It’s only been in the days since Tuesday night’s dropped points against Walsall that I’ve really come to terms with how much of a missed opportunity that really was. For at least the first 60 minutes or so, we were the better team and reduced a really good Walsall side to mere scraps going forward, creating several excellent chances to score a decisive second goal.
I have noticed in some quarters there has been a desperation to scapegoat a whole range of individuals for that failure to take all three points on Tuesday night. From my point of view, it really was a collective dropping-off, in position and mentally, that cost us the points rather than any noticeably poor individual performance. We tried going defensive but without making specific tweaks to make us more secure.
Walsall could not breach us down the centre but eventually used the width of the pitch by bringing on a right-sided attacking full-back to complement their left-sided one and had the ability to quickly switch the play. It’s something that’s been Walsall’s strength all season and Mowbray really should have been more aware of that, instead he set us up to defend narrowly and deeply which played into Walsall’s hands.
Despite that, it was only one really golden opportunity that Walsall created but we are at the stage of the season where the old ‘on another day…’ excuse cannot be used when points are dropped. Thanks to a few too many ‘on another day…’ performances recently, we have lost ground on our promotion rivals and not beating Walsall means that this is as close to a must-win game in January as you’re going to get.
The challenge for Mowbray is for the first time this season, to find a way to produce two high-intensity performances in a week. Whereas in the past he has rotated his squad to navigate these pesky two-game weeks, he has to make sure that the strongest team is on the pitch rather than being saved for other games, this is the game you save your best players for.
James Maddison‘s exclusion from the starting line-up against Walsall was clearly with this game in mind though and there is no way he doesn’t start this game with Joe Cole dropping out of the team. With Mowbray’s predilection for rotation in mind, I can see either Jim O’Brien or Jacob Murphy being dropped. Stephen Hunt has been talked up pre-match making him the most likely candidate to replace O’Brien or Murphy.
In defence, it’s been finally confirmed (by Romain Vincelot in this interview) what’s up with Aaron Martin and that he is out for around 4 weeks. After another convincing Chris Stokes showing in central defence, Mowbray might keep things as is but could also hand Peter Ramage his debut with Aaron Phillips dropping to the bench.
Last Time We Met
Our one and only league meeting against Burton Albion witnessed our grittiest win of the season. After starting sluggishly, handing an organised Burton side the ascendancy, Aaron Martin scored an unfortunate own goal before we got any kind of foothold in the game. Our equaliser was a goal of genuine quality with Fleck making a defence splitting pass, Ruben Lameiras with a rabona pass to Jacob Murphy, who then squared it to Marcus Tudgay who slotted it into the bottom corner.
The winner came in initially controversial circumstances when it appeared that an offside Romain Vincelot got the final touch on Aaron Martin’s header from a set-piece. As it transpired, Vincelot was behind the ball after Martin’s header making the goal completely legitimate, to the confusion of most watching the game. Despite a few nervy moments at the back, the Sky Blues saw out the win, the first since losing James Maddison to injury.
How Are They Doing?
For much of the season it’s been a case of waiting for Burton to regress back to the mean. It’s not just that they’re Burton Albion that they’re perceived to be massively overachieving, but they have a squad made up of League Two stalwarts and have generally struggled to score, mustering just 32 from 24 games thus far. Added to that, they lost the influential Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink from the managerial dug-out just over a month ago, their resilience at the top of the league is genuinely befuddling.
What they do have is an absolutely rock solid foundation to the team, having conceded just 19 goals all season. Without having any particularly outstanding individuals, Burton are incredibly organised and hard-working in how they’re set up. Generally sticking to at least two banks of four, they are hard to break down and their forwards do tireless work closing down opponents which can make it tough to even get in a position to attempt to break them down.
If there are stars in this Burton side, they are Mark Duffy (on loan from Birmingham) and Nasser El Khayati. Duffy has been influential this season with his directness down either wing and delivery from both open play and set-pieces. El Khayati is a languid presence who can play either out wide or behind the striker but is the kind of player who can produce a moment of magic out of nowhere. The pacey Lucas Akins is a threat too but it’s really Duffy and El Khayati who are the individual mavericks in a solid team-unit at Burton.
The recent appointment of Nigel Clough as manager adds an unknown quantity to the sturdiness of Burton, although they have yet to lose in the three games since his arrival. In contrast to Hasselbaink, Nigel Clough prefers a more open style of football and absolutely loves making tactical tweaks involving playing players out of position. Thus far though, Clough has resisted the temptation to change things, resulting in two wins and a draw since taking over.
The situation of having the nominal advantage of fitness over our opponents has been reversed with Burton not having played since January 2nd. Burton should be heading into this game fitter and much better prepared for the contest than we are. Furthermore, this is probably the club’s biggest day out in a league game in terms of away following, stature of opponent and gravity of fixture in their history. Don’t be surprised to see an ultra-motivated Burton side race out of the traps, looking to play up to the occasion.
Really though, I think we have a better team than they do and the fact that they are currently top of the division is driving me a little crazy. Tuesday night’s dropped points can be forgiven somewhat if we not only show Burton what the best side in the division plays like but then put together a series of victories over the ensuing games. This has to be the week where we stop messing around and assume the mantle that the quality of this side deserves.
As ever, I’m feeling uncertain as to whether we have that killer instinct to take advantage of this opportunity that awaits us. But I’m going to remain positive and predict a 2-0 victory.