WIMBLEDON’S pre-season progress suggests that Neal Ardley has done a good job in refreshing the squad over the summer. Perhaps most impressively, it looks like Ardley already has a good idea of his strongest XI – something that was arguably not that case at any stage over the 2013-14 season, writes BUSH WOMBLE.
Based on what has been seen so far, I would expect to see the Dons line up against Shrewsbury Town in a 4-4-2 formation, with a back four of Barry Fuller, Andy Frampton, Mark Phillips and Jack Smith, Sammy Moore and Dannie Bulman in central midfield, Sean Rigg and George Francomb out wide and Bayo Akinfenwa and Matt Tubbs up front.
The biggest question mark for me is perhaps who will be the first choice goalkeeper, with James Shea appearing to have slightly edged ahead of Ross Warner.
There are still possibly a couple of other question marks – whether Phillips will be fit enough to be favoured over Alan Bennett in defence, whether Harry Pell may challenge Moore for a midfield start – but, despite the summer overhaul, this arguably looks the most stable squad Wimbledon have had for some time as they enter a new season.
Another feature of pre-season is that Ardley now feels confident that he has the strike pairing in place to form an effective 4-4-2.
Last season there was regular tinkering with the formation – with 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and 3-5-2 all being tried – but I get the impression that this time we will form an attack-minded 4-4-2 most weeks, and rather than setting up to be ‘hard to beat’ will put the onus on our opponents to worry about stopping us.
This may turn out to be wishful thinking (a common syndrome for football fans in the summer, with the sun out and the season yet to start) but certainly it appears there is more potential for on-field excitement than has been the case in recent seasons.
A number of the summer signings are experienced League 2 (or in some cases, League 1) performers, and this is certainly the most experienced – and League 2 hardened – squad we have had since our return to the League.
A quick look online at the career history of our players reveals just how much experience we have this time around.
Our likely starting XI for the Shrewsbury game has somewhere in the region of 2,300 Football League starts between them – an average of over 200 per man.
Out of our likely starters, only Shea and George Francomb have fewer than 100 League appearances each, and three players – Andy Frampton, Dannie Bulman, and Akinfenwa, all down the spine of the team – have over 300 League appearances under their belts.
At the same time, the squad does not feel particularly ‘over the hill’; the average age of the likely starting XI is 29, which feels about right for the tough and sometimes cynical world of League 2.
If all the above may make it sound like promotion is on the cards, it’s worth exercising a few notes of caution.
It would be very rare for a team who have struggled as we have to find themselves at the opposite end of the table so quickly – and many of our rivals have strengthened heavily as well.
It also feels like we are a little overly reliant on a fairly small number of players, and may lack strength in depth.
Outside of perhaps a core of 13-14 players, we are left with impact players (Kevin Sainte-Luce, Chris Arthur) and promising youngsters (George Oakley, Will Nightingale, and others).
Nowhere is this more apparent than the forward line, where we are likely to be very reliant on Akinfenwa and Tubbs.
I speculated in the last Wombles Downunder newsletter that it might be sensible to commit a fairly large share of the budget to one or two proven forwards, and I do think it is a necessary step, given how much we struggled for goals last season.
However, it is clearly a risky strategy and we need to hope that our first choice front two can remain fit and on-form for most of the season.
The new Wombles Downunder newsletter is now out.