Stevenage v Barnet preview: Boro’s defensive deficiencies


Teddy Sheringham –

The problem of a poor defence might not be associated with every Boro in the Football League, but it is certainly a concern for Stevenage, who have conceded more goals than any team in England apart from Charlton and Colchester.

Every time they play, they look like they could only be a few seconds away from a catastrophic error at the back. They conceded from a corner three minutes into their 3-2 loss at Plymouth last week and let a man get to the near post too easily. They played well for the next 10 minutes or so, equalizing through Charlie Lee after a corner from Tom Conlon. Indeed, they could have gone 2-1 up, were it not for a couple of very tight decisions from the linesman. The team has the capacity for fleeting moments of good attacking play.

And yet, the team is seemingly incapable of defending collectively, evidenced by the fact that they have let in 50 league goals this term. At Home Park, Tom Pett showed a reluctance to press and the midfield got forced into a very narrow shape, which allowed Plymouth to get the ball out wide. Stevenage struggled to deal with crosses into the box  and were unable to get tight to the forwards. Whenever the ball came in from their right side, too many defenders were drawn towards that flank and for Plymouth’s second goal, left-back Connor Ogilvie was isolated against the men at the far post.

Boro could have let in more than three in the first half, without some good saves from 40-year-old goalkeeper Chris Day, who has been at the club for eight years. The lack of grit, tenacity and a willingness to track back was a problem for Stevenage in Devon, and it has been a problem for much of the season. This week, manager Teddy Sheringham has tried to address that problem by bringing in Keith Keane on loan from Cambridge, but the midfielder has not made a competitive appearance since August and may be struggling for match practice.

The side improved after the break thanks to the introduction of Dipo Akinyemi and Dean Parrett, who provided pace and creativity respectively. It always seems to take a couple of substitutions for Stevenage to play well, and one wonders why they cannot start games strongly. It is arguable that, not once this season, have they put in a strong, solid performance throughout 90 minutes. The closest they came is when they beat a second string Gillingham side 3-0 in the FA Cup, but even then, Sheringham admitted they had a couple of nervy moments before the third goal.

Stevenage have enough goals in their team to suggest that they will maintain the 10 point gap between themselves and the relegation zone. The question is whether the club believe that they can make long-term progress with Teddy Sheringham at the helm – that, you have to doubt. There may be PR and external commercial advantages of having a footballing legend in charge, there is no way that Stevenage would be in this position now had they kept Graham Westley.

Stevenage made the decision, perhaps with delusions of grandeur, to let go of many of their industrious, battle-hardened professionals this summer in search of more glamorous football. Barnet were one of the beneficiaries of that dubious call, bringing in centre-back Bira Dembele, who has formed a physical defensive partnership with Bondz N’Gala.

In some respects, Barnet possess the traits that Stevenage had last season, priding themselves on being a very strong, combative side. The good news for them is that they have extended the contract of John Akinde. The powerful striker was superb in the National League last season and attracted the interest of Championship side Nottingham Forest in the summer.

Whether Akinde could score goals at a higher level than League Two is questionable. A lot of his goals come from a simplistic punt up field, Akinde harrying the opposition centre-back and putting the ball past the keeper one-on-one. It is possible that he might not have the same success in a higher league, where opposition teams are physically and tactically more advanced. In League Two, however, his pace and strength makes him a player you would rather have on your team, than have to play against. One senses that Barnet always look a weaker side when John Akinde does not play, and if the Bees can get early balls into their talisman, it could be very difficult for Stevenage’s defence to cope.

Martin Allen is starting to build a strong midfield that can provide the ammunition for Akinde. Curtis Weston scored some important goals last season, he is their engine and driving force in the middle of the park. Barnet lacked a degree of creativity earlier in the season, but recent additions may improve that aspect of the team. Chris Hackett made his debut against Carlisle on Saturday and looked intelligent on the ball, the winger should improve with more game time. 26-year-old Mark Randall looked lively when he came on and could show some of the talent that saw him make 13 appearances for Arsenal as a youngster.

Barnet’s midfield looks a lot stronger than Stevenage’s does at the moment and given that the Bees have not conceded a goal at the Hive in over a month, this blog backs them to triumph.