Did you enjoy Mike Fondop’s rather clever overhead kick? Rob Lainton’s penalty save? Well, my favourite moment of the Dover game came in the eleventh minute. There’s some nice build-up play which ends with Kevin Roberts slinging a good cross to the far post, which the centre back Max Schmoll has to head behind for a corner.
What I liked about it wasn’t the fluency of the passing or the decent cross, but the identity of the player trying to get on the end of it. It was Luke Young who arrived in the six yard box about a stride too late to challenge for the ball, and that said it all about our changed approach from last season. Can you remember Sam Wedgbury or Marcus Kelly breaking into the goalmouth to get a head on the ball at any point last season? Me neither.
More than anything, what we need this season is a tilt toward a more attacking style of play. There’s no doubt that Dean Keates looked to address this after Christmas, with the introduction of Nicky Deverdics and a more attacking balance to his 4-4-2. It’s hard to draw a clear conclusion about the success of his changes, because his departure clearly left a leadership vacuum which the players couldn’t overcome.
The fact that we tinkered with the balance of the side to become more creative, rather than make a more radical change to our shape, was interesting. We only deviated from our 4-4-2 plan twice last season: once was the FA Trophy defeat to Harrogate, in which we pisked a second string side and essentially tailored a formation to suit the players at our disposal, and the home game against Aldershot.
That was a genuine attempt to be more effective going forward: we switched to 4-2-3-1, with Deverdics in the hole, Jonathan Franks and Chris Holroyd on the flanks and Wedgbury and Kelly as a double pivot.
The result was a first half which was unrecognisable from our usual solid selves: We were outplayed, our defence was exposed for once, and managed to get to the break on level terms only because a goalkeeping error had handed Scott Quigley the opening goal, and then Aldershot had emphatically failed to turn chances into goals.
We reverted to 4-4-2 after the break, dominated the game with Franks enjoying his best game for the club, and should have won it. Understandably, we didn’t try a change from 4-4-2 again in our remaining ten games (and equally oddly, Franks only started one more game.)
I wonder if that reluctance to switch shape is down to the new approach introduced last season at The Racecourse. We have become a coaching-led club, and while Dean Keates’ arrival clearly marked a step up in quality on the training ground (although to be fair his predecessor had not set the bar particularly high!), it was Carl Darlington’s appointment which really set the tone.
Work on shape, positioning and patterns of play were embedded in pre-season and reinforced throughout the season, which is a breath of fresh are compared to so many old-fashioned attitudes which are prevalent in the game, and have been prevalent at our club.
But could that approach also inhibit change? If countless hours of work has been invested in playing a certain way, is there a natural reluctance to rip it up and start again? Is that why we held onto the 4-4-2 in the final quarter of the season, albeit with a more attacking look, when a change looked like it might be beneficial?
Undoubtedly it’s better to build a squad with a clear plan in mind – something which clearly happened last summer. Compare that with the chaos of the previous Summer when, on a tight budget, we saddled ourselves with two first choice goalkeepers, an attack consisting of Shaun Harrad, Gerry McDonagh and Michael Bakare, and a bucketload of central midfielders. On the eve of the first game of the season, Gary Mills declared that he’d intended to start the season playing three at the back, but couldn’t as Curtis Tilt was suspended for the first three games of the season. Perhaps the flaw in his logic was that he’d only recruited three centre backs, which was hardly the obvious way to prepare for a season with a third central defender!
Having actually constructed a squad which could play 4-4-2, perhaps there was a reluctance to ditch that style of play. However, whether Kelly or Akil Wright partnered Wedgbury, there remained a lack of thrust going forwards. My co-commentator, James Harrison, constantly argued that we had the players to play a 4-3-3 but wouldn’t take the plunge.
Well, now we have, and if it allows the likes of Young to support our forward players, we’re likely to be a more attractive side to watch this season.
Perhaps we’ll be wedded to 4-3-3 for the season, as a reluctance to change remains, but we’ve recruited for that formation and had early success with it. If last season’s anything to go by, we’ve nailed our formation to the mast, and will live or die by the 4-3-3.