Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
Well, it looks like we’ve arrived at the sharp end of the season!
A two legged semi-final with a Wembley final against lower division opposition, sandwiched in between four matches against sides who are aiming for the play-offs, one of which just happens to be a cross-border derby. If your mouth doesn’t water at the prospect then you might be following the wrong sport!
If things go well, we could set ourselves up for a grandstand conclusion to an historic season; if they don’t our campaign will be dead in the water. Good players want to be playing for high stakes, so this is a real chance for the squad to show what they’re made of.
Encouragingly, we’re going into this intense spell of games with decent momentum behind us. I’d even go as far as to say that we’ve put together the best sequence of performances we’ve managed over the whole season in the course of our last three matches. The win at Gateshead on penalties was a triumph of tactics, quality and character, while the subsequent wins against Halifax and Barnet followed a remarkably similar pattern as we dominated the first half and dug in fiercely to defend our lead in the second. When you’re playing well you want the games to come thick and fast, so hopefully we’ll keep the momentum going and relish five huge games in the space of fifteen days.
The load on the squad ought to be lessened by the new approach to rotation which the coaching staff have adopted. We’ve accumulated a lot of central midfielders and the way we’ve deployed them over the last fortnight has been crafty. Subtle changes to our shape have led to game-on-game improvements in our performances; the midfielder shave looked fresh and able to execute an energetic game plan which culminated in some terrifically co-ordinated pressing in the Barnet match.
It’s an approach which will hopefully mean we’ll reach the run-in looking fresh, in contrast to our last two runs into the play-offs when the squad was visibly wilting in the closing weeks.
It’s also a far cry from the recent home match against Torquay, and hopefully that’ll also be in our favour. If they base their preparations on how we approached that match they’ll be in for a surprise as we’re much more dynamic now. In that match we fielded a rather stodgy midfield diamond which lacked the sort of player who could break forwards to support the strikers or add pace to the flanks. Indeed, when we flattened it out to a 4-4-2 in the last quarter of an hour we cut loose and ought to have won the game.
I wouldn’t want to fall into the trap I hope we’ve set for Torquay and assume that what The Gulls showed in that match is all they’ve got either. They were unimpressive, but afflicted by injuries. I know we’ll see a much more formidable Torquay on Saturday, but I suspect they’ll think the same as us. I can’t wait!