That’s what we’ve done since we last lost a league game. Seven wins, three draws, 15 for, five against, seven clean sheets and 24/30 points. I think they call it form. Our latest triumph was rather a slog, but there’s a certain satisfaction in ‘getting the job done’ that brings more joy than cruising to victory. Is it sustainable? It might well be, you know – but with certain individuals back and due back soon, we might not need it to be. Let’s have a look back at how we pulled clear at the top with our seventh one-goal success of 2019/20.
Before and After Gillingham
That blemish in our row of the league table, remember? Anyway, the point is that this latest lockdown was just another example of the defensive force we’ve become. Prior to that…um…bad day at the office, we’d won 4/7 games, finding the back of the net 13 times and keeping three clean sheets – but letting in a goal a game. Add that 2-0 defeat and it’s been nine conceded in eight followed by five conceded in ten. To say we’ve tightened up at the back would be an understatement.
It’s allowed us to become dominant without blowing teams away – which we aren’t going to do. The players with whom we look most creative from open play – Fred Onyedinma and Paul Smyth – have played the equivalent of fewer than ten games combined, so that may have forced our hand in a way, but you can’t say it’s not a good habit to get into. The only team to put more than one past us in the last two-and-a-half months were free-scoring Peterborough – and we were still able to match that to earn a point; we have made ourselves bloody difficult to attack against and are now winning game after game because of it.
Looking at Saturday in isolation, though, and what we saw in the shoe-permeating rain at Adams Park was a hint of what may be yet to come. We restricted a side who hit the target an average of five times per game to a single effort on goal – their fewest of the campaign with the exception of last month’s 3-0 loss at Oxford. Even taking into account our man advantage for half the game, we should be commended for limiting one of League One’s most creative sides to a couple of clear-cut opportunities – the best of which only came from a loose ball following a deflected free-kick.
I should start selling t-shirts with “The back four were rock solid” on them. Ryan Allsop didn’t have to exert himself and that was effectively that, with Donervan Daniels’ looping header against the bar the only other scare. We’ve got a tough run for, well, the next couple of months, but no one’s going to find it easy to penetrate the Wycombe Wall – and every clean sheet is an extra coil of barbed wire atop it.
The simplistic way of looking at it is this: before Gillingham, we scored for fun but couldn’t defend; since Gillingham, we’ve defended for fun but can’t score. Now, we know that’s not the case. We can and do score, just not a lot and with a heavy reliance on set-pieces – something I’ll try and go into more detail on at some point – and we are one of the best teams in England defensively.
The 2017/18 Shrewsbury side may be an obvious comparison, but the similarities are notable: we have one fewer point than they did at the same stage of the season (albeit that was a 46-game campaign), exactly the same goal difference, and have won two fewer games by a single goal and twice as many (four) by 2+ goals. We’re also three points further clear of third. It was around this time that Salop – who ultimately finished nine points off second and lost the play-off final – endured a bit of a slump; we only seem to be asserting our worth as promotion contenders.
Ofoborh and Smyth Add a Different Dimension
It may have taken our second stoppage time penalty of the season – and our third in the 80th minute or later* – to settle this one, but we looked more creative from open play than we have since probably the 3-3 draw with Posh in early October. Sure, we still didn’t score from open play, but give it a game or two. David Wheeler made some dangerous runs and teed up Alex Samuel in space in the box during the first half, while Samuel himself held the ball up like we’ve come to expect from him – but our Bournemouth and QPR loanees arguably had the biggest influence on increasing our attacking promise.
Ofoborh’s man of the match showing should have come as no great surprise to those who’ve seen the 20-year-old’s early endeavours for Wycombe. An all-round solid midfielder, he stepped in for Dom Gape and assumed certain aspects of our number 4’s usual role, but he turned out to be the most advanced of the midfield three, seeing plenty of action the final third helping set the tempo with some nifty passing – while also smashing one just over from range himself.
Billed as more of a defensive player when we brought him in, he now seems more likely to usurp Matt Bloomfield than Gape or Curtis Thompson if he’s going to pin down a place in the starting 11 going forward. And if he keeps this up and maybe profits from an injury or two, who’s to say he won’t? You know I don’t do favourites, though, so I’ll probably never mention him again 👀
Smyth, meanwhile, is the most exciting and magical of our smattering of attacking flair players. Doncaster couldn’t handle his dribbling and cutting in from the left. A true “ball carrier” as Gareth Ainsworth noted after his return at MK the other week, the Northern Ireland international was making his first league appearance since August – and it was just like having a new player in the side.
Defenders panic when he glides into the box and quick-foots them, so there’s always a decent chance of a penalty at the very least. Wherever he picks up the ball – which can often be quite deep – he advances it with only one thing in mind: creating, whether for himself or others. Like Rolando Aarons, he is Championship quality, and if we can get them on the pitch together and playing at their best – which the latter is yet to truly show – then look out League One. Oh, and it sounds like Fred is close to a return too.
*Slightly odd to think that Joe Jacobson hasn’t taken any of those three – but was there ever any doubt he’d keep his cool?!
Why Aren’t We Making the Extra Man Count?
For the second time in the space of 72 hours, we looked a bit lost after our opponents went down to ten. Is that something to be concerned about? Not massively, I don’t think, but it’s something to work on. This was a different game to the midweek Cup defeat to Tranmere – we reverted to our ‘strongest’ starting 11 and were much more ‘at it’ – but the story took a familiar turn following the red card. Doncaster sat in and we struggled to struggled to break them down.
Ten men are rarely as easy to play against as is made out – although anyone who pays any kind of attention must surely know that. Where it becomes even harder for us, though, as that we don’t thrive on the kind of movement and exploitation of space which can hurt a depleted side. The fact is it’s not our style and we’re not going to become brilliant at it overnight. Adebayo Akinfenwa only touched the ball five times in over half an hour as a substitute; we didn’t target him enough, strangely. Had we done, we might have ground down Donny’s stubborn resistant slightly sooner. And if we do want to approach 11 v 10 the ‘traditional’ way, we need Nick Freeman on the pitch to unlock the door. There’s no need to panic, but those are just a couple of lessons to be learned perhaps.