Cheltenham Town host Bradford on Tuesday night as they look to maintain their eye-catching start to the season – the Robins are Gabriel Sutton’s (@_FootbalLab) Team In Focus for this week.
EFL Team In Focus: Cheltenham
Cheltenham host Bradford Next
Strong home form
Regardless of Tuesday’s result, Cheltenham’s home form has been outstanding.
The Robins have accrued a whopping 47 points from 24 home games under Michael Duff – and ironically, they did not win any of their first five under his watch.
Fixing the away form
The one blemish in Cheltenham Town’s work under Michael Duff over the last 12 months is their away form: just 17 points were amassed from their 23 league road trips under the Northern Irishman, despite outstanding home form.
The recent 2-0 victory at Salford, therefore, could be as valuable from a psychological perspective as it is in terms of the three points themselves.
Now that they have overcome a major hurdle, their first away win of the campaign, they will have a feeling that nothing can stop them and that belief could elevate a decent squad to new heights.
Mixing things up
One of Cheltenham’s main strengths this season is that they are a difficult team to predict.
They can go direct to Luke Varney who, at 5’11” has a surprisingly good spring on him and spearheads attacks very well, but they can also play short.
We saw in his loan spell last season that Charlie Raglan is comfortable on the ball; so is Jacob Greaves, who has experienced Under-23s football with Hull – the duo sandwich Ben Tozer, who has spent much of his career as a midfielder, in the back-three.
With different tools in their arsenal, the Robins can adapt to where the space is on the field and what the game needs.
Ball-winner Nigel Atangana left for Exeter in the summer over a reported contract disagreement.
Had one told Cheltenham fans then, that their two deepest midfielders would be Conor Thomas and a slim technician in Jake Doyle-Hayes, on loan from Aston Villa, they might have been worried.
While there have never been any question marks about Thomas’ application, there had been concerns over his ability to handle the physical side of the game.
Over the summer, though, the ex-Coventry man appears to have worked very hard to become more aggressive and combative.
That was a huge plus at Salford, where the 25-year-old instigated the press superbly and played a key part in a controlled midfield display, with Doyle-Hayes dictating from deep.
One major factor behind Cheltenham’s recent form has been the performances of Ryan Broom.
The one-time Bristol Rovers graduate did very well as a right wing-back in the first half of last season, before reported January interest from Burton affected his motivation slightly.
This year, a two-year deal has helped re-focus Broom, who is operating as the most advanced of a three-man midfield in Michael Duff’s 3-5-2 – in a similar role to Jacob Maddox last season, but with more emphasis on direct running and committed bursts into the box.
With that freedom, the 23-year-old has already scored four league goals so far this season – already twice as many as he managed throughout the whole of the current campaign - including a brace last time out.
Broom’s versatility and athleticism have made him a key asset for Cheltenham; now he is relishing the extra freedom.
One reason Broom has been moved centrally this season was the exit of midfielder Kevin Dawson.
Another was the return to full fitness of right-back Sean Long, who did not kick a ball after signing the summer before last until April due to injury.
With Long on the right and Hussey left, Cheltenham have two wing-backs who support play from behind.
Long will make late runs into the box, once the team is deep into the final third – as we saw with the second goal in the 4-2 victory over Stevenage - while Hussey likes to cross from deep.
Because neither are likely to break too far ahead of the ball, Cheltenham’s midfielders are freed up to press aggressively and make brave runs without the team losing it’s shape.
According to the bookies, Cheltenham are only the 14th most likely team to achieve a top seven finish this season.
That seems very surprising, considering that they have a stable squad, a clear playing identity, an excellent manager and essentially Play-Off form for the last 10 months.
Value could be found in siding with Michael Duff’s side, who can be backed at 3/1 with SkyBet to reach the top seven.