Oh look! We’re back to second (or joint top, depending on how you think tables work) after a week in the doldrums of third. One step closer to our rightful place then. Everything just came together for this one. Let’s take a deeper look…
The Main Talking Points
That Elusive Away Win
A first in seven and just our second since January (and back-to-back victories within a season for the first time since then too). It feels good. That it was such a comfortable one as well should serve as a huge psychological boost – let’s make this the start of something. We hadn’t won by three goals on the road for almost five years, and not at all since the reverse of this fixture last October. Now to win two in a row on our travels for the first time since returning to League One. It’s Ipswich up next or, if the international break messes things up as it probably will, Blackpool. Easy, right?
Actually, maybe this shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise; we have a solid recent record against Lancashire and Greater Manchester opposition. So if our next away destination is Bloomfield Road, what’ve we got to worry about (other than the fact they’re only three points behind us)? After that, it’s a tough trip to Rotherham – although they’ve had a mediocre start by their standards and find themselves languishing in mid-table. The last time Wycombe won three on the spin away from home? January 2018 – a streak which included that famous 3-2 at Kenilworth Road. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Another Tactical Masterclass
Ok, so my imploring Gareth to just go with the tried and tested 4-3-3 away from home looks like a load of bollocks now. Oh well. Rochdale were probably weaker on the day than Lincoln a few weeks back, but our tactics were on a par with those employed in that triumph – which I will keep bringing up because it was bloody brilliant. With Dale being such a heavily possession-based side, we were always going to draw on our previous success combatting a similar style: let them play it around at the back, put the squeeze on as they advance (something we did pretty much perfectly – especially in our own final third, having given Pompey too much time and room on the ball the previous weekend), and counter them with our multitudinous drive and pace.
We went through three formations in this one: 3-5-2 for about the first 15 minutes, presumably either on the assumption that Rochdale were going to pack the midfield or with their flying full-backs in mind; 4-3-3 from then until just after the hour mark – Dale looked ordinary enough for us to revert to type – with Giles Phillips moving to left-back and bossing a position he’s never played before, not professionally anyway; and finally, with the determined but sore Alex Pattison making way and David Wheeler dropping into midfield, 4-4-2 with Scott Kashket playing off Bayo and later the impressive Josh Parker. Our chameleonic transformation was a joy to behold. There was even a hint of overlapping centre-backs in operation early on.
Fred Onyedinma – who was back to his usual self on the left, keeping the right-back occupied and popping up in the right place at the right time for his third and fourth goals of the campaign – and David Wheeler – who had a quieter but no less solid afternoon – both played three positions each: the former left wing-back, left wing and left midfield, the latter up front, right wing and right midfield. Phillips, Kashket and Jack Grimmer each played two. The depth and versatility in our ranks just open up so many possibilities. Our standard system got us through the bulk of the game and yielded two goals, but this was perhaps the most adaptive we’ve been so far this season – and the most successfully adaptive. Rochdale ‘enjoyed’ 70% of the ball – they still only managed ten shots to our six and didn’t create a clear-cut opportunity until the 89th minute – but we really enjoyed our 30%. Like Tony Pulis’ Stoke – or Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace – we are one of those exceptional cases where possession doesn’t actually matter. After all, you can’t argue with three goals from three shots on target.
Curtis Thompson Is Still Our Best Player
I would say this should be obvious – but the fans somehow didn’t vote him as our 2018/19 Player of the Season. Thompson is the standout in this squad and has been for a good year. Ordinarily, you’d ease in someone who’s missed the opening couple of months of the campaign and didn’t have a pre-season, but we were short in midfield – Matt Bloomfield and Nick Freeman missed out through injury, while Nnamdi Ofoborh began his three-match ban – so it was either a case of throw Thompson straight back in or throw Jacob Gardiner-Smith in at the deep end. Of course, the gaffer did the former, and he got a man of the match performance out of his star man.
It was like he’d never been away. “He’s been Rolls-Royce,” said Matt Cecil on commentary. He’s not wrong (although if anyone warrants ‘Rolls-Royce’ praise, it’s surely Parker). He was more like the Batmobile: clever, composed and combative. The latter two are qualities we’ve particularly been lacking in the middle of the park in recent weeks – and when Thompson is in the side, he brings it out more in those alongside him. Despite being the deepest lying midfielder, he was here, there and everyf*****gwhere. The whole unit looked in complete control thanks to the return of its influential linchpin who, even at the age of 26, might not have peaked.
Parker in the Driving Seat
Parker’s last outing took him over a bridge, underneath which lurked a troll or two. This time, the trolls were nowhere to be seen. The 28-year-old is yet to start a league game since returning to Wycombe, but with this brief but action-packed cameo, he might well have given himself a chance of doing so soon. He serves as a great pivot and target man – a back-up Beast, if you like – and was heavily involved, almost exposing the tiring and disorganised Dale defence with his rather deceptive speed and acceleration. Seeing his curling effort cannon back off the bar must have been frustrating – and he doesn’t even get the assist for Fred’s subsequent tap-in as the ball smacked Dale’s Calvin Andrew on the face – but he’s more or less up and running now. Bayo has put some big shifts in lately and Gaz shouldn’t have any qualms about handing his ‘deputy’ a full league debut
Stewart and Charles: Name a More Iconic Duo
No, not those two posh recent retirees from your squash club, but the cervical spine of this team (the top bit). Apart from the Southend game – when Charles looked to be struggling with fatigue – and the forgettable trip to Gillingham – when no one really played well – they have been Chris Eubank’s favourite word: stupendous. A proper right-foot, left-foot partnership. A beautifully balanced melange of intrepidness and simplicity. The new Mawson and Pierre? In general, we look so organised at the back these days – see the average position maps below – and there was no getting past these two at Spotland. Charles didn’t make a single tackle. Neither did Dale’s centre-halves, but that was more likely due to their defensive disarray. Charles didn’t because he didn’t have to; his positioning was consistently spot on. Stewart only had to attempt two, winning both. Tools was only beaten in one of his five ground duels contested; Charles didn’t contest any.
Patrolling the Skies
We had four players finish with a 100% aerial success rate: Akinfenwa (won 5/5 aerial duels), Grimmer (4/4), Pattison (3/3), Thompson (2/2) and Ryan Allsop (1/1 – it counts, ok?). David Wheeler also won 6/8. As a team, we won 25/36. Apart from bean pole forward Andrew (72% success rate – 8/11), Rochdale couldn’t hold a candle (high enough) to us. We fought and dominated that battle all over the pitch, as we often do for fairly obvious reasons.