OK, gloating, smug satisfaction and staring at the league table over. It doesn’t need to be stressed that it would be criminal if the hard work of the past two games - and the outcome – was to be blown by any easing up as we look ahead to four games that look winnable on paper. It’s reasonable to view them as a batch, before MK Dons come visiting, and Exeter and Chesterfield away bracketing Bury and Rochdale at home has to be seen as the opportunity to drive home a hard-won advantage, not an invitation to indulge in any premature patting on the back. The league this season is likely to be exceptional in terms of the points needed to get automatic promotion, so it’s one game at a time and full focus.
Seven points clear with a game in hand is of course splendid, especially as we only have two more games against teams in the top five (three if we start to include Stevenage). It’s too soon to be in any way definitive, but the way things are panning out it looks as if the top five are going to continue to scrap it out for the two automatic places with the three missing out to be joined by Stevenage, Carlisle or Bournemouth for the play-offs. But we haven’t (yet) reached the stage where any of them have abandoned hope of a top-two finish, or whereby they’re assuming that we’re uncatchable. It’s up to us to make the latter happen. We can’t expect the others to slip up, although they will have to play each other from time to time and something will have to give. I’d be more comfortable if there was a decent gap between second and third, but that’s not in our hands.
For the season to date, we’ve averaged 2.31 points per game, a stat bettered only by Man City. West Ham top the Championship but have ‘only’ managed 1.96 and Southend are top of League Two with 2.0. To be pedantic, even though we are seven points clear with a game in hand, our current (notional) target of 111 points (or 2.55 points per game) to be indifferent to everything else is actually higher than the equivalent number for either West Ham (107) or Southend (110). That is a reflection of the relatively stretched division we are in (largely because of us there’s a 40-points spread from top to bottom whereas in both the Championship and League Two it’s 31).
Again, nobody needs telling but there’s still a lot of work to be done, starting Saturday at Exeter. The FA Cup games mean that aside from us only Huddersfield have a league match (away at Tranmere), while the following Tuesday, while we take on Bury, MK Dons will be hosting Sheff Wed. Two wins for us, plus defeats for Huddersfield and Sheff Wed (OK, a draw with MK Dons wouldn’t be bad), and we’re suddenly 13 points clear at the top (perhaps annoyingly the automatic promotion points target would be unchanged at 111). We can but dream, but only a little over a week ago I was dreaming about beating both Sheffield clubs.
I do think Sir Chris has one selection issue to consider for Saturday. Beating Brentford and the two Sheffields and not conceding a goal in the three games (Fulham was fun but irrelevant) hardly makes a case for any change. But in these games we I feel haven’t had the degree of control in midfield that we’ve previously enjoyed – and I don’t think it’s unrelated that the service to the front two has been poorer than before. Pritchard has taken his chance well, done nothing wrong, and of course it’s a factor that the three games have been against higher class opposition – also that in all three games we spent long periods protecting a one-goal lead rather than bombing forward. But just as the front two and central defence is about partnerships, so for central midfield. And I’m not yet convinced that Hollands and Pritchard are hitting it off together.
Partnerships can take time to gel, but Hollands and Stephens began the season together in fine style before the latter seemed to lose form and got injured. In the 13 games they started together they contributed four goals between them (although it was none in five before they were separated). Hughes came in and with more defensive cover Hollands was able to get forward more and notched three goals in the five games in which they were paired. Then Russell joined him, to good effect, and the pair added two goals.
It’s unfair to draw conclusions after three league games of Hollands and Pritchard, especially given their nature. And Pritchard has earned the right to keep his place and to see how the partnership works in games where we should get more midfield control. Of course, Russell is not available (I’ve not seen any indication we’re appealing the sending off, although looking at the replays the decision looks very harsh), but Stephens and Hughes are options. It’s in Sir Chris’ hands and I’ve no idea how things look in training. Whatever he decides is fine with me.
I don’t think there’s any case for changing the front two, despite BWP’s run of goalless games (eight) and none in four for Kermorgant. Wright-Phillips just needs one to go in off his backside. But we now have Clarke and Haynes to press them hard, plus Hayes, who was unfortunate to be dropped and must now be suffering from lack of competitive games. Same may start to apply for Wagstaff if he continues to get squeezed out of a spot on the bench to accommodate both alternative forwards. That’s the only downside to a squad that’s now looking very strong; there are of course going to be more injuries and suspensions and Cort, Evina, and the midfielders and forwards just have to make sure they’re prepared.
Prepared? Well, my partner Suzanne is coming to London for the weekend and Exeter was, I’m afraid, a coach trip too far to justify. At least as Santa brought an ipad I can be with her in the living room during the game and pretend to be paying attention instead of burying myself in the kitchen watching the screen. And if we’re making sure all the dates are kept open to celebrate the day, it’s worth noting that our current 111 points target means 51 points left to secure, or 17 straight wins. Now on that basis we could secure promotion at .... you guessed it, Carlisle away. Deja vu eat your heart out.