“In a tight division like the National League, continuity could be key”
Dom Roman – @DomRoman
Two weeks to go and three friendlies out of the way. It’s always dangerous to take too much away from pre-season. United teams have often sparkled in July, only to splutter from August onwards (beating West Brom in 2016 comes to mind). Saturday was certainly a spluttering performance. After the positivity of Hemel and Bournemouth, came an untidy and sloppy offering against a determined and well-organised Chippenham. The away team pressed well and our passing was too often long and wayward – no accounting for the Plainmoor breeze. It was a frustrating old watch, but not a 90 minutes that’s concerns me particularly. Friendlies are just a warm up after all.
The XI was missing valuable pieces and had too many players out of position to ring any alarm bells. More annoying was the reverberating commentary that seems to go into echo after every replay! Still, bravo for the coverage Torquay United – even if DT’s continuing sentences of summarisation could do with shortening just a little (sorry Dave!). So what are the TUFC strengths and weaknesses as we head towards the 3rd October? What makes me feel like we’ll be contenders, and what worrying aspects could be our downfall? Let’s have a look shall we...
STRENGTHS (in no particular order)
1 – A SETTLED SQUAD
Not since around 2010 have we had such a settled squad moving from one season to the next (in this case 7 months!). Gary Johnson moved swiftly to sign on most of the class of 19-20 to new contracts, leaving only a small number of slots to be filled. Any group of players takes time to settle and bond together, it doesn’t happen overnight. A number of these guys know each other well and have an understanding of each other and hopefully that translates to an open, honest and bonded dressing room that is ready to start the season with a bang. In a tight division like the National League, continuity could be key.
2 – MIDFIELD OPTIONS
Now this title heading is heavily influenced by fitness (to be discussed later), but I really like the options we have in midfield. You have the grizzly and experienced leadership of Asa Hall, the quick feet and playmaking ability of Connor Lemonheigh-Evan, the set piece quality and smart movement of Armani Little and the cocky stride and goal-scoring touch of Jake Andrews. Add to that the flexibility and intelligence of young Matt Buse and the pace and potential of Aaron Nemane, and you have a nice mix of abilities. Ben Whitfield has also been positioned around the midfield in GJ’s 3-5-2 and is surely one of the first names on the team-sheet, so the competition for places is looking pretty fierce – which is just the way I like it!
3 – GARY JOHNSON
Is Gary Johnson still one of the best managers in the National League? Absolutely. If he left, would we get anybody better? Absolutely not. Now 2019-20 wasn’t his finest season, with some duff signings, a lot of rejigging and some duff excuses…but his squad was basically depleted by injuries, and left us clutching for points with a patched up XI for the winter months. I think he’s identified the weaknesses in the squad and recruited well. GJ seems very happy with how things have been going at the club, and the support provided from up above. There’s plenty of energy left in the gaffer to get us back in the league, he’ll need some better luck and things to come together, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that we’re right behind him.
4 – EXPERIENCE
The summer recruits are bringing much-needed experience to the table, something that was sorely lacking in 19-20. Gary Warren, Dean Moxey and Danny Wright have been there and done it during their careers, and can heavily influence a dressing room that struggled to deal with the rigours of National League football. The young lads have also got (nearly) a season in them at NL level, and should have learnt a few lessons about what it takes to compete week in week out against strong and physical Conference teams. I hope this means we manage games better, panic less and find more consistency. Nobody is expecting the Gulls to win every week, but avoiding painful winless runs like the end of 2019 is a must.
5 – VERSATILITY
We don’t have a very big squad, but I do like the versatility we have amongst the Gulls players. Matt Buse for example, can fill in at full back, wing back and midfield (holding or roving forward); Ben Whitfield is a real team player who you could field on the wing, wing back, attacking midfield or even striker – we could see him in any of those positions before season end; Jake Andrews has the talent to play behind the strikers, on the wing or at wing back and still influence a game and Ben Wynter is maturing into a defender capable of playing full back or centre back, whilst still good enough going forward to be a wing back. Adaptable players like these give me great hope for 2020.
WEAKNESSES (in no particular order)
1 – GOALKEEPERS
There wasn’t many topics that occupied the minds of the TT Whatsapp group more during last season than “Who should be playing in goal?”. Indeed it was a question that Gary Johnson struggled himself to answer. In the end he played both. None of that malarkey again this season please! Now I like Shaun and Lucas, they are good lads who are not bad goalkeepers. Mac is very capable of a clean sheet and commanding his penalty area, whilst Cov can pull off great saves and finished 19-20 well. But, neither have proved themselves as dependable keepers for us yet and last season there were a number of errors from both. Just to remind us of this, Lucas made a howler for the first Chippenham goal on Saturday (after making a terrific save). It was slightly surprising that GJ didn’t look for a new no.1 during the summer – I hope this decision doesn’t cost us.
2 – FITNESS
Ahh injuries, the bane of our life last season and something that helped turn us from potential champs in early October to chumps by the time Yeovil thumped us at Xmas. We just could not shake them and it felt like a new player was injured every game…probably because they were! The signs are slightly worrying already as long-term injuries to Liam Davis and Armani Little have yet to heal, and other chaps have missed games with knocks. Meanwhile Liam feels like a miss again, I’m not sure a 3-5-2 can be the answer without him at left wing back. I’m sure Gary Johnson will have a plan to rotate his squad through the season, and help keep the likes of Asa Hall and Armani healthy, but fitness is a concern. We can but hope Kai Hepworth is not so busy this year, our season may depend on it.
3 – GOALS
Filling the Jamie Reid sized hole was never going to be an easy task, so the pressure is on Wright, Nelson and Umerah to deliver. Pre-season signs are that Josh Umerah is the man in form and his place alongside Danny Wright seems nailed on. Danny has been a little quiet so far, but this guy has got nothing to prove at Plainmoor and I’m sure once the proper action and intensity of league action begins, he’ll be well up for it. Nelson barely got a kick on Saturday, and he’ll hope to get off the mark against Bath to give GJ some selection headaches. I’d like to think we’ll concede less goals, so have to score less this season to win games…simple thinking but football is a simple game isn’t it? We’ll see how the three gel as October kicks in.
4 – SET PIECE DEFENDING
Our weakness at defending set pieces still appears to be lingering on in pre-season. I’ve seen it too many times in years gone by…an in-swinging free kick or corner from either side, glanced into the far post by a gleeful attacker, usually in the last five minutes of a game (god I miss Plainmoor)! Set pieces are such a big part of football and I’m sure GJ/Downesy will be desperate to get this sorted, or suffer the consequences. Kyle Cameron looks sharp in pre-season, big strong players like him need to take charge to stop us conceding.
5 – THE BRISTOL CITY LINK-UP?
Something a little leftfield to end with! Have we seen the last of the Bristol City loan link-up? Now Lee Johnson has left City, the advantage we gained from the father and son discussions (“What decent defender/midefielder/striker can we have Lee?”) may no longer be there. Sure, not all loans worked out but with the struggle we have relocating guys down here, the City loans were a nice bonus and it was Bournemouth’s U23s that turned up this year for a PSF rather than Bristol’s. No doubt we’ll need some loan signings as the season progresses, so we’ll find out.
Overall I’d say the strengths outweigh the weaknesses and we’re in for a good season. There’s so many variables in any football season, from big moments for or against you, to injuries, loss of form and of course recently the Covid 19 disruptions we’re all suffering to one extent or another. We’ll have some preview predictions from the TT contributors soon, as we all struggle to ascertain how the year will play out. Unsurprisingly nobody predicted for 19-20 that a worldwide pandemic will cut the season short in March! Keep safe everyone and I’ll see some of you in a couple of weeks time.