Football League Round-Up: Stevenage right to dismiss Darren Sarll

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 19 March 2018, 08:54

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) plucks out three talking points from the weekend's action, including yet another managerial departure. Check it out below.

Numero uno? Nuno!

When Newcastle United won the Championship title, most neutrals did not consider Rafa Benitez to be a contender for the division’s Manager of the Year award.

That wasn't because the Spaniard didn’t do a good job, but because his club’s extreme budgetary advantage meant that he could not surpass expectations; he could only meet them. Instead, most rightly gave their own accolade to Chris Hughton or David Wagner, promotion-winners with Brighton and Huddersfield respectively.

This season, there has been an assertion that Wolverhampton Wanderers, who are six points clear at the top of the Championship after a 3-1 win over Burton, have a similar advantage to the one Newcastle did. They have strong links to a powerful agent who can hand the club the best talent from across Europe on a silver platter while 23 other clubs examine the scrapheap, or so goes the theory.

There is no doubt that Jorge Mendes’ influence – and a player of Ruben Neves’ quality - has given Wolves an advantage. However, the extent of that advantage has perhaps been retrospectively magnified by the efficiency with which they have used it.

Back in August, Wanderers fans were quietly optimistic of their team finishing in the top six, but there were also a lot of question marks around Molineux. While Neves arrived with much fanfare, the same cannot be said of left wing-back Barry Douglas, who quickly turned from unknown quantity to set piece magician.

Goalkeeper John Ruddy and centre-back Ryan Bennett had been part of a Norwich defence that shipped 69 goals last season – this year they are mainstays of a rear-guard on course to concede around 40. Conor Coady had long been considered a standard Championship ball-winner but has recently been converted into one of the best ball-playing centre-backs ever seen in the second-tier.

Matt Doherty, who provides power and drive at right wing-back, is enjoying perhaps the best season of his career while the previous manager, Paul Lambert, declined to play midfield battler Romain Saiss and speedster Ivan Cavaleiro.

A major factor behind Wolves’ success is therefore Nuno Espirito Santo, who has shown tactical innovation, cool man management skills and a willingness to embrace the club. That is why when they lift the title in May, he should be praised unreservedly for turning a good squad into a dominant force.

Reading’s relegation worries increase

Bolton, Barnsley, Hull, Burton and Sunderland all have two things in common. The first is obvious: they are all in danger of relegation to League One. The second, less so: they have all avoided defeat at Carrow Road, typically with a performance of basic organization. What might worry Reading fans is that their team hasn’t joined that list: instead, they lost 3-2 away to Norwich City due to very poor defending.

After a competitive opening quarter-hour, they conceded the opener: Dave Edwards began a disappointing individual performance by leaving his man unmarked at the back-post from a corner. Just 12 minutes later, another corner saw Tiago Ilori bullied in the air by the opposing centre-back for the second goal.

Centre-back Ilori had his moments last season but in an intense relegation battle, it could be questioned whether he has the strength of character that Paul McShane or Tommy Elphick - currently out injured - might provide.

The Royals were lucky not to be out of the game altogether when, without a combative holding midfielder, they left Josh Murphy in acres of space on the edge of the box, but Liam Moore deflected his shot wide.

Midfielder Liam Kelly was one of the team's better performers, so it was fitting that he scored Reading’s first before the break through a crowd of players, but it wasn’t long before their opponents restored the two-goal cushion.

Anssi Jaakola, who has put in some error-strewn displays between the sticks lately, called Stam's decision to start him over Vito Mannone into question when he tripped James Maddison, who slotted home from the slot just before the interval.

Reading improved incrementally in the second half, six minutes into which an impressive, looping Kelly delivery was touched home from close-range by young target man Sam Smith. In some ways though, that goal did more to challenge Jaap Stam’s methods than justify them.

The goal came from a direct ball into the danger area, yet the Dutchman forced his players to pass sideways and build play patiently, even when that approach wasn’t working. It might be unfair to say that Stam’s tactics are the only reason Reading are in a relegation battle – especially given the injury list.

The Berkshire outfit are without 12 players - including left-back Jordan Obita and winger Garath McCleary - and many of them would improve the current eleven. Life hasn’t been easy for Stam, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that the time for change has come.

Boro right to dismiss Sarll

Few football fans outside Hertfordshire would describe Stevenage’s position – 16th in League Two after 2-2 draws with Crewe and Port Vale – as the point of crisis. The club spent 34 years of it’s 42 in existence outside the Football League, so the decision to sack manager Darren Sarll with the club 13 points clear of the relegation zone might raise the odd eyebrow.

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That perspective though would only reveal half the picture. Back in 2014-15, just six of their 20 domestic signings were from clubs in League One or above, so their play-off finish was something akin to an underdog story.

By contrast, 15 of the 17 additions they have made this season have come from League One or above, which implies that they are now shopping in a more upmarket fashion. For example, midfielder Ben Sheaf has captained Arsenal’s Under-23s, fellow loanee Luke Amos signed a new contract at Tottenham prior to signing while the more experienced Joe Martin and Alex Revell have been involved in third-tier promotion campaigns.

Midfielder Mark McKee and wide forward Ben Kennedy have shown sufficient talent to become key parts of Northern Ireland’s youth setup, while strikers Matt Godden and Danny Newton can cause problems with their mobility and finishing.

A place in the top half of League Two would more accurately reflect the quality in this Stevenage squad and there are two main reasons why they are not in that position. Firstly, poor game management: they have scored the first goal 19 times this season and failed to win 10 of those matches – more than any other side in the division. Secondly, they have only won one away game against a team outside the relegation zone - and that was at Carlisle back in Autumn.

Although on the outside, Sarll’s dismissal might seem premature, the club’s decision makes sense within the walls of Broadhall Way.

Managers Departed

Last man down

Graham Westley
Graham Westley
(Stevenage)
16th February
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