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Friday, 13 February 2015

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Sheffield United (14/02/2015)

“Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
We are going up*,
And might just win at Wembley too!”

* - hopefully!

Three months to go. Three months in which to seal the glory the first six months of the season would deserve. Of course, it won’t be that easy, but at the moment City are winning games comfortably despite not being at their absolute best, and are in one of those lovely grooves that come along all too rarely when you go to matches not just hoping, but actively expecting to win.

Of course, usually with City it’s when you get this comfortable that things start going wrong, and if it’s going to, slap bang in the middle of a six week run of Tuesday – Saturday fixtures is both the possible time, and the worst possible time for it to happen.

The squad will be put through a truly tough test, and whilst there are already signs of some rotation – Tavernier/Little now seem interchangeable whilst Greg Cunningham has given Joe Bryan occasional breaks – I was a touch surprised Wade Elliott’s aging legs weren’t given time off on Tuesday when loanee Saville and Marlon Pack were sitting on the bench. Korey Smith seems impregnable but Luke Freeman too could probably do with some feet up time to ensure he remains as critical in the run-in.

Defensively there seems to be little sign of tiredness, with Port Vale’s late goal on Tuesday being the first we’ve conceded in the league this calendar year, whilst up-front no-one has played too many games due to either injury or non-selection, but with Matt Smith due to return to West London soon and our two who started the season so well still recovering from injuries, I can’t believe Cotterill won’t enter the loan market for at least one additional element of firepower to help see us over the line.

What is certain, is that the support, which has been strong for so much of the season, really needs to get behind the team. Tuesday felt a bit like after the Lord Mayor’s show both on and off the pitch at times and the fans have a job to do if the players are a little off. They’ve given us enough reason to cheer so far this season, we might just be called upon to help raise them over the next few weeks and we must be there to be counted.

Of course, this most magnificent of seasons began with a rare and somewhat surprising victory at Bramall Lane, but that shouldn’t mask the fact that the Blades will give us a tough test. Their squad is as strong as almost any other in this division and they are fighting for one of the two final play-off spots seemingly available with around twelve other teams.

Stu Radnedge caught up with an old friend of the blog, Ian Rands of the always-excellent ‘A United View’, to see what lies in wait for City this Valentine’s Day:

“The Blades entered the season full of confidence. The squad felt stronger and a couple of striking additions filled the fans with hope that we were better placed with strength in depth for the season ahead.

Then we faced the Robins on the opening day of the season. A 2-1 defeat disappointed, although it could be argued a draw was a fair result. The problems posed by Wilbraham, Baldock, Freeman et al were cause for concern and so was Nigel Clough's team selection. Players played out of position, others - some mainstays of last season's success - seemingly frozen out on the basis of pre-season form. It didn't bode well for what was ahead.

The fact that 6 months later the manager has admitted that he still doesn't know his best team is even more cause for concern. A 2-0 defeat against a poor Gillingham side left fans frustrated, angry and looking for a response.

On paper, the 4-1 victory on Tuesday night at home to Colchester appears to be just that, but it masks a performance that the manager himself admitted was far from where it needs to be. Four shots, four goals and one or two scares at the opposite end. Not least in the opening thirty seconds when stand-in goalkeeper Iain Turner pulled off a magnificent instinctive save at his near post. If that had gone in, it would have been interesting to see how the team and fans responded. Thankfully the save was made and we didn't have to find out.

United fans have been quick to get on the manager's back, when the League form has struggled to replicate the cup success. Although cup semi-finals are magnificent occasions and no have lifted performances on the pitch, another season at this level is unthinkable.

Most fans have written off the chances of automatic promotion, the gap too far to bridge and it's hard to imagine the team going on a run similar to the one started this time last season which saw them rise from 23rd to finish the season in 8th. Some fans, so down with what they are watching, are questioning the team's capability to remain in the play-off places, so tight is the race between so many clubs. After the Colchester victory, charismatic full back and bearded cult hero John Brayford tweeted "The Blades train is coming". To which a fellow Blade replied "It's running f*cking late".

What works tactically in the cup hasn't in the League.  As United rose through the League and progressed in the cup the focus was on stabilisation and then pushing on. Playing a possession game and countering on teams meant that we didn't win by significant margins.

United's league position belied the quality of the team, but it was the League position which gave opponents the belief and encouragement to attack United. We soaked it up and then pinched a goal ourselves. This also worked well against higher league opposition in the cup. United were not expected to win, but they did.

This season clubs know what to expect. United have played in the same margins of last season, but without the same defensive fortitude and the hoped for goal threat of Higdon and McNulty hasn't materialised. The promise of Higdon's debut goal against City, vanquished in a series of cumbersome performances. McNulty has scored a few, but looks lost in the team's formation and doesn't look comfortable as a lone front man.

Fans have felt frustrated as scoring appearances off the bench have led to McNulty remaining on the bench the next game, or receiving criticism in the manager's post-match interviews. Matt Done had a busy and ultimately effective debut on Tuesday, but would probably benefit from balls down the channels or playing off a second striker.

The manager has picked up a "Negative Nigel" tag from some supporters, frustrated by his 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation, which he argues is 4-5-1 when defending and 4-3-3 when attacking. Whichever argument you support, an undisputable fact is that United do not create enough goalscoring chances and do not get enough men and tracking the box. A view supported by our attacking stats and scoring record.

Our hope now? That our cup form can be taken into the Play-Offs and we can at last break the hoodoo that has seen United lose four play-off finals and fall at the semi-final stage a further three times. maybe just once we might see our team succeed on the big stage, in a vital match.

So to the match at Ashton Gate. I know of many hardy away Blades who are giving the trip a miss. A game too far after long hauls to Gillingham and a disappointing defeat at Port Vale on Boxing Day which saw 8 or 9 hour journeys home, gridlocked on snow covered roads. With another long haul trip to Crawley, along with easier away days at Notts County and Rochdale, coming up, many fans are prioritising their spend.

Many Blades are casting admiring glances towards the quality signings made by City and the clear impact they have had. Meanwhile, we added plenty of depth to the squad without the matchday eleven being greatly enhanced, or a first choice eleven known.

On the opening day there wasn't much between the sides, although over the course of the season a clear differential has appeared. The United players should have confidence from a 4-1 victory but, with the tinkering of the manager, how many of them will find themselves starting in Bristol?

An away point would be welcomed, but still leaves United focusing on winning their games in hand. Maybe we can nick all three points as we did last year? It will all depend on which United team turn up and how we manage City's attacking threat.”

My thanks to Ian, who you can follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/unitedite


The Exiled Robin

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