As we still find ourselves looking to truly get our season back on track, let’s go a bit deeper into some of the reasons behind this recent sticky patch and how we might free ourselves from its grip…
It might not seem like it because there’s not been much to celebrate, but we’ve played TEN games since our almost three-week ‘winter break’. There was a certain degree of worry going into it – that it might stunt our momentum and throw us off course – but the win over Burton in our return to action suggested that, psychologically at least, all was well. But it wasn’t a convincing win and, with hindsight, perhaps we should have viewed it as a sign of things to come. Only Bolton, Bristol Rovers (our next two opponents, incidentally), Blackpool (who we just beat, of course) and Tranmere carry worse records than us over the same ten-match span. Here’s the basic overview of how our form has gone off a cliff.
Record before ‘winter break’
Record since ‘winter break’
The Crumbling of the Wall of Wycombe
That ‘goals against’ column is obviously the one which stands out. It’s actually quite sad to see the state of our defending now compared to this time a couple of months ago. Other stats beyond it paint an equally depressing picture: In the ten games leading up to the 17-day gap, our opponents missed 11/12 big chances (a whopping 91%); in the ten games since, they’ve missed only 6/18 (33%). We’ve blocked almost 50% fewer shots in the most recent ten than in the preceding ten – that figure dropping from 49 to 26 – meaning we’ve faced 59 shots on target from Burton onwards, compared to a stingy 29 from September’s home draw with Accrington up to the draw at Ipswich in late November – including total shut-outs in the latter and the tactically sublime win at Rotherham. Our expected goals against (xGA) has climbed from a reasonably defendable 1.17 per game to a somewhat concerning 1.6.
So our opponents have found their shooting boots, but we have allowed them to do so. The root cause of that? The lack of a settled back four. After starting with the immovable object of Grimmer-Stewart-Charles-Jacobson in 11 of the first 19 fixtures of the season, we’ve seen seven different combinations in the last seven – and had to play without a recognialised right-back in seven of the aforementioned ten. Even the returning Jason McCarthy, excellent a right-back though we know he is, had a poor game at the weekend – the kind it’s hard to imagine Jack Grimmer enduring, such has been the scintillating consistency he’s brought to the role.
Consequently, we’ve seen our defence in disarray at worst and moderately disorganised at best. That right-hand side has become a soft spot, exploited by Oxford, Coventry, Sunderland and Peterborough to differing extents. Sido Jombati lacks the positional awareness and tenacity to adequately fill in for Grimmer, while Giles Phillips is so much of a centre-back that it almost felt cruel to play him out of position. It’s absolutely no coincidence that we’ve not kept a clean sheet in the best part of two months; good defences come about through continuity and resultant harmony, which is long gone and needs to make a reappearance sharpish.
Problems Creating Problems for Opponents
That should probably say ‘Even Bigger Problems’. Realistically, we should be about 12th; expected goals is a key indicator and we’ve found ourselves in mid(xG)-table obscurity near enough all season. That was fine while we had the drawbridge raised – we could nick wins by the odd goal – but our offensive deficiencies have been well and truly exposed now that we’re leaking like a colander in a thunderstorm. Worse still, our xG has decreased markedly in the last ten games. A non-penalty xG (NxG) of 1.11/game was just about workable as long as we remained robotically clinical, which we have – only Lincoln have missed a lower proportion of their big chances than us – but that figure has slid to a depressing 0.87. In the average game at present, we’ve only got scraps or one half-decent chance to work with. We are making it mightily tough for ourselves out there. Clearly that has to change. But how? After all, we know the limitations of our squad.
An easy change to make would be to replace one member of our unorthodox, pure ball-winning midfield with a more attack-minded presence. Nick Freeman has started the last two outings in place of Matt Bloomfield, and while we’re yet to see any increase in creativity yet, we know exactly what he’s capable of at his best. If he can regularly replicate those moments of dazzling quality he produced in the wins over MK, Southend and Lincoln – the latter arguably his best overall performance, despite not scoring or assisting – early on in the season, we’ll be laughing. Alex Pattison is another option but hasn’t had much of a chance since August really. If all else fails, he could get a look-in, but Freeman seems much more likely to come into a purple patch – as one hopes his long-awaited goal against Blackpool last week would prompt. In the 16 games when he’s played 30 minutes or more, we’ve recorded an average NxG of 1.04 – and 1.16 in the other 13, so it’s neither here nor there. He may have conjured up his most powerful magic in brief cameos, but there’s nothing to say he can’t convert that into longer-lasting spells.
However, that’s assuming we predominantly deploy a 4-3-3. Another potential new direction in which to head is down the 4-4-2 road – the one which led us to safety last season, with Scott Kashket on the right and Freeman on the left. Of course, the little genius won’t be lining up in any system until the end of March, and we’ve also established that Freeman’s best position is at the tip of midfield. That’s beside the point, though, as we’d be looking at the inimitable David Wheeler and, um, another winger I mention shortly on either flank. Dom Gape and Curtis Thompson would more than ensure an amply solid unit, while a strike partnership of Josh Parker and Adebayo Akinfenwa deserves time to bear fruit – and worse comes to worst, two front men feeding of scraps is a bit better than one, in theory anyway. In an ideal world, though, we’d try and carve more openings in central areas.
2019/20 wins by formation
|Formation||Wins (% of total wins)|
*In the 4-3 win v Southend, we played 4-3-3 for 56 minutes but switched to 4-4-2 when still 2-3 down, so it’s fair to say it had a big influence – hence I’ve made a slight exception!
Is the ‘Little Wycombe’ Mentality Holding Us Back?
It’s been questioned by some fans – but no. We didn’t suddenly become a big club by sitting in the top two for several months. That’s not how it works. Playing the underdog card has stood us in good stead in recent years, and doing so doesn’t mean Gareth and co. don’t harbour grand ambitions. He’s a realistic optimist and that’s a great way to be. We are ‘Little Old Wycombe’ and will be at least for the foreseeable future. Any suggestion that we haven’t ‘acted like league leaders’ is unfounded and unhelpful. It was pretty obvious that it was going to be a tall order to stay there; no amount of unnatural swagger would have changed that.
So Are There Any Reasons for Optimism?
Well yes – there always are with Gaz at the helm – but evidently we need to buck our ideas up…like…immediately. Even then, we might simply not have enough to overpower the division’s top dogs. Still, there is a certain individual I would like to focus on, one who could yet inspire us to the improbable: Wilfred Oluwafemi Onyedinma.
It’s become easy to say “We need Fred back” – easier with every loss, it seems, as we clutch at ever-depeleting straws – but the numbers really reinforce it. We scored as many goals in the nine matches with Fred as we have in the 20 without, and we’ve had to make do without his inimitable poise, skill and general game-changing ability. He lifts the mood and he lifts the team. He is – and I can’t get enough of this phrase – our cheat code. Not that you need me to tell you that.
With four goals at a rate of one approximately every 150 minutes, Fred is statistically our biggest goal threat by some distance – from the Beast, who’s finding the back of the net ‘only’ around every four hours (and two of his seven goals have come from the spot!). That almost 6% increase in final third passing accuracy is worth noting too; he always seems to spot and place the right ball where others perhaps don’t, while being the strongest ball carrier in the squad – he completes 1.9 dribbles per 90, almost exactly twice as many as anyone in the squad – can reduce the number of passes in that area of the pitch. And, for good measure, here are a few final xG numbers:
|9 games with Fred||20 games without Fred|
So excluding penalties, and if we interpret the data in the simplest terms, we’ve effectively lost 9.4 xG in Fred’s absence. Our season-long NxG is 30.99 and we’ve bagged 29 goals minus spot-kicks. Therefore, it’s really not unreasonable to suggest that we could be 8-9 goals better off had our marquee signing not been sidelined for more than four months. Who knows, we could have pulled off famous wins over Ipswich or salvaged something at Oxford against the odds. That’s five points right there…
‘What if?’s aren’t going to reverse our fortunes, but there’s reassurance to be found in what we’ve been missing. Our star man has been going through his paces on recent matchdays and was spotted on Instagram – the source of all Wanderers ‘scoops’ these days, it seems – the other day, partaking in what looked like some sort of shuttlecock volleyball/hand badminton session at the training ground. If you see him warming up with the rest of the lads on Saturday, that’s a pretty sure-fire sign that he’ll be in the squad for the Tuesday night visit of Fleetwood. Oh what I’m sure we’d all give to have our Saturdays soundtracked by that chant again…