SPECIAL FEATURE: So far so good for Peterborough United
Peterborough will have played over 25% of their League One fixtures after tackling Barnsley at the ABAX Stadium on Saturday (October 6), so a good time to analyse their progress.
And it’s been a great start. Posh probably have a couple more points than they deserved based on performances, but seven wins from their opening 11 matches is an excellent return.
Can they keep it up? That’s the key question.
Importantly the teams expected to challenge for the top two are much weaker this season.
Last season Wigan and Blackburn were outstanding League One outfits who, despite the incredible form of little Shrewsbury, looked from an early stage likely to clinch the automatic promotion places.
Current leaders Portsmouth are way off their standard (as are Posh), but you can only beat what’s put in front of you and Posh, like Pompey, but unlike Sunderland and Barnsley, have a manager who knows how to get out of League One.
Strength in depth
Posh are four points better off after 11 matches compared to last season, but can we expect this squad to last the course better than the one that limped rather disappointingly to a ninth-place finish? I believe so.
I would be surprised if this squad doesn’t finish in the top six.
Top two might be beyond them even if we get the expected improvement from a squad thrown together in indecent haste in the summer.
We might have a better idea of our automatic promotion chances after playing a strong Barnsley side at the ABAX this Saturday.
Strength in depth is a key. Just look at how substitutes have affected Posh games in a positive way this season.
Last season Posh usually played worse ater making changes, but Callum Cooke, Ivan Toney, Joe Ward, Marcus Maddison and Mark O’Hara have all made impressive impacts from the bench.
Steve Evans should be applauded for many things. To get a completely new squad winning so many games so quickly is a fine achievement.
Evans could easily have been distracted by the loss of Jack Marriott, Gwion Edwards and Andrew Hughes.
The first-named was always expected to leave, but the other two would have been certain starters for Posh this season.
Instead Evans has trusted the players he has bought in and most have performed well (Edwards’ departure has been overcome by the general excellence of Siriki Dembele).
Those expecting a hoofball, negative approach have mainly been proved wrong so far.
Of course the ball is moved forward at a quicker pace than under the previous manager and thank the Lord for that, but Posh have also played some stunning football on the counter attack (v Luton, Plymouth, Gillingham) and scored some quality goals.
Evans hasn’t won over all the fans. Indeed there is a strangely high number (considering how good results have been) who seem to want to be proved right about the manager, rather than accept they might have judged him hastily.
Evans needs to improve his behaviour in his technical area and the constant references to previous regimes (I’m allowed, it’s sort of my job) in press conferences quickly became tiresome, but Posh are managed by a passionate Posh fan. He’s accessible, unlike some previous regimes, for a start.
Tactics and formations
Tactically Evans seemed wedded to 4-4-2, until Tuesday night at Sunderland, which might have to change, particularly at home.
Last season Posh caught opponents by surprise by playing with wing-backs (probably because the club had no players who had played in that role), but pre-match preparation is intense these days so back-up plans are required.
I am convinced the players already in the building are capable of getting Posh into the play-offs, but the likes of Jamie Walker, Louis Reed and maybe even Callum Cooke might need a third midfielder alongside them to show their best form.
Currently the defensive strain on willing skipper Alex Woodyard is immense. He’s good, but he is not superman and he can’t always be effective when so obviously outnumbered.
If Posh are to repeat Tuesday’s formation and emply someone right behind two strikers, Walker, rather than Dembele, could be the man.
Posh have more firepower now than at any time since the glory days of the Holy Trinity. It’s a credit to the talent-spotting at the club that 33-goal Marriott has not been missed.
Wigan and Blackburn were the top two scorers in League One last season and went up. Rotherham were the third highest scorers and won the play-offs.
Crucially goals are now flying in from all angles. Goals for centre-back Rhys Bennett and winger Joe Ward in the last two matches means 10 different Posh players have scored in a League One match this season, the highest number in the division alongside Scunthorpe.
Posh appear to have boosted their reputation for finding goalscoring diamonds in the lower divisions. Matt Godden came from Stevenage, Dembele from Grimsby and they have both taken the step up into League One in their stride.
Finding the best combination of forwards will test Evans, but it’s a comfort to know there is so much goalscoring potential in the squad.
Watch the Posh goals from this season back and note how many midfielders are flooding into the penalty area in an attempt to score. Last season, Marcus Maddison would look up and have just vertically-challenged Marriott to find.
There is also no shame in relying on set-pieces for goals. Posh have the height, physical power and players (Dembele, Maddison) capable of delivering high quality crosses to be a serious threat so it would be criminal not to use it.
I’d abandon the long throws though. They haven’t looked like working.
Despite the obvious improvement in Ward, Maddison’s continued presence is a boost.
He appears to have knuckled down and realised if he wants that move to the Championship (it might even have been promised in January) he needs to perform for Posh. He might also need to start scoring. He hasn’t scored from open play since February.
CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
Posh have the worst defensive record of any team in the top seven, by three goals, but Evans sees that as a circumstance of his attacking policy rather than a weakness.
But Posh are playing so open, conceding so much possession and offering so much time and space to the opposition chances would arrive if John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were playing at the back.
Centre-backs Ryan Tafazolli and Bennett look a strong combination though and Josh Yorwerth delivered a strong 30 minutes at Gillingham after replacing Tafazolli.
Full-backs Jason Naismith and Colin Daniel defend the back post effectively, but are not the quickest at recovering or the best at stopping crosses. They appear to have a lot of faith in their centre-backs and goalkeeper Aaron Chapman and so far it’s been justified.
Mind you if I was a full-back relying on Maddison and Dembele for defensive help, I’d be having sleepless nights. I expect Ward to play against the stronger sides for that reason.