I misled everyone before the game on Tuesday, but my enthusiasm in announcing the wrong thing was indicative of how much I wanted it to happen.
Upon seeing the team sheet, I noted that Akil Wright had replaced Devonte Redmond and leapt to the incorrect conclusion that we’d switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, with Wright anchoring the midfield. It was about five minutes into the broadcast, which had been monopolized by a discussion on this tactical shift, that I remembered last season.
Bryan Hughes tended to use Wright off the striker, just as he’d been using Redmond. It turns out there was no inversion of the midfield three at all, and we continued with the same shape. I’m just not convinced it’s quite working out.
I don’t mind a 4-2-3-1, but the way we implement it is very attacking. When Redmond plays, he appears to be instructed not to track back, but to stay in contact with the striker. This has had the consequence of leaving our midfield pivot outnumbered. It’s odd to think that both Luke Young and Luke Summerfield have enjoyed good starts to the season, yet we’ve often been overrun in their part of the pitch, simply because they’re up against too many opponents.
The consequence is that our celebrated defence is conceding goals. After the obsessive collection of clean sheets over the last two seasons, it feels odd to see we’ve only managed one shut-out in nine games this season. Defending, of course, is not purely down to the keeper and back four: the entire side contributed to our excellent defensive record. Our current shape leaves the defence exposed.
That was particularly pronounced for a spell late in the first half against Stockport County last Saturday. It looked like the wide players had been told not to track back in an attempt to pull back a two-goal deficit. Consequently, we became a broken team: six men defending, four men attacking and not much to link them.
We all know there was an issue to address over the Summer. The balance had been wrong over those last two seasons: the price we paid for a great defence was a blunt attack. However, going from being too defensive to being too attacking isn’t necessarily the best response; indeed, results have deteriorated so far this season.
So that’s why I was excited at the prospect of a holding midfielder being introduced in place of a Number Ten. Wright, let us not forget, started last season in superb form in that position, and won the National League’s player of the month award. Despite his athleticism and eye-catching bursts forward, I like him playing in front of the back four, where his physicality offers excellent protection.
I understand fully why Hughes has used him in a more attacking position: he can certainly do damage by marauding into the danger area. Unfortunately, finishing isn’t a natural part of his game. Tuesday was a perfect illustration of this. In the early stages he was impressive as he hassled defenders and looked to win the ball back early in the Maidenhead half, before we lost control of the game in midfield.
In the second half he did a brilliant job of attacking the six yard box and carved out three wonderful scoring opportunities. Unfortunately he missed them all, and although he deserves massive credit for continuing to put himself in those positions when a lesser character might have shied away for fear of further embarrassment, he simply isn’t naturally going to convert many of those chances.
A 4-3-3 would offer more stability, give us an extra player in midfield, and create a more solid base to work from. Of course, there’d be a danger of sliding back to our old ways and struggling to create chances, but we have a more threatening range of attacking players to populate the front three with now.
JJ Hooper looks good, with the movement of a genuine goalscoring striker; Bobby Grant is a different man from last season; Mark Harris is clearly a real prospect with excellent awareness; and Ben Tollitt has that X Factor to unlock defences.
Throw in Redmond, who has shown flashes of creative promise and you’ve a much more creative palette to work from this season. Our best chance of promotion lies in reverting to the solid system of last season and allowing three of our attacking players to inject some quality at the sharp end.
Not that I’d necessarily make the switch today. We face Ayr United, which in itself is a bewildering prospect. Playing in a Scottish competition, with the possibility of matches against Irish or Welsh opposition in the subsequent rounds, is surely the oddest prospect we’ve come up against in our considerable history.
It’s not a welcome intrusion into our season though, and I’d assume we’ll select a heavily-rotated side. Why not play with abandon in this game? The consequence of defeat would be the avoidance of a fixture back-log later in the season.