Weekday Round-Up: Predictable Mowbray, the Whitney debate, and the Aspin effect

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 18 October 2017, 10:11

The Championship may have taken yet another breather but there was a full fixture list in League One and League Two on Tuesday night. Our man Gabriel Sutton (_FootballLab) plucks out four talking points from the mid-week games.

Predictable Blackburn

From seven games against the bottom 10 this season, Blackburn have taken just (seven) points. Their problem is not necessarily their performances against fellow big clubs, ex-Championship outfits and potential promotion contenders. Rather, it has been their displays against ex-League Two clubs who are looking over their shoulders and who perhaps see a game against Rovers as their cup final.

That was the mentality of Plymouth, who put in a dogged defensive display in their 1-1 draw at Ewood Park. Blackburn were guilty of missed chances, with Ben Gladwin, Danny Graham and Marcus Antonsson especially culpable, but had to settle for the draw that sees them stay 10th. That position is not good enough for a club with on paper one of the best two squads in the league, even if they have games in hand on those around them.

Tony Mowbray’s supporters say that he has earnt a lot of goodwill, after helping the club pick up 22 points from their last 15 Championship games, a run which nearly kept them up. His critics however, believe him to be too predictable.

Ten players have started at least two-thirds of the team’s games this season, which suggests that some are not facing the consequences when they don’t match the work ethic of the opposition. Winger Harry Chapman has looked bright in almost all his 10 league substitute appearances, but is yet to be rewarded with a start. Striker Joe Nuttall has been in outstanding form for the Under-23s but his involvement hasn’t extended beyond two substitute appearances in the EFL Trophy, despite the current team scoring 16 in 12.

This predictability in selection has translated onto the pitch: Blackburn have scored just six first half goals this term and are often too slow to force their opponents back. Mowbray needs to learn when to shake things up and keep his opposite number guessing.

The Whitney debate

Is it conceivable that without change, Walsall edge their way past the 50-point mark this season to League One safety? Yes - they have only lost one in seven after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at MK Dons and are 16th in the table.

Would that be a bad outcome?

Not necessarily, considering the budget the management team are working with. There is a valid argument therefore that Jon Whitney is a passionate man who, in difficult circumstances, deserves more respect than he is getting.

However, is it remotely conceivable that under him, Walsall ever defy the odds and push for promotion? Not at all. The club’s situation is very different to the one it was in two years ago, when they mounted a challenge instigated, but not completed, by Dean Smith. Back then, they had a consistently smooth style of football that invited belief, they had their best players tied down to permanent contracts and they had a popular and personable manager.

The board would argue they are standing by Whitney to recreate the stability the club enjoyed under Smith. A lot of fans would argue that he has not earnt such loyalty, which masks the club’s lack of ambition to appoint a higher-profile manager and spend more.

Reality lies somewhere in between. While reasonable results suggest that Whitney might not be the clueless buffoon he is often portrayed to be, his presence highlights the club’s lack of resources and the board’s acceptance of mediocrity.

Vale rejuvenated

This blog will admit to having held reservations about Port Vale’s appointment of Neil Aspin, but there is clearly now a sense of unity at the club.

His arrival, along with new director of football John Rudge, has re-enthused a once disenfranchised fanbase. In the last home game prior to their move, a 2-1 defeat to Accrington, less than 3.4k fans attended. In Aspin’s first home game in charge, the gate reached over 5.8k, such is the love supporters have for the 52-year-old, who spent a decade in Burslem prior to the turn of the century.

The Valiants lost their first game under his tutelage, 2-1 to Grimsby, but recovered from that defeat with wins over Cheltenham and Morecambe. Those results mean the Staffordshire club have scored seven goals in three games since the new manager took charge – having netted three in the previous nine.

The catalyst for this is partly improved work ethic which Aspin demands, having spent much of his managerial career working in non-league football. Better form is also down to better support and service for Tom Pope. The target man, another cult hero at the club, looked isolated in the first 11 games, but recently we have seen the likes of Ben Whitfield and David Worrall get closer to him.

Pope has consequently scored five goals in his last three games – his total tally of six goals puts him just two off the top scorers in the league. For the speculative punters, his form could be worth watching.

Exeter must tighten up in big games

Exeter City are having a strong season. In a league with bigger-budgeted clubs, they have responded admirably to the loss of David Wheeler and Ollie Watkins. Forwards Reuben Reid and Jayden Stockley are in good form while wide man Lee Holmes has recovered from injury to be at his inventive best.

However, there is a danger that they have not quite learnt from their mistakes that ultimately cost them promotion in the play-offs. Their defence lacked aggression, especially when dealing with crosses into the box and while they could outscore Carlisle over two legs, they were stifled by Blackpool.

This season, in four games against top eight opposition, they have accrued just one point, conceding nine goals. Their only clean sheet came on Saturday at Wycombe, where they were fortunate that their opponents were wasteful in front of goal.

Some of their problems might be put down to the absence of centre-back Jordan Moore-Taylor, who shows more leadership skills than the average 23-year-old. Having made his debut for the Grecians as an academy graduate five years ago, he is not the biggest but has upper body strength and his partnership with Troy Brown was key to their impressive form over winter last year. Since Moore-Taylor’s injury, his teammates have gone under against Coventry, Notts County and on Tuesday Luton, who ran riot in the second half to inflict a 4-1 defeat.

Brown was paired at centre-back by Dean Moxey, a left-back by trade who didn’t look comfortable centrally. The man who did play at left-back, 34-year-old Craig Woodman, was at times exposed for a lack of pace as the team fell apart after the interval.

In previous seasons, they were side that had the technical ability to compete well with the top teams, but lacked the power to handle battle-hardened strugglers. Now, we’re seeing a side tangibly far better than two-thirds of the division, but one that needs to tighten up when it comes to the big games.

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Graham Westley
Graham Westley
16th February
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