First of all, Merry Christmas. Second of all, let’s get down to the football.
Last week was what we hope another stumble on what we hope is the path to promotion. Reice Charles-Cook’s slap in the general direction of a goalbound effort cost the team two points, adding to previous mistakes in the past two games. I’m all for letting young players learn from their mistakes, but given our aim this season, it would be negligent to simply allow Charles-Cook to continue making mistakes.
Whether Tony Mowbray sees this as the time to send the message to Charles-Cook that that was one mistake too many last week is still anybody’s guess. The hint of a foul may let Charles-Cook off the hook, but he really needs to assert himself in the penalty area, even if he does think he’s being fouled. Something also known as ‘playing to the whistle’.
The concern heading into this Boxing Day clash with Port Vale is that the opposition will know that we have a weakness in the side and will show no let up in targeting it. With Ben Turner missing from the side, it’s going to be even harder to deal with those hanging set-piece deliveries. The best way to overcome this weakness in this game may be to score so many goals as to render Port Vale’s efforts academic, easier said than done.
It’s something of course that we have also struggled with in recent games, where we have seen plenty of the ball but struggled to create telling opportunities with it. The strength of this team is counter-attacking and opponents are now wary of giving us space on the counter, somehow we have to find a way to break down banked defences much better than we have been doing.
The performance of Joe Cole last week came under the spotlight with the ex-England international still looking a few steps off the pace despite having come back from a long rest. It’s still a little premature to say whether this is because he’s still adapting to League One football or that he really has suffered from losing his pace over the last few years. With there being such a need in this side for someone to pick a pass in the final third, and James Maddison still recovering from a long-term injury, it would be welcome if the real Joe Cole could please stand up.
Elsewhere, hopefully the return of Jacob Murphy to the starting line-up will make a difference. The one upside for Ben Turner’s injury means that we don’t have to worry about not being able to play all of our loan players, so there is little preventing us from picking the strongest side possible.
Last Time We Met
It was Tony Mowbray’s very first game in charge the last time we faced Port Vale but the end result was one of those afternoons where you questioned just whether we would ever find success. After a very bright start where Jim O’Brien side-footed in an effort from the edge of the area to reward an attacking and energetic beginning, the team flagged badly in the final 60 minutes of the game.
Mark Marshall tortured our defence which led to two quick goals to hand Vale the half-time lead. Despite little improvement in performance, Frank Nouble bludgeoned his way through Port Vale’s defence before laying the ball off for a Sanmi Odelusi tap-in. It was scarcely deserved given the flow of play at the time and Port Vale made sure that they left the Ricoh with all three points after Michael O’Connor scored a long-range free-kick past Lee Burge, having come close from nearly the same spot a few minutes earlier.
How Are They Doing?
Port Vale are having a strange season, on the one hand, the budget has been slashed, the squad stocked with freebies and they suffered a cup defeat to Exeter so poor that it led their owner to putting the club up for sale. On the other hand, Vale have been quietly impressive this season with their re-jigged squad and are only just outside touching distance of the play-offs.
Vale’s somewhat surprisingly strong league position may owe somewhat to the lack of quality in this division overall. They have played some good football in patches under Rob Page, in his first full season as a manager, but have been inconsistent and struggled for goals.
The form of Ajay Leitch-Smith over the past month or so has been welcome considering the struggle for goals. The former Crewe man was once regarded as a bit of a prospect a few years ago before becoming one of those hard-working strikers who never seem to score. Something has clicked recently and he has scored six goals in his last eight appearances.
There is quality in midfield for Port Vale to keep an eye out for, Michael O’Connor, last season’s tormentor, remains a class act in midfield and his set-piece delivery looks to be a real danger for us. He will be partnered by Anthony Grant, previously of Crewe, one of the most infuriating midfielders in the division for opposition fans. Grant is one of the best cheaters at League One level, niggly fouls, time-wasting, feigning injury, this guy has every trick up his sleeve to antagonise you if his time is on top.
In goal Vale have Jak Alnwick, a player who 12 months ago made his name at Newcastle with a memorable debut from the bench to deny then-league-leaders Chelsea. For some reason, the Tynesiders dispensed with the youngster’s services in the summer only for Vale to pick him up on a free transfer after an injury to their first-choice keeper Chris Neal. Alnwick has been a stand-out performer thus far for Vale as he sets out to prove Newcastle just how wrong they were for letting him go.
It’s going to be interesting to see the reaction from last week and our previous run of results since the Gillingham game in general. For much of Tony Mowbray’s reign, whenever we’ve had a few difficult results, there has been a strong reaction. Yet there has been the opportunity in the past couple of games for that reaction to manifest itself but instead we’ve produced some pretty laboured performances. Four games without a win for a side chasing promotion is poor, five games without one would be criminal.
Port Vale themselves have the ingredients to ruin the festive cheer for us on Boxing Day. They have some excellent set-piece takers and experienced campaigners throughout the side, they could exploit our weaknesses and then sit on a lead for the remainder of the game. The onus will be on us to break them down and put the game to bed.
I am predicting a 1-1 draw.