Fleetwood arrive to take on Plymouth Argyle in the middle of an indifferent run of league form, having won three matches since the beginning of October. Narrow defeats to high-flying Portsmouth and Peterborough sandwiched victories against Shrewsbury and Blackpool, but their 3-0 loss to GIllingham at the start of November suggested they may have work to do before considering themselves play-off challengers.
Fleetwood will be without on-loan defender Tommy Spurr. The 31-year-old sustained an injury back in September and has returned to his parent club with his loan deal looking likely to be ended early. Spurr was replaced by Norwich City loanee James Husband who has been a influential at the back for Town, evidenced by his side losing just twice in 11 games he has featured in but losing three of the four games in which he has been absent.
Forward Conor McAleny will be fit for the encounter after returning from injury, though he is unlikely to start. The former Oxford man returned to action when he came off the bench replacing Ashley Hunter on the left-wing during the 0-0 draw with Walsall last weekend.
Defender Nathan Sheron will look to continue at right-back. The 21-year-old has impressed since breaking into the side in October, often alternating between right-back and central midfield with Lewis Coyle; the pair both featured in the draw with Walsall. Captain Craig Morgan has missed the past two games with illness.
Husband, Bolger, Eastham, Sheron
Coyle, Holt, Wallace
Hunter, Madden, Burns
Style of Play
Although it has changed during the season, manager Joey Barton has deployed an attacking 4-3-3 formation in recent weeks in an attempt to introduce a more direct playing style to his side. During the earlier stages of the season a 4-4-2 formation was applied to accommodate as many of their highly impressive forward roster as possible. Paddy Madden, Ched Evans, Conor McAleny, Wes Burns and Ashley Hunter all featured in that system, but the balance of the team was not quite right. 4-3-3 has introduced more midfield stability, but numbed the attack slightly.
With a generally static midfield and defence to guard against opposition attacks, Fleetwood’s skill, speed and mobility in their front three are the source of most of their open play attacks. This has allowed them to keep a good defensive record, conceding just 19 goals from their opening 18 league matches, a record only five sides can better. The lack of attacking responsibility means that they can often defend in numbers, closing down opposition attackers quickly. As a result of that, Town have only conceded more than once in a match on four occasions, of which they have only lost in two.
Wide-man Ashley Hunter is perhaps the most pivotal to this direct system. The 23-year-old has already registered three goals and 10 assists from just 17 appearances in this season. Much of the play goes through the former Ilkeston man and fellow wide man Wes Burns who utilise their speed and dribbling abilities to create chances. Burns, naturally a forward tends to use his abilities to create goals for himself, while Hunter, the more natural all-rounder of the pair, prefers to find space in order to set up his teammates for goalscoring opportunities.
This can be seen in the following highlights. In the first clip, Hunter finds space on the wing to deliver a cross for Madden to head home. In the second, Burns carries the ball into an advanced, central position, exchanges a one-two with Madden and scores himself. Burns’ movement is directed more towards positioning himself to receive a chance, whereas Hunter’s is about making a chance for a teammate.
In front of goal, Fleetwood are spoilt for choice with reliable goalscoring options. The quartet of Madden, Evans, Hunter and Burns have scored 18 goals in the league this season, Evans top the scoring with six. Their emphasis is very much based on getting the ball to these players in order to make things happen with the rest of the Town squad managing just six goals and a handful of assists between them. The attacking trident will attempt to capitalise on gaps in the midfield around the edge of the penalty area and, along with distance shooter extraordinaire Ross Wallace, aren’t afraid to take their chances from range. Blackpool were punished by this method on two occasions during their 3-2 defeat last month.
Last year’s Young Player of the Year, winger Ashley Hunter has been a standout player for Fleetwood this season and indeed League One as a whole. At 23-years-old he still has much room to develop and will surely be a target for Championship clubs in January. His pace and direct style have made him a nightmare for defences this season with his combined 13 goals and assists meaning he has played a direct part in 54% of Town’s goals.
The former Ilkeston man has done well to capitalise on McAleny’s injury and hasn’t looked back. His eye for a pass has allowed him to create a good understanding with forwards Paddy Madden, Ched Evans and Wes Burns as the front three surge forward in their direct style of play.
Hunter’s finishing may not be his primary strength, but his movement and awareness helps him take up good attacking positions to help him contribute to Fleetwood’s goal haul, as this montage shows.
Whilst Fleetwood have done well at the back this season, defensive lapses have become more frequent in recent games. The 3-0 defeat to Gillingham exposed their vulnerability in the air, with Tom Eaves dominating. He beat Lewis Coyle for the first and then Craig Morgan with a header to complete his brace.
However, a lack of aerial awareness has been prevalent for much of the season, with back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Peterborough and Portsmouth a result of headed goals from corners. These recent results – including the 0-0 draw against Walsall – have demonstrated Fleetwood’s weakness from crosses. Conceding goals like this to lose games could well be the difference between a mid-table finish and a potential play-off push.
In terms of goals, they have a reliable quartet in Hunter, Madden, Evans and Burns but the rest of the squad could do more to ease the burden they are tasked with. The midfield have failed to contribute regularly, with Ross Wallace, James Wallace and Harrison Biggins contributing just one goal each. The Fisherman have now failed to score in four of their previous five league games, losing three of those, with this lack of spread among the squad partially to blame.
Following last weekend’s humiliation at Luton, I think that Argyle will look to play Fleetwood at their own game, sponging pressure when they can and aiming to hit them on the break. Joel Grant and Ruben Lameiras out wide and Freddie Ladapo up front will cause problems with their pace, and an early goal would be a big boost to lift confidence. Given the form of Ashley Hunter and the plethora of attacking options at Town’s disposal, I simply can’t see Argyle keeping a clean sheet, but as recent weeks have shown, Town don’t tend to keep many clean sheets either.