A week has now passed for the dust to settle a little since the early
reckless signings ‘statements of intent’ and with it, a much better handle on what the shape of the squad will be once pre-season commences. Target man Tom Pope unsurprisingly returned to former club Port Vale and is likely to play a starring role in the Burslem outfit’s attempts to bounce back from their relegation to the fourth tier at the first time of asking.
His departure has trimmed the roster down to 25 and there are bound to be a handful more who leave BL9 before July, but I’m going to pretend for the purposes of this post that it won’t happen and that the current group will head into the 5th of August as they are now, with the transfer window open for less than four weeks. To do this, I will ask three key questions:
- What would be the collective strengths and weaknesses of the individuals when viewed as a whole?
- How is Lee Clark likely to set his first choice XI up?
- How will opposition sides counter the threats?
1. What would be the collective strengths and weaknesses of the individuals when viewed as a whole?
Below is a simplified illustration of the current level of squad depth for each generic position:
A few at-a-glance observations:
- Plenty of goalkeeping pedigree but a distinct lack of a third option.
- With Ciaran Best’s release from the U18s, the ‘cupboard’ at left back is once again bare.
- The almost certain reversion to a two-man centre back partnership makes the current situation a little better, but none of the three are left-footed.
- A good variety of styles at right back, especially if you include Paul Caddis.
- Both ‘wings’ below Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail are devoid of experience in the third tier.
- Just one of the eight central midfielders are particularly defensive-minded.
- Up front, undoubted quality but three of the four play very similarly to each other.
Not as stark as in previous years but if you discount Joe Murphy (principally because goalkeepers use their feet less in open play), only one of the four others are likely to be named in the first choice XI. That said, there are a number of other player whose left feet are quite strong but not their kicking foot: James Vaughan, Jermaine Beckford and Zeli Ismail chief amongst them and that bodes well as they are almost certain to feature prominently; of course, the question mark over Vaughan’s future will likely remain until the end of the transfer window if it’s not resolved before.
Why is achieving some semblance of balance important? Simply because it allows a wider variety of options on the field. 20 or so years ago, a full back’s job was mainly to stop the opposition’s winger from a) getting to the byline and/or b) putting in crosses. Now, they are more often than not expected to join in the attacking transition and overlap the archetypal winger, whose own narrow role has evolved and has trickled down from the elite rung of the sport.
Due to my contrarian nature, I always find it’s better to start with where is weakest. Of course, all of these observations are subjective; players can improve and to a certain extent, change their tendencies and roles. Nevertheless, here is my current list:
- Often losing the aerial battle when defending set pieces. Nathan Cameron’s prolonged absence from the Shakers side is only a partial explanation of this and the intricacies of their setup from an attacking point of view vary wildly from team to team. There are also not that many in the squad that fall into the desirable part of a Venn diagram of being both tall and agile as one trait and anticipating where the ball will go as the other, especially if it becomes loose. This is something that can be worked on during training but is still an area where one or two astute signings could counter the current deficiencies.
- Cameron aside, the other centre backs aren’t that comfortable on the ball when under pressure. Both Antony Kay and Leon Barnett have their qualities and in the case of the former, used to be deployed as a screen in midfield. However, you always sense that both of them would prefer to get rid of it quickly even if that meant surrendering possession.
- No current competition for Greg Leigh. The former Bradford full back greatly improved in the latter half of 2016/2017 but Clark must find someone else to provide competition, even if their function is slightly different. As things stand, he is quite predictable to play against.
- No natural agile midfield screen for the defence. Paul Caddis might still be that player with a full pre-season programme behind him but as we’ll see later in this article, he is unlikely to be one of the ‘two’ in midfield because of the roles they will perform. Even if he is selected, he might need more support. Any Bury fan will tell you that they quickly lost count of the number of goals conceded because of runners from midfield in the recent campaign. The back five/six are partly culpable but the complete absence of support from their own midfield teammates tracking back was a common sight.
- No natural second box-to-box midfielder to partner Stephen Dawson. Andrew Tutte is the closest approximate to him but as discussed at some length previously, he will have to hone the defensive part of his game to prove effective in that role over a long period of time. I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary for the second player to be predominantly left-footed but it would help open up the pitch a bit more. Callum Styles and Scott Burgess favour charging towards the opposition penalty area and in any case, lack the necessary physicality to prove effective.
- Both Mayor and Ismail are too attack-minded to be relied upon to track back when possession is lost. The inside forwards have several different skills to their names but must feature in more than one phase of play, especially if the full back they are playing ahead of finds themselves in two-on-one situations. Jack Mackreth, albeit on limited evidence, is more naturally inclined to rove back down his flank but will he get the chance to prove his worth?
- Vaughan and Beckford could be too similar. If the strike partners make the same sorts of runs, attempt to find the same pockets of space and elect to shoot in the same situations, there is a chance they will end up getting in each other’s way and the opportunity might be lost in fixtures where they might be at a premium.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Far from it. There are reasons to be optimistic about the club on the pitch:
- The spine of the first XI (Murphy-Cameron-Dawson-Vaughan) is as strong on paper as it has been since the halcyon days of Stan Ternent’s stewardship between 1995 and 1998. Rock solid in between the sticks and in defence, snarling in midfield and prolific in attack. The key will be keeping them all fit and having suitable replacements of similar quality should the worst occur.
- A back four that can play a variety of lines to suit the opposition and dimensions of the pitch. Shorn of Cameron and Craig Jones, the gap between the defence and the midfield was the major issue last season. With both back in contention for 2017/2018, coupled with Leigh’s improvement, this could be one of the two components required to improve on last season’s dismal final position.
- A central midfield troupe that all differ on where their strengths lie. That sounds like a potential double-edged sword but if they are utilised well by Clark, they could help to change games much more than was the case in the recent campaign.
- Unpredictably behind the attack. Yes, Mayor has his go-to moves but there will be greater mobility in the area to aim for and more support from midfield should he need it. Ismail, whilst performing a similar role, isn’t an exact mirror of his compatriot. Behind them both in the pecking order, there is even greater variety; Mackreth is slightly more old-fashioned in his approach and as for Will Ferry and Callum Hulme, they both want to be the focal point of the team and that means looking for the ball as often as possible and popping up in unexpected places to find it and do damage. Let’s not forget that out wide at the start of last August, it was pretty much Mayor on one side and Ismail on the other without anyone to cover for them without weakening another part of the team.
- More goals in attack/less reliance on Vaughan. If Mayor and Ismail can stay injury-free, they can contribute greatly. The same goes for Beckford and George Miller, with the latter looking to continue his excellent goals to minutes return into the coming season. He is likely to start more matches and prove to be good support for the more ‘marquee’ names in the squad.
2. How is Lee Clark likely to set his first choice XI up?
There are probably two missing from the ideal XI in Clark’s mind. He is almost certain to recruit another ball-playing centre back who is bullies forwards and at least a second box-to-box midfielder. This is how I currently envisage it:
He has stated repeatedly that he wants to adopt a high energy, high tempo style of football. To do that, he needs his squad to have the requisite stamina to last the entire match and maintain that throughout the entire nine months.
The system above has a lot of vertical movement but mainly in a single direction; of course, the onus will be on the box-to-box midfielders to be the pivots of the XI and ensure that the yawning chasm between the defence and attack that has characterised the past two campaigns is consigned to the history books.
If Phil Edwards gets the nod at right back (at least initially), he will provide a counterbalance for Leigh’s drive to get forward that is unlikely to be dulled too much by any instructions given to him by the coaching staff. Edwards’ comparative conservatism would mean that there are always three Bury players behind the ball at all times.
It is still unclear who will partner Nathan Cameron; Kay nominally remains captain but that could of course change, especially when you consider Dawson’s arrival. Much like Barnett, he appeared much more comfortable in a central defensive three, ably backed up by Murphy and his willingness to sweep up away from the comfort zone of the goalmouth. As I mentioned earlier, neither have particularly honed the ability to pass accurately with their left foot and that could be crucial to minimise the danger when Leigh is thirty or forty yards higher up the pitch than the rest of the defence. That is because the foot preference often dictates the way a player holds their body and which way they will turn when faced with an attack. This is why I think there will be at least one new signing to fulfill that role.
Almost certainly, the story will be the same in midfield. Dawson is certain to start but he will need someone alongside him who can play to the same level and possibly contribute more goals to the side. I’m less sure that they will necessarily need to be left-footed but Tutte aside, there isn’t really anything close to a candidate for the job at the time of writing. They will also need to work in tandem with the left-sided centre back to plug the holes left by Leigh on the counter and provide support if their teammate is dragged out wide towards the ball.
A high tempo style means moving the ball quickly and with the standard of players available to Clark in his system, it will be a fairly even mixture of direct balls to win in midfield and playing on the ground from the back but with the onus on speed to disrupt the opposition’s shape. The midfield ‘two’ will need to be tireless in their efforts to dictate the tempo as the vast majority of third tier opposition sides will operate with three men in the middle and as wing backs have regained popularity, potentially five, especially on narrower pitches or if the battle is being repeatedly ‘lost’. They will be charged with shuttling the ball from defence and making the transition into midfield and then attack; ensuring Mayor and Ismail don’t become isolated will be key to the success of the system.
It is debatable how much support the inside forwards will offer the midfield two in terms of regaining possession or tracking back. They will need to find pockets of space and come inside to prevent being cut off and occasionally swap wings to maximise the unpredictability factor. Crosses into the area of whichever type will almost be exclusively their domain (although Leigh will offer Mayor an outlet from deeper but as it stands, a less accurate one). Either Dawson or his partner will lurk outside the area to claim the second ball or track back if the attack breaks down and the other will provide a threat inside the box through an aerial challenge or being another body for the opposition to mark (regardless of whether they operate a zonal system).
Another key flaw in the team in 2016/2017 was not striking the correct balance between piling forward and flooding the 18 yard area and keeping enough men back to shut down a quick break. This is why so much rests with the box-to-box midfielders. The inside forward on the opposite flank to where the ball is could tuck in and be that third (or fourth) man if the situation requires, too.
It’s difficult to overstate how much threat on paper Vaughan and Beckford have between them. Again, the objective will be to differentiate their runs just enough to not take up the spaces but still maintain close contact and be aware of the movements the other makes. Thankfully, their effectiveness will not be confined to just inside the box – their dribbling skills are competent, as is their strength to hold the ball up (although I stress that neither are target men in the classic sense). The variety of goals they score is what makes them a good fit, both for playing alongside one another as they have done previously at Huddersfield Town several years ago and the tactics Clark will adopt. Their speed will help them to press from the front in a way that wasn’t possible with Pope in the side and in doing so, will make sure that the opposition’s defensive line either has to keep quite far back or maintain rigorous discipline and deploy an offside trap. Of course, Vaughan and Beckford enjoy playing on the shoulder of the last defender, so that would be a risky move if the unit doesn’t have a good leader, excellent timing and a collective ability to read the game well.
3. How will opposition sides counter the threats?
There are still a couple of components missing from the squad. I have concerns that the chosen system will be countered in a number of ways – some avoidable, some not. One of the beauties of the sport is that even the strategies elite sides deploy are imperfect and new ways of organising a team are always evolving. Of course, with League One, there tends to be fewer intricacies because the level of consistency is lower than at the top of the pyramid. Skill is also a factor but not to my mind the main degree of separation.
In Clark’s autobiography, which I read after his appointment (and highly recommend), it quickly becomes clear that with the sides he has managed, he has attempted to replicate tactically the highly successful and entertaining Newcastle United team of the mid-1990s he was a star in to varying success thus far. They had a heady mixture of a commanding goalkeeper, centre backs who could mix it up, full backs happy to balance their duties, an engine room with two midfielders who employed the ‘dark arts’ but were equally useful roving forward, skillful wingers who cut inside and two strikers whose movement and aerial ability you could rely upon. He has rarely deviated from that vision since becoming a first team coach in his own right. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have a backup plan but you can be quite certain if you’re scouting one of his sides how they will initially set themselves up.
The most obvious way to stop Bury playing the way they want to in 2017/2018 is to have three central midfielders, preferably deploying two of them close together at all times in an attempt to isolate one of the men in white if the Lancashire outfit are in possession. That cuts off half of the midfield straightaway if it can be maintained throughout a match. The second of the ‘two’ has to then look for another option, either by encouraging one of the full backs up the field or bringing the nearest inside forward back, potentially nullifying their effectiveness as the opposition’s full back can track their run or the spare man in the centre can read the intent.
I believe more than half the sides in League One will deploy three in midfield – that immediately gives them a numerical advantage. The roles will vary within the three but the point I am making is that there will sometimes be a need for extra help or a different approach from Clark.
Another area they could exploit is the space behind Leigh and this could be done in a number of ways. If the opposition deploy a traditional winger, then the manager could mirror Leigh’s own attacking instincts and keep that winger as high up the pitch as possible for a counter or to press high. That would then mean that Leigh is left with a dilemma: does he curtail a large part of his game and give the midfield and Mayor fewer outlets or ignore the threat and potentially leave another unfavourable numerical situation if there’s a sudden turnover in possession? That isn’t to be critical of the former Bradford left back at all but for Bury to play on the front foot, the option chosen will be the latter more often than not.
I’ve already discussed isolating Mayor and Ismail and will probably prove more effective by not having wing-backs of their own. With a traditional flat four, the numbers are even and they can sit deep to not allow Ismail in particular behind their line. A three/five muddies the water when it comes to whose job it is to mark an inside forward if you know they’re going to cut inside or run in a direct fashion at the defence. With the four, you can combine the efforts of the full back and nearest centre back to try to show Mayor onto his left foot if the ball can’t be won. Ismail dribbles with his left foot, which can play into the hands of a full back or left-sided centre back who actually favour their right as the ball will be closer to the side they’re more comfortable with.
Ultimately, the less predictable the play, the better. On the surface, it looks like David Flitcroft and Clark share a lot in common with their philosophies. The latter must prove he is less predictable and more open to changing things if they’re not working to even come close to the top six next May.
In the next blogpost, I’ll explore who Clark might be looking to still sign to reach that goal.