What is going on at Mansfield Town? Five factors behind the club’s poor form under Graham Coughlan

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 19 October 2020, 14:03

With 40 league games yet to play, talk of crisis at Mansfield Town might seem premature.

Is this another sign of the reactionary modern culture in which we all rush to conclusions before events take their natural course? 

Perhaps, but three points from their first six games is as bad a start to 2020-21 as manager Graham Coughlan could have realistically feared.

History is not exactly on the Irishman’s side when it comes to turning things around, either.

In the previous three seasons, none of League Two’s final top-seven teams had fewer than seven points after six games – let alone three.

Of the six teams in those campaigns with fewer than four points at this stage, Morecambe finished the highest with 18th, Scunthorpe and Port Vale endured deeply underwhelming terms in 20th whilst Macclesfield stayed up on the final day at the expense of Notts County, the year before Stevenage were handed a reprieve.

Of course, the past does not automatically dictate the future, but it does show that Mansfield Town must improve - and fast.

Will they do so under Coughlan’s reign? What are the problems that need to be fixed? EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton discusses...

1. Missed chances

Mansfield could very easily be on 10 points at this stage, without their manager doing anything drastically different.

The Stags were the clear stand-out side on the opening day against Tranmere, in which Peter Clarke, Harry Charsley, Andy Cook, Corey O’Keefe and Jordan Bowery all came close in a 0-0 draw.

They were denied by a combination of last-ditch defending and some great saves from Scott Davies, which Coughlan could have done nothing about.

Again, in the 2-2 draw at Leyton Orient, they were good value for their two-goal lead and with more clinical finishing, might have made it a comfortable finale.

While the performance against Stevenage was not quite at the level it was against Tranmere and Orient, Mansfield still created the better chances with Charsley volleying against the far post before Nicky Maynard and James Perch were thwarted by Jamie Cumming.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but striker Maynard will take up a large proportion of the outgoings for owners John and Carolyn Radford – should League Two’s top scorer from 2018-19 be giving Mansfield a clinical edge in front of goal?

2. Squandered leads

Had Mansfield’s games finished on 75 minutes, they would currently be midtable on eight points and the top-seven would look far more reachable.

This may be partly a reflection on poor game management from the Stags, who arguably employed time-wasting tactics too early at Leyton Orient, but individuals must be held accountable too.

Mansfield started quicker against Exeter and got ahead but let themselves down by poor set piece defending, which does not reflect brilliantly on Coughlan but, as we will discuss in the next section, there is no initial ambiguity as to who should be marking who.

They also led at Newport going into the final quarter-hour before falling to a 2-1 defeat, so Mansfield are not too far away from being a side that can start winning games at this level.

They just need to be stronger when protecting their leads, maybe be braver in their game management but, fundamentally, cut out the individual errors.

3. Individual errors

We know Coughlan to have been the most aggressive, no-nonsense centre-backs around in the lower leagues during his playing days so the need to head balls out of the penalty area is, we can imagine, one of the first things he has demanded of his defenders.

It will have greatly frustrated the driven Dubliner, therefore, to see Farrend Rawson and Ryan Sweeney miss their cues to head the ball away from corners in the 2-1 home loss to Exeter.

In the 3-1 home defeat to Bradford, Mansfield started brightly then on eight minutes, goalkeeper Marek Stech palmed a corner into his own net - that moment does not excuse that poor performance under Coughlan’s watch entirely, but it did influence the dynamics of the contest.

If these set-piece woes we saw against Exeter and Bradford persist then of course, Coughlan will have to take more responsibility but for now, we should class those goals as individual errors rather than something symptomatic of a wider structural issue. 

Plus, after Stephen McLaughlin’s opener in the 2-1 loss at Newport put Mansfield in pole position going into the final quarter, it certainly wasn’t in Coughlan’s game plan for Bowery’s attempted clearance to turn into a lay-off for Scott Twine to equalize.

And, if VAR was in place in League Two (thank god it isn’t), the penalty against Rollin Menayese would have been overturned. 

There are lots of things that Coughlan cannot control which have gone against Mansfield – but what about the areas he can control? 

4. Questionable selection

The main cause for criticism of Coughlan from Stags fans has been the selection of Jordan Bowery over Andy Cook.

The latter, who stood out in League One with Walsall, has not only scored 151 career goals, he also provides a stocky target man presence that means, when the Nottinghamshire outfit do bypass the press, there is someone who can make the most of those direct balls.

Bowery, meanwhile, has scored just 48 career goals and, though the same height as Cook at 6’1”, is nowhere near as good in the air, which means he has a lot more difficulty winning headed duels against tall defenders when Mansfield go long.

The Stags have generally played better with Cook, who has started and come off the bench in three league games apiece, but Coughlan appears to want mobility up top that allows his side to press efficiently.

That’s not to say the former Tranmere striker doesn’t work hard, but he perhaps lacks the agility to pressurize one defender, then change his body position to pressurize the next.

Bowery, by contrast, can hassle rear-guards and run the channels, which is something he has done well so far – and Coughlan seems to put extra weight on that side of a centre-forward’s game.

Plus, the Irishman may be aware that Cook’s presence increases the temptation for defenders and midfielders to go long, rather than perfect the neater build-up play which is still very much a work in progress.

Maynard’s track record makes him a difficult player to drop at this level - though even the former Crewe academy graduate has started just three league matches this term – and when the veteran does start, a partnership with Cook may leave the Stags short on mobility.

For that reason, there has not yet been a league game this season in which neither Bowery nor athletic speedster Jamie Reid – who joined after a stellar season in the National League with Torquay – have started.

Results thus far would support the view of those who want Maynard and Cook to start simultaneously in Coughlan’s 3-4-1-2 and it’s true Mansfield may be more clinical with that duo, as well as more effective when playing direct.

However, there are stylistic reasons for Bowery playing which should not be entirely dismissed.

5. Young squad

The top three of League Two after six games are Cambridge, Newport and Cheltenham, all of whom are led by managers who are proven to successfully nurture millennials.

U’s manager Mark Bonner is the youngest in the EFL at 34, Exiles boss Michael Flynn is 40 but only retired two years ago and while Michael Duff is just three years younger than Coughlan at 42, he worked with Burnley Under-23s prior to taking charge of the Robins.

Coughlan delivered great results at Bristol Rovers, where he could call upon a core of experienced players in Tony Craig, Tom Lockyer, Ed Upson, James Clarke, Ollie Clarke and Jonson Clarke-Harris.

Having starred under an uncompromising manager in Paul Sturrock, Coughlan has perhaps subconsciously assumed that the assertive style of management that got him to perform brilliantly will be the style that gets modern players to do likewise, which is not necessarily the case.

Newly appointed CEO David Sharpe has been keen to lower the squad’s average age with Menayese, Rawson, Aaron O’Driscoll, Corey O’Keefe, George Maris and loanee George Lapslie all under 25, while numerous experienced players have departed.

It was essential for Coughlan, therefore, to keep Ollie Clarke – somebody who has enjoyed his management style previously and can enforce his messages on the pitch - fit for a full season, but the Rovers recruit is now out for a few weeks.

It would be premature to write off a manager who took Bristol Rovers from 21st in League One in 2018-19 and led them up to fourth the next – that doesn’t happen by fluke.

With five games coming up in a congested 14-day period, though, the point at which we find out whether Coughlan and Mansfield can yet succeed with one another is fast approaching.

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