Some things never change. Last season our defence was superb, setting a club record for most league clean sheets in a season, and the statistics tell us that this season we could be even better when it comes to shutting out our opponents.
Incredibly, we kept seven clean sheets in our first ten matches of the season. That’s the second best tally in our history, after the eight we achieved in the promotion season of 1969-70. Seven clean sheets out of ten is also the best we’ve managed in the modern era, beaten only in 1901-2, when we kept eight.
So our defence is looking remarkably good. But how? Frankly, it defies logic.
I’m not under-estimating the quality of our defence. The back four were phenomenal last season, and, unchanged, they’re continued to impress this. But things have changed, and they just shouldn’t be doing so well.
Firstly, the whole emphasis of the side has changed. Last season we were built from the back, and a solid 4-4-2 gave the back four superb protection. When we came under pressure, we could fall back on the fabled “two banks of four”, and smother our opponents, our magnificent four protected by a midfield quartet which understood its responsibilities.
This season we’ve deliberately shifted to a more attacking approach, hoping we’ll pack more threat going forward than last season, when an inability to break opponents down ultimately cost us. Our 4-3-3 offers less protection to the defence, even if Akil Wright has been successfully converted to a more disciplined holding role.
Furthermore, our full backs are entrusted with more attacking responsibility. James Jennings always liked to get forwards, but it’s been notable how Kevin Roberts has been released and encouraged to make more forays down the flank. This was obvious from the first home game of the season: against Fylde he surely got into the opposing half more often than in any game last season.#
Last Saturday illustrated this point too: Roberts was, for me, our best player, his front foot approach in the second half personifying a successful half time re-set as we played ten yards higher up the pitch and took the game to Braintree.
If the defence is less protected, and the full backs are given more license to leave their posts, though, shouldn’t we be conceding more though?
Also, we haven’t been able to field a settled back four as we did last season. Incredibly, between the four of them Roberts, Jennings, Shaun Pearson and Manny Smith missed just five games through injury last season. This season, we’ve had to contend with a great deal more disruption: after a mere ten matches that quartet have already missed eight games through injury between them.
Our problems at the back are personified by Doug Tharme. Consider the profile of the promising defender’s league career to date: he made his debut as a 21st minute substitute for the injured James Jennings; two days later he came off the bench in the 28th minute when Manny Smith had to come off; and he made his first start in the next match, but had to come off injured with a quarter of an hour left. His chequered start reflects the instability we’ve suffered at the back: we’ve had to change our back four in four of our ten games so far.
Yet we consistently keep clean sheets. How? I’ve two possible explanations.
One hinges on the quality of our back four. They are more exposed, but that merely offers an opportunity for them to show their quality. The back four have been in excellent form, as have the players who have stepped in when they have been injured, rising to the challenge and facing down the extra threat of their opponents admirably.
Also, Rob Lainton has proven to be an admirable shot-stopper. I wasn’t certain about him after his debut at Dover when, despite saving a penalty, he had a couple of edgy moments. However, he has been impressive since, with sharp reflexes and a speed off his line which means he is genuinely impressive in one-on-ones.
I guess there’s been a third factor, too. Some of our opponents’ finishing has been horrible. Maidenhead did a good impersonation of a relegation side with their inability to take their chances, while Aldershot’s Scott Rendell repaid us for all the goals he’s scored against us over the years by contorting himself to miss as many sitters as he could last month.
Ultimately I don’t care why we’re keeping clean sheets, though, as long as it continues!
This is my column from this 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.