As it stands: Tranmere 15-4–4–7 (18th, 16 pts, GD -8) | Wycombe 16-9–6–1 (2nd, 33 pts, GD 11)
Form: Tranmere LWDLW | Wycombe DWDWW
Last time out: MK Dons 1-3 Tranmere (League One) | Wycombe 1-0 Shrewsbury
Head-to-head: P12 | Wycombe W4 | Tranmere W7 | D1
Previous meeting: Tranmere 1-2 Wycombe (03/03/15, League Two)
Setting the Scene
Here we go again, back up to the Wirral – and this time it’s on the telly! And this time, there’s even more at stake: a return to the League One summit. Ipswich have the weekend off again due to international call-ups, so a point would see us reclaim top spot. That said, with Coventry the only other top seven side in action, a win could put us eight points clear of third having played the same number of games as Peterborough. We’ll have to improve on our last league performance, but that is a huge carrot.
While we continue our unexpected promotion challenge, Tranmere have been faring as predicted really. Back in League One following back-to-back promotions but after six years away, Micky Mellon’s side are still re-adjusting to the demands of this level. They’ve enjoyed some decent wins – most notably in another televised game at Coventry – but are yet to string two together. They matched us last weekend, but that was in the ‘anything goes’ football anarchy of the FA Cup’s early rounds. Doubtless they’ll come at us hard again, but this will be a different affair.
Last season: 6th in League Two (promoted via play-offs)
Manager: Micky Mellon (appointed October 2016)
Top scorer: Stefan Payne (ST) – 4
Most assists: Manny Monthe (CB), Kieron Morris (RW) – 4
Style of play: Direct, pack the midfield, shoot often, aggressive (third worst discplinary record in League One)
A Deeper Look
We’ve seen several distinct tactical approaches on our travels this season, and while the Cup tie was exactly what it said on the tin, you’d expect there to be a more robust gameplan for the league encounter. Besides, Gareth and Dobbo will now have a first-hand impression of what our opponents are all about. Set-pieces are a weakness of theirs – they’ve conceded a league-high ten goals from them (one more than we’ve scored from such situations) – and as was apparent with Alex Samuel’s goal and similar ones against them this season, there will likely be scraps even if Adebayo Akinfenwa isn’t there to provide them (if he does feature, the almost as beastly Manny Monthe will be up to the challenge, that’s for sure). Tranmere commit 14.7 fouls per game – the second most in League One – so we should have opportunities.
Rovers are quite badly lacking at both ends of the pitch. Take out their 5-0 win over Bolton’s kids and, as was to expected after talisman James Norwood’s move to Ipswich, they’ve struggled, managing just 15 goals in 14 games and failing to score in five. Still, their high shot volume (13.1/game and 4.5 on target/game) is arguably helping them outperform their total expected goals of 16.05 and keeps defenders and goalkeepers on their toes. Their set-piece xG of 5.7 is almost bang in keeping with the actual figure of six, and if we have one slight weakness defensively, it’s defending corners and free-kicks. We concede almost as many of the latter as they do, to be fair, committing 13.6 fouls per game. The league average, for what it’s worth, is around 12.
At the back, Tranmere’s 28 goals conceded sees them rank better only than bottom two Bolton and Southend. As mentioned, they’re statistically the worst in the league when it comes to defending set-pieces, but they’re also conceding slightly more than they ought to be from open play: 18 with an xGAo of 14.25. We will have our fair share of chances – we had 15 shots last Saturday – and it would nice to bag a couple of goals from open play following another dead ball brace. We know we don’t trouble the scoreboard operators an awful lot on the road – just six times this season, among the fewest in League One – but Rovers’ only home clean sheet so far came against…oh yeah, that Bolton side. They have looked very open at times and seem somewhat hesitant against solid midfield ball carriers. This one could call for Nick Freeman, who wasn’t involved in the Cup game.
*expected goals against from open play
The above along with Tranmere’s miserable overall first half performance – they’d be rock bottom if games finished at half-time – should give us extra confidence (not that we need it) to fly out of the traps and take control early. I’m not saying it’s that simple, but there’s no obvious need to set up as cautiously as we did at, say, Rotherham a couple of weeks ago. In addition to set-pieces, they’ve looked fairly vulnerable to counter-attacks, so a pacey, mobile front three could cause work in our favour. If Paul Smyth is fit enough to make his first start since August – and he certainly looked sharp in midweek – we might be treated to the mouthwatering trio of Smyth-Samuel-Aarons.
That’s all assuming it is a 4-3-3, of course. With Rovers liking to pack the midfield and play with width, a 4-4-2 to mirror that isn’t out of the question. You know what, though, I’m not even going to go there; I’ll only get shown up when Gaz whips out the irregular quadrilateral. At the back, however, we’ll hope to have Jack Grimmer back from injury – although that’s by no means certain and Sido Jombati could deptuise once again. We were undone worryingly easily down our right for the second goal on Saturday, which – without drawing too definite a conclusion from it – suggests that the Scotsman’s absence does have an effect on our organisation. In any case, we’ll need to defend better than we did then – but we know we can; we don’t boast the joint best away defensive record in England for no reason.
None of this is to say that Tranmere won’t pose a proper challenge, though. If that were the case, they wouldn’t have taken points off Rotherham, Peterborough, Coventry and Burton. The fact that their average goal time is the 67th minute – by far the latest in the league – arguably points to at least a desire to proceed with caution early on and mount a late surge. Two stoppage time equalisers and a winner included, they’ve scored seven goals in the 76th minute or later – something equalled by us and bettered by only Doncaster and Fleetwood – and a staggering 16 of their 20 total goals in the second period. Even if we do find ourselves leading by a couple at the interval, we cannot apply the handbrake – not that Gaz would allow it anyway. Only Championship Hull, in a Carabao Cup clash, have won by more than one goal at Prenton Park in 2019/20.
As we know after his FA Cup brace, dynamic wide man Kieron Morris will be key to that threat, but Villa loanee Rushian Hepburn-Murphy made a big statement with his hat-trick in that 3-1 win at MK last time out in the league. Deployed in a variety of attacking roles so far, he could hardly have demonstrated more emphatically that he’s most effective as a striker. Well-travelled target man Stefan Payne can be a handful and netted late levellers against Rotherham and Burton, while fellow forward Connor Jennings has a knack of popping up with important goals and the veteran Neil Danns has plenty of higher level experience. There are danger men in this team. Will they be in a battle to avoid the drop? Probably. Are they pushovers? Absolutely not.
In the Middle: John Busby
Busby has taken charge of a memorable win for each of these sides in the last couple of years: Tranmere’s play-off semi-final first leg success against Forest Green in May, and our 3-1 victory over Col U in January of the League Two promotion campaign. This will be his 18th appointment of 2019/20, and he’s kept things ticking over with 63 yellows and four reds so far – but just the one penalty. Interesting stat: the home team have failed to score in each of his last six games.