Top Half Troubles

Mansfield Town can have no complaints as they were easily beaten at home by Exeter City on Tuesday night. Given how the team had played three days earlier, the team selection, tactics and players performances were completely baffling. The performance was indefensible. It was the worst display of the season.

The Stags still have not managed to beat a team higher than 14th in League Two. A really worrying statistic is that out of the 10 games played against current top half teams (Leyton Orient and themselves being the only teams left to play), Mansfield have only registered three goals. The three goals came against, Carlisle, Oxford and Wimbledon, who were the first three current top half teams Mansfield played, all on or before the 5th September, meaning we have not scored in our last seven games against top half teams.

The statistic could suggest two things. The first is that Adam Murray is too negative against threatening opposition. It surprised me to see that Jamie McGuire has only started against two of these teams, Wycombe and Tuesday's opposition Exeter. Given that McGuire plays as a defensive midfielder, it is generally thought that if McGuire is in the team, the opposition possess a threat which we must be wary of, rather than focusing on our own attacking strengths. However, the statistic above seems to contradict that opinion. Conversely, the team appears less solid with him in it. He has started 7 out of 19 league games (37%), in which 9 of the 17 goals (52%) Mansfield have conceded have been scored. In 8 of the 10 games against top half opposition, Murray has started with a 4-2-3-1 formation, seemingly the most attacking line-up he is currently willing to adopt. In the other two fixtures, he played a 4-1-4-1. Asides from switching to 4-4-2, which fans continue to cry out for, he has been as attacking as he has been against any bottom half of the table team. So, purely based on formations/team selection, it does not appear that the manager is being more cautious against the better teams.

The second, and more likely option in my opinion, is that when facing up against a manager or a team with a modicum of tactical nous, Mansfield's style of play is generally relatively easy to combat. Often, the ball is moved slowly in an attempt to drag the opposition up the pitch and create space in behind for Green to exploit. The top teams do not fall for it, allowing The Stag's defenders to have the ball, retaining their shape and breaking at speed. The bottom sides attempt to do the same, but do not possess the same quality in both defence and attack to get results. Two of the three goals scored were direct free-kicks courtesy of Mal Benning (Carlisle) and Chris Clements (AFC Wimbledon), the other was Craig Westcarr's volley against Oxford after Chapman's long throw was cleared. Technically, you could say that The Stags have not scored a goal from open play against a top half team. After proving such a rich source of goals earlier in the season, Mansfield have now failed to score from a set piece in 10 games, 58 corners have passed without a goal. Without a recognised 'Plan B' as a result of Chris Beardsley being injured, teams sit deep and focus on defending set pieces diligently.

So, who are Mansfield's go to players in terms of scoring and creating goals? Well Matt Green, of course, ranks highest, despite his recent lean spell. He has scored 6 and created 3 in the league. Craig Westcarr follows, with 3 league goals and 3 assists. Mal Benning has scored 3 and created 2, whilst Mitch Rose and Adi Yussuf have had a hand in a total of four respectively. The biggest under-performer can be given as Reggie Lambe, who has one goal and one assist, despite featuring in every league game. Nathan Thomas has the same tally, from less playing time.
The onus is on Murray to discover a way for his team to score goals against the top teams, if as he continues to state, he considers his team as serious contenders.