Preview: Cheltenham Town

A defeat at Morecambe has really put our season thus far into sharper focus. Whereas we have spent much of the season waiting for this side to really click into gear, the nature of the performance last Saturday suggested that things might actually be set to go the other way.

Since Jodi Jones’ injury there has been a lot of focus on how Mark Robins sets about replacing the creativity and penetration that our star player offers, however, the loss of defensive solidity over the past month might actually be a far bigger concern. We have conceded in every league game since the start of November, and in a side that struggles to score goals, that could be terminal for our season if it continues.

The loss of Liam Kelly in recent weeks has probably played a big role in that loss of sturdiness at the back. Most weeks we’re up against teams that look to sit deep, having Kelly alongside Doyle as that midfield axis meant that we could break up counter-attacks much more effectively. Although Kelly made us a ponderous side in the centre of the park, having his steel in midfield meant that we only needed a few good attacking moves per game to win.

Possible Line-Up

Worryingly, losing Kelly and bringing in Ben Stevenson hasn’t had the benefit of improving our attacking play either. Duckens Nazon is pretty much the only player at the moment who looks like providing the team with a much-needed attacking spark, but Mark Robins not only substituted him at half-time against Morecambe but bizarrely singled him out for criticism. Without Jodi Jones in the side, we don’t have anyone else except from Nazon who can sow doubt in opposition defences.

This could well be a team selection with a few surprises as Mark Robins looks to scrabble around for a solution to the two big issues we’re facing at the moment. The main hope heading into this game is that last week’s defeat sparks a big enough reaction from the side to lift us out of the torpor we’re in.

Last Time We Met

While we haven’t yet met Cheltenham Town in a competitive fixture, we did play against them in a pre-season friendly ahead of the 2013/14 -a.k.a. Sixfields – season. A Sky Blues side featuring Lee Burge in goal, Jack Finch and Jordan Clarke in defence, Leon Lobjoit and Billy Daniels in midfield and a strike pairing of Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson triumphed 2-0 at Whaddon Road, with Leon Clarke and Cyrus Christie scoring the goals.

Here’s an image to prove it.

Embed from Getty Images

How Are They Doing?

On the face of it, Cheltenham are enjoying a fairly reasonable season thus far, having been tipped by many to be among the lower echelon of teams in League Two this season, to be in a fairly comfortable mid-table position represents a decent start to the campaign for Gary Johnson’s side. However, only Luton have created more chances this season in this division which has engendered a sense that they Cheltenham could be performing a lot better than they are.

Despite that wastefulness in front of goal, Cheltenham’s strikers will be the key players for us to contain. Mohamed Eisa – signed this summer from non-league Greenwich Borough – started the season in electric form, and has started to re-gather that momentum after a lean spell. His pace and unpredictability will make him a big threat on the counter-attack.

Gary Johnson has opted to rotate between two target-men strikers as Eisa’s partner in attack, Danny Wright and Brian Graham. Both are fairly rudimental tall strikers, but do tend to win a lot in the air and have been able to chip in with the odd goal, primarily from set-pieces.

Possible Line-Up

It is from dead ball situations that Cheltenham will look to supplement their counter-attacking threat. The loan signing of Joe Morrell – from Bristol City, managed by Gary Johnson’s son, Lee – has proved to be a bit of a revelation in that regard, with his set-piece deliveries and box-to-box play supplying Cheltenham with more of an attacking end product than they’d otherwise have. There is further energy from midfield in the form of Kevin Dawson and Harry Pell, while right-back Carl Winchester has a good motor on him too.

With a fairly slow back-line, it will be of little surprise to see Cheltenham look to sit fairly deep against us. It’s likely to be an occasion reminiscent of Mark Robins’ final game of his first spell in charge – against Gary Johnson’s Yeovil – where he came unstuck against a side capable of repelling the crosses into the box that were central to Robins’ attacking plan at the time. Robins is likely going to have to show more flexibility in his preferred game-plan on this occasion.

Prediction

Given the way we’ve played for much of this season against bottom half teams at the Ricoh Arena, the script for this game already looks to have been written. We’ll be ponderous and slow on the ball, our opponents will hit us on the counter-attack, have something to defend, making us even slower and more ponderous. Mark Robins has demonstrated in his two spells with the club that he can organise a defence, now he’s got to show that he can do the same in attack, or the remaining life in this campaign will seep away.

Without any cause at the moment to believe that we are about to turn a corner, I can see us losing this game 1-0.

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