On Monday, I was telling a friend of mine about this website. I mentioned that we try and go beyond the comprehensive news service and rumour-watching to try and explore the tactical side of the game, amongst other things. But it reminded me that I hadn’t really written an expose on our tactics or the reasons why we’ve become so strong this season for a while.
In truth, there hasn’t been too much to say. In a recent post, Rich called our team ‘massively coached’ and he’s right. It’s clear that we spend a hell of a lot of time on the training ground working both on our defensive shape and how to use the ball. That would account for both the rigid nature of our system and why even our defenders are so comfortable in possession. Having watched the likes of Andy Melville (who was actually much improved by Jean Tigana), Zesh Rehman and Zat Knight (who incidentally had the cheek to describe the Aston Villa defence that he is now part of us as rubbish recently) look utterly clueless on the ball, I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to see Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland look to play their way out from the back.
I was a lot calmer than usual when I watched the City game at the weekend. It might have been that I had a few quiet days off beforehand or that I hadn’t had the usual rush to get through Hammersmith prior to a home game. But I few things stuck in my mind as I watched the game on television. First, the very distinct nature of our shape. It occurs to me that Hodgson is, rather surprisingly perhaps, playing a very English 4-4-2. We don’t have natural wide players or wingers – you sense that Clint Dempsey would be much more comfortable in the middle of the midfield or just behind the strikers – so we are very compact in the middle of the park.
That lack of width also impacts on our defensive shape. The way that Dempsey and Davies are asked to track back and cover when the opposition has the ball means that teams find it very difficult to play through us. Against a side with actual wingers or real pace up front, this could be a problem – because a speedy attacker or a wide player could dance past a couple of defenders or exploit the space out wide. But, for the most part, the sheer weight of numbers in the middle makes it difficult for the opposition to convert their chances even when the crosses come in.
Walking back home yesterday pondering our current line-up (as you do), I got to wondering when the last time was that we played with two natural wingers. Whilst Luis Boa Morte lined up for us for years, he sometimes played as a centre forward and was, inexplicably, tried in central midfield by Coleman for a while. Even when Boa was out on the left, we lacked a suitable counterpart to provide the symmetry on the right side. Steed Malbranque looked a lot better at the point of the midfield diamond during our first season in the top flight and often drifted infield from the right to influence matters. You have to go back to Boa Morte/Fernandes and Bjarne Goldbaek in that glorious Championship-winning season to find genuine width.
A wonderful interchange of passing between John Pantsil, who was excellent at right back again on Sunday, and Simon Davies to get us out of a tight spot in the first half had me marvelling about how well the full-backs seemed to dovetail with our ‘wide players’. Pantsil and Davies seemed to have a terrific understanding down the right – witness the number of galloping runs the full back makes and just how many crosses he has whipped in this season. It reminded me of the seemless work of Steve Finnan and Goldbaek of yesteryear. On the opposite side, it’s more of a matter of nuture than nature given that Clint isn’t a natural left sided player. Konchesky does get forward, but you’d fancy with the possibility of both a new left back and left-sided midfielder arriving in the summer we might have a bit more penetration down the left.
And, if Giles Barnes does make his move from Derby permanent – and that remains a big if – we may have a creative outlet down the right to give us a bit more natural width. The rumours linking us with the likes of Harry Kewell suggest that a proper left-sided player could dramatically alter our gameplan for next August.