Tranmere fans are starting to panic after a decidedly mediocre start to the season. Four games in, Rovers have just five points – half that of leaders Aldershot. A mere two weeks ago, fans were convinced that the club would stroll to the National League title. Now, the first few voices are calling for the sacking of manager Micky Mellon. Is this a crisis already?
Certainly, the whites were overwhelming favourites going into Tuesday’s match against Guiseley. True, Tranmere had been terrible at home to Sutton at the weekend, but the Lions had been thrashed 6-0 at Aldershot. So surely this was the perfect chance to bounce back and settle a few early season nerves.
As it turned out, no, it emphatically wasn’t. Statistics from tipsters Better Call Goal demonstrate that Tranmere dominated almost from start to finish, winning 60% of the possession – an incredible feat away from home. This possession resulted in 53 ‘dangerous attacks’ – more than one every two minutes. But these attacks resulted in just fifteen shots, of which only four were on target. Rovers’ first shot on target didn’t come until the 48th minute, when Ollie Norburn’s cross found Andy Cook, who volleyed straight at young keeper Scott Green – making his debut appearance at this level.
Better chances were completely spurned. In the first minute, Cook headed over the bar. On 35 minutes, last season’s top scorer was at fault again, skewing a Ridehalgh cross wide when it seemed much easier to score. Finally, with just five minutes to go, Jack Dunn was played through on goal, but he placed it wide with only Green to beat.
There’s no doubt about it, Tranmere are defensively tight. In four matches, they’ve conceded a couple of goals – one every two games. This is easily the form of champions. Indeed, it is far better than Mellon’s side achieved over the course of last season – when Scott Davies was beaten just 39 times in 46 games – or 0.85 occasions per game, giving Rovers the best defensive record in the league.
But they also scored 79 goals – the fourth best in the division. This strikeforce has been bolstered by the signing of James Alabi, who got 17 for a struggling Chester team. So there’s no way Tranmere should be struggling to score against a team who shipped half a dozen the other day, no matter how much Guiseley boss Adam Lockwood will have tried to concentrate their minds in the interim.
Mellon was disappointed too. Speaking after the game, he confessed that “We came here absolutely to pick up three points. We wanted to come here and perform and get a result on a fantastic pitch, but it just never happened did it?”
The Scot rejected suggestions that the defensive 4-5-1 formation was to blame, instead insisting that:
“If you’re not passing the ball and getting yourself into good areas then you work on your build-up play…we are doing that. I think we’re getting more crosses into the box than what we have done for some time. But we have to be, when we’re in that eighteen yard box, much more aggressive…When the chances come, you have to tuck them away.
“For three quarters of the pitch we’re happy…Could anybody say to us that we’re not passing it well? Could anybody say that we’re not keeping good control of the ball? Could anybody say that we’re not getting it into good areas? I think what you could say is, when we’re getting it into good areas, maybe a wee bit more quality at times.”
There’s no doubt that this formation can yield goals for Tranmere. They used it against Woking, scoring three, and no-one at the Cards could justifiably have complained if they’d got seven. But Rovers have also failed to score on three occasions now, and each time they’ve also been packing the midfield in this way. The Woking game is starting to look like an exception which tests the rule.
Indeed, despite insisting that one striker on the field is enough, Mellon continues to put three strikers on the bench for every game, introducing at least one late on, when his team are looking for a goal. But what of Rovers’ wingers? Ok, we’re told Ben Tollitt and Jake Kirby are still some way from being available for selection following long term injuries. But what of new signing Elliot Rokka, who looked a handful in pre-season? What about Adam Dawson, could his flair make a difference? If Jack Dunn is playing, could he go out wide?
Some disenchanted Rovers fans have started making comparisons between Tranmere’s start to this season and how they fared last term. At the start of 2016/17, the team won their first five, under the guidance of then manager Gary Brabin. But a disastrous run in September saw Brabin relieved of his duties, with his team outside the play-off places. By 8th October, Mellon was in charge, and things started to improve dramatically, with Micky’s men winning two thirds of their remaining fixtures.
But that wasn’t quite enough. By winning so often, though still failing to reach promotion last time round, Mellon created a weight of expectation amongst the fanbase that he has yet to live up to. Supporters want – even demand – 100 points in 2017/18. There are 42 games left, and 95 more points to go.
Can this squad of players achieve that? Absolutely, the talent is undeniably there. As yet, those players are not combining well enough. However, there are grounds for optimism. The last eight National League champions also had shaky starts to their seasons, with all of them at least three – and in some cases six points off the pace after four run-outs.
Onwards to Eastleigh on Saturday, where Mellon will have the option of using James Norwood’s pace up front, after his suspension.
Tranmere team: Davies; Buxton, Ridehalgh, McNulty, McEveley; Hughes, Norburn; Jennings, Harris (Alabi 73), Dunn; Cook