What we learnt this weekend

This weekend’s football has seen the rare scenario of Manchester City fans cheering a Manchester United goal, as Van Persie’s equalizer restricted Chelsea’s distance to 6 points, and the not-so rare scenario of Massimo Cellino sacking a manager prematurely. League One’s relegation strugglers of last season, Notts County, have now moved up to 3rd with a win at lowly Scunthorpe, while in League Two, in-form Luton go top of the table for the first time. But what have we learnt this weekend?

Underdog spirit needed at Leicester

leicester celebrateOnly a month ago, people were saying that Leicester City would stay up comfortably, and potentially finish in the top half. This blog was reluctant to agree. Although the team deserved great credit for their dogged performances against the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United, in some ways they needed no motivation to up their game, particularly as a side that had just come into the Premier League. Leicester were the underdogs, desperate to prove themselves.

Having picked up 8 points from a very tricky first 5 games, Leicester gained many plaudits from fans and pundits alike. This seems to have been unhealthy for the players. Since their incredible 5-3 win over Manchester United, the Foxes have picked up just 1 point from 4 matches, against Crystal Palace, Burnley, Newcastle and Swansea. A huge concern will be the performances in those games.

Against Swansea, Leicester put in what looked to be their worst performance for a long time. On the ball, they showed a complete lack of urgency, and the closest they came to scoring was a few decent shots from Riyad Mahrez. Off the ball, most of their attacking players would not press or track back. It seems that since the group of players has been showered with praise, they have lost that competitive edge which made them such a force in the early stages.

Tough task for Rowett

Gary Rowett

Gary Rowett

Birmingham City lost 8-0 to Bournemouth on Saturday, in what was their biggest home defeat in the club’s history. The humiliating nature of that loss means that the new manager, confirmed as Burton Albion boss Gary Rowett, has an incredibly difficult task. He must motivate and inspire a dejected group of players, many of whom have been plucked from the lower leagues, whilst knowing that anyone who shows a degree of talent will be snapped up by a bigger club.

However, when a team is in a relegation battle, as Birmingham will this season, they need to be able to handle constant pressure and work hard for narrow wins. It seems telling that 12 of Burton’s last 24 wins have been by a 1-0 scoreline. Although Burton have conceded a few goals in recent weeks, they are always very good at holding onto leads, which is a trait that Birmingham could do with mastering. Going forward, Rowett has got Burton playing fast-paced counter-attacking football this season, with a heavy emphasis on wing play. This also suits Birmingham, given that some of their best players, such as David Cotterill, Mark Duffy and Demarai Gray play out wide.

Another advantage Gary Rowett will have is his connection to the club. Him, and certain members of the backroom team he will take with him down the A38, have played at St Andrews before. The fact that they all know the club gives the place a lift, which would not happen were it an ‘outsider’ taking over. Rowett will get his full support from the fans, but at the same time, he can be under no illusions about the challenge he faces.

Preston getting into their stride

Joe Garner

Joe Garner

For the first time this season, Preston North End are in the automatic promotion places. Their position now looks very strong, given the fact that they have won their last 6 in the league, and also played 2 fewer games than the majority of teams.

A factor in Preston’s recent form has been their ability to close games out. Last season, 30% of the 46 goals they conceded came in the last 15 minutes of matches, and 18 points had been dropped from winning positions. That theme continued into the early stages of this season, with points dropped against Doncaster, Sheffield United, and Chesterfield, after a 3-0 lead on that occasion. However, since that disappointing night against Chesterfield, they have won all of their matches without conceding a 2nd half goal.

Great credit must go to Simon Grayson for the 3-2 victory over Fleetwood. At half-time, Preston were 2-0 down, and by all accounts struggling to get the ball to their star striker, Joe Garner. Grayson made 2 substitutions, the most important of which being to put on veteran striker Kevin Davies. His physical presence up front struck fear into the Fleetwood defence, and perhaps served as a distraction. When Preston pumped the ball into the box, more space was created for Garner, who took all 3 of his goals in typically clinical fashion.

This young Preston side is growing in confidence, and based on current form, there is not a more complete side in League One.

Injury-stricken Cobblers in poor form

Marc Richards

Marc Richards

October has been a month to forget for Northampton Town. After conceding a stoppage time equalizer at Wycombe, the Cobblers have lost 4 consecutive league games. These results have come in the face of an injury crisis.

They have been without Marc Richards, who has scored 8 goals in 10, and midfielder Ian Morris, who was ever-present during Northampton’s excellent post-February form last season. The defence has been hit hard too. Centre-back Zander Diamond, with whom Northampton have conceded at a rate of just 1 goal per game, has been out alongside Evan Horwood and last season’s captain, Lee Collins. Because of those injuries, Chris Wilder has had to field a makeshift defence, which consisted of 4 full-backs at one point.

Sometimes an injury crisis can be put down to bad luck. However in other cases, and particular the more extreme ones, they may be due to an overly-physical training setup, which Wilder had been known to favour at Oxford United. If this is the case, Wilder, as stubborn a character as he is, must alter his methods, because his side’s fortunes hinge on the fitness of key players.

Northampton possess a good first team, but have a lack of depth beyond that. If they can get their best players fully fit for a large chunk of the season, then this blog believes that they will challenge for a play-off place. However, if these injury problems persist, they will struggle to find any form, and searching questions may need to be asked of Chris Wilder’s training methods.