Cheltenham Town and Alfie May stole the national headlines for a battling display against Premier League runaway leaders Manchester City one month ago.
After taking a healthy financial windfall from the FA Cup fourth round tie against Man City last month, Cheltenham have since dealt with a Coronavirus outbreak, recruited three new loanees and suffered more injury setbacks in recent weeks.
While the focus has firmly shifted back to League Two promotion, Michael Duff’s side have encountered mixed results, from the highs of defeating Harrogate and Walsall in successive away ties, to facing their fourth home league defeat of the campaign against Bradford City last time out.
May might have been a constant threat in the Bantams’ pursuit of a seventh clean sheet of the League Two campaign, but after failing to deliver on two well-worked opportunities, Cheltenham’s forward was left frustrated on Saturday afternoon.
“He just got frustrated in terms of the performance,” Duff said.
“From his own performance. I don’t think the ref helped. Booking Conor Thomas in the first 30 seconds created a rod for his own back as he had to blow his whistle at every opportunity.
“That’s all it is frustration but it shows he wants to win. You can channel that in better ways but I’d rather him show that emotion than no emotion, walk off the pitch and just say ‘didn’t enjoy that’.
“Our challenge is to get him to use that energy in a more productive way.”
What has remained consistent in the backdrop of a season blighted by fixture postponements and empty stands, is the consistency of Alfie May’s performances – the Robins striker who’s played an indispensable role in Cheltenham’s promotion charge this season.
May has made an impressive ten goal contributions in 26 League Two appearances this campaign. A following four goals in as many FA Cup ties, in games against South Shields, Mansfield and Man City has consolidated May’s place in Duff’s starting side.
Furthered by the recent loan arrivals of Aston Villa’s Indiana Vassilev and Reading’s Sam Smith, Cheltenham boast one of the stronger striking departments in League Two – it’s a competitive business at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium.
Andy Williams leads the club’s league top scoring charts this term, but while May offers a tireless work ethic and application, Cheltenham can rely on his consistent performances through what will be an enthralling season finale.
In this analysis, we will look at May’s influence in goals. Whilst his attitude to run into the channels and initiate the press and are all key components of his game, May prides himself on hitting the back of the net.
Having scored in the 3-1 defeat to Guardiola’s City in the FA Cup, England international Phil Foden wasn’t short of superlatives for the former Billericay Town and Farnborough forward.
“I told him he was great,” Foden told Match of the Day.
“He’s their most influential player and I said to him that he had a great game and that his team did well.”
Cheltenham might have scored the joint-fewest amount of goals this season compared to their fellow top-six sides, but the spread of goals across a competitive forward line is what will encourage Duff that his side can maintain results through the final third of the league campaign.
May himself has this season scored his goals in flurries. Having netted on Cheltenham’s season opener against Morecambe, May had to wait a following 12 games to score his next league goal, at Bradford’s Valley Parade. Having scored a double over South Shields in the first round of the FA Cup either side of his first two league goals of the season, his cup exploits haven’t gone unnoticed, as he and Tammy Abraham still currently share the competition’s golden boot this campaign.
May’s ability to steal a march on a defender, find space in a congested six-yard box and apply that all-important clinical finish has ensured that the striker has made the best start to any EFL campaign in his career, this season.
In Cheltenham’s opening day loss to Morecambe at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium in August, May was searching for his first home League Two goal in almost seven months, with the Coronavirus-enforced break putting paid to any goalscoring ending to his first season at Cheltenham.
In the below example, May, as highlighted, finds space inside Morecambe’s penalty box which is populated by six defenders, three of which are ball watching around Jake Turner’s six-yard box.
Having already recycled the ball with an effective combination with Chris Hussey on the left flank, May adopts a threatening position against the Morecambe defence as Liam Sercombe retrieves Hussey’s loose cross, and hooks the ball towards Morecambe’s far post.
Here, we can see May has positioned himself between the posts and within six to 10 yards between three of Morecambe’s closest defenders. Primed to make the most of any opportunity that might present itself as Sercombe’s cross strikes the post, the Cheltenham forward won’t get an easier chance to score a goal this season, thanks to his movement and effective positioning.
May’s instincts to find space and apply a clinical finish has become a major asset to Cheltenham this season. As Conor Thomas and Andy Williams make up the numbers in the box, they can attract Morecambe markers and free up space around the box for May to make full use of.
Whilst anther League Two goal would evade May for several months, an FA Cup tie over Northern Premier League side, South Shields would prove the perfect cup tie for May to rediscover some goalscoring form with a busy festive schedule looming.
May’s opening goal in the 12th minute gave the Robins a good platform to kick-start their memorable FA Cup run this season. In a cup campaign that would eventually end with a goal against Man City, May started it in fine fettle.
His movement, as demonstrated below, has been key to his poachers style that’s been developed through the Southern Counties East League all the way through to League Two in under five years.
After weaving in and out of the South Shields markers, May is able to pick up a half-yard of space in between centre-backs Craig Baxter and Dillon Morse. Matty Blair’s cross is accurate, but while Reuben Reid lags behind the run of play, May’s dart into the box is what deserves all the plaudits here.
Once more, we can observe May’s effective positioning between two centre-backs who are unaware that May has angled his run into the six-yard box, before tapping home to open the scoring in the FA Cup tie.
May has a proud goal-scoring record in the FA Cup, having netted four goals in Doncaster Rovers’ 7-0 rout over Chorley in 2018, but a typical strikers’ brace against South Shields epitomises May’s ever-improving game.
Below, after Ellis Chapman hoists the ball towards Blair on the right flank, goalkeeper Myles Boney is caught in no-man’s-land, and so, May makes his move towards goal in anticipation of a defensive mishap.
Positioning himself central to the South Shields goal, May is able to receive a pass from Blair inside the box and cooly dispatch into the net.
Four League Two games later and May was back amongst the goals again. Having been afforded an extended run in the side, May would’ve been relieved to have repaid the trust Duff showed in naming him in the starting side for seven consecutive games before the Robins made the trip to Valley Parade.
Below, May is seen to be pointing towards the area in which he demands the ball off Hussey. In between two opposition markers again, May enjoys great success in breaking the lines and squaring up a defender with their back to goal.
Having advanced into the penalty area, May allows George Lloyd, Will Boyle and Chapman to get up to the speed of the attack and provide options inside the box.
Though, such is the confidence May has in his own ability, the striker sets the ball out wide of Richard O’Donnell’s far post. With a fortuitous deflection, May’s strike loops over O’Donnell to level the scores before half-time.
May earns the luck in this attacking sequence through his determination to break Bradford’s defensive line and back himself to score from distance.
All 20 of the Robins’ home League Two matches before entertaining Exeter, as well as last season’s two-legged play-off semi-final against Northampton, had been played behind-closed-doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.
May has got into the habit of scoring important goals for Cheltenham this season. As Cheltenham fans returned to the Jonny-Rocks for the first time in nine months, back in December, May handed the Robins a 2-1 lead after only 13 minutes had been played.
Playing off the shoulder of an Exeter marker, May sandwiches himself amongst five Exeter defenders who adopt a seemingly effective barrier to Jonny Maxted’s goal.
As Boyle’s effort from the edge of the area is blocked, May’s strike-partner, Lloyd picks up the pieces but after his shot is also foiled, May demonstrates composure and a general quality of touch to steady himself and emphatically dispatch beyond Maxted.
After netting two goals in successive league outings for the first time in over ten months, May chose the perfect time to score after going seven without a goal following Cheltenham’s 5-3 win over Exeter.
In similar fashion to the attaching sequence he rounded off in the 2-1 win at Bradford, May picks the ball up from a Chapman slide-rule pass in extra-time of a third round FA Cup tie against Mansfield.
Whilst Chapman doesn’t simply admire his pass and instead carries on to run beyond May and offer an overload down the left channel, the Cheltenham forward once more choses to back his own quality by dropping the shoulder inside the box.
After carrying the ball with close control for at least ten yards inside the Mansfield penalty area, May finds a half-yard of space to maximise the chances of him bending the ball past Marek Stech in the Mansfield goal.
In what was the goal that sent the Robins on their way to hosting Man City in the next round, May demonstrates another key facet to his attacking game, by clinically finishing from a speculative angle.
As May went in search of another successive strike this campaign, at the University of Bolton Stadium the Robins forward adopts a familiar position from a corner kick.
Cheltenham boast some serious threats from set-piece situations, with the height of Boyle, Ben Tozer and Charlie Raglan often proving a major problem for League Two defences this season. The diminutive May usually hunts for loose bits and pieces around the goalkeeper’s six-yard box.
After Boyle manages to make a clean connection with a corner delivery, May is on hand to add the finishing touch, as he stands in front of Ben Jackson within a penalty box crowded by seven Bolton defenders.
May’s predatory instincts will serve Duff’s side well come the end of the League Two campaign, as the Robins look to maintain their competitiveness in the remaining 18 league games this season.
After playing a full 90 minutes against Newport three days later, May was gearing up for the biggest game of his life by the end of the week.
Keen to prove he was capable of replicating his League Two goal-scoring exploits against the Premier League leaders Man City, May’s dream goal almost mirrors the strike against Bolton which he scored a week before lining up against Aymeric Laporte and Fernandinho.
Tozer’s customary long-throw was highly likely to disrupt the City defence, and while May stole a march on Tommy Doyle inside the box, he was able to apply the finishing touch to the centre-back’s mighty hurl towards goal.
May has often proven that he’s got more than a tap-in to his game, but his strike against Oldham in a 2-0 win that propelled the Robins within a point of an automatic promotion place come the end of January.
After backing into Oldham defender, Kyle Jameson, May receives the ball to feet from Chapman.
With a sharp first touch turn to work some space around his accompanying marker, May still has an awful lot to do.
Though, with a confidence and belief that he can make full use of his effective combination with Chapman, May shoots on sight with his presumably weaker left side. His shot arrows across Laurence Bilboe’s out-stretched arm and into the goalkeeper’s bottom corner to seal an important 2-0 win over the Latics, following the well-fought display against City several days before.
May will be looking to cash in on his goal-scoring form this season, by becoming a vital part of the Robins’ League One promotion push in the coming weeks.
Cheltenham will travel to the Abbey Stadium on Tuesday night to contest a battle between fellow promotion chasers Cambridge United (kick off 19:00).