“Mansfield are patient in possession and it’s that assurance that will see them outwit a more direct Northampton side, even if Jon Brady’s troops are well-organised and have obvious quality.”Gabriel Sutton
Mansfield Town v Northampton Town
Mansfield to qualify
Mansfield will be hoping the Play-Off Semi-Final first leg, on their own turf, plays out similarly to the game in the regular league season.
The Stags won that one 1-0, had the chances to extend that margin and looked comfortably the better side, but were unable to use the result as a springboard to attain automatic promotion.
Nonetheless, Nigel Clough’s side will try to copy and paste that performance: lots of short passes, controlling possession via the midfield diamond and the full-backs, patiently working openings.
The Nottinghamshire outfit have good relationships across the park, none more so than between Stephens Quinn and McLaughlin on the left.
Quinn is astonishingly fit and mobile for a 36-year-old and has no problems getting into the final third for a cut-back one moment, then covering his wing-partner the next before chipping in with the middle third battle as both wide midfielders must do in Clough’s system.
McLaughlin supports Quinn in the defending and attacking phases, while George Lapslie and Elliott Hewitt have forged a similar understanding on the right, although it’s not a given that they will start over Jamie Murphy and James Perch respectively.
Lapslie brings relentless energy, capable of supporting Matty Longstaff and the forwards in the press whilst also covering Hewitt, who’s versatility makes him comfortable drifting into different areas of the field.
Unlike most full-backs, who rely on pace or power, Hewitt’s USP is his intelligence and willingness to move into wherever the space opens up for him: whether that’s on the inside or on the outside.
Most players in this Stags side opt for the short passing option, but whether it’s George Maris operating at the base of the diamond or Ryan Stirk – on loan from Birmingham – either technician can switch the play, so they are never restricted to one side of the field.
With strong runner Rhys Oates back fit and Jordan Bowery finally getting the nod over Clough favourite Lucas Akins, Mansfield carry a huge threat – and they have strength in depth to change games that are not going their way.
With that in mind, the Stags should be favourites to win over the two legs, even though Northampton have quality themselves.
The Cobblers might be more resolute than they were in the previous meetings between these sides, not least because they have Shaun McWilliams in central midfield – having been without the key man last time – and Louis Appere, Sam Hoskins and Josh Felix-Eppiah and Mitch Pinnock can do damage going forward.
Mansfield are the more patient outfit, however, and that could be what wins the tie over the two legs.
“I would back Darrell Clarke to adjust better than Ben Garner to high-stakes football, having won promotion twice previously with Bristol Rovers – including once via the Play-Offs. His motivational qualities are top notch.”Gabriel Sutton
Swindon Town v Port Vale
Port Vale to qualify
Swindon and Port Vale come into this first leg in different spirits.
Town, on the one hand, were not expecting to end their season but a run of four straight victories saw them unexpectedly make the cut at the expense of Sutton and Tranmere.
Vale, meanwhile, were five points clear in the automatic promotion race with four to play after a 1-0 victory at Hartlepool, but three straight defeats – including one to Bristol Rovers, who ultimately got third instead of them – meant Darrell Clarke’s troops needed to beat Exeter on the final day to attain this Play-Off berth.
On that basis, there may be a psychological advantage for Swindon, but the other factor is the managers.
Ben Garner got the Swindon job based on his reputation as a youth coach, having previously done good work at various clubs including Crystal Palace, but he had struggled in his first job in senior management, Bristol Rovers.
Valiants boss Clarke had a comparatively more memorable stint with the Gas, inspiring them to back-to-back promotions, the first of which coming via the National League Play-Offs.
Garner is a process-driven coach which makes him an excellent developer of top young talent, but his opposite number is better at motivating his players for high-stakes football.
Plus, after everything Clarke has been through on a personal note – having phased back his recovery following a period of compassionate leave – Vale players will be determined to win promotion for him.
On that basis, it’s the Burslem club who have the advantage: especially if strikers Jamie Proctor and James Wilson bring their A-game.
“Mansfield’s superior strength in depth, especially in midfield, will I think see Nigel Clough’s side to promotion. They have that ability to freshen their team up, either between games or in them, without a drop in quality.”Gabriel Sutton
Based on this blog’s Semi-Final predictions, the Final will see Mansfield and Port Vale doing battle to win promotion to League One.
On the one hand, Vale have the added motivational incentive to finish the job for their manager, but they are missing depth.
The Valiants have struggled with injuries in midfield to Brad Walker, Tom Conlon and Tom Pett, which has affected their ability to run games – the latter is back fit, but has been hit-and-miss performance wise.
With Harry Charsley also absent for the final day trip to Exeter, Clarke and Andy Crosby switched from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3 with Ryan Edmondson as the third forward – it worked on the day, but could in other games lead to a shortage of support in midfield, yet Jake Taylor has struggled when he has played.
That could be where Mansfield win any potential finally, because they have huge strength in depth in midfield: if Stirk, Lapslie, Quinn and Longstaff were to start as the quartet, Clough could still bring the likes of Jamie Murphy, Ollie Clarke and George Maris off the bench.
The Stags have appealing options across the park, in fact, and it’s the ability to freshen things up – both between games and in them – which could give Clough’s troops the edge over their Play-Off competitors.