The consensus after the Bromley game was it was an excellent victory but a poor match. The number of misplaced passes and errors was the main reason for drawing that conclusion, and I must admit that, for much of my commentary, I was making exactly that point. But I was wrong, and I realized it as the game wore on. We’re naturally attracted to creative football, so we judge the game accordingly, but judged by less aesthetic, more functional measures, last Saturday was actually a high standard of football.
First things first. Bromley aren’t top of the league by accident, and are full of confidence. They’ve played attacking, fluent football to get to that position, but were unable to do so in the face of how we set ourselves up.
Take their midweek game against Stockport as an example. It was the opposite of Saturday’s match: ludicrously open with both sides able to get at the other’s defence regularly. Bromley like to press, and in that match they applied ferocious pressure on County in their own half, especially in the first half. When the press worked, as it often did, Bromley were able to get at the heart of Stockport’s defence. However, when the visitors got through that press, they found they were able to create chances.
Clearly this informed our approach, although in truth it was basically a continuation of what we started at Torquay. The energy of our pressing was incredibly impressive, and we sustained it throughout the match.
The make-up of our midfield trio was key to this: Luke Young pushes up from his deeper role to help pressure the opposition in their own half, in a way Adam Barton wouldn’t as he has a different set of skills; Luke Summerfield maintained his string of high energy performances; and Akil Wright obviously brings a physicality and aggression which you couldn’t ask of Devonte Redmond.
The consequence was that both sides pressed relentlessly, there was rarely any space in the middle of the pitch, and therefore players constantly misplaced passes because they were being hurried into decisions and actions. Sure, it’s not good technical football, but it is good quality organisation.
Football’s not just about what you do with the ball; it’s equally about what you do without it. On that level, we witnessed something impressive for the fifth tier.
It wasn’t just the midfielders who contributed to this. On the flanks something notable was going on. Paul Rutherford, of course, is perfect for such a role. Not only will he press high up the pitch, but has that burst of acceleration and terrifying stamina which allow him to drop swiftly back into a deeper defensive position when the press doesn’t result in a turnover of possession.
What was striking, though, was how Ben Tollitt adapted to this approach. Tollitt is not one of life’s Rutherfords: I don’t intend any slight in saying that, just that we don’t pick Tollit for his capacity to track back. But he’s fully aware that places in Keates’ side have to be fought for, as we saw by his behaviour when he came on at Torquay. Tollitt didn’t have a successful time creatively, but his work rate was good to see. He covered a lot of ground in the first half, dropping off in support of James Jennings. It looked to me like a continuation of a process for Tollitt, as he responds to Keates’ leadership by showing he’s willing to take instruction and adapt to the new gaffer’s more exacting demands.
The consequence of all this endeavour was that free-scoring Bromley were kept at arm’s length. They did threaten to score, but generally their chances came from shots around the edge of the box: we didn’t allow them to open us up in the area much, if at all.
A coach can only control so much: Keates can’t take the credit for Luke Young’s ability to nail a volley. But he can take control of the strategy of his side, organizing them so they are difficult to play against. Until he can replenish his squad, that’s probably the area he can influence most, and the league leaders would agree that he’s made genuine progress in that area.