The general shape of the game showed a tactical progression we’ve made under Morrell. While he’s maintained the 4-3-3 we established under Dean Saunders, an issue we used to have under his predecessor doesn’t tend to be as pronounced.
Morrell was wise and pragmatic in keeping the shape he inherited. His decision was partly influenced by the fact that he was thrown very suddenly into the job, and then endured a lengthy period in limbo as he waited to be confirmed as our permanent manager.
In those circumstances, it’s understandable that he didn’t try to make changes, as he didn’t have time to, and as his early results were excellent there was no need to change. The fact that for weeks he didn’t know whether he was keeping the seat warm for someone else merely added to the inertia against change: why shake things up for a new man to have to change things all over again?
But the main reason why he kept things as they were is also the main reason why he’s one of the most impressive young managers around at the moment: he’s smart.
Saunders was a good defensive organiser, as his statistics show that even when we were a rather drab mid-table side under him. We didn’t tend to concede goals and always kept good shape. Morrell recognised that strength and wisely opted to keep things that way rather than look to find a new way of achieving the same result. I know it sounds terribly obvious when you put it like that, but it took a lot of intelligence to come to that conclusion: the ego of the new manager tends to drive them into making changes for the sake of it to put their stamp on the side.
Of course, having said that, sticking to 4-3-3 doesn’t mean we haven’t moved on. The variations possible in any formation are virtually infinite, dependant on the slightest alteration in an individual’s position or role and the players available to the manager. Morrell’s take on 4-3-3 has evolved, and this week showed how he has shut a loophole which was prevalent a year ago.
Saunders’ 4-3-3 seemed to be based in part on a desire to break out from the corner he’d painted himself into. As I said earlier, he’d constructed a very sound defensive unit, but cast your mind back to the 2009-10 season and the side of Andy Fleming, Christian Smith, Lamine Sakho and Gareth Taylor. Rock solid at the back, but very little creativity beyond lobbing rubbish at the always willing Taylor and hoping it stuck.
Saunders made some choice signings before the next campaign, bringing guile, punch and energy to midfield with the likes of Dean Keates, Jay Harris and Jamie Tolley, but he also needed to ensure his new side would pack more attacking punch, so he gambled on a highly attacking 4-3-3.
It developed as the early weeks of the season wore on, and for me the key moment tactically was an away game at Kettering. The game itself ended in a draw, thanks to a moment of lunacy in the closing minutes by Marvin Andrews, who lunged in from virtually a different postcode to concede the most obvious of penalties.
It was the line-up and the philosophy behind it which marked the flipping of a switch in Saunders’ mind though. We played 4-3-3, but the composition of the midfield triangle was most progressive. While two men played orthodox central midfield, Tolley was released into the hole in front of them and, along with the strikers, instructed that he needn’t really worry himself too much with his defensive responsibilities.
Essentially Saunders had opted for a broken team: four player had the responsibility for attacking, while the rest formed a solid defensive block.
It was a go for broke approach which not only addressed the issue of being over-cautious, but also evoked memories of our last promotion campaign, in 2002-3, when Denis Smith played a 3-5-2 which featured wingers as wing-backs and was a clear statement of intent: we’re too good for League Two and if we throw the kitchen sink at the opposition I back my players to overwhelm them. It worked too!
Saunders’ ploy nearly worked – we lost in the play-offs, of course. But he stuck broadly to the plan for much of the middle part of that season and from that time onwards, although he became more conservative in his deployment of that third midfielder, he maintained that balance between attack and defence.
However, there was a way sides could regularly get at us. By playing 4-4-2, they would get at our full backs, who were left exposed by the fact that Saunders liked to leave his front three up the pitch. His attitude to that trio was that their job was to rotate and find space from which they could attack the opposing back four. It could often have spectacular results, but also tended to throw up unexpected situations, like Nat Knight-Percival as a centre forward and Gareth Taylor on the wing. In the latter case we have a practical reason why we didn’t ask these rotating strikers to track back assiduously: apart from the potential confusion of relying on a wide man coming back but finding he’s not there because the front three had rotated and not agrees whose responsibility it was at the moment in time to track a full back, you could hardly ask Taylor to work a long shift up and down the flank!
So on to the flaw. As the midfield shape evolved, Saunders favoured one holder, usually Chris Blackburn, which put extra strain on full backs who already lacked support from the wide strikers. In a 4-2-3-1 your two holding midfielders can support the full back, as Phil Jones did last night, deliberately positioned to the right of that duo to double up with the hapless Rafael on Cristiano Ronaldo. Blackburn on his own couldn’t do that as effectively, of course, and as a result wingers could get at them.
A memorable illustration of this came in a home game against York a couple of seasns ago. Neil Ashton was unavailable, so a young Johnny Hunt was thrown in at left back, but he had a rough time against Peter Till, an experienced, street-smart winger who was given free rein to run at him and eventually ran past him and scored.
But that wasn’t an isolated case. Sides regularly got at us down the flanks, and we took this as a pay-off for our enhanced threat at the other end. But Morrell has come up with a formula which addresses the former without compromising the latter.
Essentially, by flattening out the midfield three he’s opened up a new line of attack. The central midfielders either side of Keates get forward in wide areas, linking with wide strikers and full backs and often getting ahead of the ball into the box. This level of lateral and vertical movement drags the other side’s defensive shape around and creates overloads on the flank which we can exploit.
I’ve already blogged on this at the start of the season, looking at how Hunt was being encouraged to link with Brett Ormerod, and the system has evolved very effectively from there. Joe Clarke’s emergence as a key player has been a terrific bonus, and his ability to get forward and link with the left striker and overlapping left back has been a key part of our recent performances. The first half hour against Stockport last Saturday was a terrific illustration of how that combination can wreak havoc.
Doing this also allows for an adjustment in the strikers’ roles. Firstly, they don’t rotate anywhere near as much as they did under Saunders, because they now have more defined roles as part of these attacking triangles. Secondly, they are now expected to track back much more, as one might expect of a wide player in a 4-3-3. Therefore, we have players in a position to cover the opposing wingers while not surrendering our attacking thrust.
At Hereford, for example, there was an adjustment to the midfield which covered for the fact that The Bulls played a very flat, wide 4-4-2 with two genuine wide men, both of whom were potentially dangerous. Having started out with an orthodox three in midfield, Keates slightly deeper in the middle with Harris to his right and Joe Clarke to his left, he adjusted, going into a shape more similar to that Saunders triangle at Kettering, but with the two holders much deeper and offering support to the full backs.
But while making such changes is an effective tactic, the fact is that wingers no longer trouble us as regularly as they used to. Morrell has taken Saunders’ defensive model and improved it without compromising our attacking threat. Like I said, he’s smart.