Famine or Feast: Why Nine Acre Is Crucial This Season

It’s been a season of famine or feast so far, as an uneven schedule is reflected in our form.

Our form has varied dramatically: a 5-match unbeaten run which earned Dean Keates the manager of the month award has been book-ended by uncomfortable spells without a win.

The unpredictable nature of our fixture list presents massive challenges to coaches and players alike, with periods where we barely have time to take a breath contrasting with lengthy spells without a game.

Throw in a spell when we had a COVID outbreak at the club, meaning we not only couldn’t play, but couldn’t train, and continuity becomes impossible.

We’re in the midst of such a fallow period now: from the Torquay match to our trip to Chesterfield in late January, we’re guaranteed a mere 4 games in 39 days. That’s quite a contrast from the 5 matches we fitted into the first 14 days of the season.

The lengthy break we had in early November seemed to do us plenty of good: we bounced back from 21 days off the pitch with back-to-back wins and a hard-fought draw at Bromley. As we’d not won in 4 games prior to that hiatus, suffering two 4-goal defeats in the process, the rest seems to have done us good.

The odd thing about that turnaround in fortunes is that it was when our ability to train was severely restricted. At the moment we have no such problem, so hopefully we’ll be able to get some really meaningful work done on Nine Acre.

Keates has already explained that one of the problems of a crowded schedule is the lack of time to work on a specific game plan for our upcoming opposition. Last Saturday’s game illustrated this nicely: we worked on the switches of play which are characteristic of Torquay’s attacking movement, but clearly there wasn’t enough time in the quick turnover between a Tuesday game and the weekend in ingrain these measures into the team. The consequence was we conceded an early goal by failing to execute precisely what we’d been working on.

There’s a broader issue which this lack of time on the training ground has created. I like the squad Keates has assembled, and despite our erratic form, expect us to have a tilt at promotion.

However, I admit our points tally is below what I thought we’d be capable of. Some performances have shown genuine quality, but there have been a couple of shockers too.

Furthermore, games like the win at Hartlepool and the draw at Bromley, while showing the genuine character which this squad possesses, were dependent on a string of fine saves, by Rob Lainton in the former match and Christian Dibble in the latter, to ensure the match hadn’t already disappeared over the horizon by the time we started to take control.

The reason for such inconsistency has to be traced back to that lack of preparation time, We shook the squad up considerably in the Summer, and the long term injuries suffered by Shaun Pearson and Mark Carrington hampered any hopes Keates had of maintaining a level of continuity in his team.

We’ve had to bed in an entirely new back four, and there have generally been three more Summer signings in the side, if not more.

A shortened pre-season further complicated the process of getting the team to gel.

There have been signs of promise, and some partnerships have developed nicely, but continuity has not always been easy to achieve.

For example, look at our forward line: surely Keates was looking to pair Kwame Thomas with Jordan Ponticelli when he put this squad together. It would be the classic big man-little man partnership, with Ponticelli running onto Thomas’ flicks and headers.

Although Ponticelli has struggled to get up to proper match sharpness, the partnership has looked genuinely impressive: they’ve played 261 minutes as a front two this season, and during that time the score is 4-0 to Wrexham!

That’s a goal every 65 minutes; when they’ve not been paired up front we average a goal every 91 minutes.

Their industry, chasing defenders down and refusing to give the centre backs a moment’s peace, were corner-stones of the three-match winning streak we enjoyed last month, and the partnership hit a peak as they starred in the 4-0 demolition of Sutton United.

But that state of affairs didn’t last long: Ponticelli broke down in the 55th minute and since then we’ve managed 1 point out of 9. If only we could get them on the pitch for a long stretch so they could hone their relationship.

These long breaks can hopefully serve a positive purpose. It worries me that we’ll drift down the table as we accumulate games in hand, but if the consequence is that the team can enjoy time being moulded on the training ground, perhaps we’ll emerge with a side which can make inconsistency a thing of the past. That would solve the problem of a congested fixture list: when momentum is on your side, you want to be playing every couple of games.

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