Wrexham return to league action after the memorable derby win at Shrewbury, but our formidable home record will be tested by a team who are excelling on the road.
THE WREXHAM ANGLE
While Wrexham were busy pulling off a cup upset, Mansfield's defeat to Crewe evened the top of the table out nicely from Phil Parkinson's perspective. Should Wrexham win our game in hand, the worst case scenario is that we'd be equal top of the table, so the reward for maintaining our strong league form is clear.
Jacob Mendy remains absent on AFCON duty - his Gambia side play their first game on Monday, and have been handed the formidable task of taking on reigning champions (and the country which surrounds Gambia on all sides), Senegal.
THE OPPOSING VIEW
AFC Wimbledon represent a serious threat to Wrexham's impressive home record, as they have been excellent on the road this season. The facts speak for themselves: they boast the best away defence in the division, and have the equal third-most points on the road, having suffered only two away losses in the league. They are currently in 7th place with a procession of teams within shouting distance behind them, but their eyes are fixed firmly ahead of them rather than worrying about those pursuing them. 1 loss in 7 league games has seen them build impressive momentum, and victory in their game in hand would bring them level with Notts County.
Wrexham have beaten three teams from higher divisions so far this season, but that imprssive feat is easily eclipsed by AFC Wimbledon, who notched their 5th upset of the campaign on Tuesday when they beat Oxford United to reach the quarter-finals of the Bristol Street Motors Trophy.
"I’m really pleased,” Dons boss Johnnie Jackson told the South London Press, “It’s another really good performance against a top team in a higher division. They took the game very seriously with the side they put out, so credit to my players for the way they stuck to the task. They showed a lot of quality in moments and had to be really disciplined in moments when the opposition had the ball, but I thought our shape was excellent. I’m really pleased with the night."
That match was the second shot at a giant-killing Wimbledon took on in 4 days. They entertained high-flying Championship side Ipswich Town in the FA Cup and were unfortunate to suffer a 3-1 defeat. Forward Harry Pell was dismissed with half an hour left with the score at 2-1, and Jackson felt agrieved by the decision:
“We competed against a top team in Ipswich and we were in the game for the whole 90-plus minutes. We can feel a little bit hard done by – I don’t think it was ever a sending off. Harry Pell had eyes on the ball the whole time. He catches him with an arm, but he hasn’t led with an elbow – that was an aerial dual all day. If you’re going to give people yellow cards for that all the time, there will be nobody left on the pitch."
“I thought we were well in the game. Does Pell deserve to take no further part in the game because of that? I don’t think so. He’s got eyes on the ball...Poor decision in my opinion. It robbed us of our chance. Even with 10 men, we’re pushing and forcing their keeper into mistakes."
The Dons' impressive push for promotion will be tested in January though, as it is guaranteed to be a time of upheaval regardless of any business done in the transfer window.
Strikers Omar Bugiel and Ali Al-Hamadi are both absent on international duty, having been called up for the Asia Cup for Lebanon and Iraq respectively. Bugiel's form up front as a powerful presence, wearing down centre backs and creating chances, has earned him an international recall, while Al-Hamadi, a familiar foe from his time at Bromley, has had a breakthrough season, scoring 17 goals and making 7 assists in all competitions. When The Athletic asked their EFL correspondants to nominate the best players in the EFL, they selected 8 Championship players, and Al-Hamadi, describing him as "destined for a higher level".
Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, who was the key man in Torquay's tilt at promotion from the National League three seasons ago, has been recalled from his loan by Stockport County, but Ryan McLean and Morgan Williams have returned from their spells with Kidderminster and Woking respectively. Jackson told the South London Press that there will be more changes to the squad as the month goes on:
There’s a lot of conversations going on, there’s a lot of plates spinning. We are actively pursuing some exciting targets. January is a mad window, there’s things moving all the time and stuff coming up regularly. Andy Thorn has been down here with us, we’ve had a lot of recruitment meetings over the last few days. With the budget restraints we’re under, we can’t hand pick whoever we want. We have some good names on lists, we just need things to fall right for us. We won’t do anything for the sake of it.
“With some of the boys being away with their countries, it makes us a little thin on the ground. But they are coming back, it’s not like we won’t see them again, in a few weeks they’ll be back with us and it’ll be a boost.”
Saturday will be another tough game, but we’re looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to seeing the Dons fans come in their numbers and we’ll give it a go.
-James Tilley, AFC Wimbledon forward
One deal has already been completed. Joe Lewis has spent the first half of the season on loan from Stockport, and has impressed massively at centre back. It was expected that he'd be recalled back to Cheshire this month, and he was absent from the Ipswich match to avoid becoming cup-tied, but he has now signed a permanent deal for The Dons.
“It’s a great feeling," he told the club website,"I’ve spent the last six months here and really enjoyed it. It’s an important move for me, I’m playing good football and feel I can kick on with the Club now. The relationship I have with the manager and Craig has been massive to getting this done. The communication throughout the whole process has been constant and it’s something we’ve all wanted to get sorted. Our aim has to be pushing for promotion – if we’re playing League One football next season, that’ll be great.
“I’ve seen a lot of the posts and feelings from the fans about the prospect of me staying here, it’s been great to see. I’ve felt it deeply.”
Head of Football Operations, Craig Cope, added: “Joe has been a key part in what we have started to build here, both on and off the pitch. He is also a firm fans’ favourite, so we are delighted to have secured his services permanently.”
At the other end of the pitch, Jackson will need to find a way to replace the goal power of Al-Hamadi and Bugiel. He was delighted to see James Tilley step up to the plate, scoring both goals against Oxford United, to take his total for the season to 12 and hit the net for the first time since November. Jackson told the South London Press:
“As a manager, I can give Tilley an opportunity, and he produces that – it’s a credit to the lad that he’s stuck to his task. He’s been training hard, and we know what we can do – he was probably the best player for us in the first couple of months of the season. He was absolutely brilliant tonight.”
Tilley stood out when Wrexham visited Plough Lane at the start of the season, cutting in from the right to pose a constant threat, and eventually scoring the late equaliser from the spot after Al-Hamadi had seen his own spot kick saved by Ben Foster. Reflecting on his goals against Oxford, he told his club website that he was aware of the opportunity which has presented itself this month:
“This evening was an opportunity for me to get some good minutes and I’m buzzing to have scored a couple more goals. We’ve got a lot of good players and I’m going to be in and out. I’m just waiting for my opportunity. The gaffer has been really good with me since I’ve come in, as have all the staff to be fair.
“I haven’t really set a target for the remainder of the season. I just want to score as many goals as possible and play well. Up to now, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve been out the team recently, but that just gives me that more hunger just to try and do everything right on a day-to-day basis and get back in the side.”
Another option up front for Jackson is youth product Aron Sasu, whose efforts in pre-season convinced the manager to retain him in the squad rather than find a loan for him. He partnered Josh Davidson up front in the two cup ties and impressed Jackson:
“They did really well. We have high hopes for Aron. He’s not had the opportunities, but he’s going to get them now with Ali and Omar being away and Josh Neufville being out.
“There are opportunities there and I have full confidence in him and Josh that they can lead the line.”
It's a fascinating time for Jackson, but he won't be on the STōK Cae Ras touchline: he will be serving the second match of a 2-game suspension for being sent off when his side took on Crawley.
HEAD TO HEAD
AFC Wimbledon have visited the STōK Cae Ras twice, both times in the National League.
Their first match in North Wales came in January 2010, with Wimbledon flying high whereas Dean Saunders’ side was struggling to score goals and languished in the bottom half of the table. The match was Andy Mangan’s debut as Saunders sought a solution in the penalty area, and was decided by a highly controversial goal.
Gareth Taylor lobbed the ball towards goal and Seb Brown appeared to have it under control, but under Lamine Sakho’s pressure he carried it dangerously close to his own goal. Although the visitors protested that their keeper had been fouled, and that the ball hadn’t crossed the line, the officials allowed the goal to stand.
Wimbledon gained ample revenge a year later, though. Again, they were pushing for promotion, but Mangan would strike from a Neil Ashton cross to give the Red Dragons the lead. Taylor wasted a couple of chances to add a second, and would be punished when Christian Jolley equalised two minutes after the break. Worse was to come, as Rashid Yussuff nipped in with 6 minutes left to convert a Danny Kedwell assist.
The data shows clearly why AFC Wimbledon are so effective away from home. They have the 5th highest PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action), which is a measure of how often a side looks to put pressure on the ball, but the numbers suggest they are particularly good at deciding when to press, and are ruthless when they achieve a turnover. They have scored more goals from winning the ball in the attacking third than any other side in the division, and are 4th in terms of high turnovers that end in a shot and total number of high turnovers.
If they aren't able to win the ball back quickly, they are also effective at breaking quickly after dropping back into a defensive block. They have the third highest number of direct attacks in the division, and the 5th lowest average passing sequence time.
TODAY’S OTHER FIXTURES
Accrington Stanley v Gillingham
Colchester United v Bradford City
Crawley Town v Salford City
Crewe Alexandra v Swindon Town
Doncaster Rovers v Newport County
Forest Green Rovers v Harrogate Town
Grimsby Town v Notts County
Morecambe v Mansfield Town
Stockport County v Walsall
Sutton United v Barrow
Tranmere Rovers v Milton Keynes Dons
Edgeley Park will play host to an intriguing fixture as the league leaders face a side in dazzling form. We saw for ourselves how boldly effective Walsall's attacking approach can be last month, and they followed that up by scoring 6 at Grimsby. They will present a particular threat to Stockport's inconsistent recent form.