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A Question of Balance
Written by HarryfromBath on Tuesday, 19th Sep 2017 11:06

There have been a number of interesting threads on the forum in recent weeks juxtaposing our decent start this season with, well, everything we had to endure in the last campaign.

Some insightful discussions have focused in on how clinical we have been up front while simultaneously preventing opponents from taking their chances when defending.

There is a good deal of truth in this and opponents have become far warier of us this season as we have threats coming from a number of areas, not least our front two.

It was noticeable at Millwall how agitated both the home team and crowd became when we counter-attacked, as every foray seemed to result in a goal. Teams know we have a counter-punch and are behaving accordingly.

Finding Balance in a Line-Up

I read a newspaper article a few years ago where one of our leading football journalists attended one of the UEFA manager get-togethers at Nyon in Switzerland. In the course of his interviews he asked all of these leading thinkers what was the one thing that they strived for when constructing a team. All of them, Ferguson, Capello, Wenger and Lippi gave the same one-word answer: Balance.

When I am digging around on opposition forums, imbalances are the first thing I look out for when sifting through comments. They can be found in all sorts of places. Injuries will obviously imbalance a squad, but a side can be too old or young, physical or technical, tall or short, left or right-footed, lacking leaders on the pitch and very often over-abundant in some positions while lacking in others.

These imbalances can make or break a campaign and indeed a manager. Frank de Boer was the latest case-study, ousted from Crystal Palace for trying to build a technical passing team, with a target man in Christian Benteke leading the line whose strengths were decidedly not on the deck linking play. There will be plenty more soon and we have had a few of our own case studies recently.

It’s also worth adding that one of the beautiful things about football is the fact that there are 10 outfield players. If the game was 12-a-side, everyone would play 4-5-2 and the tactical pattern would be as inflexible as it is in rugby union. Take one man out and something has to give, and skill of the manager is often involved in mitigating the impact of this loss better than his opposite number.

Anatomy of Our Victory Over Bolton

The starting XI (below) against Bolton had stress fractures in a number of areas. Dominic Iorfa was playing on his less comfortable side and we had inexperienced players on both flanks.

We knew Bolton play with three in the middle so the spine of our team: Bart – Chambers – Skuse – Garner/McGoldrick was rock solid to make sure the balance of the team compensated for these weaknesses.

BialkowskiSpenceChambersIorfaConnollySkuseAdeyemiWardKenlockMcGoldrickGarner

Reliving the game, Bolton targeted our widemen even though they more or less had a similar shape. Myles Kenlock’s early tackle was a huge psychological boost and the Trotters realised they were getting no change from him, so they increasingly turned their gaze on Callum Connolly on our right flank with Filipe Morais and Antonee Robinson singling him out for some rough treatment. He was never a threat but held his own.

Bolton also noted that we didn’t have much pace in our line-up and played with a high-line, pressing us in possession. This gave us little room in which to operate in midfield and our only forays really came from Kenlock who had space to get both at and behind Bolton’s defence. The fact that we were matching their formation also played into their hands as it was simply easier to cancel us out.

BialkowskiIorfaChambersSpenceKenlockSkuseAdeyemiWardCelinaMcGoldrickGarner

The switch to 4-4-2 at half-time made sense. Mick McCarthy had 45 minutes to assess Bolton and saw that their midfield could be contained by Cole Skuse and Tom Adeyemi.

Teams had successfully got in behind the Trotters’ wing-backs in previous games, so the directness of Bersant Celina coupled with an on-song Grant Ward found us space out wide. David McGoldrick very quickly found time and room wide of the penalty area to set up Skuse’s opening goal.

The goal obviously changed the game, but it is worth looking at the balance of our second-half team. I always see 4-4-2 through the prism of being five two-man partnerships, and I believe that having these combinations working effectively was at the root of Burnley’s and more recently Brighton’s promotion to the top flight.

Luke Chambers and Jordan Spence were both solid and rugged when necessary and they combined to take Gary Madine out of the game as a threat.

Spence was also comfortable in possession. Iorfa and Ward on the right were athletic while Kenlock and Celina on the left were more incisive, even if all the wide players excepting Ward were casual on occasions.

The central midfielders were well synchronised, with Skuse’s geometry and Adeyemi’s athleticism and willingness to burst forward complementing each other. Adeyemi caught the eye against the Trotters but Skuse has noticeably been getting forward more frequently this season and his goal on Saturday was not a surprise in hindsight.

The strike pairing of Joe Garner and McGoldrick is giving the team a balance which was painfully absent last season and they are forging a natural and strong partnership.

David McGoldrick and Joe Garner imageDavid McGoldrick and Joe Garner

Their playing styles could not be more different with Garner being spiky and effervescent and McGoldrick more creative and cerebral, but it is a blossoming pairing and you can see that there is clear trust between them.

Why is balance so important? One reason – and I believe that this has also underscored Cardiff’s good start to the season as well – is that it truly augments the ability of individual players. If everyone is operating 20 per cent better it can transform a side.

It is also why so many managers with a clear playing philosophy get teams promoted out of this division. If you understand the DNA of a system in detail, you intuitively know where the strengths and weaknesses lie and where imbalances will most likely occur.

A Case Study from Last Season

So, how does this thinking play out when contrasting this season’s improvement with what we witnessed last year?

BialkowskiChambersBerraSmithSpenceSkuseDiagouragaKnudsenWardMcGoldrickLawrence

I had the misfortune to witness our limp defeat at Cardiff in March. It was a game which we never looked like winning even though we took the lead with a Chambers header. The Bluebirds levelled after we switched off at a set piece but shape of the team (above) was functioning and had given us a base on which to build at half-time.

BialkowskiSpenceChambersBerraKnudsenWardSkuseDiagouragaLawrenceMcGoldrickPitman

The switch to a 4-4-2 shape after the interval undermined the team. Chambers and Christophe Berra are not the most comfortable ball-playing centre-halves, while McGoldrick and Brett Pitman never really clicked as a strike partnership, but playing two holding midfielders allowed the hosts to dominate midfield and forced us to play deep, nullifying the threat of Tom Lawrence in particular on our left flank.

Cardiff went ahead after some clever interplay on the edge of our box allowed Kenneth Zohore in to put the hosts ahead unmarked, and the Bluebirds used their strength in depth on their left flank with Kadeem Harris putting Joe Bennett in for their third goal. This game is an isolated case study but we could dust down half-a-dozen examples where teams exploited our lack of balance last season.

What Has Changed?

I believe that both the arrivals and departure from the squad this summer have transformed the balance of the squad and given us a platform on which to build even allowing for the injuries which have crippled our central midfield and defence.

Christophe Berra imageMichael Kightly v Christophe Berra

While Berra was a solid defender without the ball, but he was a liability in possession and offered little by way of leadership. Playing him with Chambers, who is not the greatest in possession, or the eternally left-footed Tommy Smith unbalanced the back line as we had nobody who could play the ball out at the back. Adam Webster’s injury last season was grievous in hindsight.

Spence and Iorfa are nowhere near Webster in terms of their comfort on the ball but they are an upgrade on Berra and Smith. Few in truth are as good as Webster, but Spence in particular seems to complemented Chambers’s strengths and we had an effective working pair in both the Millwall and Bolton games playing with two at the back.

Central midfield is the most difficult for fans to analyse because there is usually so much to take on board. If you get the balance right, and we saw this with both Fulham and QPR’s strong trios in midfield, it will go a huge way towards addressing any deficiencies elsewhere in the side. When things go wrong here, it is often not down to just one player and usually is a question of balance.

Jonny Williams imageJonny Williams

Last season, Teddy Bishop and Jonny Williams were both injured while Andre Dozzell was just not ready so we really lacked creative balance in the centre. I can understand why Mick was frustrated with fans’ criticism of Jonathan Douglas, but he was being asked to do a job which he wasn’t really capable of doing. This lack of creative balance in midfield undermined us as much as Murphy’s loss.

The midfield balance this season has been improved by the resurgent form of Ward and by Skuse pushing further forward when possible. The emergence of Adeyemi helped greatly against the Trotters, but if Emyr Huws returns and young Flynn Downes and Tristan Nydam keep progressing we will have a terrific range of central-midfield options and that’s not including Celina.

We have at least a quartet of decent full-backs and tellingly we also have decent reserves in this area, something which was amiss last season. Time will tell if Mick was right to stick with Kenlock. He was very good against Bolton, but it’s all about maintaining consistency. Our left-backs are solid behind the attacking Celina while our right-backs can offer an attacking outlet behind Ward.

The transformation in our frontline speaks for itself, but I would also highlight the departure of Pitman this summer as a huge positive. If any player has found an additional 20 per cent this season it is McGoldrick and this is down to his having a partner in Garner who both complements him and who genuinely wants to get the best out of him.

Brett Pitman imageBrett Pitman

Not only does Garner give you 90 minutes of guaranteed entertainment with his ‘old school’ theatrics during a game, there is a clear bond of trust emerging between him and Didzy, something which I felt was lacking with Pitman in particular last season. I won’t forget McGoldrick’s weary trudge off the pitch against Cardiff last March when he was substituted. He is now like a new man.

The area to work on up front is the integration of Martyn Waghorn and Freddie Sears in particular as we run the risk of becoming too predictable if we rely solely on the Joey and Didzy partnership.

In terms of balance, Sears is invaluable in what he contributes to the side in terms of industry and work-rate. We certainly would not have won the Millwall game without him.

Conclusion

Marcus Stewart spoke to the South-West Supporters’ Club a few years ago and the first thing he talked about that evening was the importance of trusting team-mates on the football pitch. This is fundamental to strengthening the balance of any successful side. It was vital in our play-off season and it was something which I felt wasn’t always prevalent last season. We had lost our direction.

Marcus Stewart imageMarcus Stewart and George Burley

This season feels different. We have not been perfect by any means, as we saw in the first 45 minutes against Bolton, but there is a clearer sense of purpose and clarity in our play. Marcus also said that the team which finishes the campaign is never the team which starts it, not so much in terms of changing personnel but more in how relationships evolve as months and games pass by.

This is what gives me heart. We will see where it all goes but there is clearly a stronger balance in the side and this has led to improvements both in individual players and in many areas of the pitch this season. I still think we lack out-and-out pace, but opponents will struggle to target weak areas in our team and especially as more and more players come back from injury.

Things in life are more often than not greater than the sum of their individual parts. It is very early days, but I am quietly confident that we are heading in the right direction with the balance of our squad this season.





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Guthrum added 11:27 - Sep 19
Good stuff Harry!
3

Currie10 added 11:33 - Sep 19
Harry - Berra offered little in leadership!? Do not agree at all. Absolute leader and rock at the back.
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gerard1947 added 11:37 - Sep 19
Another interesting and well written piece, thanks Harry.
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HarryfromBath added 11:45 - Sep 19
We may have to gently disagree Currie10.

My read on Berra was that he kept his own department tidy and usually dealt (when not switching off at set-pieces) with his man, but I have never seen him guide or direct his colleagues across the back-line. He primarily concentrated on doing his own job efficiently.

Chambers is one of a kind in the leadership area, but I have seen Knudsen play a more vocal role in the back line this season than Berra ever did. I am not questioning the Berra's competence, but in my book I cannot recall him ever marshaling the defence.

Spence is more comfortable on the ball than Berra and even this alone has improved the balance of the back line. Webster, when he finally is fully up and running will be a further upgrade. Berra was a rock at the back at times, no question, but a leader? As I say, we may gently have to disagree on this one.
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70s_Legend added 12:34 - Sep 19
I am in agreement with Currie10, having sat in the lower tiers the last couple of years Berra's leadership was loudly evident. He was constantly talking to his fellow defenders and if Gerken was in goal he was always telling him where to stand and demand he came off his line. I was never Berra's biggest fan and I think his head was somewhere else last season, but any criticism of his leadership is wide of the mark. Chambers is more of a gee them up type leader whereas Berra was the organiser. Additionally If Smith is held up as being eternally left footed then I would say that is more a criticism of Berra as I struggle to think of a more one footed player than him. I won't get into any debates on the praise of Skuse as I thought our midfield was utterly appalling on Saturday.
-1

Surco72 added 12:43 - Sep 19
Harry .. totally agree that is definitely about balance and more to the point players playing in the right position which has followed MM around his whole career .
Don't agree with the balance in midfield Skuse is still not the answer and may look ok against teams destined for League 1 but looks completely out of his depth against promotion looking sides like Fulham and even QPR , and Ward is better out wide than in a central position
Didz has transformed due to being fit , nothing to do with Pitmans departure who rarely featured together anyway . We create very few chances during games at present and we have got very fortunate with the percentage being scored compared to that created would love that to continue but seriously doubt it . Pitman would have scored goals in any team if the chances are created as he is proving at Pompey .
Regarding Berra I am with Currie10 think he held us together on numerous occasions and would choose him over Knudsen every day of the week and it is far to early to be claiming the defence is looking much better letting in 8 goals in 7 games , even more if it wasn't for Bart as always ?
Agree that it is about balance but believe you are giving far too much praise and wishing it so rather than some great change in direction from MM , as I always say I hope he proves me wrong
0

Bobbychase added 12:52 - Sep 19
Dear people in Suffolk not going to games. Read this insightful piece from a man who has a 400-mile round trip to Portman Road.
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HarryfromBath added 13:10 - Sep 19
Surco and 70's legend - thanks for chipping in with your insightful comments. I may well be wrong on Berra but am only going on what I witnessed. I am not writing him off in any way but didn't think he balanced the defence last season. On reflection it may be one for me to think about if there is a pattern of feedback.

The central midfield balance is still far from perfect and this appears to have been most evident against QPR and Fulham, two teams who have terrifically balanced trios. These two teams are at a higher level in this area and this is the level for which we must aim. We created little against Bolton before the interval and this was as much due to both midfields cancelling each other out.

When Skuse was sitting last season in front of the back four, it unbalanced the midfield when he was in a midfield two, especially with Bru, Douglas or Disgouraga sitting alongside him. He has had to add a more forward-looking component to his game and I believe he is trying to do this.

I think that a blend of a more forward-looking Skuse alongside Adeyemi and Huws or Bishop (when we see them) will be as strong as we can put together, but Skuse and Adeyemi were pretty effective against an admittedly bland Bolton trio after the break. Leeds next week will give this partnership a sterner test but I think that there is something to build on here.

Surco, there may be wishful thinking but I do believe that we have stronger foundations around the pitch compared to our set-up last season. I am also confident that these foundations can allow for partnerships to blossom as the months and games pass by. As you say, let's hope it does fall into place.
3

LACR added 13:29 - Sep 19
I actually think, through the departure of Murphy and Berra, we lack physicality at both ends of the pitch.
Berra was always the most adept of our CBs at dealing with target men - the strongest and toughest of our defenders, able to contain physically imposing opposition strikers. In this respect, he hasn't been adequately replaced. He also offered an important goal threat at set-pieces.
Meanwhile, though I like that we have become a counter-attacking team, sometimes 'hoofball' is a necessary expedient: it would have, for instance, been very useful against Fulham, given that during that game we were scarcely able to pass the ball out from the back or retain possession in midfield. Against better teams, especially away from home, we will probably miss not having a tall, physical presence.
Moreover, it is with a target man that Sears plays at his best. He struck up an excellent partnership with Murphy; he hasn't played nearly as well when partnered with anyone else up front.
We are clearly a better team now, but we still aren't world beaters. Staying in the top half of the table would be commendable this season.
1

MaySixth added 13:41 - Sep 19
Great piece Harry and some excellent comments below the article. This, for me, is what a forum should be about.

Although we have areas to improve on. I can't remember having a bigger number of injuries at one time in one area. Credit to MM for getting through our defensive problems - Webster will make a massive difference.

Having our two most creative players injured in central midfield, Huws and Dozzell, has not helped either.
2

TR11BLU added 14:13 - Sep 19
An excellent, well thought out and well put narrative Harry. It makes a lot of sense and hopefully the foundations are being built for the new man at the helm next season.
1

bbg added 14:44 - Sep 19
One of the most insightful pieces of football analysis I have seen for a while. Great line about partnerships augmenting individual ability and absolutely true. Finding partnerships which work is one of the key coaching /managerial skills which is rarely referred to by TV pundits or even the coaching manuals.

Utterly depressing though that some seem unable to see any analysis for what it is, without seeing it as a debate about the manager.

As for Berra, I was a fan of his, no one better for dealing with a big target man, but probably not many of those around now and his distribution was very poor it has to be said. I didnt like the partnership with Smith, though it didnt stop us getting into the play-offs.
2

Currie10 added 23:53 - Sep 19
We will on that one Harry as we do with Tyrone Mings.

You'll know me, Paul here from the SW Supporters club currently living in Sydney! We shared the car to the Reading away 5-1 game ;) and have had many a chat in person over time.

Miss you and the guys, especially Tone, my man Big Dave, Harris and John! Seriously miss you guys like you wouldn't believe.
1

HarryfromBath added 09:28 - Sep 20
I remember that evening well Paul, and the drive to and from the game was infinitely better than the game we watched!

I saw James (who set the South-West Group up originally) before the Bolton game and we had a good chat and Tony pops into the shop regularly. We haven't been on Sky enough (at all)so haven't got together as a SW Group this season, but there are a few plans being cooked up for the Norwich game.

I really hope that life in Australia sits well with you. Two old college friends moved out there in the eighties and adore the lifestyle, although they also feel that it is painfully far away from home and old friends.

One of the great things about football is how so many people can see different things when watching a game. As MaySixth above suggested, forums work at their best when people pool different perspectives as this is the best way to get to the truth of an issue affecting a team's performance. At least this season we have some positives to draw on.
0

Portwoman added 16:18 - Sep 20
What a superb read. An analysis that even a non-footballer can understand. Oh, Harry, I fear you have missed your vocation.
3

cat added 19:40 - Sep 20
WOW!! awesome blog, clearly written by a man who knows the 'mechanics' of football, so credit where credits due.
2

stormypetrel added 20:24 - Sep 20
Really enjoyed your thoughts and insights Harry....what makes you think that Webster will be able to live upto expectations...I recognise his potential but hadnt recognised it to the degree you suggest Webster can be so pivotal....I appreciate Websters injuries could have jaundiced my thoughts, but really hope you are right.
1

HarryfromBath added 23:30 - Sep 20
Cheers Stormypetrel. I can only go on what I witnessed first hand with an overlay of feedback from several Pompey supporters with whom I am in friendly terms.

I think that Webster is the most natural footballing defender I have seen at the club in years and his portfolio of strengths complements our back line and especially Luke Chambers' skills so very well. He doesn't have Chambers's fierceness or combative streak, but he is an excellent defensive technician and reads dangerous situations well.

It's not just that Webster is also comfortable on the ball and seems (like Andre Dozzell in fact) to have time on the ball. He can also pick a pass - and a pass with some creativity behind it - without looking, whether this is after bringing the ball out of defence in a back four or linking play with wing backs in a three-man defence. I have seen him do this consistently every time I have seen him first hand, most recently at Luton.

Webster had been blighted by the injury curse which has affected the squad, but if he were to form a consistent working partnership with Chambers I reckon it could transform us from looking for mid-table respectability to having a side looking at a run at the play-offs.
2

shortmarine1969 added 11:19 - Sep 21
Interesting blog with many good point,s. Not sure i agree with the summery of the two up top , i thought Didz had once again to drop deep to get the ball as not enough forward momentum from MF , this often left Garner up top on his own and looking frustrated with balls being played high to him against some big defenders , we still need more from MF and Skuse is still very limited going forward imo , he slows the play and takes away a incisive edge that we might of had in the play. I do recognise he does a good job in shielding the back for , but i dont think that enough and our reliance on him is also one of our major hindrances.
0

Edmundo added 14:32 - Sep 21
Love the analysis of partnerships, Harry, which I remember Sir Bobby waxing lyrical about when discussing his "three teams" that he developed at Town. I can agree with you on most, but do also worry that we aren't getting enough from our attacking options. Waghorn, Sears and Celina all need to be utilised well, and able to form discrete partnerships to help us mix it up against the strongest teams. Get this right and we could even dream of the top six again.
1

Blue041273 added 16:49 - Sep 21
Agree, awesome blog. Reflects many of the things I have been banging on about for years. But also gives food for thought. The prime generator of the blog encompassed ' balance ' . I entirely agree and subscribe to the theory of ' partnerships ' within the team. History shows us that. Alf Ramsay had three dimensional partnerships. Partnerships with the centre backs; with the full backs. The full backs with the wingers; the wingers with the centre forwards. And most importantly the partnership involving the midfield players with everyone else in the team. The partnership of Crawford and Phillips drew the headlines but the linkage between the others in the team created the base for success. Individually, we didn't have the best players in the league but the record shows we had the best team.

Nowadays we can try to recreate Alf's tactical vision but today's football blueprint requires that to play premium football premium players are necessary.

Without premium players we cannot expect too much either in terms of performance or results but I believe we have the players who can move us forward to the next level. This may not mean imminent promotion but creating a platform for a promotion push in the short term future.

The balance is there in the U 23's. I believe it's only a matter of time before it graduates to some success in the first team if we can regularly add the odd quality player.
1

Wark_On added 22:39 - Sep 21
Thanks Harry - a pleasure to read. More so because of the constructive counterpoints and debate in the comments section.
1

Bert added 02:54 - Sep 22
A very insightful blog with balance. I do hope the negative brigade read it and reflect on their self inflicted angst about the way MM sets the team up.
1

dusth added 15:30 - Sep 22
I think it's also important to note that when Webster returns to partner Chambers at Centre Back, we will have two massive Dictionaries in Defence. Should be plenty of words flying about.
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