We had become renowned for nicking games 1-0, but did you know that we’ve won as many home games 3-1? It seems we might be able to win promotion with a little more than pure grind after all. Shit, did I say the P-word? It’s just hard not to. And I can’t be the only one who’s beginning to believe again…
*➡️ Ofoborh (72) | **➡️ Samuel (82) | ***➡️ Bloomfield (90+5)
|Passes (completed)||263 (124 – 47%)||281 (123 – 44%)|
|Long balls (completed)||92 (28 – 30%)||102 (19 – 10%)|
|Shots (on target/off target/blocked)||22 (9/5/8)||3 (1/2)|
|Bic chances (missed)||3 (1)||1 (0)|
Stats via SofaScore
The Game in Brief
A meeting of two lots of long ball merchants in windy conditions was never going to make for a great spectacle – but it didn’t need to; we are the superior team and were on the day, pleasingly making a poor side look exactly that. Twenty-two shots to three more or less tells the story of the match – the 15th this season in which we’ve restricted our opponents to three or fewer shots on target (ok, this was as much Tranmere restricting themselves as it was us them, but that’s still mightily impressive – especially considering our league-low possession stats). After we edged in front at the end of a first period largely lacking in quality, it was only ever going one way.
The equaliser just past the our mark only made us stronger. Rovers manager Micky Mellon seemed content with a draw as he made no further changes – having brought on an unusually quiet Morgan Ferrier a matter of minutes earlier – his side continuing to sit deep and invite pressure. We made it pay and strung together some lovely, un-Wycombe-like stuff in the process – but not to the point of diluting our Plymouth-rattling philosophy. Three more points in the quest for promotion, +2 in the goal difference column, and the (now official) Couhig era began with a bang. We couldn’t have asked for much more really.
1-0 (Stewart, 45+1)
Perhaps the greatest thing about Joe Jacobson’s wand of a left foot is the variety of spells it can cast – something which probably doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. That might be because usually, from corners at least, he casts a Wingardium Leviosa – floating the ball in delicately enough to land it on a sixpence. This was more of an Avada Kedavra (I don’t like Harry Potter, but I even I know what that one does), an absolute head-chopper across the face of goal which the Tranmere defender at the near-post could only inadvertently flick on* to Tools, who chested home his second league goal of the season – and our 14th from a set-piece (24th if you include penalties and throw-ins). Simple.
*And because it touched him and not David Wheeler, JJ moved to two assists for the season (which seems mad, but he’s probably pushing ten pre-/secondary assists)
1-1 (Vaughan, 63)
Without the first Darius Charles mistake in what might as well be forever, the ball never would have run to the former Everton and Sunderland target man in the first place. It was the visitors’ sole shot on target and the first big chance they’d crafted (in the loosest possible sense of the word) on the road since Boxing Day. Watching them, those numbers came as no shock, and it was like this goal barely even happened.
2-1 (Akinfenwa, 71)
This was one of our goals of the season. Seriously. And everyone involved made it look so straightforward – that’s what was so great about it. JJ’s half-turn, volleyed clearance ended up in the heart of Fred Onyedinma territory on the left wing; Fred put hapless right-back Kane Wilson in a spin to ensure he came away with possession, before tying him a knot of Gordian proportions and directing the peachiest towards Adebayo Akinfenwa with his supposedly weak left foot; then Bsayo did what he could do with his eyes closed. It’s a three-point route to goal which could become well trodden during the run-in.
3-1 (Jacobson (p), 90+2)
This was pure Alex Samuel. David Wheeler won the ball back in line with our own 18-yard-box, Dom Gape immediately pounced on it and looked to ping it down the right channel, knowing full well that even if his terrier team-mate didn’t reach it, he’d chase it without a moment’s thought. That’s exactly what happened and we got our reward – even if Alex had to put his, er, upper thigh on the line to earn it and the foul occurred outside the box (oh well, referee Mr Breakspear owed us one). The skipper on the day dispatched the spot-kick with surgical precision and calmness to reach ten for the season in all competitions. Points wrapped up. Cue the latest round of picture-perfect celebrations in front of the valley end – including inept pitch invader hilariously thwarted by the cat-like reactions of one of the security staff.
Fred is magic
I know right, stating the bleeding obvious. You could spend hours watching just the turns here, though – hours. He’s in a class of his own as our star man; Gareth Ainsworth himself has very openly stated that he’s better than this division. His jaw-dropping contribution to the lead-restoring goal obviously stood out, but it defined 89 minutes of pumping full-backs full of nightmare fuel, marauding runs, and generally making his presence known to the opposition. We don’t necessarily think of Fred as one of our most physical players, but there’s steel behind the showman.
For me, though, what most sets him apart as too good for League One is his genuine two-footedness. That ought to be a given for any pro, but in reality it isn’t – and absolutely not in the third tier. It allows him to pull off acts of escapology others just can’t and lays the foundations for the rest of his wizardry to follow. Supposedly, he’s right-footed, but three of his four goals and his one assist have come with his left. And just look at those goal contribution (goals + assists) figures. Magic.
The only right way to play is the one that works
While we were level, every aimless punt forward was accompanied by gurning and groaning and rabid shouts of “Get it on the deck!” from scattered pockets of the home end. If route one football isn’t your cup of tea, so be it, but there’s no denying it’s proved remarkably effective for us under Gaz. I created a basic League One ‘long ball index’ (literally just long balls per game ÷ possession) in which we rank as the joint sixth most direct team in the division, with leaders Rotherham right behind and another promotion-chasing side, Fleetwood, only a tad further down. With the right personnel and implementation, the Big Sam approach clearly can bear fruit. The mass fawning over Barcelona, Manchester City and Liverpool has indoctrinated football fans into ardently believing there’s a ‘right way’ to play the game. Even back when Brian Clough so famously opined that “If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there”, there wasn’t the same level of snobbery towards detractors – even if such an agricultural style was more commonplace.
ANYWAY… The point here is that there is a purpose to what we do. Long balls – as opposed to long passes – are, by definition, aimless, but they are most certainly not purposeless. Jacobson’s lob upfield in the build-up to Bayo’s goal was exactly the kind of action which received the aforementioned reaction, but that’s now two weekends running that it’s led to Fred creating a scoring opportunity (also the penalty at Bolton). Gape’s connection with Samuel will have gone down as a ‘long pass’ instead, but it would still make for a stick with which to beat us and our aNtI-fOoTbAaL – for those so inclined. And we were at it all game – putting Tranmere under, at times, relentless pressure for which they had no answer. That their game-plan went along the same lines and afforded us more possession than normal may have meant we were able to ‘hoof’ more often – we played 17 more long balls than average – and they may have the third most porous defence in the league, but plenty of better teams have found themselves at a loss to deal with our threat (but no, we’re third three quarters of the way through the season purely by luck).
Granted, it doesn’t always work – see the torturous losses to Fleetwood and Coventry, the only two blemishes on a home record surpassed only by Liverpool in terms of percentage of available points taken – but it’s working bloody well for us to have been on this unprecedented joy ride over the last seven months. It’s patently obvious that some sides (Rochdale) put style over substance – and guess what, it doesn’t work! We can “Get it on the deck!”, and it might be a wise move to do so when we travel to Birmingham to face our bogey team next month – and at home to Oxford three days before – but why would we when we don’t need to? If style is to get you anywhere in this game, it needs substance to complement it. Substance isn’t so dependent; it alone is enough.