Tag: tactics

Forest Green Rovers vs Plymouth Argyle: Preview

I’ll be making the short trip across Gloucestershire on Saturday to witness table-topping Forest Green Rovers take on an inconsistent Plymouth Argyle in League Two at The New Lawn – this is my preview of the game.

I’ll be one of the first to confess that I didn’t see Forest Green being top of the pile at this stage of the campaign. Shorn of both Reece Brown and Christian Doidge, coupled with a high turnover of personnel in the double digits both in and out of Nailsworth, it just didn’t have the makings from the outside looking in of an outfit that can boast the joint second meanest defence in the entirety of the EFL, as well as leading a very open looking fourth tier.

Boss Mark Cooper deserves plenty of credit for the manner in which he has gone about his business, and seems to have learned some of the harder lessons from 2018/2019 in the process. His tactical approach is now less dogmatic – no longer is possession for possession’s sake the default, and there is slightly more leeway allowed for defenders to clear their lines. He probably won’t be reading too much into the heavy EFL Trophy defeat earlier this week, given the number of changes made for everyone’s favourite cup competition™. The confident dispatching of potential banana skin Billericay Town in the FA Cup first round is far more indicative of their current standing, and another home draw against the now managerless Carlisle United represents a great chance to push on and get a plum tie in January.

In the away dugout will be Ryan Lowe and Steven Schumacher, fresh from their own topsy-turvy cup exploits over the past week. An impressive narrow victory at resurgent Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup was followed up with a disappointing early exit without kicking a ball from the EFL Trophy – disappointing chiefly because the former Bury manager places a lot of emphasis on progressing in the thoroughly disliked competition.

Of more concern to the loyal but vocal fanbase will be the indifferent league form to date, although it must also be pointed out that they are still only eight points off the summit with a game in hand over most sides in the division. That’s unlikely to have much truck if there’s any repeats in the near future of the 4-0 derby defeat to Exeter City, with Lowe’s comments about it ‘being just another game’ inevitably drawing plenty of ire. In that regard, nothing has changed since leaving the stricken Shakers in the summer, but the best way of helping the Pilgrims faithful forget that painful loss would be to string a positive set of results together, starting on Saturday.

Forest Green 1920.PNG
Rovers have not a consistent shape all season, so I’ve gone with an educated guess as to how they might combat the visitors’ obvious talents in wide positions

As the caption above suggests, Cooper has not stuck to a single formation for very long but without the usual possible pitfalls that such a strategy could entail, just as often employing wing-backs as he does a more traditional flat four. Given that it’s almost certain Callum McFadzean and Danny Mayor will work in tandem down the left for Plymouth, it would seem prudent for the numbers to match up on that flank.

Whether it’s been Lewis Thomas or Joe Wollacott as the custodian, they have both kept clean sheets in more than half their outings; Thomas was rewarded for shutting out the opposition five games in a row with a contract extension until 2021. He is slightly more confident at taking crosses than the Bristol City loanee, but together, they have been a huge component of how miserly the Green Devils have been.

Whichever one is selected, they will usually distribute the ball to the centre back pairing of Liam Kitching and Farrend Rawson, who will split when Forest Green are on the attack further up the pitch, and they themselves will push quite high in an attempt to keep the majority of play in the opposition’s own third. Rawson is still improving at just 23, and rarely loses a defensive duel, ranking as the best in the league in that metric.

Captain Joseph Mills has been a potent source of goals from the left thus far, notching five and providing three for his teammates. While the majority of those have come from the penalty spot, Joe Riley (if fit) will need to be extremely wary about leaving space in behind himself. The skipper is more willing and adept than most of his contemporaries at using his weaker foot, and the accuracy of his low crosses is something Lowe will need to pay plenty of heed to.

Dom Bernard is more conservative with his output (if not his runs). The Irish youngster can operate in a multitude of different positions, but has been used at right-back frequently. His accurate passing keeps things ticking over for his side, and he too often finds his intended target in the area.

Carl Winchester is a metronome as one half of the double pivot in midfield. Whilst not the most sprightly in the air, he will be key to the hosts dictating the tempo of the game. Ebou Adams does most of the mopping up in front of the high backline, giving the defence the confidence to maintain that level of engagement.

Elliott Frear, who signed on a short-term basis last month, has been recently selected on as the left-sided attacking midfield/winger of choice. He will be hoping to earn a longer deal, and if his composed control and finish in the El Glosico derby away at Cheltenham Town is a sign of things to come, he has a decent chance. It will take him more time to make the necessary adjustments tactically, but he’s another Plymouth need to be mindful of.

Jack Aitchison has been playing off the striker in green and black, and comes into the encounter at the weekend in a rich vein of form in front of goal. His quick feet and coolness under pressure are what have marked his strikes to date. Less likely to turn provider than most in his position, he will be instead look to ‘shadow’ Matty Stevens and work the space to shoot.

Liam Shephard is the optimal candidate to be in advance of Bernard. Returning to the McFadzean-Mayor axis for a moment, he is equally at home further back as he is coming into the attacking third. There might be plenty of opportunities for him to go beyond his marker and blunt the efficacy of that duo.

The aforementioned Stevens hasn’t been prolific at the time of writing, but is tracking at hitting the target just under half the time he gets a shot off, which is encouraging for his future place in the XI. Just at home trying to take the ball past his marker as he is being the focal point of the attack, that duality should stand him in good stead against a back three who aren’t at their best when dealing with a target man.

Plymouth 1920

Undoubtedly, there have been some tweaks to Ryan Lowe’s preferred shape since taking charge at Home Park, but it is still ostensibly a 3-5-2, with the wing-backs performing much more closely to the the traditional winger role.

Alex Palmer is apt to stray off his line during matches, acting very much as a sweeper keeper in the modern style. The wider centre backs, captain Gary Sawyer and (most likely) Scott Wootton, work diligently to supply McFadzean and the returning Joe Riley for the pair to bomb forwards. Sawyer has been crucial in intercepting loose balls in his quadrant, as well as preventing an opposing winger pulling the defensive unit out of sync. Wootton isn’t normally kept quite as busy on the counter, and is a more assured aerial presence. Niall Canavan is the mid-point of the triumvirate, and is the best placed to catch the attention of the opposing striker. As a collective, they need to make more out of attacking set pieces, having scored just once between them.

Most regular readers of this blog will know all about McFadzean and Riley from their Gigg Lane days. The former has added an ingredient that eluded him in white and dark blue – a goalscoring end product. Down in Devon, he’s already halfway to double digits, accruing five from just seven shots on target in all competitions! Whether by instruction or inclination from previous successes, he’s already got off more shots as a whole in November than he did in the totality of his season with Bury.  His link-up play with Mayor sees the majority of attacks come down Argyle’s left as you’d perhaps expect, although he has also formed a good understanding with George Cooper during the talisman’s absences.

On the right, Riley is renowned in lower league circles for having a pop from distance – only one of his nine efforts in the league has come inside the 18-yard box. His clever direct free-kick against Northampton Town is evidence of his increased utility in more situations. His presence in the XI gives a better balance to the shape.

Joe Edwards is nominally the most defensive of the midfield three. He will cover ground laterally to help diminish the likelihood of the opposition creating two-on-one passages of play down the flanks, and is the bulwark against quick breaks in the middle. He won’t venture too far away from his position, but has been effective as an extra body at the far post when the need arises.

Whenever I used to see Antoni Sarcevic’s name on the teamsheet against Bury, I was always concerned. A very talented player still in his prime years, the Serbian will shuttle between defensive and attacking duties, offering an option inside to Riley to perform a give-and-go, and probably has a better passing range than Mayor, attempting his fair share of through balls to the front two with a considerable degree of success.

Mayor needs little introduction. He probably hasn’t been at his sparkling best consistently for Argyle, but a concerted run in the side free from injury should facilitate that happening. He’ll always be the target of kicks, and is now mature enough to understand that without being petulant. He remains one of the elite of the division, able to slalom past defenders with his close dribbling skills, cut inside from the wing, and drift away from his marker with ominous ease. The battle down that flank will decide the outcome of Saturday’s fixture.

Joel of the burgeoning Grant ‘family’ will lead the line in black and green. Just like strike partner Byron Moore, he has gradually been used up front more and more in his career after previously plying his trade as a winger. This can be a double-edged sword in practice, but it does mean that they both retain the ability and pace to be unpredictable in their movement, and happy to take up positions in the half-space to make their marker think carefully about whether to close them down and risk creating an opening or hang back several yards and risk ‘allowing’ them to shoot or pass unchallenged. Lowe can also call on Dom Telford from the bench to offer a more direct path to goal.

As for a prediction, I think Forest Green’s defensive record will come under severe threat on Saturday. The expansive way Lowe’s sides play will almost always mean there are spaces to exploit if given the chance, although he has mixed things up of late by instructing the wing-backs to play longer balls into the channels for the forwards to run onto and hold up. Either way, it has all the makings of an excellent spectacle for a netural – 2-2.

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Crewe Alexandra Tactical Analysis

How have Crewe Alexandra banished the away days of the previous campaign under David Artell in the opening three months of the 2019/2020 season in League Two? Let’s take a look.

League Results to Date & General Performances

(Crewe score first in red):

Plymouth Argyle (h): 0-3
Oldham Athletic (a): 2-1
Walsall (h): 1-0
Crawley Town (a): 2-1
Newport County (a): 0-1
Bradford City (h): 2-1
Grimsby Town (a): 2-0
Cambridge United (h): 2-3
Leyton Orient (a): 2-1
Salford City (h): 4-1
Cheltenham Town (a): 1-1
Exeter City (h): 1-1
Carlisle United (a): 4-2
Swindon Town (h): 3-1
Colchester United (a): 0-0
Port Vale (h): 0-1

David Artell has enjoyed a much better start to the league campaign than he managed at the same juncture in 2018/2019. The first match was certainly inauspicious in its scoreline, but the 3-0 reverse was by no means reflective of the Railwaymen’s performance. They then rallied to triumph in five of the next half-dozen, a narrow loss at Newport County bisecting that run.

Paul Green’s first-half dismissal scuppered their chances of holding onto the lead whilst hosting Cambridge United, which they impressively gained at one point despite being a man light. The thrashing of Salford City ably demonstrated what the young squad are capable of, and two creditable draws with likely fellow top-seven chasing sides helped to cement their own credentials.

Seven goals in the space of two games has now segued into two without any – there have been noticeably fewer chances created in the latter, and the narrow ‘derby’ loss to visitors Port Vale was of particular disappointment to supporters.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Crewe 1920


Tactical Approach

For as long as I can remember, Alex have prided themselves on playing a progressive style, utilising their extremely reputable and productive academy to both keep the wage bill down and the potential future fees for the cream of the crop higher. This is no different in 2019. Will Jääskeläinen has established himself as first choice stopper at just 21 – his distribution is instructed to be shorter, with the flying full-backs the usual recipients.

Eddie Nolan and Nicky Hunt will split in possession, passing the ball laterally to their respective flanks. Hunt, now converted to centre-back in his advanced years, will also cover in behind his partner as a safety measure against playing a higher line, or to receive a pass from the goalkeeper. The duo will also both join in attacking set pieces, offering alternative outlets to the target man.

Harry Pickering gallops up the surface to support Charlie Kirk, and will sometimes overlap him to put crosses in or drift inside to make the opposition think twice about attacking through the middle. Captain Perry Ng fulfils a similar role when deployed on the right.

Ryan Wintle is the most defensive-minded of the central midfield triumvirate. He will box off the spaces vacated by Paul Green and Tom Lowery, sweeping up after them when the turnover occurs. Green offers a deeper angle to attempt crosses from, as well as being a long-distance shooter. Lowery places more emphasis on being part of the attacking phases, and always tries to get forward.

Nobody has nailed down the right-wing berth when the formation is a 4-3-3, but Owen Dale has spent the most time there. Assisted by Ng, he will whip low balls into Chris Porter’s feet. The veteran striker either comes short to join in the approach play or more usually loiters inside the area, especially on the six-yard line.

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Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

The roster this term is a year older. Whilst that sounds like a stunningly obvious statement to make, few other clubs in the EFL will have quite the age profile of the first team as they do at Gresty Road. Most of the ones on the younger end of the spectrum have plenty of gametime under their belts, belying their youth.

The two shapes most often utilised make full use of the speed and width in the team – a slight bias to the right channel (40% to 36%) is apparent, with Ng and Dale given more freedom to dribble than their counterparts. They also rank highly for playing in their own third, which is indicative of not rushing their passing, making the ball do the work to draw out the opposition and find pockets of space to get around their press.

An element which is both a strength and a weakness is the efficacy of the strategy lives and dies on how close Porter’s teammates can get to him in open play. If the wide men are stymied, it can be hard for them to get any meaningful supply to him, and the starting positions of the central midfielders are relatively deep. It therefore falls on Crewe to dominate possession in order to creep up the pitch, balancing the need to support Porter with not being caught on the break.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

Working backwards from the forward line, Porter is one of the best in the lower leagues at finishing his chances at close range, especially with his head. His movement and vast experience are bulwarks against his ageing legs, and his goals are positive proof that there is still a niche in an evolving sport for a player that makes clever runs over needlessly depleting their stamina.

Charlie Kirk is one of the most exciting talents in League Two, being their creator-in-chief from out wide and the most confident at running with the ball past an opponent, seldom dwelling on it or not looking up to see who’s making themselves available for a possible pass.

Tom Lowery’s goalscoring contributions from the middle to date have helped ease the burden on Porter to a certain degree, but hasn’t managed a single shot on target in the last four games, taking the gloss off the assists he made in both of the first two of that tranche a little.

Perry Ng continues to mature and impress in equal measure. His versatility is a huge boon to his employers, and his accuracy from a range of different passing styles and distances helps no end in ensuring Alex are the most dominant side in the fourth tier in possession. He still has work to do in an aerial sense, and some teams do target his flank as a possible area to exploit in that manner.

Conclusions

Last season, Artell did an interview with the excellent D3D4 Football, in which he also fielded questions sent in on social media. I asked him whether there was anything psychological behind the travails on the road, and he seemed to suggest that there was a kernel of truth to that, which lay in the mentality of his young squad. At the time of writing, they have collectively consigned that to history; in the seven fixtures on the road in 2019/2020, they have already won more (five) than the totality of 2018/2019 (four). Had their away form been even a little less woeful, they might have sneaked into the play-offs.

Currently in fourth and just a single point from the summit, there’s every reason to suggest they now have what it takes to mount a serious promotion challenge. Granted, their depth doesn’t compare to that of, say, Bradford City, but if they can avoid lengthy injuries to Porter and Kirk, and possibly recruit another striker in the January transfer window, they might make the return to the third tier after a four-year absence. The manager will be thanking the board if that does transpire for sticking with him during the difficulties last term. Many other clubs would’ve taken a different stance.

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Oxford United Tactical Analysis

How have Oxford United become a free-scoring side under Karl Robinson in the opening three months of the 2019/2020 season in League One? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Oxford score first in dark yellow):

Sunderland (a): 1-1
Peterborough United (h): 1-0
Blackpool (a): 1-2
Burton Albion (h): 2-4
Bristol Rovers (a): 1-3
Coventry City (h): 3-3
Fleetwood Town (a): 1-2
Tranmere Rovers (h): 3-0
Bolton Wanderers (a): 0-0
Lincoln City (a): 6-0
Gillingham (h): 3-0
Accrington Stanley (a): 2-2
Doncaster Rovers (h): 3-0
Rotherham United (a): 2-1
Rochdale (h): 3-0
Portsmouth (a): 1-1

A hugely encouraging first ‘third’, which in many ways has felt like a continuation of the recovery from the previous campaign. The customary low-scoring draw involving Sunderland was followed up by what looks increasingly like a huge three points at home to Peterborough United as the weeks go by. An experimental switch in shape to a 4-1-4-1 ought to have yielded something from the trip to Bloomfield Road to face Blackpool, but was instead the heralding of a barren run of five without a win, despite scoring eight in that period.

The rot was halted when hosting Tranmere Rovers, and whilst supporters would doubtlessly have felt frustrated after the stalemate with bottom side Bolton Wanderers, the subsequent two had them purring with delight, watching the Yellows annihilate Lincoln City and Gillingham, racking up nine goals in the space of a week.

Accrington Stanley provided a much sterner examination of their credentials than might have been expected by some onlookers, but ‘normal service’ was then resumed, impressively dispatching likely top six rivals Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United. Holding Rochdale at arm’s length was followed up last weekend by a late equaliser against an underachieving Portsmouth, stretching their unbeaten streak in the league to nine matches and counting.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Oxford 1920
Although a 4-2-3-1 has been used slightly more than the shape above, this is the one that is currently utilised and has yielded the best results


Tactical Approach

I’ve been a vocal critic of Karl Robinson in the past, having seen several times at close quarters in recent years an extremely predictable formation and tactical approach. Previously, it would consist of playing out from the back slowly, letting the full backs gallop up the pitch whilst the double pivot sought to dictate the tempo. The attacking midfield trio would be the most important members of the XI, acting as the runners in behind a target man, the suppliers of the sole striker from crosses, and the pressers in an attempt to force the opposition to go long and cede possession.

Whilst there have been elements of that at the Kassam Stadium since he took charge, sometimes as a writer, you have to admit that someone you admired as a coach but not as a tactician has evolved their thinking.

Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood’s attributes are strong across the board, and he has formed a strong bond with the four in front of him, rarely needing to stray off his line to intercept a dangerous pass or loose ball. Instructed to kick short rather than throw, he can rely on the likes of skipper John Mousinho to accurately pick out a teammate. Alongside him is Rob Dickie, who is given more licence than most centre backs to stride forwards with the ball and attempt killer passes.

On the flanks, Josh Ruffels and Columbus Crew loanee Chris Cadden balance progressive and defensive duties; they’re not as often looked to as most modern full-backs to provide the width, but will offer their support when possession needs to be recycled or the play is switched. Anchorman Alex Rodríguez Gorrín covers the ground both laterally and vertically behind the rest of the midfield, mopping up high passes in the air and putting his foot in when necessary on the ground to halt counters and stop attacks dead.

Understandably, most of his own passes will be short to the likes of Cameron Brannagan and James Henry.  The duo’s willingness and propensity to shoot from range has been instrumental in a large number of the goals thus far. Their dynamism helps what could otherwise be a defensive-looking posture in a different manager’s hands become very offensive and effectual.

Rob Hall hasn’t had the lion’s share of gametime on the right flank, but uses his pace and strong left foot to occupy and go beyond his marker, dragging the unit out of their line in the process. Tarique Fosu intelligently takes up positions in the half-space to shoot from, offering an outlet more centrally. Matty Taylor presses the backline as a whole, often standing in an offside position to fool his marker. He is the focal point for crosses whilst not being a classic target man, offering more to the team in different phases.

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

Two aspects stand out: the sheer volume and distribution of the goals scored to date, plus the very high level of flexibility in the squad as a whole. Any team that’s reliant on a single individual to put the ball in the net is likely to have either a fallow period if and when that player’s form dips or they become unavailable. There have been 10 different league goalscorers, but more significantly, three of them have five or more already, all of whom operate in midfield.

On the latter aspect, every outfielder in the graphic above with the exception can comfortably operate in completely discrete positions to where they’ve been most commonly placed this season, which means that Robinson should be able to mould them as the context changes better than most of his rivals will be able to in League One.

If there is an area that can be improved, it is in regard to set pieces. Already in 2019/2020, Oxford have conceded six from dead balls, ranking them as one of the most leaky in that metric across the division as a whole. Given the height and aerial prowess in the ranks, there are reasons to suggest it’s more a deficiency in organisation and application than in any inherent physical disadvantage; as such, it might be possible to reduce the frequency more easily.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

The U’s have individual talent in abundance. Dickie has firmly established himself as one of the best centre-backs in the third tier at the age of just 23; Brannagan is the all-action central midfielder that supporters crave and the modern game increasingly requires; Fosu, reunited with Robinson after moving from Charlton, has found his niche. There are just a few examples of who the manager can call upon to change a game or preserve their advantage.

Whilst the shot data suggests that Fosu and Henry to a lesser extent won’t quite keep up their records in 2019/2020, the burden being spread so widely ensures that if one or both of them regress back to the mean in the coming weeks, it might not have too negative an effect.

Simon Eastwood hasn’t been at his imperious best, conceding 19 against an xGA of 16.67 – however, it would be an exaggeration to say he hasn’t been reasonably solid. Jamie Mackie continues to underperform, but will be thankful he’s not being relied upon to score unlike some parts of the last campaign.

Conclusions

This could be a special season for Oxford United. Putting aside the league for a minute, they’re in the quarter finals of the EFL Cup where they will pit their wits against Premier League champions Manchester City for the second year in a row. They have an excellent chance of reaching at least the second round of the FA Cup after being drawn against seventh tier Hayes & Yeading, and are also assured of a place in the knockout stages of the EFL Trophy.

An argument has been made that there isn’t a single outstanding team in League One this season. Whilst that’s not the view I take, some of the more fancied sides are not living up to their billing, and Oxford have had the beating of quite a few of them already. There are players like Shandon Baptiste who continue to impress despite their youth, and, if developed sensibly and sold at the right time, could help to substantially alleviate any lingering off-field issues centring around the lease on the stadium.

Robinson has successfully evolved the style he was hitherto renowned for – he’ll likely always favour a possession-based strategy, but gone is the ponderousness when attacking. They now do it with vigour and a swagger at times, rotating the personnel to keep the opposition’s analysis team guessing. They have the wherewithal to remain in the play-offs at a minimum, providing the cups don’t curb their league form significantly.

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Bristol Rovers vs Portsmouth: Preview

In the first match I’ll be attending in person this season, I take a look at the League One clash between Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth at the Memorial Stadium.

I have to admit that it’s strange to be writing about a game I’ll be at that doesn’t involve Bury in one form or another; it’s not an unprecedented occurrence, but it has been rare up until this point. Even with the phoenix starting to rise, it’s going to become much more commonplace. My love of football doesn’t begin and end with the Shakers, and this is just the inaugural step on covering sides in my locale.

Bristol Rovers, for their part, were not expected to be in the top half of the third tier standings with 14 games played. Had they won on Tuesday, Graham Coughlan’s charges would’ve been firmly ensconced in the play-offs, ably demonstrating how close the table still is in some areas. Instead, they turned in an abject performance at home to the previously winless Bolton Wanderers, fully deserving the 2-0 reverse inflicted on them by the Trotters.

The prevailing narrative where The Gas are concerned is an over-reliance on the explosive talents of Jonson Clarke-Harris, who rose to prominence in spectacular fashion last term. I still remember his loan spell at Gigg Lane six years ago in an abject squad under the bumbling, belligerent auspices of Kevin Blackwell. I could see then he had the raw qualities to progress his career, and his goal return of four in 12 augured well. This season began in much the same way as 2018/2019 concluded. An all-round striker, he has the strength and acceleration to get clear of his marker, be more than effective in the air, and has a knack of pulling off the spectacular.

It’s no surprise that the injury he suffered earlier this month has come as a grievous blow to the squad; only one goal has been scored in the three fixtures since, with no-one else stepping up in his absence to carry the burden. Tomorrow, they face a Portsmouth outfit way off the pace, and the perception is that their 1-0 victory over Lincoln City on Tuesday preserved Kenny Jackett’s job for the time being, at least.

Pompey have suffered more than most from fixture cancellations thus far, which goes a long way to explain why they’ve played fewer than every other side in the division. They too have had to cope without their star forward in the form of Brett Pitman, but have more able replacements – in fact, it’s disparaging to describe John Marquis in such a fashion, even if he just ended a long barren spell the other night for his third of the campaign.

no Sercombe and Clarke-Harris; vitriol for Clarke; Leahy possibly back in for Kelly perceived lack of a Plan B

Bristol Rovers 1920

Coughlan is likely to rigidly stick to a 3-5-2 that screams defensive solidity over creativity and risk. Pirates supporters will sincerely be hoping that left wing-back Luke Leahy can prove his fitness sufficiently to be back in the starting lineup. Michael Kelly, who has been deputising him, is far more suited for a flat four, and that conservatism has been another factor during the recent travails. Joe Dodoo had the beating of Kelly all night long on Tuesday, and whilst there’s no disgrace in that, it did highlight the inherent weaknesses on that side of the defence.

Alfie Kilgour is predominantly right-footed but is being deployed on the opposite part of the central three. He will look to cover Leahy’s runs whilst being wary of not being pulled too far away from his position, particularly given the fact that the opposition will match up the numbers. Tony Craig will need to be at his best to hold the shape together, whilst his teammate Tom Davies (who has made the most interceptions of anyone in the league), will flit between covering for the others when the line is penetrated and shutting down attacks on his flank.

As a unit, they’re instructed to play plenty of long balls to the strikers. On the occasions they don’t, distribution is evenly spread between the wings. If fit, Leahy is one of the better (few) creative outlets in the XI, and will go beyond the midfield three frequently. Alex Rodman has only recently been tasked with performing the same role on the right but has found a niche in thwarting wingers rather than being one himself.

Ed Upson is the nominal pivot in midfield, but in reality, all three of the likely starters tomorrow favour defence over attack in their actions. Very few of his passes carry any sort of risk, but he’s more likely to be in a suitable area to shoot than Abu Ogogo. Captain Ollie Clarke has been off-colour all season long, which just makes fans pine for Liam Sercombe’s recovery all the more. At his best, he can be the #8 that is so desperately needed to operate in between the lines.

The problems don’t stop in midfield. Tom Nichols looks like a man utterly bereft of confidence. He has accrued fewer than 10 goals in over two years and this is reflected in the calls for him to be dropped from the team. Like Victor Adeboyejo, he favours making drifting runs to the right half-space, either in anticipation of a cross from Leahy or to shift the opposition defence out of their set shape. The Barnsley loanee has yet to net in the league, and whilst he can hold the ball up well, that doesn’t serve much of a purpose without far more support from deeper on the pitch.

Portsmouth 1920

The usually unflappable Craig MacGillivray has been under-par between the sticks for the Hampshire side this season, coming off significantly worse against expected goals conceded to actual (9.46 to 12). That said, he remains both a confident taker of crosses in the air and a reliable distributor; the latter quality may be called into action on the counter regularly tomorrow. Full-backs Lee Brown and Ross McCrorie (who can also play in defensive midfield) will bomb forward whenever given licence to do so; the greater width behind John Marquis means the setup is less reliant on them being the ones to whip balls into the area.

Sean Raggett has come in for some criticism from his own fans this season, and the same can be said for Christian Burgess’ propensity to run with the ball ahead of the backline. When you couple that with not winning as many duels as he ought to, it does underline a certain nervousness in defence at present.

The two anchors in midfield have similar approaches to advancing possession through the second third of the pitch. Captain Tom Naylor, unlike Upson for Bristol Rovers, takes too many risks with his passing, including a strange obsession with clipped through balls over the defence that almost always get swallowed up. Ben Close covers more ground and is a little more solid but has the same problems with picking out teammates.

Gareth Evans has been tried in several roles behind the sole striker. Reluctant to shoot when deployed centrally and a better creator (from a low base) out wide, it’s unclear why he’s being persisted with directly off Marquis. There’s no shortage of attack-minded midfielders at the club who like to cause damage in between the full-back and nearest centre back, such as Marcus Harness and Ronan Curtis. The former of the duo has got the nod in recent matches, even though he’s more at home on the opposite side. The ex-Burton Albion favourite has a knack of anticipating loose balls in the area, which could be a key difference maker tomorrow.

Marquis will be hoping to improve as the season wears on. He cannot do this in isolation and needs more unpredictability when he’s supported. Ryan Williams does not have the same skillset as the aforementioned Curtis or the departed Jamal Lowe, which can make it easier for teams to simply sit in and soak up the pressure. Marquis is currently averaging under two shots a match despite the five attempts on Tuesday; only a third of these are on target, and both of these metrics have to change to salvage something from 2019/2020.

As for a prediction, I’m expecting a tight, low-scoring affair with little to choose between the sides. The stubbornness of both managers is manifesting itself in the styles of play on show at the moment. Rovers are hitting it long to a strikeforce that evokes no fear, bypassing a midfield seemingly designed to keep things tight when turnovers occur. Pompey, especially without Clarke-Harris lining up against them, have the superior individuals on paper but that has not coalesced into a cohesive team. Despite the plethora of options in advanced areas, too many balls are hit long into the channels or to a surrounded Marquis. What looked on paper a more exciting contest a few weeks ago doesn’t have that feel now – I’d love to be wrong, though!

Bradford City Tactical Analysis

How have Bradford City fared under boss Gary Bowyer in the opening quarter of the 2019/2020 season in League Two? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Bradford score first in claret and amber):

Cambridge United (h): 0-0
Grimsby Town (a): 1-1
Oldham Athletic (h): 3-0
Stevenage (a): 1-0
Forest Green Rovers (h): 0-1
Crewe Alexandra (a): 1-2
Northampton Town (h): 2-1
Walsall (a): 1-0
Cheltenham Town (a): 2-3
Carlisle United (h): 3-1
Scunthorpe United (a): 1-1
Swindon Town (h): 2-1
Morecambe (a): 2-1

Life back in the basement division hasn’t all been smooth sailing for The Bantams, but they have certainly coped better than their fellow demoted sides from the third tier in 2018/2019 (11th, 19th, and 22nd respectively). Bowyer had the advantage of being hired back in March when their fate wasn’t sealed but was probable.

The extra few months of planning afforded to him has resulted in a huge turnover of players; moreover, the new arrivals have bedded in well at Valley Parade, and the first four matches yielded eight points. Although the next couple were narrowly lost in encounters that could’ve gone either way – the injury-time defeat at home to Forest Green Rovers particularly heartbreaking.

They’ve lost just one more since – a pulsating second half away to Cheltenham Town saw them strike twice but end up on the wrong side of a five-goal thriller in a game where they carved out the better opportunities. Once more, they piled on the pressure when they travelled to Scunthorpe United (the Iron were a man light for over 70 minutes) without the scoreline reflecting their dominance.

October has been fruitful thus far – six points from the first two fixtures now has them nominally in the automatic promotion places by virtue of goals scored over the more defensively resolute Forest Green Rovers; more importantly, supporters are feeling positive after suffering a downward spiral on and off the pitch for large swathes of the past few seasons.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

Bradford 1920


Tactical Approach

Whilst Bowyer certainly does favour a conventional 4-4-2, something that he’s brought with him across the Pennines from previous roles, it’s by no means the shape he persists with all the time. Last Saturday against Morecambe for example, a defensive pivot was used behind a four-man midfield.

As you’d expect from having two on each flank, the build-up for most attacks are constructed in the outside channels, with a slight bias towards the right (40% to 34%). Connor Wood and compatriot Kelvin Mellor are both progressive with the ball, linking up well with the wingers in front of them. Wood is more apt to go beyond his teammate, but there’s no huge distinction between the source of crosses.

Centre backs Ben Richards-Everton and Anthony O’Connor (ably backed up by namesake Paudie) split wider when trying to pick out one of the strikers with direct long balls from their own third, as well as covering for the full-backs on when possession is lost further upfield.

Even when the single pivot isn’t positioned at the base of midfield, the duo in the centre work tirelessly to shut down counters and make supporting runs for the wingers to have a short passing option, or to be the recipient of a lay-off by a striker, usually Clayton Donaldson.

Dylan Connolly, who has been on the left in the past two games, is more apt to get to the byline than Harry Pritchard when cutting back or sending a looping ball into the centre. Donaldson and James Vaughan are a duo with copious amounts of experience further up the pyramid; the former uses his physicality to bring others into play in the construction of attacks, and the latter is also strong in his own right, working the channels to offer something different to just aerial battles.

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

The Bantams are powerful in the air, always giving their opponents cause from concern from open play and dead ball situations. Of the 166 shots to date, 43 have been via headers, the second highest in the division – five of them have been converted, which is an impressive ratio when every factor is taken into consideration.

Defensively, they’ve held their own, managing to block plenty of shots and win more than their fair share of duels to turn potentially worrying situations into attacks.

None of the passing statistics stand out, but it could be argued that it’s testament to the individual qualities within the group to make the most of retaining the ball – the claret and amber army are decidedly average on most of those metrics, which makes sense when the strategy is to make the most of the know-how up top or cross from out wide. Crossing by even the elite clubs rarely leads to a goal greater than a ratio of 1:10 attempts.

A plus point that won’t be in the stats on WhoScored or Wyscout as such is Bowyer’s ability to rotate personnel, both through substitutions and the flexibility inherent in certain players’ abilities to perform different roles. It’s one thing to have a deep roster in most areas, but another to keep the ones who aren’t starring motivated and ready for when they do receive the chances.

There aren’t too many weaknesses that haven’t already been alluded to in some fashion. Looking at the pace down the sides, more use could be made of the likes of Pritchard and Connolly in a greater variety of contexts, but Bowyer might feel that preserving their stamina and with it, to differ their speed on and off the ball is more crucial to preserving superiority in the second phase.

Surprisingly, they’re next to bottom when it comes to accurate corners, even though the prowess in the air is the bedrock of constructing passages of play in every other situation. From a very low base, they could certainly improve in this regard.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

At a touch under a goal conceded every game, Richard O’Donnell has been performing admirably, and must be relieved to not be facing the same barrage of shots as he did last term. Against xGA (expected goals against), he is also faring well – 12 to 13.56. His  presence in the area is a comfort blanket for the defence when they’re breached.

Ben Richards-Everton’s strong left foot gives the back four great balance, and helps in no small measure in preventing the unit as a whole shifting too much to one side when attacked. Additionally, his propensity to time interceptions well is a huge boon, as was witnessed most prominently in the trip to Stevenage in September. Third choice centre back Paudie O’Connor has had a big hand in the opposite penalty box, showing a poacher’s instinct on two occasions already.

Matt Palmer has simply been everywhere in midfield. When playing a 4-4-2 of the kind Bowyer does, it places the pressure firmly on the pairing in the centre to cover ground at speed, win possession back and retain it with accurate passing, and participate in every phase of play.  He has recovered the ball successfully comparatively well, and has only given four fouls away to date – truly amazing when you consider the role he’s entrusted with.

James Vaughan hasn’t yet had the haul to back up his variety and frequency of efforts. The horrible penalty miss against Walsall aside, he’s looked reasonably sharp in front of goal after not having the best time of things in the past two campaigns at other clubs. Unusually, the majority of his strikes to date have been with his head, and you’d expect that to change over the course of the year. Both he and the misfiring Donaldson will be keenly aware that Shay McCartan and Aramide Oteh will be vying for their places – the latter had a goalscoring cameo last time out, and the duo’s versatility will surely come into its own as the weeks pass.

Despite Kelvin Mellor’s height, he’s only been winning 40% of aerial duels for a full-back, which ranks as one of the worst in the nascent season among his peers. It is nitpicking as he otherwise been a key asset in the XI, but it’s hard to diagnose the reason for it – it is important to remember that simply being tall isn’t always an indicator of being dominant when facing high balls.

Conclusions

As a manager, Gary Bowyer has not walked into any easy jobs. He had to contend with the Venkys and everything that they entailed at Blackburn Rovers; it was then very much the epitome of out of the frying pan and into the fire with fellow Lanacashire outfit Blackpool – there, with unimaginable constraints, he guided the Seasiders back into the third tier after a memorable play-off final win in his first season at the helm. In his present guise, he came into another famous ‘B’ club mere months after the Edin Rahic debacle had finally come to an end.

Even without all cylinders firing, he has taken what remained of last year’s crestfallen squad, added quality and know-how in the summer, and as the leaves are falling to the ground, Bradford are already in the top three where it’s hard to envisage they’ll drop out of. There’s a feeling that they still have yet to hit top gear, and all the ingredients are present for them to build on the momentum gained from recent wins. Maybe Donaldson won’t rediscover his finest form; maybe Zeli Ismail and Hope Akpan, who would be in the starting lineup of almost every other team in League Two, will remain decidedly inconsistent; the difference between them and their competition is that they can afford to have instances like that, being far less reliant on any one player to dig them out of trouble. Good times are coming back to at least one corner of West Yorkshire in 2019/2020.

Gillingham Tactical Analysis

How have Gillingham fared under boss Steve Evans in the opening quarter of the 2019/2020 season in League One? Let’s take a look.

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League Results to Date & General Performances

(Gillingham score first in blue):

Doncaster Rovers (a): 1-1
Burton Albion (h): 1-2
Blackpool (h): 2-2
Coventry City (a): 0-1
Bolton Wanderers (h): 5-0
Tranmere Rovers (a): 2-2
Wycombe Wanderers (h): 2-0
Bristol Rovers (a): 1-1
Ipswich Town (h): 0-1
Oxford United (a): 0-3
Southend United (h): 3-1

The very definition of a mixed bag of results for the Medway-based outfit thus far, which can be attributed in part to the customary number of signings a new manager tends to make in the first transfer window available to them (14), plus Evans’ own proclivities – he was doubtlessly persuaded by chairman Paul Scally giving him carte blanche to stamp his own distinct philosophy on the club.

One of the main complaints last season was that the Gills rarely played on the front foot, but for the most part, they have at least competed in the vast majority of their league fixtures to date. The first four games didn’t yield any wins, although supporters would’ve taken plenty of heart from more than holding their own against Doncaster Rovers.

There’s been a prevailing narrative to completely dismiss scorelines achieved in the nascent weeks when playing a weakened Bolton Wanderers, but I don’t think that’s totally fair, and the dominance they had over The Trotters did give a strong indication of what they could be capable of when given the chance to flex their collective muscles.

The apex was the impressive triumph over high-flying Wycombe Wanderers, ending the visitors’ unbeaten start in the third tier. Conversely, they were swept away by an Oxford United side full of swagger, but they haven’t had to endure any worrying runs of form.

Most Used Shape & Starting XI

 

Gillingham 1920
The tendency has been to retain a flat four and a front two, rotating the flexible midfield squad members to match up to their opponents


Tactical Approach

Evans has often been derided as a long-ball merchant, and this is borne out to a certain extent by the number of ‘reachers’ from defence. The Gills have the highest number of unsuccessful passes in the division according to WhoScored (the definition varies – on Wyscout for example, they sit seventh in that particular ranking).

The two centre backs split when construction is shorter, and the flanks are equally favoured. At 35, Barry Fuller is understandably less inclined to bomb forward as much as his compatriot on the left (usually Southampton U23s loanee Thomas O’Connor), but is still a massive influence on how the team functions.

Versatile Alfie Jones has mainly operated as the defensive midfield pivot, mopping up behind the rest of the middle third, intercepting loose balls and distributing it to the right channel. The energetic Mark Byrne is the dynamo on the other side, working to cover the space vacated by O’Connor’s forays and to link up with Oliver Lee.

Lee also shifts into the left half-space, providing another option for the full-back for a give-and-go, or to help ensure there are more bodies in the box for the crosses, which, despite the emphasis firmly placed on the wings for chance creation, they are actually in the bottom third for the overall number of attempts.

Alex Jakbuiak acts as a shadow striker, picking up the ball in between the lines as much as he’ll be found in the 18-yard area. Brandon Hanlan, having assumed the role vacated by the much-loved and prolific Tom Eaves, leads the line, but in truth, both strikers drift wide.

 

Collective Strengths & Weaknesses

Defensively, they are far less of a pushover than under the auspices of Steve Lovell. They have gone from needlessly putting themselves under pressure and facing the most number of shots in 2018/2019 to a far more favourable ranking, in part because the losses of possession tend to be higher up the pitch.

When in their own third, they are winning the ball back more regularly, especially in the air, which has been aided by a steady partnership in front of custodian Jack Bonham. This also manifests itself in sitting off less, with a noticeable ramping up in the work rate when possession has been conceded.

The players used so far have been a good mix of experienced know-how and promising potential, which is reflected in the average age of 26. This is significantly down from the previous term. Moreover, this is another indicator of greater ‘staying power’ in games, and they’ve yet to concede a single goal in the dying embers of matches.

The painfully low pass accuracy could well come back to haunt them as autumn turns to winter on heavier pitches that will sap energy. Despite having a compact shape, they’re not finding teammates often enough to ensure they’re not countered upon.

On the occasions they go on the dribble, they are losing those one-on-ones over half the time, which limits the number of different ways they can unpick their opponents. It also seems to create a paradox when wing-play is nominally limited to the full-backs that they aren’t especially adept in this regard, which in turn means they don’t utilise the outside channels enough for crosses.

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

Replacing Tomáš Holý was never going to be an easy task, but Bonham has been an assured presence in goal. Whilst xGC (Expected Goals Conceded) is only one metric, he is performing considerably better against it than most of his contemporaries – 14 to 15.6. Every single one of his short passes has arrived at his intended target, and he’s yet to lose a challenge in the air.

Similarly, Connor Oglivie has made great strides in helping to dampen any lingering disappointment supporters might have had at the departure of Gabriel Zakuani. Together with new skipper Max Ehmer, The Gills are sturdier when faced with crosses into their own area. His permanent signing from Tottenham Hotspur U23s early in the summer after a successful loan stint was a filip for Evans, and he’s repaid his manager in spades since, bravely blocking six shots at close quarters.

Barry Fuller remains remarkably consistent, laying on two assists in the first 11 games, as well as picking out a forward from crosses more than 40% of the time, which is actually very high when you factor in all the possible outcomes and total attempts.

As a whole, they’ve been less reliant on a single individual to score the goals. Midfield anchor Alfie Jones has added a brace to his outstanding record of winning two thirds of his duels. Raidi Jadhi will be delighted with both his and Michael O’Connor’s progress back at Southampton U23s. The assured presence that was sorely missing in 2018/2019 to screen the defence looks to now be in situ.

Stuart O’Keefe has been an important fulcrum in the middle third; he always looks to progress with the ball into the final third by picking out a forward making a peeling run, or stands it up for O’Connor on the overlap. He has meshed that with his defensive duties reasonably well, helping to prevent his team being outnumbered on a quick break.

Alex Jakubiak’s contributions have been telling, too; three of his four goals have come from finding pockets of space on the left-hand side of the area, and the other displayed the kind of poacher’s instinct required to change games.

His strike partner Brandon Hanlan has been averaging a touch under two shots per match, and the majority of these have been off-target. He’ll also be a little disappointed not to be making his presence felt more aerially. The double-edged sword of having more competition for places will ensure he stays fresher (his cameo from the bench against Wycombe was telling), but also means he’ll no longer be a mainstay if he doesn’t improve his output.

I’d also expect a bit better from a creative standpoint from Olly Lee. The attacking midfielder conjured up plenty for SPFL mainstays Hearts last term despite a greater degree of variation in the shape, and if he can become that man for his new employers, he might give opposition managers and analysis teams more food for thought. He’ll be hoping his lay-off for O’Keefe in the last fixture is the shape of things to come.

Conclusions

I’ve seen the charge that Evans is a dinosaur in more ways than one with his approach to football management; a formula was once highly successful was not replicated at Peterborough United, and has not given fans enough to shout about (yet) in Kent. It is true that too many wayward long passes are played, and the body of evidence I’ve seen suggests that plenty of them are just not necessary.

The midfield as a unit are really solid and multi-faceted, and the greater depth the manager has been allowed to draft in should mean a repeat of last season’s flirtation with relegations (along with half of the division) won’t occur. Most of the pace is on the bench at the time of writing (Ben Pringle, Mark Marshall, and Mikael Ndjoli), which again means tactical tweaks can be made to tire out the opposition’s defenders, break out of their compact shape on the counter, or simply race to the corner flags to preserve a precious lead.

Critics who dismiss their rout of Bolton cannot by the same token ignore their besting of a dangerous Wycombe outfit. They’ve only been blown away once, and the massive disparity between xG and xGA (against) has been reversed so far, which can’t be explained away even by omitting the aforementioned thrashing.

Unlikely to trouble either end of the table, Evans should focus on making the best use of the talent already at Prestfield, rather than dipping into the market too many times in January, barring an injury crisis. He has more tools at his disposal than anyone at the helm since the late Justin Edinburgh, and a season of real progression can be had by making only small adjustments to the current setup.

 

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?

5221
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?

442

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

4231

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

532

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.

 

Shapes ‘n Shapes: August 2017

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:

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At just 16, Mark Edwards-Williams is highly unlikely to be called in goal as Lee Clark continues his pursuit of a true competitor for Joe Murphy’s green jersey

This is how the Shakers started against Walsall last Saturday:

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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*:

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Attacking 5-3-2

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.

 

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Narrow 5-4-1

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.

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Narrow 4-4-2

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.

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Narrow 4-2-3-1

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.

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Attacking 4-3-3

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.

Conclusion

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.