A much-needed win against Lincoln City prior to our Boxing Day hiatus means this season remains on the verge between memorable and mediocre. Just three points off second place, but the same distance from 11th, an extended run of good or bad form over the next few games is likely to have a huge impact over where our ambitions lay for the remainder of the campaign.
If we are to set our sights towards the upper end of the table, it is vital that we start winning away games. This upcoming fixture at a Wycombe Wanderers side with the best home record in the division represents the toughest of tasks, but if we can come out of this with all three points, it would demonstrate to ourselves that our away day hoodoo thus far has been down to bad luck rather than something more systemic.
The Lincoln City game saw Mark Robins return to the 3-4-2-1 system, with Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke supporting a lone striker, that had been used in November as a compromise after a, now largely resolved, injury crisis in attack. On the plus side, it saw us control large portions of the game and look secure at the back. On the down side, we struggled to get numbers into the penalty area, with a lot of our chances being hopeful efforts from range.
It would be a surprise for Mark Robins to deviate from the system for a tough away game while searching for extra attacking fluency. Whether we can retain the same level of control in midfield against Wycombe as we did against Lincoln is likely to be important, as the lack of pace or power in attack while playing this shape makes it hard for us to threaten on the counter-attack.
With that concern in mind, Maxime Biamou seems the most likely candidate to come into the side. However, with so many players in this system who want to hold onto the ball themselves, adding a target-man to spearhead the attack may not be the best of ideas. There is perhaps an argument to bring in Jamie Allen or Callum O’Hare to play in those supporting attacking roles, but it seems unlikely that Zain Westbrooke would be dropped after scoring last week nor Jordan Shipley, who is in good recent goalscoring form too.
Last Time We Met
This final game of 2019 is a replay of the first game of the year. A repeat performance and result would be most welcome, after the Sky Blues produced a thoroughly professional away performance in the most recent fixture between the two sides of the ilk that hasn’t been seen this season. After soaking up some early pressure, our counter-attacking pace put Wycombe twice to the sword, first via a Conor Chaplin penalty won by Dujon Sterling and later on via a classic Tom Bayliss midfield surge setting Jonson Clarke-Harris free to fire past a helpless Ryan Allsop.
Manager – Gareth Ainsworth
Having gradually taken the club from the foot of League Two into League One over several seasons on a limited budget, survival last season looked to be the very best that was possible at Adams Park. To be comfortably top of the League One table at the half-way stage demonstrates an incredible ability from Gareth Ainsworth to wring the best out of relatively limited resources, with largely the same squad that got the club out of League Two.
While Ainsworth’s reputation for producing incredibly direct and cynical sides isn’t entirely unwarranted, he has gradually evolved the playing style to incorporate some flair players and adapt to a higher level of football. The biggest change this season though has been tightening up at the back, having previously been associated with high-scoring games involving taking risks to score late goals.
Who To Look Out For?
The most notable thing about this Wycombe Wanderers side at the moment is how they are greater than the sum of their constituent parts. A defence that has been tightened with players who were considered not quite good enough for League One last year, a limited but hard-working midfield and a strikeforce that struggles to score in open play, this shouldn’t be a team that is top of the table. However, their concentration and consistency has kept games tight and ensured they’ve generally come out on top in the key moments.
The two most important players for Wycombe are Adebayo Akinfenwa in attack and Joe Jacobson at left-back, both of whom have been at the club since their days as a mediocre League Two side. Akinfenwa’s reputation as an attacking bulldozer precedes him and can lead to defenders makings mistakes they wouldn’t normally make. With Jacobson an excellent set-piece taker who can bring the best out of Akinfenwa with accurate deliveries, the key to this game is likely to be avoiding giving away free-kicks in our own half as much as possible.
While this Wycombe side is largely the same one as the one we faced in League Two two years ago, a small injection of cash over the summer has allowed Gareth Ainsworth to broaden his attacking options by bringing in pacey loanees Rolando Aarons and Paul Smyth (who also possesses a mean long throw), along with the energy and surprising aerial threat of David Wheeler. This means that the manager can change things up in attack depending on the opposition or can affect games from the bench.
Areas To Exploit
The battle between Kyle McFadzean and Adebayo Akinfenwa is likely to be a key area of this game. While the experienced centre-back is more comfortable against physicality than pace, his impulsiveness could see him enter challenges against the big centre-forward that he cannot win. Moreover, we are going to have to sharpen up our set-piece defending after letting our previously immaculate record defending them slip in recent weeks.
With our extra numbers in midfield, we are likely to enjoy some extended spells in possession in this game. What is going to be crucial in this game is ensuring that we stretch Wycombe’s defence with width and movement while in possession, rather than doing what we did last week against Lincoln, where we played in front of a set defence, got frustrated and hit hopeful pot shots from distance.