As promised in my last blogpost, I want to take some time to explore the options now available to Bury manager Lee Clark, especially after the signing of Harry Bunn from Huddersfield Town last week.
Below is the current squad depth (i.e. everyone who has been assigned a squad number for 2017/2018), including injured players. Positions are not necessarily reflective of individual roles:
This is how the Shakers started against Walsall last Saturday:
The idea was for attacking full-backs Greg Leigh to provide almost all of the natural width in the side and shift Walsall into a narrow battle in midfield, with Tom Aldred stepping up higher than the rest of the defensive line off the ball if the gap between Callum Reilly, Leigh and himself was sizeable. Chris Maguire was tasked with providing an option in the half-space to ensure Jermaine Beckford didn’t cut an isolated figure up front; Nicky Ajose started further towards the byline than most other forwards would in a nominal two up front.
The flexibility amongst the squad has now increased as we’ll see below*:
A setup similar to what Clark ‘inherited’ from interim head coach Chris Brass in February could be replicated well with the current personnel. The two key differences would be in the centre of defence and the nature of the two forwards. In the defensive three, less horizontal space would be covered; this is partly because both attacking wing-backs are used to their roles and generally tend to track back well and can continue to do so for the duration of the match. Additionally, there are now two choices for each berth: the naturally left-footed Callum Reilly has previous experience of the position and on the opposite flank, Chris Humphrey is a ‘defensive winger’ who roves downfield as much as he does up and he has the added advantage of being a better crosser of the ball than Craig Jones. That attribute now stands as Greg Leigh’s own greatest weakness but the emphasis would be more heavily placed on support play than chance creation.
Returning to the back ‘three’, they would stick quite rigidly to their starting positions in order to avoid the Shakers being greatly outnumbered on the counter if both wing-backs are still in the opposition half. The midfielders ahead of them would cover the space in between the two lines in that situation to avoid one or more of the Tom Aldred-Adam Thompson-Alex Whitmore triumvirate breaking ranks and exposing Joe Murphy.
Tsun Dai (or Callum Styles) would principally support both the midfield two and the forwards, sticking closely to the former when the unit are pressing to win the ball back and to the latter when shepherding it to set up a supply line. Jermaine Beckford would continue in his preferred role of advanced forward, i.e. looking to beat an offside trap and being a moving, disruptive target always at the coal face in attack. Chris Maguire would work the channels and feed off Dai’s surging runs but also be a focal point himself to create space and chances for Beckford and the supporting cast from midfield.
The above shape would firmly put the onus on Greg Leigh and Craig Jones to provide all the width but in truth, it would be about compacting space and making it extremely difficult for the opposition to pass through or around the midfield and defence. Tom Heardman would not just be a target man but also the first line of defence, looking to lead from the front and pressurise the other side into either making a mistake or hitting it long.
The narrow midfield would seek to dominate possession and, with two attack-minded midfielders in the side, ensure there was sufficient support for Heardman by crossing to him from deep areas and running beyond him courtesy of his ability to hold up the ball. Of course, we’re unlikely to see such a system deployed throughout the entirety of a match but it could be viable to close out a win/draw, especially through effective game management.
The major differences with this shape to the one already seen against Walsall are that the full-backs would not get up in support of the wide midfielders and that the second striker role would be withdrawn from the spearhead of attack, particularly off-the-ball. Joe Skarz would provide defensive cover for Tom Aldred if the latter needed to intercept a long pass in between the sitting midfielders and the back four. Callum Reilly and Stephen Dawson would shift into wider areas with the ball to replace the lack of overlap from further downfield whilst ensuring that the other of the duo remained in a central area to avoid an overload if possession was lost in the second phase.
Harry Bunn and Jay O’Shea are not conventional wingers by any means. However, they would sit in the outside channels without the ball in order to ensure the area of play is as stretched as possible. Once one of the duo has the ball, they would either immediately cut inside and look for a passing or shooting opportunity whilst the other maintained their position. Alternatively, they would look to cross from out wide as their teammate tucked in, giving a third person to aim for in the penalty area. Chris Sang would link the midfield and attack, staying close to Bunn/O’Shea and pulling a centre back out to create space for Jermaine Beckford to operate in.
The backline’s strategy is almost a carbon copy of the shape above, the sole exception being that Joe Skarz wouldn’t need to cover for Tom Aldred as much because both Callum Reilly and Stephen Dawson would be primed to support the defence first and foremost and when in possession, recycle the ball to the attacking midfield trio ahead of them and not get too involved with the attacking phase, maintaining a disciplined wall in the central area of the pitch.
Higher up, the three behind Jermaine Beckford would have the ability to swap positions during a match. This isn’t something we’ve seen at Bury very often down the years and has historically consisted of wingers occasionally swapping flanks. The key difference now is that there are individuals within the roster who are strong with both feet, so it wouldn’t just appear to be a one-trick strategy. The idea of course is to make man-marking almost impossible, trap the more defensive-minded midfielders into always being on the back foot (in turn cutting off support for their more ‘advanced’ teammates) and swarm the 18 yard-box, offering outlets aplenty and an attacking presence hitherto unseen in recent seasons.
The final one is what I’d like to see in an ideal world as I believe it strikes the right balance between defence and attack whilst utilising the skills the roster have to their maximum. The centre back pairing would be further apart than most others typically are in order to cover more ground laterally if required. The full-backs would start from deep but bomb on to the periphery of the final third, thus not over-encumbering themselves if there’s a turnover in possession.
Callum Reilly would sit furthest back in midfield and pick passes, occasionally filling in for Greg Leigh. Stephen Dawson would still be tasked with going forward but would divide his time equally between both duties and go wider to the right as his natural tendency if the flank is exposed. Tsun Dai (or Callum Styles) would always look for a pocket of space to show for the ball and then turn with it, searching for the best direction with which to move forward for it.
The front three would operate in a fashion not too dissimilar to a ‘false nine’ as has been popular at times in the elite level. Again, the frontline would swap roles and duties with the distinction that they would stay close to each other in possession but then press wide without it, stemming the potential forays down the wings that the other side could look to do in such a scenario and force them inside.
Ultimately, we’re not likely to see all of those this season… but it does highlight what’s available to Clark in quite a stark way in comparison to previous incumbents of the manager’s position. With a fully fit squad (goalkeeper aside), there are real choices and individual/collective strengths and weaknesses of every player can be accentuated and hidden respectively to a higher degree than at any time I can remember as a Bury fan in 24 years of supporting the club. Of course, the new-found flexibility doesn’t make success on the pitch inevitable and the sport has evolved tactically in leaps and bounds during that period. That said, it’s an exciting time to be a fan when you can have a real debate over who should play where and what formation they should go for rather than it being a case of the XI picking themselves.
*Unfortunately, I’ve ‘dismissed’ Nathan Cameron and Danny Mayor from consideration until their injury situations become clearer, especially in Mayor’s case.