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.
We all know Dean Keates has done a terrific job turning things around. Now it’s time for fine tuning, beginning at the back.
Last Saturday’s game showed us two important things. Firstly, we’re not a play-off side yet. Aldershot are on the fringes of the top five, and showed us that there’s still a difference in quality between where we’re at and where we need to be.
Secondly, if our defence was watertight, we’d be getting points out of games like that. Although we lost control of the game in the second half, the truth is that there were only four presentable chances to score in the entire match: Izale McLeod’s early header which he couldn’t wrap his neck muscles around enough; the Paul Rutherford shot which led to a magnificent save from Jake Cole; and Aldershot’s two goals.
Right there, in a nutshell, is the difference between an improving side and one with genuine promotion aspirations: we didn’t take our two chances, but Aldershot took theirs.
Yet there’s something else to learn from these bald facts. In a tight game when you’re not creating chances, you need to shut things down, emerge with a clean sheet and take the point. That’s something we’re still struggling to do.
We’ve only kept three clean sheets in our last 24 matches, and two of those were against the toothless North Ferriby. Furthermore, we’ve only managed to emerge unscathed from two away games all season, at North Ferriby and Borehamwood.
However, you can’t point the finger at any member of the defensive unit and argue that they’re substandard. The problem certainly isn’t between the posts: the only point this season when you couldn’t say we had two of the very best goalkeepers in the division was when Luke Coddington was on loan to us and you could claim we had three of the best!
Likewise, the personnel in front of our goalkeeper looks sound. Everyone is agreed that James Jennings is a massive upgrade at left back, not only for his tenacious defensive ability but for his drive and intelligence going forward.
In the middle Keates has breathed new life into Martin Riley, who suffered with injuries last season and took a long time to get going after his move from Tranmere. Riley has been our most consistent player since he returned to the team eleven games ago, having started just one of the previous fifteen.
Alongside him, Curtis Tilt can be headstrong, but the admiring glances which higher division clubs have shot his way show that has the raw materials of a very useful central defender.
With Mitchell Lund making good progress as he recovers full match fitness on the right, the back four looks impressive on paper, and Russell Penn’s imposing presence in front of it offers further solidity. So why can’t we keep clean sheets?
Part of the issue, ironically, has been last month’s divisional player of the year. John Rooney, earlier in the season, often allowed players to run off him and a number of chances tended to be created from his side of the pitch. However, I accept it’s harsh to single him out, and he did make some improvements in this area of his game after Keates took over.
So if the defensive unit is sound and the midfield provides adequate cover, where does the issue lie? Perhaps it’s in defending set pieces that we have a problem. Since Keates began his overhaul of the side, we’ve conceded seven goals in seven games. Two of those were in open play: the messy affair at Dover and a lucky ricochet to the far post by Woking. The others were all from penalties, set pieces or, last Saturday, half-cleared set pieces.
In fact, since Jordan White, who wins a lot of defensive headers from set pieces, was left out of the starting eleven, we’ve conceded three goals from corners in three games. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but maybe we need the big centre forward in the side to shore things up at the back.