I seem to be suffering from a malaise at the moment. It’s a mixture of overwhelming pride and deep, deep frustration! The Morecambe Malaise, perhaps. The pride is easy to pinpoint – our performances against top League One sides – Ipswich, Plymouth and Bolton – have been competitive and spirited. We have only two points to show for those three games, yet there are encouraging signs to build on for our remaining ten games.
We defended well for 93 minutes until … well, you know. My frustration is not just borne of the last-minute goal but – and I hate to harp on about single incidents and how they can turn a game – that penalty! Well, non-penalty. Had that been given (and we’d scored) I’m confident we’d have taken all three points from The Reebok (or ‘The University of Bolton Stadium’ as it’s known these days). Banging on about poor referees is about as interesting as discussing the weather, but this particular missed penalty was beyond ridiculous.
That being said, Bolton more than deserved a draw over the course of the game. They had twenty-one attempts on goal to our four. In the first twenty minutes, Dion Charles missed a couple of decent chances and Bakayoko put a shot wide from a cross so we rode our luck a bit but played our way into the game and hung in. Second half, we were generally more composed and restricted Wanderers to long-range shots until the sucker punch at the end.
At the start of the season, newly promoted Cheltenham Town and Morecambe were predicted for the drop by most, but three wins in the last seven for Michael Duff’s men has created a comfortable twelve point buffer between them and us in the last relegation spot in 21st position.
This game has far more importance for The Shrimps, who have not won in the last nine games. We’ll be looking to break the draw, loss sequence which has continued since our last win against Wycombe at home on the 22nd of January. If that sequence were to continue, we’d be due a loss today. That being said, Bolton were six wins on the bounce at home in League One prior to our midweek visit. Records are there to be broken at some point!
To preview this game, I am delighted to be joined by analytics guru Dave Cohen and Norwegian-based Town fanatic Kevin André Madsen. I’ve been speaking to both throughout the season so it’s been interesting to hear how their opinions have evolved over the season.
So what are they expecting from the game?
“I’m expecting a somewhat cagey affair, similar to our games in League 2 last season. Cheltenham at the moment are enjoying relative safety sitting 13 points clear of relegation, so Morecambe certainly have more to play for. Either way, Michael Duff will be looking to bounce back from a midweek defeat at MK Dons, so a competitive, edgy affair will be at hand.”
“I expect a low margin game, probably a bit similar to the game played at the Mazuma last season. Cheltenham created quite a lot, not big chance, but half-chances, but Morecambe won it in the end.
I expect us to try and get in behind when we can, whilst posing a threat on the flanks with Blair and Williams, who have been decent recently.
An open contest, Morecambe are the more motivated regarding the situation they are in, in my opinion. We chase our best ever season, but at the same time survival looks done this season.”
It’s interesting Kevin mentions that he is expecting a somewhat open affair. Over the season, Cheltenham and Morecambe have the joint third-lowest challenge intensity according to Wyscout with 6.4 duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent’s possession.
You can interpret this as teams with low challenge intensity generally are sitting off the opposition. Whether this is strategic or down to ability the numbers don’t show. It’s also not necessarily a bad thing and it depends on whether this strategy leads to goals conceded or not is the crucial element.
You could argue that Derek has only been in charge three games, so it isn’t a metric we can put too much weight on with The Shrimps, but interestingly Derek’s Morecambe had the lowest challenge intensity in League Two last year with 6.4 duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent’s possession. Last season in league Two, Town were in joint fifth with 7.1 duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession. It didn’t do either team any harm when you consider both sides ended up winning promotion!
I’ll be honest, I’m still getting to grips with how Derek assesses this squad and how he wants to set up after three games. In his first game, he kept caretaker manager Barry Rocher’s lineup to start with initially, whilst at Plymouth, we were heavily disrupted by late injuries, so it’s not totally clear what Derek’s first-choice XI would be when everyone is fit. I suspect he’s working elements of that out himself still as he sees players day-to-day on the training pitch and how quickly they can adapt to his philosophy of playing and work-rate expected.
From Derek’s pre-match interview he mentioned that Aaron Wildig and Rhys Bennett were still being assessed, but he hoped to have them back for the game. I would imagine if they are fit, then they will be on the bench given that the recovery time between a Tuesday game and Saturday is limited and he will need to have been working with the players on the training pitch between the two games.
Two players who have emerged in the last two games as significant bright sparks are in the attacking third. One of them is attacking midfielder Adam Phillips who has shown touches of brilliance. Adam scored eight and assisted seven-under Derek in League Two last season, before being recalled by Burnley and being sent straight out to Accrington on the final day of the season. Some fans thought the Gaffa may have taken his departure personally, but I was never in doubt Derek would be entirely pragmatic and make Adam a key component of our attacking play.
On Tuesday against Bolton, he looked very motivated and was all over the pitch. This was illustrated by his eight interceptions compared to his season average of 4.87.
He also managed three out of four successful dribbles in the wide right area outside the Bolton box, whilst crucially showing quick instinct to set up Cole Stockton for our goal.
The other player who has stuck out and been our best player over the last two games is Dylan Connolly. The 26-year-old Irishman was signed on the last day of the January transfer window on an 18-month deal, yet had had only a small role to play under Stephen Robinson so far – averaging just 22 minutes over Robbo’s three last games in charge.
Against Plymouth away when the team sheet was announced at 2 pm, he was a somewhat surprising selection to many and also he was tasked with pairing Cole Stockton upfront. He ran himself into the ground on the day and was unlucky to not have got a goal and/or an assist. He has pace in abundance and has the raw ability to scare the life out of defences.
On Tuesday night at Bolton, he played with high energy again. What impressed me the most is how he carried the ball out from the back, yet was composed to not overplay the ball and picked out the right pass at the right time to keep the momentum.
It’s difficult to predict how Derek will set up from a formation standpoint, but with the personnel available I envisage that he may set up similar to how we did against Cheltenham last season at home. It was quite a surprise selection to go with the 4-3-1-2 diamond, but it worked well on the day for the first sixty-six minutes.
Having two upfront caused Cheltenham problems by running in the channels behind their wing backs. I predict Phillips will play the number 10 role (played by Carlos Mendes Gomes last season in this fixture), whilst Dylan Connolly will partner Cole (Liam McAliden carried out this role brilliantly and bagged a goal).
If this were to be the way we go, you could easily see the three players rotating in attack. For example, Cole loves to drop deep while Adam is at his best in wide right areas firing crosses into the back post. Dylan has shown so far that he’s happy running from deep or playing on the last shoulder.
“Duff rested Elliot Bonds from midfield during the week, who has been excellent since his return from Kidderminster Harriers where he was on loan. Ellis Chapman has returned from a lengthy lay off, and Charlie Colkett is growing into his deep playmaker role. The hard decisions for Duff are almost certainly in the midfield. Highly rated Aaron Ramsey on loan from Villa hasn’t quite lived up to expectations so far, which may lead to veteran Liam Sercombe returning to the starting XI.”
“The biggest choice is probably if he goes with the 3-4-2-1 system with Calum Wright and Aaron Ramsey in the pocket behind Alfie May, or just the flat 3-5-2 system with Etete and May up top. I think we are best when we play the standard 3-5-2. Other than that, there isn’t much to choose between them. Dan N´lundulu is still back at Southampton receiving treatment for his injury. But Etete has been as good as Dan was prior to his injury.”
“One of Cheltenham’s best strengths is being able to mix up the style of play, capable of playing long balls and roughing it up, as well as playing more expansive, on the floor football. Against Morecambe, I anticipate Cheltenham to have the majority of the ball, so I’m expecting some more expansive, patient play to come out of the side.
Alfie May is also in red hot form, one of the best strikers in the league currently. The ‘one big, one little’ strike partnership he forms with on-loan Spurs striker Kion Etete has proved very fruitful, with the Tottenham man contributing 2 goals and 3 assists in 8 appearances since his January arrival. May himself has contributed 17 goals and 3 assists in 36 appearances, with the majority of them away from home.
Wing backs Matty Blair and Ben Williams will provide plenty of energy down the flanks, and Morecambe will need to be on their toes in transition as Cheltenham offer plenty of pace on the counter.”
“Our biggest strength is that on our day we control the midfield really well. The movement of the midfielders is really good on our day which tires the defending team when chasing the ball for long periods. Alfie May is obvious, as he runs the channels chasing every ball and being a nightmare for the opponents at times. And this season he is being rewarded by scoring for fun. “
Picking up on the point Dave mentioned regarding possession, Cheltenham have had slightly more possession than Morecambe with 46.6% vs 44.7% respectively so far this season but I do agree with him. During his spells under Morecambe, Derek has shown little interest in holding onto the ball for the sake of it and is more interested in getting the ball in dangerous areas.
We had just 40% possession last season in League Two, yet had the highest expected goals with 77.5% and scored the joint second highest number of goals.
In his three games in charge this season, we’ve averaged just 30.08% possession (30.27% vs Ipswich, 36.93% vs Plymouth and 23.04% vs Bolton) according to Wyscout.
Both contributors mention the form of Alfie May this year which is no surprise given his seventeen league goals and three assists this year.
According to BBC Sport, he has a shot accuracy of 67% which ranks second only to Plymouth’s Ryan Hardie with 70% from the ‘Top 10 scorers’ (which due to joint 9th place being shared by five people, totals 13 players).
If you look at his shot map from Wyscout, it’s clear he’s lethal anywhere in the box.
This is no surprise to me; I’ve been a long-term admirer of Alfie May for his work rate. He chases ‘lost-causes’, which often means he takes advantage of mistakes in the opposition defence – for example weak back passes or misplaced passes by the keeper etc – and gives 100% every single game.
He is also level-pegging Cole Stockton in goals from carries in League One, with five each and he’s third in the division for total carries with forty-four according to The Analyst. He is a determined and tenacious player who, like Cole, is proving any doubters wrong at League One level.
“Although goalscoring hasn’t been much of an issue for Cheltenham this season, the defence has been rather suspect over the course of the year, uncharacteristic of the 20-21 title-winning team that was practically the opposite.
Star man Will Boyle hasn’t been the same since injury and interest from bigger clubs, and Charlie Raglan has recently returned from a lengthy injury himself. On loan Watford centre back, Mattie Pollock, has been the standout in defence, but overall lack of pace across the back 3 leaves Cheltenham vulnerable from direct, over the top counters. On its day, the midfield can also be rather shaky – on some days it can play teams off the park, such as home wins against Ipswich and Sunderland – but can equally be nonexistent, with teams seemingly bypassing them with ease.
The overall message is that Cheltenham are inconsistent in defence. With only two 0-0 draws in the league this season it has certainly been an entertaining, if slightly frustrating, ride.”
“Our biggest weakness is that we can get really one dimensional. Against Crewe, for example, we just hit long balls trying to find Etete and May. This happens often when we don’t put a good string of passes together. Fair play to Crewe, they adapted well to what we did on the day. I can see Morecambe doing the same if we perform the same here.”
Dave mentions that the rotation in defence has made them somewhat shaky at the back and this arguably shows from their set-piece against figures.
In League Two last year, they conceded the least goals from set-pieces with just six compared to expected goals of 12.1. Essentially, they outperformed the quality of chances they were conceding and you would have expected them to concede more.
The reverse has happened this season, with sixteen goals conceded from just 8.6 expected goals against and with the joint third-highest goals conceded from set-pieces. Morecambe sit in second with 17 goals conceded from set-pieces, so it will be an area Derek will have worked on at the training ground to try and get some quick improvements.
Opportunities against Town
“Based on my previous comments, Morecambe would do well to target Cheltenham on the counter, when the wing-backs are up high, leaving the slow defence exposed. Players such as Dylan Connolly, Jonah Ayunga and Jonathan Obika would be a real threat for sure. Set pieces would be another area to target, with rock bottom Crewe managing to escape Whaddon Road with a 2-1 win after proving seriously threatening – and scoring, from multiple set piece scenarios.”
“There are two options against us right now. Defensively our midfield isn’t the best, Sercombe is slow at times. Depending on who we have here it’s more ball players than ball winners, so through the midfield, problems can be caused for us.
Also, our left wing back, Ben Williams, can be a bit of a hot head, jumping into tackles and giving away free kicks. Recently, he became the first CTFC player for many years to be sent off (sorry cant remember correctly our last one). So if a quick, tricky winger gets past him he could lose it and probably cause a lot of set piece situations in key areas.”
If the previous two games are a good barometer, the two players who will be crucial for us unlocking Town are the two players I focused on in the build up – Adam Phillips and Dylan Connolly.
Adam Phillips and Dylan Connolly are averaging the highest for key passes per 90 minutes with 0.73 and 0.7 respectively according to Wyscout. Granted, we’re only talking 2 key passes over three games for Dylan so we must hope he continues in the same vein as our recent games.
According to The Analyst – Adam is averaging an assist every 0.31 games which ranks him fifth highest in League One.
These players should be busy around leading scorer Cole Stockton. There’s absolutely no doubt Cole will be a threat and it’s encouraging he was back in the goals to score his nineteenth of the season following a spell of five league games without a goal.
In terms of set pieces, our threats against will most likely come from one of the centre backs Anthony O’Connor and Jacob Bedau or from left-back Greg Leigh.
Threats from Town
“Alfie May will be the main threat. He’s tricky on the ball, has pace, an excellent first touch and overall confidence at the moment will mean he will be a tricky handful. He is a high volume shot taker who will shoot at any given time, so Morecambe will need to be switched on when defending against him.
The height and size of Pollock and Boyle will be threatening from set-pieces, and the likes of Callum Wright from midfield aren’t afraid of a long shot. But Alfie May and Kion Etete up front are Cheltenham’s top assets at the moment and will be the two most dangerous players on Town’s side.”
“If we can play high up the pitch with the ball in midfield, we could cause problems through there and find spaces for Wright and Ramsey to go forward and find our strikers. “
Considering how vulnerable we have been from set-pieces this season (17 conceded) and we may be without the height of centre-back Rhys Bennett, then as Dave says, this may be an area of danger for Cheltenham.
We’ve already mentioned in detail the relentless threat Alfie May causes from putting pressure on his opposition’s back-line, so we won’t cover him further.
In the away game this season, attacking midfielder Dan Crowley caused us all sorts of issues in the number 10 role behind the forwards. Fortunately, the loanee is no longer with The Robins but there are other threats.
With Liam Sercombe and Leicester loanee Callum Wright likely to be involved in the Town midfield, the law of averages suggests either one of these will create a big chance for their team mates. Sercombe averages a key pass every 0.55 games whilst Wright averages a key pass every 0.47 games so it’s fair to say they’ll likely be involved in key moments in the attacking third. Spurs loanee forward Etete has higher with 0.71 over his eight games so he will be an obvious threat, too.
LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE!
There’s no doubt who the pressure is on more to get a result. The Robins are twelve points clear of the dropzone, whilst The Shrimps are one point from safety behind Wimbledon and Fleetwood.
I have remained optimistic about our survival chances. Despite not picking up the crucial wins, our performances have been spirited and we’ve remained competitive in all our recent fixtures. That being said, with just ten games to go, we need to pick up wins as we can’t rely on those above us to keep dropping points.
Michael Duff, who I rate as one of the best young tacticians in the EFL, certainly won’t make it easy. I envisage an element of ‘cat and mouse’ with both managers being known to pull the occasional tactical surprise. This is my first game back at The Mazuma Stadium after being overseas and I’m both nervous and excited to see how this battle plays out. Three points would be wonderful, please.
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