sorry, it's a bit long.
There has been loads of gnashing and wailing over the past few days about our current form, some even going as far comparing our current plight unfavourably with the start of last season under Lomas. The cries keeps going up “we need a striker”, “we need to spend big money” etc. And that may indeed be the case at some point in the future, but it will not help us now. Due to the time of year and our financial position we are pretty much stuck with our current squad unless we bring in a loanee or an unfit out of contract player, neither of which is going to make a guaranteed immediate impact. In truth it is LetTheGoodTimesRoll, Dubai Hoffer and , bizarrely, essexlion who have it right. Our current problems are not necessarily down to the quality of our forward line but rather as to how they are being deployed.
Holloway has a preferred style of play, one that he used with great success at Blackpool and, grudgingly, crystal palace. It is supposed to be an attacking brand of possession football, based on breaking at pace on teams off of a loan target man. His teams need to have at least one midfield ‘anchor’ with the rest of the midfield also tends to be packed with more creative players. His teams have to be fit and they have to close down the opposition. It’s a very ‘a la mode’ approach.
Since implementing his ideas here, we have seen many positives. Our back four has improved from the shambles it was last year, even if we are still a little prone to conceding sloppy goals. We have one of the better records in the championship and despite the injury to Edwards I think it will remain decent. Our midfield looks a lot stronger than it has for a long time. Williams is fast becoming one of our best signings in the last 10 years, perfectly suited to that ‘anchor’ roll in midfield. In Upson, Powell, McDonald (now he seems to have been converted to a midfielder) we have a decent unit there. If we could ever get Chaplow and Bailey fit for any length of time it would look even better. Our fitness, our passing and our pressuring of the opposition have all improved and there are times when we look a very good side.
The obvious downside at the moment is that our current crop of attacking players doesn’t fit the profile required for the tactics being used. You need a mobile target man who is comfortable both with his back to goal but also running in behind the opposition. They need to be a reliable, if not necessarily an outstanding, goalscorer. More importantly you need pacey, attacking midfielders to run off of said target man to stretch the opposition defence and this is what we desperately lack at the moment.
It is no coincidence that Holloway has had his most success with us when he has had Lee Martin to turn to. We have taken something like 27 points in 18 games when he is available and 7 points in 14 games when he isn’t. That is a marked difference and that is because he is the only player in the squad who really fits the stereo type of the flying winger needed in this type of formation. He stretches teams and creates chances. Without him we suddenly become a lot more one dimensional. Instead of playing off the target man and having players breaking at pace or running in behind, we simply play in front of the oppositions back four. The ball goes into the target man and comes back again, our build up becomes too slow and predictable and we struggle to create any clear cut chances. The target man is therefore starved of the ball and barely has a sniff of goal all game. As the game wears on the temptation to go route one grows and we become even less effective as long aimless balls are pumped up to a now thoroughly demoralised forward. It is a problem that notably England have also suffered with as they have tried to adapt to a system with a lone forward.
Now there are two ways of resolving this. One is to go out and find our own Diego Costa, someone who will not only score goals but occupy an entire defence on his own. The other is go out and buy a couple of Jason Puncheons, goal scoring wide players who run at the opposition. But both these types of player are like gold dust in modern football and difficult to find (unless you are Peterborough for some bizarre reason) and the likelihood of us actually finding the striker and wingers we need in the short term and within our budget are highly unlikely.
The alternative, and far simpler approach, is to change the tactics we use in deploying our forward players.
Given our current squad I think it is fairly obvious that we lack that 25 goal a season striker every team at this level craves, that one special player that can turn a fairly run of the mill side into promotion contenders. However we do have a lot of forwards and is it not inconceivable to think that with the right pairing we may have a partnership capable of scoring 20-25 goals between them.
But this is not a post advocating a return to 4-4-2 and a blood and thunder approach that both Nez and the Bish have yearned for in a recent (and rather excellent) episode of ‘Achtung Millwall’. As already stated, we don’t have the players in the current squad to play that system (have the league banned us from signing right sided players?) and I feel it would also compromise some of the strengths that this side has developed.
There has been talk of switching to a back three, but as we have seen with both ourselves and other clubs, a lot of work has to go into the coaching of the players to make this work, or it can be a disaster. Instead, as both Liverpool, Man Utd and England have all done recently with varying degrees of success, I would like to see Holloway try switching to a 4-3-1-2 formation , or the ‘diamond’ as it has fashionably come to be known. It retains that extra man in midfield, plays to Williams’s strengths and gives that added protection to the back four. It takes into consideration our lack of width in midfield but it also allows us to play a front two and increase our goal scoring options.
Now we have seen this played before this season against Southampton with some success but it was under McCarthy that it worked very well for us. And it is easy to see how this suits our current players; Williams in the Andy May role, Upson and Woolford in the roles filled by Rae and Barber and McDonald (or Martin when he is fit again) in the Malcolm Allen role. More importantly I think it can fundamentally change how our forwards operate and that is why I would chose, in the short term at least, Gueye and Gregory.
As stated above, I don’t think we have a good enough target man and there is always the temptation to resort to hit and hope tactics. By playing two quicker more mobile forwards you have two ways of playing. We can get behind the opposition and stretch them more, look to hit the channels and then have McDonald, Upson, Woolford etc supporting from deep. Or you can be playing the ball into McDonald in and around the area and have the two forwards running onto through balls or picking up on balls into the box from wide.
The ideas is to try and add another dimension to our attacking play that is missing in Martin’s absence. Too often this season we have been guilty of not committing enough players forward and this allows us to always have two up top that can keep the oppositions back four occupied. And should you need more height or physical presence you always have the option of bringing a target man on as part of that front pairing.
It is a system that gets the best out of our squad at the moment. By playing only one up front I believe you are making the likes of Easter, Gueye, Gregory, and O’Brien surplus to requirements and leaves us with even less attacking options unless they are shoehorned into positions that don’t suit them. In the longer term it is formation that I can see suiting some of our more promising youngsters as well such as Powell, Onyedinma and Pavey who may not necessarily fit into our current formation as comfortably.
“Fuck off, you’re boring us now”
To re-iterate, I don’t think the formation above is the best formation ever, better than 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or whatever else, I just think it is what best suits us at this precise moment in time. Come January we might have that right winger we’ve been missing and 4-4-2 is the best option. Or we might sign that great centre forward that allows us to keep playing as we currently are. There are two ways of managing a football club. One is to find the best way to get to most of your current resources. The other is to impose a distinct philosophy and bring in players that will suit that. Given our financial restrictions, the former is always going to be easier to implement here.
And just to finish off what has probably been a far to long and rambling post, I don’t think we are too far off cracking this league. This period between the two international breaks was always going to be tough, with 4 away games and only two at home. That is reversed after the next break so things will hopefully be a little easier, especially if we add that improved creativity and goal threat.