Preview: Mansfield Town

It’s hard to be particularly angry at a defeat away at Premier League opposition, but our passiveness in the first-half renders any positives to take from the fight-back we sustained in the second-half moot – Brighton had already won the game before we started playing. It’s a fourth defeat in a row now, but the main hope is that taking time out of the league and then having a week’s rest will restore the confidence and focus that has been lost over the past few weeks.

That’s because we’ll need every iota of confidence and focus for the task ahead of us this week, with games against three teams currently sitting above us in the table. If we can take five or more points from these games, we’re starting to make up ground again in the play-off chase, anything less than three points then we’re going to need string together a run of four or five wins as soon as possible in order to put ourselves back into play-off contention.

With the first two of this run of three games coming on the road, and to teams challenging for automatic promotion, it’s absolutely crucial that Mark Robins rectifies our terrible recent away form. What’s strange about it is that it’s uncharacteristic of a Mark Robins side to be so poor away from home – we’ve even had recent evidence of a perfectly-executed away performance in the FA Cup win over MK Dons.

The first task is to end the leaking of goals that has set in since the start of November – we’ve kept just two clean sheets in our past 16 league games. It hasn’t been helped by the number of injuries we’ve sustained at the back, but there is a worrying lack of organisation and concentration in this defence – which is somehow still the best in the division.

Possible Line-Up

The second task is to find the right balance in attack to give us a threat on the counter. Recent team selections with Jordan Shipley, Tom Bayliss, Josh Barrett, and Peter Vincenti in wide positions have robbed us of pace on the break, which has placed the attacking burden on Maxime Biamou winning headers and Marc McNulty conjuring a finish from somewhere. Kyel Reid’s reintegration into the first-team provides pace and direct running from out wide, while Jonson Clarke-Harris provides a more mobile, less aerially dominant but potentially more prolific strike partner to McNulty than Biamou does.

Whatever team is selected, it has to have had forethought gone into it and it has to be given games to integrate if it looks like being successful, chopping and changing (although some of it necessary) has curtailed what had been a strong run of form for us.

Last Time We Met

It had been a characteristic of our season up until November that when we’d lose games, we had at least been the better team. Along with the away defeat to Accrington Stanley, the loss to Mansfield earlier in the season was one we deserved. Our back four looked rattled by Mansfield’s combination of direct balls forward and pace in wide areas, Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis were constantly caught under high goal-kicks while Jack Grimmer in particular was tortured by Mansfield’s lithe winger CJ Hamilton.

Nonetheless, we looked to have weathered the storm somewhat – albeit while creating next to nothing – until Mansfield’s Alex MacDonald leathered in a stunning effort from distance past Lee Burge to earn his side a deserved three points.

How Are They Doing?

Mansfield had been heavy promotion favourites heading into the season – mainly off the back of signing a lot of League One journeymen players early in the summer – and had struggled to live up to that billing. They spent the first few months of the season looking disjointed, with manager Steve Evans struggling to find his preferred line-up and often playing players out of position, however, they have quietly moved up through the gears now that their team is more settled and are on a run where they have lost just twice in their past twenty games and only once at home all season.

Evans spent much of the summer making it very clear he was after a mythical 20-goal a season striker to fire Mansfield to promotion. However, it’s transpired that the 20-goal calibre forward Evans was after was right under his nose in the form of Danny Rose. A good all-round striker who is strong in the air for his height, energetic and a strong finisher, Rose plays a key role in not just scoring goals but facilitating their creation.

Rose is partnered by Kane Hemmings – who was signed by towards the end of the summer after other preferred striker targets fell through. While Hemmings hasn’t been as prolific as expected, his pace and ability to run the channels and in behind cause teams plenty of problems. Given our tendency to play something of a high defensive line, Hemmings’ pace could be our undoing.

Possible Line-Up

While Mansfield tend to play a direct style of football, it’s based more on the energy and tempo of their football than simply hoofing it forward to a big target-man (which they don’t have). They have pace and energy in wide areas in the form of CJ Hamilton, Alfie Potter and Alex MacDonald, while Joel Byrom in the centre is a real tyro who can wreak havoc with his drive from midfield.

At the back, Mansfield have experience and physicality at centre-back by the bucket-load in the forms of Zander Diamond, Krystian Pearce, David Mirfin and Rhys Bennett. With winger Paul Anderson having been converted fairly successfully to right-back, and Mal Benning an attacking option at left-back, Mansfield can really overload teams down the flanks.

Prediction

Mansfield are a fearsome prospect and hardly the team you to play – especially at Field Mill – when seeking the win to rekindle your season. However, we have consistently seen this team pick up results at just the moment it looks like the season is falling apart, particularly when up against the better teams. Mansfield will want to play on the front-foot, which, in theory, plays into Robins’ strengths as a counter-attacking manager.

A lot rests on how confident and organised our defence is after recent results, if we can hold tight long enough to get the first goal, this could be yet another backs-to-the-wall win at one of the division’s better teams. If we continue our streak of sloppiness and passiveness in defence, this could be the kind of defeat that kills a season.

Somehow I think we can get a result from this encounter, I’m going to tip us to draw this 1-1

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