Thursday, 23 February 2017

Wigan and Burton: Two tough six pointers for Brazil

When Bristol City arrived in town at the end of January it was said that it was the first 'proper' six pointer of the season. Thanks to Ben Osborn's Le Tissier-esque free kick, Gary Brazil successfully navigated that test. He followed that up in the next home game with another important win against a slightly more doomed relegation rival in Rotherham. Now, however, comes the tougher test of two away six pointers, either side of back to back home games from second place Brighton and Brentford.

We head into the Wigan game having had the optimism of three home wins eroded. It always looked a tough ask to take on play-off contenders Norwich, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday in a week and so it proved with three defeats. Even if we'd been doing well this season, that would have been a tricky trio of fixtures.

That nightmare week has left us just six points clear of Wigan who, luckily for us, squandered a chance to make up ground by losing at QPR in their game in hand this week. They'll no doubt be smarting from that and relishing the chance to climb out of the bottom three. Not only that but they'll be buoyed by the fact that they've already put us to the sword in the FA Cup in a game that not only helped to end their own seven-match winless run but marked a real low point in the dying days of the Montanier regime.

Yet the main worry ahead of Saturday's six pointer comes from our appalling record on the road in 2016/17. As Soccerstats shows, if the table were drawn on away games alone, we'd be second bottom.

Luckily, if you did the same spilt for home form, we'd be 10th and, promisingly, Wigan are the worst home team in the whole division. Two wins in 17 away for us is, however, a big concern and raises questions about our ability to handle both this game and the trip to Burton in a couple of weeks.

Our only two away wins so far - Ipswich and Barnsley - came in the same week and featured three centre halves. I'm not necessarily sure that we have to revert to that style but it does show that Philippe had come to realise the need to try to add some resolve and defensive steel to a side leaking far too many goals. We need a solid base, bags of hard work and the right determination to try to avoid a crushing defeat.

Tactically, these away games are the biggest test of Gary Brazil's managerial career. From the day Montanier left until now I remain convinced that Kenny Jackett would've been a smart choice to steer us away from danger but that question is over, for now. Brazil, Jack Lester and Rob Page need a pragmatic game plan. Dare I say it, even some vague inspiration from the Dougie Freedman playbook? We have to try to win the midfield battle and that might well mean packing the middle of the park to avoid getting overran. If we're going to use Matty Cash then we need his energy in the middle, not being wasted out wide, while David Vaughan is an absolute must - Montanier's mistake of wrapping him in cotton wool can't be repeated. I'd take Vaughan on one leg over Kasami, frankly.

Brazil and co have got to fashion a side that's tough to beat amid yet another injury crisis (something that may well mean fielding three central defenders isn't possible anyway) and out of a mismash of a squad.

Don't get me wrong, Fawaz's January supermarket sweep brought in some quality players but it was the footballing equivalent of nipping to the shops when you're in a rush and hungry. You can come home with some of what you want but you can also buy things you don't need too.

Can we play Ross McCormack and Zach Clough play in the same line up? How do they fit in with Britt and Brereton? These might not be bad problems to have but have we got time to work all of this out?

Then there's the arrival of the wing wonders Gboly Ariyibi and Joao Teixeira, neither of whom have seen the light of day. I'm willing to accept that Ariyibi is one for the future, but who takes out a 'sub-loan' of a player that they don't seem to have a plan to use?

I know people often say that 'our squad should be higher in the table' but the problem with that is that we haven't once landed on a consistent 'winning team' out of that squad.

The haphazard nature of it all is, of course, indicative of the ill thought out nature of the way Fawaz 'runs' the club. Having been turned down by several managerial targets he has also settled on sticking with Brazil and co until the end of the season. This 'appointment' is, like the signings, a handy way to try to deflect criticism of his shambolic handling of the club. There's a distinct lack of activity in building a structure behind the scenes, one month on from the last round of hollow promises.

The youth structure and the 'pathway' to the first team is pretty much the only thing working at the club at the minute. For that, Brazil deserves our respect and support as he wrestles with first team duties. That surely isn't in doubt. Everyone desperately wants Brazil to succeed and he ought have a prominent role in the future of the club on and off the field regardless of what happens to the managerial position. For now, though, the focus is on the short term and in making sure that his preparation work isn't geared towards getting promoted back from League One.

If we were to get our act together and get good results in these two key away games then it'd be a huge boost to our survival chances. On average, taking the numbers from the last ten seasons, 46 points would have been enough to secure safety. You'd like a few more than that to be sure (in 2013 and 2008 55 and 53 points were needed) but once we're past that point I'd feel an awful lot more relaxed about young players being blooded in.

Before we get there, Gary Brazil needs a couple of rabbits out of the hat. If he does that, we'll have yet another thing to thank him for. If he doesn't then we'll face an almighty scrap, with four of the last six home games against top six contenders. No pressure then Gary...

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