Come back down from Friday night yet? Neither, but there’s still work to do! Time is of the essence, so here’s a preview of sorts of the first Adams Park action in 135 days.
BREAKING THE CHAIN…
Of 1-0/0-1s and 1-1s – the only scorelines there had ever been in our eight league meetings with Fleetwood. We all thought it was going to be as cagey as ever, but we channeled the customary Fylde wind and blew them away. This victory was a statement of intent – and, what do you know, we achieved it by once again making a mockery of the snobbish notion that there’s a right way to play and going our own way.
Also of passing. Not that we had one to begin with – no one had fewer 10+ pass sequences than us during the League One regular season. Even by our standards, we got the ball forward fast – just one element of the through-the-roof intensity which was integral to our winning so comprehensively. More often that not, that was to David Wheeler – back on the right of the front three having dropped into midfield for the last few games before lockdown. He enjoyed 38 touches of the ball to Fred Onyedinma‘s 27 and contested more aerials than anyone else on the pitch, winning 5/9 – beaten in that respect only by cloud-skimming Fleetwood centre-back Harry Souttar. His precise, well won flick-on from Ryan Allsop‘s long free-kick ultimately led to Nnamdi Ofoborh‘s thronking opener barely a minute in.
We completed 140 passes on the night – 11 below our average. We’ve completed fewer on a number of occasions this season and while two of those were games in which we went a man down early on – the defeats at Peterborough and Oxford – another two were standout away results: the 1-0 win at Rotherham – one of the performances of 2019-20 – and goalless draw at Ipswich. What’s more, we averaged roughly 87 passes per goal during the regular season. On Friday night, though? One goal every 29 passes, by far our most efficient ratio of the campaign. In stark contrast, Fleetwood completed 345 passes and couldn’t muster a single shot from open play. It’s not about possession (unsurprisingly, they came out on top there – 64% to 36%); it’s about WHAT YOU DO WITH IT.
Yes, the hosts played the best part of an hour with ten men (of course, Madden also threw a paddy and saw red late on) after Lewie Coyle’s straight red for a leg-breaker on Joe Jacobson, but then we’re not exactly known for making our extra man count (the previous game against Fleetwood is the obvious example, while it took a 92nd minute JJ penalty to see off Doncaster back in November). That all changed this time up at Highbury. We went in for the kill. It was press, press, press and attack, attack, attack. Earlier in the day, at least a couple of Wanderers fans on Twitter predicted that Alex Samuel would come into his own in the play-offs. And so it proved as the Welshman did what he does and got right in his faces (with his back, of course), held off Souttar seemingly effortlessly in the build-up to that Ofoborh thunderbolt, inadvertently set up Wheeler for our third goal with what looked like his backside, and finished well after capitalisng on Cods ‘keeper Alex Cairns’ poppadom moment for our fourth.
Samuel’s goal and assist combo was his first in English football
They should be – but then Gareth Ainsworth threw us a curveball by naming Ofoborh in the starting 11 on Friday. The back five pick itself and Darius Charles did pull through two lots of 90 minutes ahead of an extended break back in November (the aforementioned Doncaster and Ipswich games). With a clear seven days to the final on Monday 13th and considering what’s at stake, he will surely start unless he’s absolutely broken. If we’re still leading by three goals – or, let’s hope, even more – come, say, an hour, maybe Gaz will think about withdrawing him early, but messing with your centre-back pairing mid-game is risky business and you’d have to say that’s unlikely – especially if Sido Jomabi isn’t available, although we don’t know the reason for his absence from the first leg squad.
Curtis Thompson in for Matt Bloomfield seems a realistic change – he’d seamlessly slot into that ‘destructive 10′ role – but don’t underestimate Blooms’ ability to start and go the majority of the 90 again; he was in fresh-out-of-the-packaging Duracell bunny mode the other night. This really does feel like young Nnamdi’s time to shine, though, and you better have a good argument if you want to make a case for him not starting. If it ain’t broke…
And you’d have to say same again up top – not least because Fleetwood will have no choice but to go all out from the off. Fred and Samuel are the perfect counter-attacking weapons with their respective speed and determination (exhibit A: Fred’s goal in August’s thrilling 3-2 win over MK) and, well, Wheeler is Wheeler. Then if all is going well with 15 minutes or so to go, you’ve got the double threat of Paul Smyth – who didn’t feature at all in the first leg – and Scott Kashket waiting in the wings to finish them off from the wings.
WHAT DOES HARRY POTTER HAVE UP HIS SLEEVE?
That was just one of the several Joey Barton lookalikes suggested by the watching Twitterati (Gaz didn’t get off any easier…). First things first, if his players can’t keep their heads – however much we may have frustrated them by being brilliant, they are very much a team made in their manager’s image – then there’s no point trying anything. As above, though, they will have to be on it from the first whistle – it was 3-4-3 last time out, but he might even go 3-5-2 as in their last trip to Adams Park. Regardless, they’ll have to play way beyond their best – without their key man in Madden – and hope we play way below ours if they’re to become the first team in Football League play-off history to overturn a three-goal deficit from the first leg. Early goal to ease any lingering nerves please, lads!