|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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
Michael 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.
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.
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.
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 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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