Back-to-back wins has put us pretty much slap-bang in mid-table, slightly closer to the top six than the bottom four. From here, we can either kick on towards the play-offs, or allow ourselves to settle into mediocrity.
Taking at least a point from this away trip to a Southend United side with serious play-off ambitions would be a positive indication that this team is moving in the right direction. While there isn’t a great deal of pressure to come out of this game with a result, it is a test of the mentality of the team and Mark Robins’ motivational skills in maintaining the levels of intensity that we’ve seen against the bigger teams in the division or when we’ve been in bigger need of points.
As for the team selection, it is hard to see many, if any, changes being made from the side that edged past Wycombe Wanderers last week. While the likes of Brandon Mason, Dominic Hyam and Jodi Jones are close to full fitness, introducing them into the starting line-up possibly upsets the balance and continuity we’re looking to build.
The biggest decision looks set to be between keeping Jordy Hiwula on the left of midfield, or restoring Jordan Shipley. It seems to be a choice between attacking intent at the cost of defensive cover, or defensive cover at the cost of attacking intent. This being an away game may tip the balance in favour of Shipley, although Hiwula’s pace could provide a useful outlet to hit Southend on the counter – if Hiwula’s decision-making was more reliable, this probably wouldn’t even be a conversation to be had.
If Mark Robins is tempted to restore Liam Kelly to the side and push Tom Bayliss to make us tougher to break down in the center, he only has to look at the last time this was tried, away at Charlton, to know that it is something that vastly reduces our attacking threat to the extent that extra defensive solidity isn’t worth it.
Last Time We Met
Southend have tended to be difficult opponents for us over the past few years, we haven’t beaten them since 2006, having been in the same division for three of the seasons during that period.
Our last meeting with Southend was over almost as soon as the game kicked-off. It was in the early days of Mark Robins’ second-spell at the club, while he was looking to make sense of the demotivated squad left to him by Russell Slade. Nile Ranger opened the scoring in the second-minute after Jordan Turnbull was caught in possession by Theo Robinson. A strike-force of Marcus Tudgay and Stuart Beavon were unlikely to score, but Southend made sure of the win via a deflected effort from Ryan Leonard around the 20th minute.
Our last two trips to Roots Hall have seen us concede three goals in each game.
How Are They Doing?
Southend are one of several teams who’ll fancy themselves to nick a play-off place come the end of the season. They’re not quite on a par with the very top teams at this level, but are well-organised, physically imposing and have a manager in place in Chris Powell who has won promotion from this level in the past.
A lack of a killer touch in front of goal has let them down on occasion this season, along with a lack of pace in defence that has left them prone to counter-attacks. A tactical re-shuffle in recent weeks to a 3-4-1-2 system has gone a long way to solving Southend’s early-season struggles, they are now unbeaten in five league games, conceding just three goals in those games, but have been better away from home.
Up front, Southend have several hard-working options who aren’t super-clinical but will probably get around 10-15 goals this season. Tom Hopper and Simon Cox are likely to be their two biggest threats, with Hopper someone who can operate as more of a target-man, while Cox can drop deep to link play as well as get into the box and score. Meanwhile, Theo Robinson’s pace and power adds a little more variation to Southend’s attacking threat.
The change of system has affected Southend’s wide options, where there isn’t room currently for proven performers at this level in the form of Stephen McLaughlin and Michael Kightly, but in Jason Demetriou and Ben Coker, Southend have two of the best attacking full-backs in the division, both of whom are capable of putting in high-quality deliveries.
One to keep an eye on in the centre of the park is academy graduate Dru Yearwood, who has just returned from injury. After a breakthrough season last year, Yearwood has further cemented his reputation as one of the most dynamic midfielders at this level this season. Yearwood’s ability to drift past opponents in the centre of the park, pick a pass and win the ball back make him a top prospect and someone who could cause our central midfield duo of Tom Bayliss and Michael Doyle real problems.
Elsewhere, Southend have the leadership and power of ex-Premier League centre-back Michael Turner leading their back three. While in goal, Mark Oxley has been one of the best keepers in League One over the past season or so.
There is a sense with this team that we are destined to finish in mid-table, we’ll win some games, we’ll lose some games, but we won’t find ourselves in too much trouble nor will we come particularly close to the top six. As mentioned earlier, this is the kind of game where we could change the conversation around what is achievable this season, or it could go some way to confirming what we suspect will be true of this side come the end of the season.
I can’t see this being a particularly high-scoring game, but I think Southend may just edge this one, 1-0.