In Conversation – Season Preview

A new feature we would like to bring you at Measured Progress this season is entitled ‘In Conversation’. The aim for this recurring feature is to discuss the burning issues at Bloomfield Road in a conversation format, beginning with a preview of the season.

Chris Walker and John Kane examine the re-shaping of the squad including the many departures and the core Paul Ince was left with, the new arrivals and the missing gaps, plus a brief look ahead to tomorrow’s visit to Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.

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CW: The most logical place to start when weighing up the squad for the coming season is to discuss who has left the club during the summer. Looking initially at the players the club opted to release, I’d say there were few surprises. Ian Evatt is perhaps the only one that might feel a bit unlucky, but his injuries probably didn’t help, did they?

JK: Not at all. It’s hard to offer a deal to someone in his physical predicament. I do think the club did the right thing in offering him a chance to prove his fitness. I totally understand why another club would offer him a deal if they could absorb the risk. It’s still not clear if he will ever get back what he once had, which is a shame because for me he is an outstanding defender, better than anything we currently have. He got some unfair criticism, what do you think of him as a player?

CW: I’d more or less agree with that. His ability on the ball was a major factor in our success under Ian Holloway, but the aforementioned injuries plus his advancing years mean that perhaps we can’t be too sentimental. The budget available to the manager is obviously limited, so taking a punt on Evatt might have been too big a gamble. I certainly expect him to do very well at Chesterfield though if he can avoid further injuries. It’s possibly more concerning to lose defenders Paul Ince was eager to keep – Alex Baptiste, Stephen Crainey and Neal Eardley. What do you make of their departures?

JK: It’s disappointing to lose both Crainey and Baptiste. However, I think that Baptiste is better off moving, he looked a shadow of his former self last season. For me, on his day, he is a very good right back. Crainey likewise, just on the left. I do however, think that he is less suited to the deep role that Ince had him playing. Their departures leave big spaces to fill. Eardley on the other hand, whilst young didn’t really improve much during his time and it was right for him to move on regardless of the fact that I thought he played very well in the last game of the season. Can you see how the current squad will cover for their loss if we fail to bring in replacements?

CW: Well, at the time of writing the squad simply cannot cover these defensive areas. At right back, we only really have the young and untried Jake Caprice who is possibly better served getting some more lower league experience first. Playing one of Chris Basham, Craig Cathcart or Kirk Broadfoot in the full-back role looks likely at the moment, but it’s far from ideal, is it? And we also probably need another player to cover central defence. What about losing Ludo Sylvestre? Personally I’m a bit undecided on the significance of his departure.

JK: None of those players are a good fit at full back. Unless we have another target lined up at right back after Caddis then I fully expect Caprice to be given a chance at some point. I’m still to be convinced by Bob Harris. The consensus appears to be, ‘once he gets a run of games’ somehow he will be a good left back. I think that you could flip it on it’s head and equally a run of games could expose him. Ludo is a funny one. Ince really nailed his position I think and whilst he is horrendously one footed he could have been pivotal for us this season. I don’t think it’s significant that he’s gone as we can replace him. Who replaces him isn’t entirely clear though. What do you think?

CW: That’s a fair point about Harris, we’ve still not seen enough of him to truly judge him and I do worry about his niggling injuries he picks up. Bringing Jack Robinson in on loan to provide competition looks a shrewd move. As for Ludo, it’s hard to be too upset about losing a player who only ever seemed to find any sort of consistency at the end of a three year spell, but as you say Ince seemed to have finally got the best out of Sylvestre. In terms of the remaining senior professionals, just as we’ve already spoken about the defence looking thin, there isn’t currently anyone else who might fill that attacking midfield role, is there?

JK: Not really. I suspect that should he still be here for the first half of the season then Tom Ince might be pushed in there. Paul Ince was trying to get him there last season, but it appeared to be more of a shop window ‘look where he can also play’ type of move. Tom isn’t best suited to that central position, for me he lacks the 360 degree awareness you need in there to play well in that position. I don’t have an issue with him being used there occasionally especially when teams have doubled up on him in wide areas.

CW: I agree about Tom Ince in the ‘Number 10’ role, although it might be something he learns as his career develops. Paul Ince has shown willingness to try players in different roles and he gave Matt Phillips a try as a central striker at one point last season, if you remember, but I don’t imagine we’ll go down that route again. What about Nathan Eccleston – where does he fit in? As for the central midfielders, are we stocked well enough already with Barry Ferguson, Chris Basham, Angel Martinez and Isaiah Osbourne, would you say?

JK: I think Ince has made it clear that he doesn’t see Eccleston as the central striker and he looked promising against Bolton on the final day. I’d say we are light in the midfield too. I think Basham needs to make big improvements in his game. Defensively he is poor off the ball in terms of covering space, he likes a tackle, but again he’s way too rash. He offers little on the ball also. It’s relatively the same for Osbourne, he needs development. Ferguson and Angel are a great partnership but rarely get game time. So I’d say we are at least one light in central midfield.

CW: That’s probably a fair assessment. Basham always impresses me when he first comes into the side after a spell on the sidelines given his energy, but whenever he’s had a run of games he’s been guilty of the things you mention. As you say, Osbourne is similar in style, and then Angel was completely out of favour last season so maybe Ince does want another midfielder. Neal Bishop looks the prime candidate at the moment with a seemingly ongoing trial, but I’m not sure what he’ll offer that the others don’t already. Are we agreed retaining Ferguson is possibly the best business we’ve done all summer?

JK: Absolutely. He’s an excellent midfielder and regardless of what has happened on the field, we are going to need all he can bring this season. The only issue I’d have with Ferguson is that you need to get the blend right around him. Otherwise we go flat and stagnant. We need a sparky kind of player such as Angel to take the ball from him and inject pace. I’m not sure what Bishop would bring in, if it’s energy and running then that might work out well. Although saying that I can’t say I know what Ince is looking for from his central midfielders. How do you think he wants to approach his midfield set up?

CW: That’s a good question and it will depend on how we’re going to set up formation-wise. The Newcastle friendly saw Ince take a look at 4-4-2, which obviously a bit of a departure from what we’re used to lately. If that’s the road we go down, then two more combative types central, with flair on the wings seems likely, although I would worry about being overrun in central areas with 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 variations much more popular right now in the Championship.

JK: Yeah. The moves to bring in Michael Chopra and Steven Davies seems to be a move towards having two forwards. Alex Rae mentioned in his Newcastle post-match interview that they were going to work on that relationship. I’m not sure how that will develop but if they’ve been brought in by design then you hope that Ince knows what they bring and how they could complement each other. I think that if we are now looking towards a more 4-4-2 type set up then our midfield players might actually be sufficient with creativity coming in from wide perhaps?

CW: It’s looking that way. If that’s the case, then at least one wide player is probably required, assuming no outgoings and that at least one of James Caton or Tom Barkhuizen (who played wide while at Hereford) can make the step up. Of all the youngsters, those two probably have the best chance of getting some game time, wouldn’t you say? I like what I’ve seen of Liam Tomsett, but there’s probably too many players ahead of him in his position (hence him being loaned out to Hyde), while even an injury to Matt Gilks would probably see us turn to the loan market than rely on Mark Halstead.

JK: It might be that Barkhuizen may benefit from another brief loan spell as I think Caton is likely to be ahead of him in the pecking order. With regards to the goalkeeping situation then this appears to be a demand driven decision. Either new loan or short term contract to cover injury or we’re looking at a recall of Chris Kettings from his loan spell and letting the two young lads fight it out. Hopefully, Gilks will be bulletproof this season. For me he’s an outstanding goalkeeper who some fans seem to pin odd blame on him for mistakes that are inevitable in his position. His communication sets him out above most keepers, as shot stopping and reflexes are pretty much a given as a goalkeeper. To replace Gilks like for like would require serious investment of both time and money. That seems to crop up as a consistent theme at the football club doesn’t it?

CW: That’s certainly one way of looking at it, and with the quality that has departed, I think it’s now clear to most that replacing those players on the cheap is not possible. With that in mind, shall we talk a little more about the two players signed who probably have been at the more expensive end of what we’re used to, at least in terms of wages, Chopra and Davies? For a long time this summer, it didn’t seem like we’d be looking anywhere near players of their stature, so it was a pleasant surprise to see them arrive.

JK: It’s good to see them at the club and the former very much fits our recruitment profile. I’m sure Chopra will get goals just like Kevin Phillips did for us, they are similar players, like playing on the shoulder of defenders, instinctive first time shooting. I do think that should we shape up around a 4-3-3 scheme then Chopra will pose the same problem as Phillips did. A classic striker needs more to their game for that system to work. DJ Campbell grew in to that role and dropped deep to link up play, Phillips struggled to do that and I’m sure that Chopra would need to develop in order for us to not face the same issues.

However, if we go 4-4-2 then that’s pretty much a thing of the past. Davies on the other hand is a very interesting signing. He always caught the eye at Derby and we may well have a player with sell on value in a season or two provided we don’t let his value depreciate as we done with our recent approach to contract renewals. Even though we’ve brought those two in it seems like similar moves are either being kept very quiet or we are hitting brick walls. Do you think we may have blown our budget on these two and loans and cheaper options will provide squad depth?

CW: It’s hard to say. We all know the resources available and the actual budget the manager has at his disposal are two very different things, but I think Paul Ince has played his hand about as well as he can do so far. I’m sure he has found it very frustrating, but it would have been easy to panic that we’re short on players and just “bring bodies in”.

All five of his signings so far have the potential to impact the first team, and that’s the way it needs to be. As you say though, we still need quite a few more but we may have to wait until the end of August to have a squad size we’re happy with. There is likely be a point when one of the manager or chairman has to compromise as we approach the window, with either Ince lowering his sights, or Oyston spending more than he’d like.

JK: I think our start to the season might go some way to moving this issue on. A good start influenced by the signings Ince has made might give confidence to Oyston to push harder on the targets and flex (upwards) with regards to fees and wages. I have to say that whilst Davies and Chopra excite, I know very little about Bobby Grant. It appears that he might bring versatility across the front line. What do you know of him?

CW: I’ve seen little of him personally, so my information on him is second hand. What I have heard about him is mixed, with his time at Scunthorpe being particularly unsuccessful. His attitude has been questioned and he has been accused of being a little greedy. That said, his goalscoring record at a lower level is respectable and he’s still young enough to build on his potential. He should be a low-enough risk and one would hope he’s grateful at getting another shot in the Championship that he may have matured and apply himself better. The first signing we made this summer was the return of Gary MacKenzie from MK Dons. Is this a good move in your book?

JK: It’s a move. I couldn’t really give it a value right now. I wasn’t impressed with him last season, but that was in the mindset of comparing him to an excellent off the ball defender such as Evatt who does a lot of unseen work. MacKenzie does things that supporters notice i.e. tackle, but good defenders don’t need to tackle and for me he gets into some really bad positions. I think he suits our more deeper reactive defensive style under Ince and he seems to be building a good partnership with Broadfoot. Blank slate for him and I think it’s best to form fresh judgements based on the new season.

CW: I share some of your concerns about MacKenzie, but at the same time it can’t be denied the defence shipped fewer goals and kept more clean sheets once he joined. Aerially we looked a lot more comfortable at set-pieces, and he is also a useful threat from our own corners and free-kicks. As you say, it’s perhaps fairer to judge his all-round ability when we’re not in the middle of a relegation battle because there are definitely elements of his game that feel like a downgrade from a fully-fit Evatt. Moving on to the aforementioned fresh start, any thoughts on how we might line up tomorrow?

JK: I think we got a sense of what Ince will do last weekend with the friendly against Newcastle. Gilks, Harris, Cathcart, McKenzie, Broadfoot as the back five. Ferguson and Osbourne occupying the centre of midfield, flanked by Ince and Grant with Chopra and Davies up top. Perhaps the right back slot might influence things as well as last minute recruitment?

CW: That’s probably not too far off. I don’t think many of us really want to see Broadfoot at right back, but in the absence of a single player in that position, Ince is left with little choice. I also suspect Angel might get the nod over Osbourne, as he’s seemed to have the edge in pre-season. They’re the only question marks I’d say. It’s the startling lack of options off the bench that’s the worry, and if we go behind on Saturday then it’s really going to be down to the players in the starting XI.

JK: That’s such a huge gap and one that doesn’t look like it’ll be filled any time soon. It doesn’t bode well, I’m not sure about Doncaster and how they set up now. But any team with the ability to change mid-game will have us on the run and we may not be able to respond to either going behind or a strong comeback. I’d be happy if we get out of here with a draw, but at the moment I’m struggling to see where the points are going to come from unless we bring in more quality.

CW: In recent years we’ve actually done fairly well on the opening day, and as Doncaster have similar squad problems to ourselves, I think a win is possible. Like us, they’re having to integrate new signings at short notice and hopefully the quality of Ince, Chopra and Davies will be the difference on the day. It’s urgent more signings do arrive quickly however, as one has to wonder how we go about fielding a competitive side at Preston 48 hours later, let alone the rest of the season when injuries and suspensions take their toll.

JK: I’m predicting a 1-1 with us taking the lead early, but getting pegged back in the last twenty.

CW: I’ll go for a bold 2-0 victory to reverse the nightmare of the opening day at Belle Vue nine years ago. What about the rest of the season – care to hazard a prediction for where we might end up?

JK: I think we will just about survive like we did last season. Whether Paul Ince is a part of that I’m not sure. Where do you think we’ll end up?

CW: It’s not easy to predict with any confidence with the squad still nowhere near complete. As we currently are, we’re probably looking at the bottom third. Let’s hope Ince gets the players he wants to move us beyond that, or as you allude to, he may follow Holloway and Appleton.

JK: Ultimately, measured progress would be nice. More points, more goals scored, less goals conceded, higher attendances, etc.

CW: That’s something I’m sure we would all welcome. Roll on tomorrow!

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