Friday 31 March 2023

Set The Bar High For Changes

Let’s face it, while we all have our opinions on how next season’s team/squad might look (and how we might want it to look), it is right now an almost completely blank page, even with the club’s recent extension of a few contracts (Maynard-Brewer, Blackett-Taylor, Chin, earlier Dobson). Until a takeover happens and new owners can give an indication of priorities and budgets, and after that Holden gives some insight into how he wants us to play (including the preferred formation), we are just engaging in idle speculation. But perhaps there are some conclusions to be drawn, including from Peter Storrie’s recent meeting with the Trust and the most recent Fans Forum.

You have to start with the basics, what are we hoping to achieve next season? Storrie said (Trust report) that “the priority has to be to get out of League One, with plans focussed on achieving at least a top six finish next season”. Pretty good, but I’d go a little further. The objective is promotion, anything else is another season of failure, including getting a play-off place but not going up. It is an important distinction I think, not least in framing who is retained and what is done in the transfer market. My own view is that for sure it’s a real plus to have so many products of our youth system in the first-team squad; but if I had to choose between a team of academy products which developed through next season but didn’t get us promoted and a bunch of seasoned old lags which did, I’d take the latter – as our club cannot thrive in this division and, with no disrespect intended to them (but plenty to Duchatelet), we are not Crewe.

Of course the two positions are extremes and not mutually exclusive. Perhaps a team based around our youth products will be good enough to get us promoted. But it sets the bar. When assembling the team which blew away the division, Sir Chris talked of going for players who could get us promoted and be capable of playing in the Championship. I’d suggest that is the base line for us now, that the only decision on a player is whether he meets those criteria, irrespective of where he comes from.

Next formation. And it matters. This season 4-3-3 has generally been the favoured option, for good reasons. We have no established forward partnership and more often than not we’ve been very short of options (initially Stockley with Aneke sometimes in reserve, more recently Leaburn with Bonne and Kanu available). With two exciting players in Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi, it made sense to choose a set-up which got the best out of them. This meant asking someone to play as effectively a lone striker, but the goals return from the set-up has been respectable, with them spread around (Rak-Sakyi still leads with 10, Leaburn on 9). For the record, I’d suggest the areas we’ve fallen down in have been goals from midfield (ie Fraser, Morgan, Payne), although the distinctions are blurred, and defenders from set pieces. 53 goals in 38 games isn’t great but it isn’t bad either (the top seven have all scored more but nobody below us has); at the other end conceding 50 is just too many to win promotion (nobody above us has conceded fewer). Over the season the statistics tell their own story: we’ve not been good enough going forward to blow teams away/outscore them or at the back to grind out results.

This does not mean we look to keep 4-3-3 as Plan A. Rak-Sakyi will presumably not be here next season, which leaves Blackett-Taylor and Campbell, with current loanees Jaiyesimi (whose miserable season is summed up with him being sidelined with a hamstring) and Kirk perhaps with us, perhaps not. The system suits CBT, possibly Campbell too, it does not suit others. So if we want it to continue to be Plan A we will need to bring in one or two players who will thrive with it. Otherwise, forget it. CBT and Campbell are perfectly capable as operating as outright wingers (but please not as wing-backs!).

The same for me applies to a back five/three with wing-backs. Currently we do not have any; of course we can and do ask some – Clare, Sessegnon, Egbo – to take on the role, but it isn’t natural for them (and although Chin’s contract has been extended you can’t pencil him in for the job, while Clayden has been let go). So before looking at whether we can create an effective central trio, if Holden wants to play that way we need to bring in some (at least one if it is felt that Egbo can do the job on one side). As for the central positions, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at Hector and Inniss being able to work well together. If both are retained, with Ness, then Thomas perhaps plus one or more of Elerewe, Mitchell and Barker (who will all need to push on next season) and it’s possible. But starting from scratch you can’t say right now we have the basis for a promotion-winning defence (whether as a back four or back three/five).

You can say the same for our forward options. We can’t tell whether Bonne will be given a new contract (his not getting off the bench of late suggests not but it’s up to Holden and what he sees), if Aneke will be available and fit (how many times have we asked that?), whether Leaburn will be sold, and whether Kanu develops sufficiently to be a regular option. All you can say is that in this area we’ve been light all season and will be next season as things stand. We won’t get promoted if we still are through next season. If you look to play two up front you normally need to be choosing from four, even if Holden favours a tight squad. Leaburn has come on leaps and bounds this season and of course we hope he continues to develop well; but he isn’t 20 yet and we need to have options for when he needs a rest and/or has a drop in form.

So who do we have that we know will still be here and can form the basis of a team to challenge for promotion? Maynard-Brewer. If Wollacott is happy to stay and be number two, that’s great; but it would be understandable if he chose not to and asked to go, in which case the club will presumably not stand in his way. Clare has demonstrated his worth through versatility. I hope he will still be around next season, but not used as a first-choice defender. I’d suggest the only defender we have on the books who would be considered nailed on is Ness. Of Inniss, Hector, Thomas, Egbo, Sessegnon (if he is available), Lavelle (if he returns), plus the younger players, you can make cases either way. Hector has impressed (we have been fortunate, given the Ness injury, that he didn’t take as long to get up to speed as was indicated when we brought him in) and Holden clearly likes him. Fine. If we start next season with Ness, Hector and Inniss available, plus one or two others, and get both full-back positions sorted (hopefully Egbo will be one), we might have the foundations for a better defence than this season.

In midfield we have Dobson and if you put him in this category Blackett-Taylor (while Campbell will for sure be in and around). Nobody else has made an irrefutable case for being considered central to next season’s push if we set the bar high. No doubt some of Fraser, Morgan, Payne, along with Henry, Kirk, Jaiyesimi and McGrandles will still be with us next season (safe to assume that Gilby won’t be back while Kilkenny would be a surprise). Personally I’d like to see Clare included in this group, even as our best option to cover for Dobson (while also being available as cover in defence). But I’d suggest we need to strengthen with some extra quality and for some to move on. For some it will presumably be for Holden to assess who is most likely to thrive in a better/more successful team.

So really we have Maynard-Brewer, Ness, Dobson, Blackett-Taylor and Leaburn as pretty much certs. Add Egbo, Hector, Inniss, possibly Sessegnon, plus Clare in the squad, along with Henry, Campbell and Kanu as at least being involved. Again, Holden has talked of wanting a tight squad, one which comes close to picking itself. That requires a spine and to achieve that we need two or three quality new signings, including a central midfielder and a forward. Oh, and new owners.


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