Three at the Back – That’s The Bradley Way

When a new manager comes in. there’s always the possibility of a new style of play.

I don’t mean ‘up and at em’ style hoofball, but the finer nuances of our tactical approach may well change. We’ll still build patiently, we’ll still have a brand of football that big clubs want to expose their players to, but we might set up a bit differently.

With Stephen Bradley being the current favourite for the job, I (actually, it was my mate Chris who started it) wanted to have a quick look at how Shamrock set up, and what it could mean for the Imps. After all, Bradley has led Shamrock to two titles in as many years, seeding in the Champions League qualification draw and two FAI Manager of the Year Awards. He knows what he’s doing on the Emerald Isle, and he does it playing a formation not entirely familiar to the Imps.

Bradley likes to play three at the back, something we have rarely tried in recent years. I like us with three central defenders, I think it plays to the strengths of some of our players (Cohen Bramall being one), but there are variations of the theme. Bradley almost always plays a 3-4-2-1, which features two advanced attacking midfielders, or traditional tens, behind the striker. In the middle of the park, it makes a box of two standard midfielders and the two attacking players. It’s a tactic which relies on the two attacking players to work well together, operating in the space in front of the opposing back four, but also being able to push on and support a lone striker.  It also means you need attacking wing-backs to provide the width, whilst the wide centre backs have the freedom to get on the ball and advance.

In terms of our current squad, we could theoretically field a team in that style right now, as you’ll see below. Excuse Scully and House being on the wrong sides, and of course, we expect to see player changes, so this isn’t a ‘suggested XI’, it is merely to indicate how the current contracted Lincoln City players would fit into the Stephen Bradley approach at Shamrock.

The core strength of this approach is midfield solidarity. If the two attacking players work hard, you have a glut of players in the middle of the park, looking to control play. All too often we were overrun in there this season, due mainly to not having the strength; this was really evident on Saturday. In this lineup, the strength comes in numbers. Yes, it comes at the expense of wide players, but if we have the right two full backs, that wouldn’t be as much of a problem. To use the exact quote from Chris, who did some of the research for this article, the system “basically allows for many players between the lines, dragging players out of position” and “has a theoretically impenetrable box centrally without the ball.”

One team that employs this system very well are Coventry City. They were promoted from League One playing this system in 2019/20; at the time, they loaned Callum O’Hare from Aston Villa, an exciting youngster in the Lewis Fiorini mould, and paired him with Jamie Allen behind the striker, Matt Godden. They had Max Biamou there as well, offering a more robust approach, whilst a pairing of Liam Kelly and Zain Westbrooke anchored the midfield. The key here is none of those players were seemingly better than others in the division; Westbroke came through their academy, Kelly came from Orient, whilst Biamou (Sutton) and Godden (Stevenage) had played against us at a lower level. However, they worked hard and the formation brought League One success without a significantly bigger budget than those around them. They still play it in the Championship, and weren’t in serious danger of relegation. Getting up and staying up isn’t easy (ask Rotherham and Posh), but the Sky Blues have done it playing 3-4-2-1.

Bradley plays it very well; his Shamrock side have only conceded 0.86 goals per game this season, proving they’re very hard to break down. The two attacking midfielders are Jack Byrne, an Irish international that Bradley sold to the Cypriot side APOEL managed by Mick McCarthy, and 23-year-old Danny Mandroiu. Byrne isn’t a player likely to follow his manager, despite having the right pedigree – he was on Man City’s books as a youngster and played for Cambur on loan (think Lewis Fiorini in five years). He only returned to Shamrock this year, but Mandroiu is different. He’s was Ireland Under 21 player, and I’m told he will be out of contract in November having previously interested Celtic. He spent his youth with Brighton & Hove Albion and is likely to be known to Max Sanders, as well as players involved in the Ireland youth setup.

Of course, all of this is conjecture, but both Chris and I thought you’d find it interesting from a tactical point of view.