Back-to-back 0-0 draws against Birmingham City and Fleetwood Town are solid results, but the bluntness of our attack in those games has sucked out some of the momentum we had been building in recent weeks.
A trip to a Bristol Rovers side in terrible recent form presents a chance to get back in the groove. It is an opportunity that we simply have to take if we are serious about challenging for automatic promotion. With teams around us starting to gather momentum of their own, this has to be the period of the season when we step on the accelerator.
Having settled on a successful formula a few games ago, those successive blanks in front of goal provide Mark Robins with food for thought. While there is an understandable temptation to change things up in order to give us a greater attacking threat, it risks upsetting the balance in defence and midfield that has seen us control games on a consistent basis recently.
Despite Sam McCallum’s transfer to Norwich City, the loan back means that the main decisions for this game are who to play in the three most advanced positions in the team. Having looked more of a threat against Fleetwood Town with a strike pairing of Maxime Biamou and Matt Godden, there is a strong case for persisting for a game against struggling opposition where we should be able to control the midfield despite taking a player out of that area of the pitch.
However, Robins may not be willing to upset the balance of the side just yet. Having comfortably defeated the same opposition a few weeks ago with a front three of Maxime Biamou supported by Jamie Allen and Callum O’Hare, there is a convincing case to try and repeat the trick for this upcoming fixture.
Last Time We Met
In what was our most convincing performance at St Andrew’s this season, a Sky Blues side featuring five changes from the previous game cruised to victory over a demoralised Bristol Rovers. An early goal from Maxime Biamou, having been expertly threaded through by Callum O’Hare, set the tone for a dominant display. Any grumbles at not having added to the lead by half-time were quickly quelled in the second-half with goals from Josh Pask and another from Maxime Biamou killing the game off.
Manager – Ben Garner
A well-respected young coach after spells in the backroom staff at Crystal Palace and West Brom, Ben Garner must increasingly be feeling that his first opportunity to be a manager in his own right has come at the wrong club at the wrong time, having faced a littany misfortunes in his short time in charge.
It was always going to be difficult for Garner to implement new ideas having arrived on Christmas Eve ahead of the festive fixture list. A nightmare run of injuries further hampered Garner’s ability to do anything different with a squad that has increasingly looked in need of a refresh. To exacerbate the challenge, Garner missed over a week of work having to deal with a personal issue.
All of which has contributed to a 12-game winless streak with just one goal from open play scored. While Garner can hardly be blamed for the majority of the issues that have contributed to this run, it has inevitably engendered a foul mood at the club and sapped the confidence from the side. If the run goes on much longer, it would take an extraordinary show of patience from the board to see through this difficult period.
Who To Look Out For?
It is little surprise that the scorer of that one goal from open play for Bristol Rovers is Jonson Clarke-Harris. Despite having suffered a dip in form lately, the former Sky Blues man is subject of speculation that he may leave before the transfer window closes.
Clarke-Harris’ departure would be a hammer-blow to Bristol Rovers’ hopes of doing anything this season other than edging to safety, with the team’s other attacking options unproven or unconvincing at this level. There is hope that recent loan signing Timmy Abraham – yes, the brother of Chelsea striker, Tammy – could provide the injection of attacking quality this team badly needs, but it is a lot of pressure to put on a youngster despite a good record at youth-level.
The addition of Abraham is a part of Ben Garner’s attempted evolution of a side that had been built to play physical, reactive football by previous regimes. Wingers Jayden Mitchell-Lawson and Josh Ginnelly have been loaned in to add an extra level of pace to the side, while the temporary addition of Chelsea’s Jamal Blackman in goal could well be Garner’s best piece of January business, with Blackman having impressed in the second-tier as recently as two years ago.
Where This Game Will Be Won or Lost
With confidence at rock bottom at Bristol Rovers, this game is about us asserting ourselves on an opponent and giving them little reason to believe they can hold onto something here. As ever, Liam Kelly and Liam Walsh establishing the midfield dominance will be important, but so will be the movement ahead of them in converting dominance into opportunities.
Ben Garner wants his Bristol Rovers side to press teams high up the pitch. While this should make it easier to play through them if we can overcome that initial pressure, it means that they may be in a position to punish us if we’re not 100% concentrated and end up giving the ball away sloppily around our penalty area.
Concentration and domination, that is the key here.