shrimps have the 3rd lowest expected goals (13.6) and Alexandra with the 4th lowest expected goals (13.8) according to The Analyst. 

However, the Shrimps have scored 5 more goals, thanks largely to Cole Stockton outscoring his expected goals. 

As Tim mentioned, Crewe have the highest expected goals against in Open Play, whereas The Shrimps have the 13th highest.

Crewe, alongside Lincoln,  have the joint highest expected goals against from set-pieces with 12.8, however, they have only conceded 8 goals compared to The Shrimps’ 12. 

Opportunities against Crewe

Tim,

If I was playing against Crewe, I’d overload the wide areas. We struggle so badly when fullbacks get forward and we never know whether the midfielders are supposed to come across or the wide centre-halves are supposed to come out to the threat.

I’d also put in loads of crosses in and around the six-yard box. Our back three are ok, but they have 50, 10 and 3 first-team appearances. Moreover, both our goalkeepers are timid and small. We have conceded goal after goal from headers inside the six-yard box that a strong and confident keeper would have eliminated at source.

Based on games this season, if you score first against Crewe you’re guaranteed not to lose, and there’s a very small chance that you’ll draw, so catch us cold, open the scoring and you’re (almost) home and hosed.

Stuart,

“The pitch. 

In seriousness, there are a few weaknesses in this Crewe team that can be exploited. They are giving away so many cheap and silly goals, particularly from set-pieces. Sometimes even our own, as Morecambe fans may remember, setting up to defend a free-kick just outside Morecambe’s box, led inexplicably to a 4 on 1 in Crewe’s area. “

In addition to what Tim and Stuart have mentioned, there is the opportunity to play a little bit direct. The back three have a tendency to get caught on the wrong side of play from balls in behind. Here are a few examples from their last two games. 

Against Lincoln, Scottish midfielder Chris Maguire picks up the ball in midfield. He’s able to thread a pass through without any pressure from the Crewe midfield. 

This pass cuts right through the Alexandra midfield and behind their defence to be met by Hakeeb Adelakun. His one-on-one with the keeper is saved. 

Against Sheffield Wednesday, Liam Palmer cleared from deep in defence. 

The clearance bounced behind Crewe defender Billy Sass-Davies for Wednesday striker Callum Patterson to chase.

Patterson manages to get in behind Sass Davies and get a volley on target at Dave Richard’s goal.

In the same game, Wednesday playmaker Barry Bannan has a free kick on the halfway line.

Bannan’s chip bounces behind Sass-Davies into the path of attacking midfielder Josh Windass. 

Windass manages to strike a half-volley just wide of goal.

I have often said during this seasons’ previews that Adam Phillips is our man to thread the balls in behind for Cole Stockton to run onto. However, it’s not just him that should attempt these balls as a variety of angled balls seem to cause the back three issues – as these examples prove. 

The clearest chance in our last game came against a Fleetwood highline in which Aaron Wildig chipped the ball forward from our own half. 

The ball over the top found Cole Stockton through on goal with just the keeper to beat (he’s the faint silhouette a metre behind the yellow ball!).

Threats from Crewe

Tim,

“We don’t have any genuine threats. Chris Long is quick and mobile and can take a goal, especially on his left. Chris Porter is deadly from the penalty spot or six yard box, but we really don’t have anyone creative enough to make chances for him, and with Adebisi and Ramsay (two full backs) out wide, we lack any sort of threat from the flanks.

Tommy Lowery will cause problems with his movement and close control from his roaming playmaker role but the biggest threat to Morecambe comes from a bad refereeing call, or maybe a COVID outbreak that takes out most of your first team on the eve of the match.”

Stuart,

Hopefully with some nice link up play, unfortunately the only really creative, effective player we have in this current squad is Tommy Lowery. I say unfortunately as he won’t be here by the end of the season, possibly not even the end of January. If that all fails plan B is now lump it forward to the big man to run on to. Unfortunately this doesn’t work either, as Chris Porter is now 38, and is not blessed with any pace.

Tom Lowery has the 7th highest expected assists per 90 in League One with 0.21 according to The Analyst. When you review the names on the list either side of him from the other teams in the division, you realise he is in good company – McGeady, Ogbene, Harness, Wessi etc…!

He also has Alexandra’s highest Key Passes per 90 minutes from current squad members with 0.48 according to Wyscout. J’Neil Bennett produced an impressive 1 per game but has returned to Spurs from his loan following an ankle injury. As a reminder, a Key Pass is defined as a pass that leads to a goalscoring opportunity. 

Reviewing these key passes, the one thing that is most apparent is Lowery’s ability to deliver a quality ball. The best example is against MK Dons in which he overlaps J’Neil Bennett. 

Lowery delivers a lofted cross right from the byline. 

The delivery is perfect and meets the head of Rio Adebisi, whose attempt hits the post. 

He’s certainly a player we shouldn’t allow too much room in and around the box to deliver passes or crosses to his teammates. 

LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE!

We’re not quite certain what team will be put out by either manager due to rapidly-changing personnel impacted by COVID. For that reason, the managers themselves may be delivered a curveball or two at the very last minute. 

What is certain is both teams will be desperate for a win to end the year on a positive note and both Robbo and Dave ‘The Moose’ Artell will see their opponents as an opportunity for maximum points. 

Neither team create a lot of clear cut chances and both sides have been prone to mistakes at the back throughout the season. Therefore, staying solid at the back and taking the key chances which fall will dictate who grabs the vital result.

Thank you, Tim Robinson and Stuart Price from The RailwayMen Podcast for their brilliant contributions to this preview! I just hope after our game your team can repay your hard work on the pitch!

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a happy and safe New Year for you and your loved ones. ShrimpsOnline has been the perfect distraction through a challenging 2021. I would like to say how much I appreciate the friendships and contacts I’ve made off the back of starting it. The ongoing feedback received really does make a positive impact and encourages us to keep improving.

Critical to the previews are the contributions from oppositions fans. The quality and insights illustrate the incredible passion and knowledge amongst the fans in the EFL!

Huge thanks must go to Chris Lappin (lifelong Hammer and honourary Shrimp) who proofreads every single preview. You have helped me to the point where I just wouldn’t have delivered the previews to the standard I want without your input.

Wishing you well for 2022!

Tom Collins – ShrimpsOnline

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