After 125 days, two hours and however many minutes were left after all the added time, THE BLUES ARE BACK IN ACTION. And just in case you needed reminding, this is one of the biggest games – one of the biggest occasions – in the club’s 133-year history. Here’s all you need to know about the next 90-100 minutes…
|REGULAR SEASON RECORDS|
|P35 W16 D12 L7 (6th, 1.71 PPG)||P34 W17 D8 L9 (3rd, 1.74 PPG)|
|LAST TIME OUT|
|D 2-2 v Portsmouth (A)||L 3-1 v Doncaster (A)|
|Fleetwood W||Wycombe W||D||Ave. GpG|
|REGULAR SEASON MEETINGS|
|Fleetwood 1-1 Wycombe (20/08/19)||Wycombe 0-1 Fleetwood (11/02/20)|
Setting the scene
It’s still all a bit of a blur, isn’t it? Every single thing we’ve achieved this unforgettably crazy, intoxicating, just plain special season has been held up against the state in which we found ourselves this time 12 months ago: staring nine months of misery straight in the face. It’s almost time to let go of that narrative – we’re over four months into the official Couhig era – but the story needs its ending.
For the first time all season, we head into a game with a fully fit squad at our disposal (ok, as close to fully fit as they can be given we only started training three-and-a-half weeks ago). That in itself will give us a sense of togetherness even more powerful than the one that’s brought us to this point. Equally, we should be boosted by the fact that neither side has any momentum – these are the first ever play-offs from a standing start. Sure, Fleetwood will likely draw encouragement from that too, but it’s worth noting that they were stopped in their tracks more inopportunely than us when football was suspended what seems an eternity ago in March. We were stuttering our way out of an inconsistent patch; they were flying and 12 games unbeaten, beating Peterborough and taking 4/6 points from Portsmouth along the way.
The Cod Army were among the form teams in League One. They may not have been at their absolute best in beating us that night at Adams Park none of us want to talk about, but we still saw first-hand the quality within their ranks. A smaller club than Wycombe but a healthily backed one, they’ve been building towards promotion since falling short at this hurdle in 2017. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them finish in the top two had all been well. All was not well, though, so here we are. Meetings between these two are always tight – every league fixture has ended 1-1 or 1-0 either way – and the play-offs are just about the most conducive environment to another couple of cagey affairs. Go easy on those fingernails.
Manager: Joey Barton (appointed June 2018)
Top scorer: Paddy Madden (ST) – 15 (159.5 minutes per goal)
Most assists: Lewie Coyle (RB), Wes Burns (RM/RW) – 5
Style of play: Possession-based, plenty of width, conservative with tackling*
Previous Football League play-off campaigns: L1 16/17 (lost in SF), L2 13/14 (winners)
*Fleetwood attempt 18.2 tackles per 90. Only Sunderland, MK and Wycombe rank lower in League One this season.
The danger men
Paddy Madden: The obvious threat, Madden scored the winner last time we met, his third goal in five career appearances against Wanderers. Joint second in the 2019/20 League One scoring charts, only Ivan Toney has been more prolific than the 30-year-old Irishman. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t always start – ten of his 35 league appearances this campaign have been off the bench – marksmen of his ilk only need one chance, as evidenced by the fact that seven of his 15 goals have come from his sole shot on target of the game.
Barrie McKay (LW): McKay tore us a new one down in HP12 – and he wasn’t even playing in his proper position. On that occasion, Barton opted for an uncharacteristic 3-5-2 and the Swansea loanee found himself occupying a more central role. It didn’t hinder him, though, as he carved up our midfield at will, winning 7/8 ground duels, completing 4/5 dribbles and putting all five of his crosses on the money. Admittedly, we were missing playmkaer neutraliser Curtis Thompson and the in-your-face harrying of Matt Bloomfield, but with the scintillating Scot back out wide, that just means he’s going to be David Wheeler and Jack Grimmer’s problem.
Harry Souttar (CB): It might seem strange to include a centre-back here, but when they have the potential to stunt your talisman with their height alone, it’s a fair description. Standing 6’6″ tall, it will come as no great shock that the Aberdeen-born Australia international – who’s on loan from Stoke – wins the vast majority of his aerials. That’s not to say Adebayo Akinfenwa can’t get the better of him – he literally did to score the opener in that early season draw – but he’s not likely to be able to wreak his usual havoc. A little adaptation may be in order.
Basic comparison of styles
Momentum: Is it a myth?
Generally speaking, it counts for something. The average last ten regular season games for a play-off winner since 2014/15 reads as follows: W5 D2 L3. Only Northampton (who lost 13/37 games overall) from League Two this season and Huddersfield from the Championship three years ago have gone up via the play-offs having lost half or more of their run-in. Granted, it is a three-match shootout and certain managers (👀) have a knack of getting their players supremely pumped up when it really matters, but you’ve got to be in pretty good nick regardless. So no, momentum is not a myth – and the lack of it across the board will go some way to levelling the playing field. We are the underdogs (yet, in probably a play-off first, also the top seeds), but think border collie v Labrador rather than Chihuaua v Great Dane.
Route one to the Championship?
There’s been a fair amount of talk over whether our direct approach could count in our favour. Obviously it’s not this simple, but in theory, a team reliant on slick passing and constant movement will take longer to get back up to speed than one who, for want of a more eloquent description, lump it up there. Anyone who saw Northampton batter Exeter 4-0 in the League Two final on Monday night will attest to the fact that Keith Curle’s long-ball philosophy ruled the game. Exeter may have been reduced to ten men just before the hour mark, but they were already out of it – did their emphasis on posession take its toll or were they just less fit than their opponents to begin with? Either way, they couldn’t live with what – as we well know – is all too often derided as ‘hoofball’. Oh, by the way, the only team in the top four divisions to complete fewer passes per game than the Cobblers’ 168: Wycombe with 151.
Granted, if we go to Highbury with the aim of containing and frustrating (hopefully we’ve learned from our last play-off semi-final first leg, when we came flying out of the traps at Plymouth yet had our 3-0 lead pegged back to 3-2 in the end), Akinfenwa won’t start and we ought to be a touch less direct (I say ‘ought to’ as we inexplicably tried to turn Alex Samuel into a target man in the aforementioned last meeting). However much we tweak our MO, though, we’ll still largely bypass the midfield and look to release quickly to Fred Onyedinma on the left or ping those diagonals to Wheeler on the right – obviously the primary aerial outlet in Bayo’s absence. Again, in theory, we should be able to just get on with doing what we do.
Just a note on Fleetwood… They’ve attemped the second most long passes in League One this season – 3,121 at a rate of 89 per game – but come out around average on long balls (as do we). The difference? A long pass is a pass of 35 yards or more aimed at a specific player; a long ball is any launch into space. We do a bit of both, but if Bayo gets his head on it then it’s the former. Fleetwood aren’t on a par with, say, Oxford or Coventry at the most ‘tiki-taka’ end of the division, but you wouldn’t put them in the route one box – you’ve got to consider that goal-kicks, balls from central sprayed to the wingers, and crosses from deep enough are all ‘long’. At the end of the day, they still play almost 80% of the passes short, compared to our league-low 70%. There’s a difference and we will see it. They’re not the Barça of the Fylde, but we’ve still got to shut that space down given the multitude of attacking weapons in their armoury.
Who will be our difference makers?*
*apart from the most obvious (duh)
As mentioned, for the first time in 2019/20, we have no injury concerns. Whatever Gareth deems to be his strongest 11 (read on for educated guess) for our biggest game since certainly Chesterfield in 2018 but probably that day at Torquay (although words can’t describe the contrast in cirumstances this time around) he will be able to name without compromise. Grimmer was the last missing piece in the final few weeks leading up to the suspension – he was due to make his long-awaited comeback from injury against Burton in the game that never was – but he’s set to slot back into place in the Wall of Wycombe, making our one-time inpenetrable shield complete for the first time since the 0-0 draw at Ipswich in November.
The importance of having our proper back four together again cannot be understated. It’s been 220 days since they lined up alongside each other, but their telepathy was unbreakable for so long – you’d hope they haven’t lost that. Grimmer, though, is arguably the most important brick in the wall. It was great to have Jason McCarthy back for those nine games early in the year, but he’s more at home in a more expansive system. His insatiable urge to get forward and freestyle, at times, worked to the detriment of a team reliant on ruthless defensive solidity – something we’ve sorely missed without our fab four. We kept just two clean sheets in 15 after our trip to Portman Road, in stark contrast to nine in the previous 15. There are other factors to take into account, of course – such as our brutal December-January schedule, having to rotate Darius Charles, and the succession of injures we suffered during that time – but just look at our record with and without Grimmer in the side.
Equally, we’ll have Thompson and Bloomfield back – although we ended the regular season with a midfield of Dom Gape-Wheeler-Thompson, we’ll need to be in wrecking ball mode. Thompson will stick like glue to his man – likely to be Paul Coutts, a member Sheffield United’s 2018/19 Championship promotion-winning squad and statistically the most accurate passer in League One*, finding his target 86% of the time – but Blooms might just be the most vital of the three for his sheer battle-hardened-ness There is probably no one one in this squad who wants this more than Mr Wycombe. Just one thing, though: ROW Z!
*of players who have played 900 minutes or more in 2019/20
What I’ve really been thinking, though – and I can’t be the only one – is how fitting would it be if Fred – having brought such joy when he signed, only to miss most of the season – stole the show in the play-offs? You don’t need me to tell you what Fred brings to the party, but in statistical terms it’s worth pointing out that he averages 0.35 non-penalty expected goals (NPxG) per 90 – along with Bayo, the best of any Wycombe player in 2019/20. The magic man is a consistent goal threat. In the time that he – and Scott Kashket (0.26 NPxG/90), who it’s easy to forget is available again – have been out, we’ve looked, frankly, lost unless the big man’s been on the pitch. Throw in the ‘With/Without Fred’ numbers below and it’s hard to temper the optimism.
Ryan Lea of Cods Chat reckons Fleetwood will start as below. If so, they’ll make just the one from that last clash. Lewie Coyle missed out then, while Madden played the full 90.
Debate over the number one spot has raged ever since David Stockdale returned on loan in January to compete with Ryan Allsop and I honestly can’t call it (can anyone?) – but when things were put on hold, it was Rocky’s to lose. Can we squeeze two games in four days out of Charles? Within reason, unless we’re 6-0 up after the first leg, we’ll have to – it’s worth remembering he played in the win over Doncaster and draw at Ipswich within four days of each other. If, as you’d probably expect, it’s a containment and frustration job, it’ll be Samuel over Bayo – and if that’s the case then we will need an alternative aerial outlet from restarts if less so from open play, so Wheeler could return to his regular position on the right of the front three, where he linked up so well with Grimmer before the latter’s lay-off.
In the middle: Tony Harrington
Harrington usually officiates in the Championship and took charge of a big one in Leeds’ 3-0 win over Fulham last Saturday. In his 31 games in all competitions this season, he’s shown 82 yellows and five reds (including two in his last two), awarding 13 penalties. His last Wycombe fixture was the eventful 3-2 loss at Coventry in December 2017.