Last Saturday’s game against Ayr United was, inevitably, an odd affair, but surprisingly enjoyable nonetheless. It might turn out to be much more significant than you’d expect, too, if it leads to the definitive ditching of our three-at-the-back experiment.
In my first column of the season I admitted that I wasn’t keen on the 3-4-2-1 formation we trialed extensively throughout pre-season, and watching us start with a similar shape on Saturday, albeit with a radically youthful line-up, confirmed my suspicions.
To be fair, as the season has progressed we’ve shown little sign of starting with a three man defence. I’m increasingly suspecting that we were preparing it for emergency use only: “WHEN LOSING LATE ON, OR DEFENDING A LEAD WITH TEN MEN, BREAK GLASS.”
A very attacking iteration of three-at-the-back allows you to use wingers as wing-backs and take risks: perfect if you’re losing late on and want to throw extra men forward. However, if it’s a starting line-up, your wing-backs have to be considerably more responsible, able to defend as well as attack. That’s where the problem lies, and Saturday illustrated it perfectly.
We lack genuine wing-backs. I accept we’ve got Jazzi Barnum-Bobb on the right and James Jennings on the left, but if we’re going to use 3-4-3 as a regular formation, they need cover. That’s where we run into problems.
Admittedly, we have Mark Carrington on the right, who can play anywhere with confidence. Indeed, you might even argue he also offers cover on the other flank too. Wing-back isn’t obviously his thing though. He’s clever on the ball, and a reliable defender, but buccaneering charges up and down the flank are more of a Jennings thing. I have to admit that at Curzon Ashton, Carrington was remarkably progressive, often popping up at the far post; it looked like he had been encouraged to play with an attacking focus, and typically he did it very well. However, that was a friendly against lower division opposition.
I suspect if we ask him to play regularly at wing-back we’ll encounter the problems Denis Smith struggled to solve when we lost two incredibly attacking wing-backs: Carlos and Paul Edwards. They drove us to promotion in 2002-3, tearing up League Two, but when we replaced them with the likes of Jim Whitley, like Carrington a superb, flexible professional, we lost our attacking width and became a more conservative team.
Cover for Jennings on the left is my main concern though. Paul Rutherford was used there on Saturday, and he simply isn’t a wing-back, never mind a left-back. I love Rutherford, but he was a square peg in a round hole against Ayr. They targeted him in the second half, and we were in trouble until Cian Williams replaced him, allowing Rutherford to slot into a central role he is more suited to. But Williams isn’t ready for league football yet. We had to throw a 16-year-old to shore up our defence, which expresses why we ought to avoid a three-man defence more clearly than I ever could.