How Gary Mills Unlocked Connor Jennings’ Potential

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)

Connor Jennings neither scored nor made an assist at Aldershot. His superb recent form makes that fact worth mentioning.

Before Saturday he’d either scored or set up a goal in each of our last eight league matches. His magnificent form seems to have coincided with him being pushed up front by Gary Mills, which frankly is a pleasant surprise to me.

As the season started I was glad to see Jennings playing in a deeper role. I felt that running onto the ball suited him a great deal more than playing up front with his back to goal. After all, many of his goals from last season were blockbusters, scored after picking the ball up from deep positions. I suspected he’d come up with the same volume of goals from midfield as he would in attack.

Jennings’ stats when playing in attack last season supported my argument. He started twenty games up front and enjoyed little success, scoring four times and setting up three goals. The contrast this season is remarkable: in seven games as a striker he’s already bettered both totals, managing five goals and five assists.

So what is the reason for his remarkable upturn in productivity? Mills seemed to have unlocked something in the talented striker. Perhaps the faith he showed in him when he appointed him captain has helped, or maybe it has simply been the clearer vision Mills has mapped out of what Jennings is expected to do.

Last season his versatility perhaps counted against him, as he was shifted around from right wing to left, sometimes playing up front and sometimes in the hole. This season he had a long run in midfield, followed by his current stint up front. His roles have been settled and clearer, which can only be helpful.

Interestingly, of those twenty games up front last season, only was on his own – his bravura performance at Stoke. Every other time he played in partnership with another forward, usually supporting Louis Moult. Clearly Mills has seen that a lone role leading the line suits him better.

I suggested earlier in the season that James Gray was a good fit for our style of play, his working of the defensive line pinning them back and creating room for our creative midfielders to flourish in the space he was creating. Our style has changed now, and a player in the mould of Jennings works well in our system. His energy is terrific and he likes to drop off and bring others into the play, adding to the fluidity of our forward on the break.

So Jennings’ productive run ended on Saturday. Mind you, his exquisite first touch as he brought down a long clearance and subsequent accurate switch to the left flank, allowing Dom Vose to drill in the cross from which Wes York scored the winner, suggest there’s more to judge a player’s performance on than bald statistics. Thankfully, Jennings is currently marrying both style and substance.

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