For the second game in a row, we were subjected to a heart-attack of a football game. While the win over Cheltenham was made interesting by our poor defending, the Wycombe win descended into chaos out of nowhere. It was a comfortable win made a nervous one thanks to two lapses in concentration and a referee who utterly lost control of the game.
As a result, there are more positives to take out of the Wycombe game than the Cheltenham one. Chiefly, our defending was much improved – Jordan Willis and Rod McDonald were mostly very comfortable against Akinfenwa, while Chris Stokes put in his best performance of the season at left-back. However, it was a game that we wouldn’t have won without Marc McNulty’s goals – which have come at a welcome time after the loss of Jodi Jones and now that we’re leaking more at the back.
Despite his excellent run of goalscoring – six in his last six appearances – it still feels like McNulty should be doing better than he currently is. Twice on Friday night, he was sent through one-on-one and failed to score. There’s still a sense of apprehension before he takes on shots, and his run of goals has been down more to hard work and good movement than pure killer instinct in front of goal.
With three further fixtures to play over the festive period, there’s a chance now for us to establish ourselves as automatic promotion contenders. We have shown over the past two games that we can win without Jodi Jones, and Liam Kelly, which provides little for Mark Robins to consider in his team selection.
The only consideration appears to be surrounding Peter Vincenti – who has been improved in recent weeks – after he limped off with an injury in the first-half against Wycombe. Devon Kelly-Evans’ introduction appeared to change the game in a negative manner for us, which could see Duckens Nazon start and Marc McNulty moved onto the right of midfield, although that has the downside of losing the ability for Nazon to change the game from the bench.
Last Time We Met
Port Vale are the first opponents this season that we are playing for a second time, with the last meeting having happened back in September. It was hardly a classic performance against a Port Vale side in the midst of a poor run of form, but somehow saw us produce a 16-pass move for Jodi Jones to produce a superlative finish from outside the area (albeit with no-one closing him down) to win the game. It was only a late red card to Rod McDonald that gave Port Vale any hope of taking something out of the game.
It was the start of our best winning run of the season thus far (three games), and was also the game that saw us lose Tony Andreu for the season.
How Are They Doing?
The decision to stick with Michael Brown over the summer to rebuild Port Vale’s squad after dropping in to League Two put the Valiants in genuine danger of successive relegations. The squad was left massively unbalanced – far too many wingers, not enough central midfielders and an injury-prone first-choice keeper – while Brown’s motivational techniques amounted to screaming at his players and the referee on the touchline.
Since the appointment of Neil Aspin back in October – a popular former player for Vale during the 90’s – they have been much improved, although they’re not quite clear of danger. Aspin has tried as best as he can to make sense of the squad that was left to him – which has involved played several players out of position – and Port Vale really seem to be benefitting from Aspin’s organisational abilities.
Arguably the biggest factor behind Port Vale’s improvement under Aspin has been the form of talismanic target-man Tom Pope in front of goal. Pope has nine goals in the league this season, with eight of those having come since Aspin took over. Moreover, with the sheer number of wingers in the squad, Pope as a figurehead for their other, more mobile, attacking players to play off.
Of Vale’s other attacking options, David Worrall looks the biggest threat and is possibly someone who should be playing in League One. An energetic and hard-working player, Worrall also has a bit of wiliness to his game in the way he can win free-kicks in dangerous positions. Their other wide options include Burton loanee Marcus Harness has come into form in recent weeks, while Ben Whitfield and Cristian Montano can be match-winners on their day at this level.
At the back, the experience of Gavin Gunning and Antony Kay have been another example of Neil Aspin’s organisational abilities. Both central defenders have been played out of position fairly often this season – Gunning at left-back and Kay in central midfield – but have helped improve Port Vale’s defensive record.
Port Vale have had issues in goal this season, with their first-choice keeper Rob Lainton being injury prone, while the second-choice, Sam Hornby, has also been injured for long spells. After having to dip into the loan market a few times, the relatively inexperienced Ryan Boot has been made de facto first-choice. While he has been okay since coming in, there is a nervousness to his game that could be exploited by us here.
Although Port Vale have improved over the past couple of months, their home form still ranks as the worst in this division, making this a game we really should be winning if we have promotion aspirations. Games over the festive period though have a tendency to defy the form book somewhat, and there’s likely to be a larger than usual crowd to get behind Vale for this fixture given that it’s Boxing Day.
This is going to be a tough game and if we’re not at the races, Port Vale will only be too happy for a win that could set them apart from the relegation battlers. I can see this being a 1-1 draw.