League One outfit Crewe Alexandra moved up the table following back-to-back 2-1 wins away at Colchester and at home to Carlisle in short succession.
Following a disappointing 2-0 loss at title contenders Wolves - in which the visitors registered only one less shot on target than the home side and boasted 53 per cent of the game’s possession - the Alex achieved their fifth and sixth wins of the campaign thanks to goals from loanees Tom Hitchcock, Chuks Aneke and Mesca.
Loanees have had a profound impact on Crewe once again this season, having contributed 38 per cent of Crewe’s goals this season, with seven of the eight goals scored by players from other clubs coming in games in which Crewe have picked up one or all three points.
This can be deemed either a positive or a negative depending on your viewpoint. You could suggest this shows an overreliance on other team’s players to help them out of trouble, or you could say their effect is due to successful transfer dealings and smart scouting, which have both in turn aided the Alex’s fight. After all, without them, who knows where they would be?
One player who has caught the eye with recent performances is summer signing Bradden Inman, who seems to have rekindled his creative spirit of late with three assists in the past two games.
Having been cast to the sidelines due to his negative attitude - supposedly affecting the squad alongside Anthony Grant - the attacking midfielder soon apologised and sought to repay the manager and the fans on the pitch and he has been true to his word.
Following a dismal start to the season in which Crewe picked up just 13 out of a possible 54 points, a fruitful festive period has shown a rejuvenated Alex who have lost only once in their last six games since 30 November.
Three wins, two draws and a single loss have given them a total of 11 points from 18, which sees them sit fourth in the League One form table behind only high-flying Brentford, Preston and Coventry.
Prior to their last six games, Crewe had averaged just 0.72 points-per-game, but since a 1-0 home win over Crawley that ratio has improved to 1.83, which if they could maintain until the end of the season would see them gain another 40 points on top of their current total of 24 which would easily see them survive.
However, their fixture list is not quite as kind as to suggest Crewe could realistically obtain that amount of points from the remaining 66 available. This month Crewe still have to face Rotherham United, Leyton Orient, MK Dons, Tranmere and Stevenage.
Steve Davis’ side took only four points from the reverse fixtures earlier this season, and so it will be a test to their progress to see if they pick up less, equal or more points than they did in 2013.
So far, they have averaged exactly a point per game, should that continue they will amount a total of 46 points. Could 46 points see them safe? It’s unlikely given the recent relegation record, only one team with less than the esteemed “50 point benchmark” has staved off the drop with 48, and that was only by one point.
In contrast, only one team to have reached 50 points has been relegated since 2008-09 and that was only down to an inferior goal difference. In fact Crewe are now only four points off 14th placed Colchester United, should they manage to get a couple more wins under their belt then their fortunes may form a very different outlook.
Nevertheless, despite their recent improvement, there are vital improvements to be made if Crewe are to survive the dreaded drop. Firstly, and most importantly for any team stuck in the basement battle of the league, is the state of their defence. In Crewe’s case they have shipped a harmful 47 goals and kept just four clean sheets this season.
“Harmful” due to the fact their goal difference could easily come back to bite them in the final stages of the season, should they still be in and around the bottom four.
At the same stage last season they had kept six clean sheets, conceding only 31 goals – an average of 1.24 goals per game. This season however they are conceding an alarming 1.96 per game, despite no longer sitting bottom of the table they have the worst goals supremacy record in the league.
With a goal difference of minus 25, they average 1.04 more goals against per game than they do goals for. For example, this season they have conceded three or more goals in a single game a staggering eight times compared to just six times in the entire 46 games last season. However, this has started to be shored up as they have not conceded more than two for eight consecutive games.
What is worrying now is the frequency of goals conceded, despite constant chopping-and-changing of the defensive line, including the goalkeepers. For the first 21 games of the campaign, Davis had switched between veteran Steve Phillips, Alan Martin and 20-year-old Ben Garratt.
Luck was not out to favour the South Cheshire side either, as on-loan keeper Neil Etheridge from Fulham began to make an impression, he was soon struck down by a thigh injury. Etheridge had established himself as first choice and even played against arch-rivals Port Vale in a fierce fixture at Gresty Road.
Since Etheridge’s injury, Garratt has accumulated 450 minutes worth of game time, should such a young keeper be given his chance in crucial games that could decide their fate when the experienced 35-year-old Steve Phillips is in the squad?
Their attacking threat too, is in need of bolstering. Their tally of 22 league goals is the joint-worst in League One along with 24th placed Stevenage. They have failed to score on nine occasions, six of which have come on their dismal away travels. One of the only games in which they have claimed away points was ironically against Preston whose only other home loss came against table-topping Brentford.
Assessing individual contributions perhaps Arsenal loanee Chuks Aneke, the club’s top goalscorer, has been the most influential forward thinking player having chalked up four league goals and four league assists. Though his status as the club’s top scorer cannot be over-exaggerated, due to the fact he has registered 41 shots in 1472 minutes of football and so in theory he was bound to convert a few of his shots.
Of these 41, only 14 were on target, meaning only 34 per cent of his shots tests the keeper.
The nearest other Crewe player to Aneke’s shot tally in the Sky Bet League One is Vadaine Oliver with 16 shots, less than half of Aneke’s tally, Oliver has registered seven on target and nine off. In the absence of Mathias Pogba, who scored 14 league goals last term, their “out-and-out” strikers had only contributed three goals until QPR loanee Tom Hitchcock arrived and doubled that tally.
To put it simply, Crewe desperately need to find goals from somewhere. Hitchcock recently returned to his parent club and the club are suffering from several injuries which has hampered their goals for tally. Whilst 23-year-old striker Pogba is expected to return within the next few weeks, the Guinean is unlikely to be able handle the weight of goal-scoring duties straight away given his lengthy lay-off.
Even more concerning, the Railwaymen have had just 10 goalscorers despite having utilized 31 (27 outfield) players in their squad so far this season. This tally is perhaps un-representable given that one of the scorers Harry Davis only has goals to his name due to his role as penalty taker.
Naturally the question has to be posed as to where they will find goals from. Bar Davis’ penalties, no defender has contributed a single goal to the cause as of yet. Max Clayton and Ryan Colclough who have scored four between them have had to endure spells on the sidelines and when they return could take an extended period of time to find their feet again.
Their goalscoring woes are so detrimental that the Alex failed to score an equalizer until Aneke’s 66th minute strike in their 2-2 draw against Coventry on 14 December, meaning they went an astonishing 1,870 minutes before drawing level with their opponents in a game.
The opening of the January transfer window presents an array opportunities for Steve Davis, Neil Baker and those at the helm of Crewe Alexandra to improve the squad and maintain their charge away from the bottom four. Whether they take them is an entirely different story, but what is important is that improvement is undoubtedly being made.
Davis needs to make sure his team’s rejuvenated form will not have been in vain come the final whistle on their final league game on 3 May 2014.
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