Five things Paul Cook must do to keep Chesterfield's promotion hopes alive

We have entered the business end of the season and Chesterfield’s promotion hopes hang in the balance.

By Liam Norcliffe
Monday, 4th April 2022, 11:49 am

The Spireites have dropped to fifth in the National League table and are looking over their shoulder rather than upwards now.

With just one win in six, they desperately need a couple of victories to settle the nerves and secure a play-off place.

Let’s take a look at five things manager Paul Cook needs to consider in these seven remaining games...

Paul Cook.

BACK TO BASICS

The Spireites’ success this season has been built on solid foundations and they need to get back to being hard to beat. They recorded 15 clean sheets in all competitions from the first 31 matches, but in Cook’s 11 games in charge they’ve only managed to stop the opposition scoring twice. In fairness, that is probably a result of trying to play a more expansive style of football, adopting a new formation and the injury situation. Against Grimsby on Saturday they were all over the place and put in their worst defensive performance of the whole campaign. It was totally unrecognisable from a team which has won one-nil on six occasions this season. They need to go back to basics by working hard, being organised and keeping things simple. From there they will have a platform to work from and start to build some confidence.

FORMATION

It might not be the way he wants to play long-term but Cook needs to give serious consideration to reverting back to the 3-5-2 formation which has got this squad a big chunk of its results this season. This squad was built with 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 in mind under former manager James Rowe and it might be worth revisiting it at least for now to dig out a couple of ugly wins and settle everyone down. Going to a three-man defence would create a few selection dilemmas such as playing with three left-footers if Gavin Gunning comes in. Another big decision would be who you leave out from Gunning, Laurence Maguire and Jamie Grimes if you opt for more balance and recall Tyrone Williams or Fraser Kerr. But the pluses would be having the likes of Jeff King and Alex Whittle higher up the pitch and knowing there is some protection behind them. You’ve also still got three in the central midfield area to help control the game and, probably the biggest positive, it allows for Akwasi Asante to have a strike partner and not be isolated up front on his own. It is a difficult decision because you can understand why Cook would want to stick by his principles, but it does appear to be the obvious solution to stopping goals at one end and scoring more of them at the other.

LEADERSHIP

I keep banging drum about this but Gunning has to return to the starting line-up sooner rather than later. Out of 15 league games he has started this season, Chesterfield have only lost once. In my opinion, they really need his leadership, organisation and vocal cords on the pitch in these final seven games. Of course this depends on how fit he is but he has been back in training a few weeks now and he played 40 minutes in the second-half at Notts County. As previously mentioned, his recall could mean having three left-footers at the back or it might mean harshly dropping Maguire or Grimes but I think now is the perfect time to bring him in.

MIDFIELD COMBO

The midfield was the biggest reason why Chesterfield got hammered by Grimsby last time out. They didn’t win their individual battles, didn’t make enough tackles and they were too passive. Whether Cook does or doesn’t change formation, he’s got to find the right balance in midfield. It’s not really working for Tom Whelan in a deeper role at the moment but Cook does have some solutions now Manny Oyeleke got 30 minutes under his belt at the weekend, Jim Kellermann is available again after completing his two-match ban and Jak McCourt has made the matchday squad for the last two fixtures. The task Cook has now is to find the right combination and balance for whatever system he is going to go with and one which will not only make them more solid but also provide them with more of a goal-threat.

GOALS

The goals are not exactly flowing at the moment, they’ve only scored two or more on three occasions under Cook so far so this needs addressing. It obviously hasn’t helped that he lost Kabongo Tshimanga to injury in his first game and Joe Quigley has failed to score in 13 appearances since signing. Cook also hasn’t been able to call upon Danny Rowe, Nathan Tyson or Tom Denton. Thankfully, Rowe, Tyson and Denton are back in training although we probably shouldn’t expect too much from them too soon. But the responsibility is not just with the strikers. Whelan hasn’t scored since returning, Curtis Weston has one, Jim Kellermann has two, as does Oyeleke, and although Saidou Khan has five, he hasn’t found the net since November. Despite the switch of formation and attempts at passing the ball more, Chesterfield’s creativity levels have not really increased so again it comes back to whether the answers lie with 3-5-2.