Shapes n’ Shapes: August 2018

The dust has just about settled on the ‘soft’ deadline of the summer transfer window. In this article, I’ll look at where it’s left Bury’s squad, what shapes and styles of play are realistically open to Ryan Lowe, and how I’d line them up were I in charge!

Callum Styles to Barnsley (and back again)

This one came as a bit of a surprise to me. Not in the sense that there was interest in him (which has been the case ever since he arrived from Burnley’s academy), nor the club that will be his new home for the next four years. No, it was more the timing of the move itself. As you will see below, the current Shakers roster, whilst swollen in quantity, doesn’t actually have that many central midfielders, and fewer still that have any sort of playmaker credentials. It’s a relief that he’s been immediately loaned back from Oakwell to Gigg Lane until at least January, because it’s already a struggle to envisage who, apart from a fully fit Jay O’Shea, can create chances for the forwards from central areas with any regularity.

I’ve seen two contrasting reactions this deal: firstly, the actual fee itself. Although officially undisclosed, the rumoured fee is £500,000, plus add-ons. On the one hand, for an 18 year-old creative midfielder with only a year remaining on his contract, 30 matches and three assists to his name, and plying his trade at a fourth tier outfit, it looks perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, there’s this lingering sense that I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling, that the board have again sanctioned a move away for a young talent for primarily short-term (financial) reasons. This is doubtlessly a topic I will come back to again and again, until we see as shift in policy, and a more stable outlook off the field, expect to see plenty more like this.

The second sort of popular opinion I saw is that he ‘wasn’t actually that good anyway’. True, if you were looking at the raw output data, you’d be forgiven for thinking along those lines. With his stature and build, he’s unlikely to ever be the sort of player that can reliably win 50-50 tackles in the middle of the park, or track back and make goal-saving interventions. But those have never been part of his style, no pun intended. I’m a big believer in accentuating the stronger attributes an individual has and ‘hiding’ the weaknesses. That doesn’t mean you can’t be coached into improving these aspects, but when considering them in a starting lineup, you adapt your strategy to compensate.

 

Dai Wai-Tsun to Oxford United

The destination is most certainly a shock for me, but not that he’s gone. No stranger to giving choice quotes to media back in his native Hong Kong, the inverted winger was probably going to find gametime severely restricted, especially if Lowe persists with a 5-2-2-1 (more on that below). Opportunities for him in 2017/2018 were quite limited, playing the equivalent of just five full matches, even after being talked up considerably by Lee Clark. The consensus here seems to be one of indifference at his departure, and it’s more understandable with him… but still not something I subscribe to.

Erring on the side of caution is always best, particularly when attempting to objectively evaluate young players coming through the academy to the fringes of the first team. The odds are stacked against them playing professionally after 21. Like Styles, Dai has the technical attributes to succeed in a setup that values them, but still needs to firmly establish what his best role is in an XI, as well as find a way of dealing with the more brutish side of the sport. Under Karl Robinson, if he does receive minutes after predominately being amongst the U23s, it’s almost certainly going to be in the right-hand channel of a 4-2-3-1, with fewer defensive responsibilities than he was afforded in white and royal blue, and far more emphasis on short, intricate passing triangles. He’s unlikely to have the same impact as Styles will at his new club, but if he’s given the time and space to develop, he could be featuring at the Kassam before the campaign is through.

 

Tom Aldred to Motherwell on loan

A deal that’s mutually beneficial for all parties. He enjoyed a level of success and adulation from the supporters at Fir Park in the latter half of 2017/2018 that bore no resemblance to the mostly torrid outings in League One under the auspices of three separate managers. The SPFL outfit, having recently profited from the sale of Cédric Kipré to Wigan Athletic, were nonetheless never likely to sign Aldred permanently at this juncture. Instead, they can enjoy the benefits of a season-long loan, safe in the knowledge that his contract expires next June, and, unless something drastic occurs, he’d much rather be in an environment where he feels both wanted and integral to the team. The knock-on effect is that Saul Shotton is now the undoubted fourth choice centre back in the senior squad, if that wasn’t already clear by the former Blackpool stopper’s continued outings in pre-season friendlies with the U23s.

 

Squad depth as of today

So where do these three outgoings leave the roster? The picture below includes everyone at the club in simplified positions, who has also been given a first team squad number, which includes Styles until the New Year:

09082018

Shorn of two, there’s an ever-so-slightly more balanced look to the setup, but there are still some areas overloaded. It’s still doubtful if Phil Edwards will be seen on the field again for Bury, such is the competition at right-back, and the very low esteem he’s held in – most of which, but not all, is squarely down to him. Similar aspersions can be cast at Harry Bunn and Stephen Dawson; however, they were sat together on the bench for the laboured opening day triumph over nine-man Yeovil Town, and it’s difficult to foresee them being cast aside now. The latter has the advantage of a paucity of other options in central midfield, especially of his type. Whilst he is a ball-winner, his age and long-standing concerns over his injury record have badly damaged his reputation, and even he is more inclined to go forward rather than back. This makes the lack of a more defensive-minded, younger recruit all the more baffling… although as stated above, there is scope to rectify that before the month is out, either by signing an unattached player (such as Amine Linganzi, who has been on trial at Carrington) or through the loan system.

On the left flank, only the academy prospects Joe Adams and Callum Hulme can reliably claim that their stronger foot matches their position, although the pair can operate right across advanced midfield areas. The forwards appear reasonably diverse in their skillsets, and will obviously be boosted when Jermaine Beckford is back participating in full training and somewhere close to match fitness.

 

5-2-2-1: Here to stay?

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Not every player will be included in each formation; above are the 11 that started against Yeovil Town, with several alternate options in particular roles

Having spent the plurality of pre-season switching between a 4-2-3-1 and latterly, a 5-3-2, Lowe opted for an unorthodox shape in the first game, with understandable accusations that the formation appeared far too conservative hosting limited opposition. In a notable shift from 2017/2018, two of the three centre backs often stepped out of defence. In Adam Thompson’s case, this was chiefly to close down the space behind the central midfield pair, intercepting any loose passes and preventing The Glovers operating between the lines whilst they still had parity in personnel. Eoghan O’Connell was tasked more with using his superior passing ability to recycle the ball to his compatriots ahead of him, as well as attempt riskier options down the flanks.

Neither wing-back exactly roved forward, but they did offer some support in the wide spaces, maintaining the defensive unit superbly, particularly when you consider it was their first competitive match together as a five. Neil Danns’ work rate helped reduce the numerical disadvantage in the middle third of the pitch, which will be the case against almost every single other team in the fourth tier. He doesn’t have the same class on the ball as Callum Styles, but uses his vast experience and tactical knowledge to coach his partner throughout, as was obvious last weekend. The youngster for his part will probably never be one to make late bursting runs into the opposition penalty area, principally due to a lack of explosive pace.

All of the above factors put a lot of onus on the inside forwards to create chances for themselves and the lone striker, risking the latter becoming isolated for periods of the match. Danny Mayor seemed to be back to his tricky best, beating his marker on the dribble several times and cutting inside to good effect. The reluctance to shoot until the perfect opening appears persists, however. Nicky Adams is a more reliable crossing outlet on the other side, and coupled that with a willingness to get back into position quickly when a turnover of possession happened.

Chris Dagnall is a willing runner but is far from a natural choice to spearhead the attack. He works best in tandem with at least one other, and has neither the height nor the physicality to operate effectively in areas with his marker breathing down his neck. Against superior opposition on paper, his ability to defend from the front could be key in seeing out games. Jermaine Beckford and Gold Omotayo are more imposing figures; the former plays on the shoulder of the last defender, which could be an effective tactic if the line is reasonably high and his teammates can get into positions frequently to pick him out.

4-4-2: Can it work?

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Short answer: no. Longer answer: in terms of the personnel at both ends of the pitch, it could actually be the best system. This is because the defence when taken as a whole has a good mix of conservatism, positional sense and can play their way out of trouble when required. As stated previously in this article, the forwards have the requisite skills to keep scouts and managers vigilant. Dagnall has always been at his most prolific in front of goal when provided with a partner to work with, and in Omotayo and Beckford, he’d be a close witness to most of the headers being won, as well as pressing high when the ball is lost.

The midfield is the issue in three of the four positions. On the right, Nicky Adams has the stamina to track back when fully fit, and Byron Moore is equally inclined to perform this role well. Mayor’s strong suit has never been when facing his own goal, nor is it reliably (and cleanly) challenging for possession down his flank. Dawson is the only ball-winner in the centre, but rarely does this in the defensive third. This would leave big gaps in between the lines, forcing either a centre back to step out and potentially expose themselves, or for the unit to retreat, which brings about its own issues. As it stands, this shape would make stark the individual and collective weaknesses in midfield, neither industrious enough to be continuously effective between boxes, nor strong enough to regain (and retain) possession.

 

4-2-3-1: My kingdom for a pivot

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This shape ought to have been what was witnessed for the majority of last season, but injuries to O’Shea, Dawson and Beckford in the early months were large factors in other measures being taken, not forgetting the utter lack of tactical nous on the part of Lee Clark. This year, without a tall, physical presence in front of the back four and/or a deep-lying playmaker, it would negate the strengths of the formation and the central midfielders in one fell swoop.

Once more, the rest of the XI would be able to cope amiably. On the left, both Mayor and Harry Bunn would be free to drift inside, safe in the knowledge of having at least six outfield players behind the ball at almost all times. It would also suit Jay O’Shea’s trequartista modus operandi, being both a creative and goalscoring threat to the opposition, and strong with both feet. The wider players of the attacking midfield trio could also peel off and aim crosses at him and the lone striker, who would be able to call on support of three others reliably. Again, this most suits Beckford and Omotayo, and the latter has displayed good touches and positional awareness already (albeit in an incredibly small sample size).

 

5-3-2: Narrow in attack

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Beckford aside, this is how I expected Lowe to organise the XI last week. Callum McFadzean is a more natural choice at wing-back than Chris Stokes, the player himself admitting he’s better at getting forward than ‘staying at home’ in the defensive unit. Here, he and Tom Miller would be asked to provide all of the width, with the midfield three unlikely to split in or out of possession, relying more on the centre backs to do so when Bury are countered on. The main concern here would be if the wing-backs are pinned back or doubled up down their flank, who would burst forward from midfield to carve out opportunities for the strikers? The most obvious answer is probably Danns, but he’d need one of the other two to take a risk and join in the attack.

 

4-3-3: My new ideal

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I was asked on Twitter this week how I would set the Shakers up were I in charge, and I have waited until writing this article to issue my response. As I said at the top about Styles, I’d rather accentuate the positive aspects of each player in a constructive way that leaves the XI with the fewest collective weaknesses.

The full-backs pick themselves, essentially. Neither would get forward greatly, allowing the ‘front six’ a little more freedom from a defensive point of view. O’Connell or Shotton would still be the ball-playing centre back, but would be asked to do so without breaking the line. They would have three in midfield and attack to aim for, should they opt for a long pass.

The midfielders have a decent blend of creativity and tenacity. Dawson would nominally be the deepest, but would roam forward when possession was on the opposite side of the field, and the same would be true of Styles. The key here would be Danns timing any late runs in support of the front three; the Shakers have rarely been known in recent years for committing bodies forward unless the need was dire, and rarer still has the right balance been struck.

The most intriguing aspects are the identities of the wide forwards. It’s my opinion that a 4-3-3 doesn’t suit Mayor, as it requires those individuals to press high in the wide and half-spaces, which is a task Nicky Adams is simply better at doing on the left. His namesake Joe Adams continues to be mightily impressive for the U18s, and has the added advantage of being adept with his weaker right foot, allowing him to cut inside from both wings (hence why he’s listed twice).

Dom Telford could also be played there, giving a more lop-sided look to the front three, who could feed off the main striker and come alive in the penalty area on the dribble. Jordan Archer allies pace to physicality, and would be a target man but without the shackles of having to plough a furrow in the middle. This would make it hard for the opposition to know who should keep tabs on him, and that could in turn create space for his teammates. O’Shea would do much the same job as Joe Adams but on the right.

For me, this formation gives the most balance; it’s neither too narrow nor too wide, and can be adjusted easily at the front for the opposition. It lessens the need for the midfield to pile forward, and the reluctance/inability of the full-backs to offer dynamic support actually helps them out defensively speaking. It’s all-too apparent that the midfield area is still in need of some care and attention, but if I saw Lowe at least try out something akin to what I believe would be the best fit, I’d be very pleased.

 

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