I think we were all caught by surprise last night, I certainly was.
I thought we might sign a player, but I didn’t for one second imagine it would be another centre back. Our defensive options are certainly varied right now, but when you contrast those to the rest of the squad it does make one wonder if maybe we’re missing the point on formations.
Michael played a 4-2-3-1 last season and to my knowledge, he employed a similar formation at Oxford. I suppose we’ve just taken it for granted that he’d play the same again, but what if the plan is to do something a little different? We all know formations are a little misleading anyway, teams need to be flexible mid-game to change their approach, but does something like a 3-5-2 fit better with our ethos of passing out from the back?
That would be the direction we seem to be heading, although I’m committing the cardinal sin here and trying to second guess what we’ll do without the whole picture. There may well be forwards and wide players coming in, we may well be seeing a face head out, but if we take the recruitment at face value I am beginning to see a pattern emerging.
3-5-2 isn’t something we’ve been able to implement successfully in recent years. We beat Northampton with that setup back at the start of the 2018/19 season, but we should have lost that game 4-1, not won it 1-0. The tactic was swiftly dropped and the only time I’ve had cause to write about it is when a team has played it against us and shut us out (Shrewsbury springs to mind). Could Michael be preparing a squad of players to play 3-5-2, dropping the need for new wide players? It would still mean strikers coming in because, in my mind, we only really have Tom Hopper who is an out and out striker, with Anthony Scully backing him up and, if we were to go with two up top this season, we’d need two more to offer proper cover.
Looking at my updated squad list, we currently have nine players who can play in defence (ten if you count Alex Bradley who can play right-back). Contrast that with just ten players across the rest of the squad, If you discount the young players likely to be on the fringe this season, Sean Roughan, Alex Bradley and Jordan Adebayo Smith, it’s eight defenders and eight players elsewhere on the field. The obvious thought is that we might shed a centre back, but what if those writing of Cian Bolger have read it all wrong.
Think about this: if you play out from the back it makes more sense to go for three centre backs, Bolger in the middle with Walsh and Jackson either side. We know Bolger isn’t one to pass out from the back, but if he’s almost like an anchor the others revolve around, it gives us added protection when we do play out. One problem we had last season, especially at Sunderland away, was the lack of options once the defenders had it. The panic on Shackell’s face just before he slipped it back towards Vickers for their goal said it all; he had nothing on. By having an extra player in a defensive position, we add an extra option to the attack.
Also, look at the clips of Montsma’s passing. he was spraying the ball down the channels to a wide player already going forward. Using a tactic like that, is there need for two wide players ahead of two full-backs? We were snookered whenever we came up against a 3-5-2 last season, are we about to use our Achilles’ Heel to our own advantage? It would certainly explain why we bagged another ball-playing defender and it might also go some way to covering why we signed Bridcutt, McGrandles and Jones, as well as having Grant in the squad. Of course, it wouldn’t be great for Harry Anderson or Zack Elbouzedi, but they would still deliver a degree of flexibility.
The big question is whether Max Melbourne, TJ Eyoma, Aaron Lewis and Tayo Edun are the sort of wide attacking players who can cover both ends of the field adequately. A lot would be placed on their shoulders but notice something about all of them compared to the other defenders; young, fast, energetic. They’re attacking defenders, not the usual old-school full-back who stands his ground. In a 3-5-2, they’ll have more protection against pacey attackers too, because a player will be able to come across to cover and not leave a huge gap.
I’m theorising here and could well be proven wrong if we sign a couple of wingers soon, but the number of players in the squad is increasing and I’m thinking salary cap and squad limits. Currently, we have Grant, Anderson and Elbouzedi who can play out wide, perhaps Scully too. However, would MA be happy with that, or could you expect one more to come in there? If we do go 4-2-3-1, we probably need two more forwards, too, one as a ten to backup Scully and another as a backup for Hopper. If you consider we probably they’ll likely be loans, would a bigger club be willing to let their players go if they thought they’d be restricted in their appearances? If we went 3-5-2, then there are two striker places up for grabs each week, rather than one and a ten. it gives more options around rotation and satisfying the demands of the bigger clubs.
Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Maybe we’ll see more outgoings to balance the squad and a wealth of attacking options heading in soon. Or, perhaps the lineup below is going to become more familiar as the season progresses. Let me know what you think in the comments. (I am aware Jorge Grant isn’t in here, or Lewis Montsma. The exact lineup will probably be different, but this is intended for discussion, not dissection).