A late equaliser conceded at Sunderland means that we continue to be winless on the road in the league. Including last season, it is a run that stretches back ten games over a period of seven months – to the 5-4 victory at the Stadium of Light on 13th April.
What could, and can possibly still, be explained as the variance in results that happens over the course of a season is starting to look like a mental block. This is an attempt to make sense of our away record and whether we can hope for improvement over the rest of the season.
Tougher Away Fixtures
The average position (based on the current table) of the teams we have played at St Andrew’s this season is 14.5, the average position of the teams we’ve played away is 11.6.
To make better sense of that, 70% of our fixtures at St Andrew’s have come against teams currently in the bottom half, while we haven’t played any of the current top six in our temporary home. On the road, 37.5% of our fixtures have been against bottom-half sides, with three of our away eight away fixtures being against current top six sides.
That is a fairly significant gulf in fixture difficulty which will inevitably balance out over the course of the campaign. However, considering we have failed to put away Bolton Wanderers and Milton Keynes Dons in away games this season, there may be something more at play here.
The Bolton Wanderers and Peterborough United away games this season make a persuasive argument that we have perhaps not had our share of the luck in our away games this season. A mysteriously disallowed goal that could have put us 2-0 up against Peterborough allowed the opposition to reverse the momentum of the game in the second-half. While the Bolton game saw us have three goals disallowed for marginal offside calls and two decent penalty calls turned down.
Personally, I don’t feel like there is much to be gained from dwelling on bad luck. While we would be among the automatic promotion contenders had decisions in those games gone in our favour, it is inevitable over the course of a season that you will have games where the big decisions in games go against you. Good teams put games beyond the margins of fortune, in those two games I’ve cited, we should have been able to win in spite of those decisions.
There appears to be a difference in mentality between games at St Andrew’s and on the road. Whenever we take the lead on the road, we seem to adopt a negative mentality and allow opponents to gather momentum. While we don’t exactly go for the jugular after taking leads at St Andrew’s, there seems to be a better determination to at least break up the opponent’s momentum and a belief that we’ll get over the line.
In four of our eight away games this season, we have scored the first goal and failed to see the result out, we lost 4-0 on the one occasion we conceded the first goal. Conversely, at St Andrew’s, we have won on the three occasions we’ve scored the first goal and only lost in one of the six games the opposition have scored first.
Overcorrecting From Last Season
The biggest issue this team had last season was an inability to break down determined defensive opponents at the Ricoh Arena. It seems that Mark Robins has corrected that this season by implementing a more deliberate passing brand of football that draws opponents further up the pitch, which has largely had the desired effect.
Against the better teams who are more likely to take the game to us, it seems like this team can be rattled. In addition to the 4-0 shellacking at Rotherham, we shipped three goals against Portsmouth and Oxford United sides who put us under pressure, while we came under sustained pressure in conceding two against Peterborough United.
Perhaps it is a case that by focusing on how we use possession, it has come at the cost of the defensive organisation and mentality required to frustrate the better teams at this level. Being able to more reliably beat the weaker teams at this level may be what gets us a top six place this season, which, of course, then puts us into a competition where we have to go out and beat two of the better teams at this level.
Lack of Attacking Quality
Although we have become less defensively minded this season, the focus has been on deliberate passing play than free-flowing attacking football. While that has given us control over many of our games, we are the lowest scorers in the current top six and have only won one game by more than one goal this season.
0-0 draws at Bolton Wanderers, Burton Albion and Milton Keynes Dons could have been settled in our favour with a little extra quality in the final third, while a second at Sunderland could similarly have been the difference between a draw and a victory. While at St Andrew’s, we seem to be finding goals from different sources, that lack of a reliable goalscorer seems to be a bigger factor on the road, where the balance of games are more even.
It’s fair to point out that the injury situation this season has had an impact on our attacking play. Wesley Jobello picking up a season-ending injury forced Mark Robins into a tactical re-think, while spending the past few games with only really Amadou Bakayoko available hasn’t been ideal. Maxime Biamou and Jordy Hiwula returning provides the manager with some interesting options, with Matt Godden set to return towards the end of January. While there is a focus on who we might sign in January, having a run of games with most of our attackers fit could resolve some of our attacking issues.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that we are at least creating enough chances to win away games, currently sit fifth in the table and have only lost once on the road. As with all the factors mentioned in this article, it feels like it would only take something small to change for a decent season to become a very good one.