New man, and thus new ideas. Our midfield (well, squad in general) has been pretty consisent over the last 3 seasons although if we had a new manager in place earlier last summer we might have seen more of an overhaul. But since Bullard left it has almost exclusively been:
Dempsey – Murphy – Etuhu (now under heavy competition from Sidwell) – Duff/Davies
A narrow midfield 4 of disciplined, intelligent and generally very technically competent (Etuhu and Sidwell to a degree are the exceptions) players sometimes with support from a deeper forward. It’s worked well and I don’t expect a massive overhaul of players in the midfield, they are conducive to technical football which Jol will like to play. However, there are two issues with our midfield which might mean they aren’t as compatible with Jol as they were with the last two managers, age and width (I drafted up this article a few days ago before his press conference where he explicitly mentioned he wants to play with width which has changed my perception of some players a bit so, had to re evaluate some of the midfield) so let’s see how our midfield might match up…
Firstly is the main man of the midfield Danny Murphy. We seem to say the same thing every season -, ‘his legs are gonna go sooner rather than later’, ‘we need to look for a successor’, ‘how can he last 38 games consistently’ – and yet 10/11 was probably his best since he came here as he controlled the play of Hughes’ more attacking game and impressively ending up with the most touches of the ball in the Premier League. With Jol’s more adventurous approach you might think that Murphy wouldn’t have as big a part to play but Jol has already stated that he will remain captain and part of the team.
What is interesting is that comparisons can be drawn with Carrick; something Jol mentioned in his press conference yesterday. He was a massive fan of Carrick while he was at Spurs and beyond, defending him fairly strongly with words like ‘only me and Sir Alex in England acknowledge his qualities’ (paraphrasing) and specifically pointing out ‘Michael (Carrick)’s biggest quality was to move play from defence to attack and win the ball. Because of him, other players played better.’ and this is the sort of role I envisage Murphy playing. He shares many of the same qualities (good range of passing, reading of the game) as Carrick does and while he’s not so effective defensively perhaps, in terms of tackling and getting around the pitch, his ability to see what’s happening does much of his defensive work for him. Under Roy and Hughes he’s played deep like Carrick so has shown that he can function very well in that role. This makes me think that Murphy will still have a key part to play in our midfielder next season under Jol despite not necessarily fitting what might be a stereotypical Jol central midfielder.
However, it is clear that Jol prefers attacking football and seeing as Murphy is utterly one paced whoever plays alongside him in the middle needs to have legs and be able to get around the pitch. Now, what will be interesting is how many Jol decides to play in the middle. He has no favoured formation really. Of course, he is well versed in the 4-3-3, the traditional Dutch formation, usually with a wide man tucked in a bit more narrow (examples are Keane at Spurs and Suarez at Ajax) but also likes to play a 4-4-2 with wingers (although at Spurs again a wide man was tucked in sometimes, like Malbranque for instance). Infact like under Roy a lot of width was also provided by full backs (remember Bale in 2007 bombing down the left and scoring in the 3-3 Sanchez game? The Hutton deal was lined up while Jol was in charge too). It’s worth considering that Hughes’ preferred formation was 4-3-3 but played 4-4-1-1 almost exclusively while he was here, whether that’s down to a pre-season of one week or not I don’t know. If El Hamdaoui or another striker comes in for a few million though I think we can bank on a 4-4-2, since Zamora is clearly our best attacking player. What is quite a change from the last two regimes, is that tactically Jol is not as disciplined, players are left a lot to their own creative devises (although his 20 goals conceded in 34 games in Ajax may indicate that his approach has changed) and so players will be more exposed to individual mistakes.
Murphy will probably be most effective in a midfield three where another two players can offer protection. Carrick could operate (and still does) in a standard 4 man midfield but I think that his better physical qualities means that players around him can take more liberties. The protection offered by the whole of the front 6 in the last few years has been outstanding and no doubt key to our ability to function well as a team. Jol will surely keep some aspects of that play but take more risks in going forward, much like Hughes did. However, our three top central midfielders at the club are Murphy, Sidwell and Etuhu but as a three in the centre of midfield I can’t see that offering much balance (Murphy and Etuhu would get in each other’s way I feel) compared to just Murphy and Sidwell or Murphy and Etuhu. Not only that but at the club we have just Sidwell who can get around the pitch from the centre of midfield, Greening and Murphy are not quick by any stretch of the imagination, nor do they burst forward from midfield anyway, and Etuhu’s movement is fairly cumbersome. Add the fact that the average age of our four main central midfielders is 30 odd and I can definitely see Jol making moves in the transfer market for that area of the pitch which rumours seem to indicate, a player such as Jenas (I wouldn’t want him here now, but he’s an example of that sort of high energy central midfielder who can get forward and defend pretty quickly). Someone I’d like to see from his time at Ajax is Enoh, a good, fairly defensive player but might be able to offer the solidity compared to a more attacking one that will enable us to keep our ‘traditional’ defensive balance I suppose. A Murphy-Enoh midfield or equivalent would be reminiscent of the Carrick-Davids partnership at Spurs.
On the issue of Etuhu actually I can’t see him getting any sort of favour with Jol over Sidwell, he just isn’t technically good enough and I don’t trust him tactically without the sort of help that he might have previously gotten. His form in the first half of the season was fairly poor, although since Sidwell has come in Etuhu has been quite impressive when he’s played so maybe that’s the push that he needed. Even still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move on.
Now comes the issue of wide men. Whether Jol decides to go with a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 I don’t think that the wide players will change that much, after all our remaining ‘out and out’ frontmen of Zamora and Johnson are not as effective out wide (Johnson played there at Everton and played well but he is not a brilliant crosser, passer or dribbler. His advantages come in his work rate and, in particular, movement which is more beneficial when playing in his central striker role). So we are left with Dempsey, Duff, Dembele and Davies, none of whom are ‘out and out’ wingers. Well, not any more, Duff does not have the pace. Dembele played out wide for AZ but that was as a front three, the role is slightly different in a 4-4-2 (Dan wrote about Dembele’s role in the team recently, good read, check it here). Really though he’s the only player in the squad who can reliably beat a man comfortably and offer a genuine outlet down the flanks to stretch the game in a way that Duff, Davies and Dempsey cannot, and going off the number of times Jol name dropped Dembele in the conference yesterday he is going to be a guaranteed starter, so if it’s not upfront it’s going to be on the wing. He is not exceptionally direct though compared to a player like Lennon which would mean a subtle change of tempo if he was to be our main wide outlet.
Based on players at the club already, Dempsey is probably the prime candidate for the other flank. We already know he can play a wide midfield role well despite naturally being a more forward player perhaps and will relish expressing his flair more freely under Jol. Whilst he’s barely played as a wide right man he did play there for the last two or three games last season when Greening played on the left (an option I won’t really discuss, I can’t see it happening with Jol). And in the same way Jol sometimes has an ‘inverted’ winger Dempsey can play more narrow in with the midfield but slightly more further forward. This would require however an adventurous right full back otherwise we would be limited extremely in terms of width down that side and it seems a bit like shoehorning Dempsey in for a role because he’s Dempsey when another player might be more effective. Out wide is another area where Jol will likely target in the transfer window. It’s a shame we’ve missed out on Trochowski who’s just joined Sevilla from Hamburg on a free no less, but maybe a player like Sinclair or Albrighton, two young, exciting, direct wide men who can play on either flank for further utility, would fit the bill of what Jol is looking for.
So our midfield next season is certainly going to be an interesting proposition. A couple of additions are going to be needed most likely, but already we have gifted players who will be able to fit into Jol’s philosophy of football and that core should only be added to, not disrupted with an influx of attacking flair. While a new approach is always fresh it can’t happen suddenly.