We’re more than halfway into the season, and we are at least doing better than last time out! The story of this campaign thus far is one of costly inconsistencies; victories against high-flyers like Scunthorpe, Burton and Rochdale (who currently make up the top three) have been counteracted by a massive 16 points dropped to sides who were in the bottom four at the time. Having shored up our defence over the summer, making it the 7th best in the league this season, it’s the forwards that are the problem this time out!
We started out really well , as Neal Ardley’s brand of passing football proved very difficult for most teams we came up against to cope with, as we got as high as third place after 10 games. A bad run followed as we got found out a little, and everyone worked out that we struggled to break down a side that had parked the bus – no-one was underestimating us anymore, and we were forced into switching to a more ‘traditional’ League 2 approach of physicality and organisation. The dependence on loanee Michael Smith for goals was always a worry, especially now that it looks like he won’t be coming back from Charlton for a second spell. Recent performances have improved a little, but inconsistency is still an issue; our last two games were a thoroughly lacklustre 2-0 defeat at home to 23rd place Torquay, and then an excellent point, away from home, at league leaders Scunthorpe. Our defence has been outstanding throughout, especially young goalkeeper Ross Worner, but there are some inherent weaknesses in the rest of the line-up.
The midfield is strong, on paper. Harry Pell is a massive talent that looks destined to play at a much higher level, Sammy Moore is in the form of his life, and Peter Sweeney is probably one of the best players technique-wise in the league – but a long-term injury to Sweeney and a couple of minor knocks for Pell means the lack of cover has been exposed, culminating in a showing against Torquay that seemed like our midfield had never seen each other before. There’s also an abundance of talented wide players – George Porter on loan from Burnley has a bit of an attitude problem but is undoubtedly something special, while the likes of Chris Arthur and Kevin Sainte-Luce have looked promising, but both struggled with injuries. One of the big disappointments has been George Francomb; he looked a class apart when on loan with us from Norwich last season, and it was a phenomenal piece of business to get him this summer after being released, as he turned down multiple League 1 clubs. Things haven’t gone quite as well in his second spell, as he has been tried in a range of positions across midfield and defence, failing to really make any of them his own.
But it’s the attack that is our major problem – the previously prolific Jack Midson has only a single goal (a penalty to complete a 3-0 win) to his name from 24 appearances, 9 of them from the start. Charlie Strutton was prolific on loan at Braintree but broke his leg, Charlie Sheringham is another who hasn’t lived up to expectations, and that left a lot of pressure on Michael Smith from Charlton. He is clearly one for the future, and deserves praise for notching 10 goals in his 25 games – but he just wasn’t enough of a natural finisher to support us on his own. The fact he got 10 goals despite a poor shot conversion rate speaks volumes about how reliant we were on him to get goals!
While Neal has done some decent business this transfer window, signing free agent and utility man Aaron Morris, as well as Charlie Wyke on a one-month loan, there is more strengthening to be done. Injuries to Peter Sweeney and Andy Frampton means cover is needed in defence and midfield, while we need at least one new man up front who can add some much-needed pace – and more importantly, goals! Our budget is obviously limited, but Morris’ wages have been the only expense thus far, and there is a little bit of cash in the bank to bring in one or two decent players, and I’d say it has to be spent on addressing the goal-scoring problem. 6 goals in 10 games as a team (with three coming in the same game) just isn’t enough.
Overall, it’s important to stress that things could be much, much worse. This is Neal’s first full season as a manager, and he’s probably suffered a little from the raised expectations he created after keeping us up last season and (briefly) to the automatic promotion spots this time out. He is undoubtedly the right man for the job, and our current position of 14th is still punching above our weight, based on financial muscle. This issue was highlighted on Saturday, with Paddy Madden (who wasn’t even in the Scunthorpe starting eleven) having allegedly cost around ten times as much as our entire team! With 20 games to go we’re still 6 points off the drop zone, and most at Kingsmeadow are confident we can build on a steady start to the season and move up the table, rather than down – 10 points off the play-offs means that is probably a bridge too far, but top 10 is definitely achievable, and would undeniably represent a very successful season. You can’t help but feel that the difference between top 10 and bottom 6 will be whether we can tie down a striker who can score some goals for the next 20 games – be that by bringing in someone new, or getting Midson to refind his form. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a boring season, and one way or the other, I suspect that isn’t going to change this year!
Written by Charlie Worthington, We Are Going Up’s AFC Wimbledon Blogger
Charlie tweets at @AFCW_Blog