Playing with a Plan

Michael Jolley made 5 changes to the starting line-up for his first game in charge of Grimsby Town and significantly changed the system too. I was eagerly anticipating the tactical approach that the new man in charge would put in place. He’s known as an intelligent Coach and as a tactically forward-thinking man, and I think he’s shown signs of this after just one game in charge.

Structure

Jolley had spoken in pre-match interviews about wanting to understand and effect the mindset of the players. He’d spoken about giving the players more clarity in terms of a way of playing and a structure with clear responsibilities.

To me, this was evident from the start. Nobody realistically expected the new Manager to transform a team that hadn’t won in 15 games into a reincarnation of Barcelona. But what we did see, was a team that looked like they knew their jobs in different stages of the game.

It should be a given really, yet it hasn’t always been evident previously this season. But there was a clear structure to the team in and out of possession, with an animated Manager on the touchline assisting the players to ensure it was followed. There were several patterns of play, including debutant Easah Suliman receiving the ball from McKeown and building into midfield, switches of play when wing-backs were left 1v1 as a result of other movements I’ll mention soon, and being more patient in building up possession as M.J. was happy to speak about in his post-match interview.

Starting Line-up

Town lined up as follows in what I’d call a 3-4-3 formation, similar to what some Premier League sides have used in the last couple of years:

StartingLineUp

GTFC Starting XI vs Port Vale

It’s a system that the new Manager would have only had a few days to work on and there are clearly things to work on to make it more effective. But some principles of what would make it work were evident before the shape was changed to chase the game.

In Possession

StartingLineUpMovement

In possession, the wing-backs were pushed up high and wide whilst Clifton and Dembele drifted infield to both play as no.10’s trying to receive the ball between the lines of Port Vale’s compact shape.

StartingLineup In Possession

In Possession

The movement of Dembele/Clifton infield allowed us to switch play a fair few times as it left the wing-back on the opposite side of the pitch 1v1 . Unfortunately neither Fox or Davies are known as dribblers so on these occasions possession was either recycled or the delivery into the box came a bit too early and from deep.

The narrower roles of Dembele and Clifton in possession almost, and should have, led to a Town goal just before half time. Because they were infield in possession, if we could win the ball back high and quickly in moments of transition having lost the ball, they were already in prime positions to hurt the opposition. Clifton won the ball with typically energetic pressing midway into Port Vale’s half and it released Dembele down the inside-right channel. The former Nike Academy man cut the ball back but despite Town having bodies arriving in the box, no-one was able to get a clear shot off.

Out of Possession

vs Port Vale Out of Possession

Out of Possession

Out of possession, the wing-backs naturally retreated whilst Dembele and Clifton dropped back into midfield positions, giving us more of a 5-4-1 shape (above).

Plan B

With the game progressing and the visitors having had the better of the chances. Jolley showed a pro-active approach to game management by making an early change just 8 minutes into the second half. A centre-back (Suliman) was sacrificed, on came Reece Hall-Johnson, and Town switched to a basic 4-4-2 with Dembele now operating as a standard no.10 (see below).

Substitution1

53rd minute: First Substitution/Formation Change

Further Substitutions

Following James McKeown’s penalty save in the 63rd minute, the former Burnley u23 Coach attempted to capitalise on a momentum shift in the game by sending on striker Harry Cardwell for Mitch Rose a couple of minutes later. The shape of the team didn’t change this time, but it was a more attacking move with two recognised strikers now on the pitch. Dembele and Davies now took up new positions (below).

Substitution2

65th minute: 2nd substitution

Then with 13 minutes left the final substitution was more of a like-for-like with winger Sam Kelly replacing Siriki Dembele. This was Dembele’s first start for a while and he was understandably fatigued and probably a little low on confidence, but he could play an important part in the run-in. Kelly made a few positive contributions on the left and Clifton switched over to the right and did another job in the GTFC Academy graduate’s 3rd position of the 90 minutes.

Substitution3

77th minute: 3rd substitution

Conclusions

Town rescued a point in the 91st minute having shown plenty of heart and a desire to keep going until the last whistle, something Jolley commented on post-match as a major positive regarding the psychology of the players.

They undoubtedly owe a massive amount of credit to Man of the Match James McKeown for keeping the Mariners in the game with a few genuinely top class saves. But the early signs of the new Manager are that he’s setting up a clear way of playing, can adapt and change within a game, and isn’t afraid to make early changes. All 3 substitutes made positive contributions and we arguably got stronger in the game with each change.

With more time now to go to work on the training ground, this will give hope to the Black & White army that we have a Manager who, first and foremost, can work with the players he’s got to ensure League Two survival. If he can do that, I’m confident he could build a decent side longer term.

#AllTownArentWe

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Analysis: Luke Summerfield vs Accrington Stanley 30.12.17

Grimsby Town played Accrington Stanley at Blundell Park this afternoon and I put Mariners’ midfielder Luke Summerfield’s passing under the microscope.

Match: Grimsby Town vs Accrington Stanley

Competition: Football League Two

Venue: Blundell Park

Date/Time: 3pm, 30.12.2017

Analysis: Individual Player’s Passing

Subject: Luke Summerfield (played 90 mins)

The pass maps below show Summerfield’s passes in each half of the game. Black arrows show completed passes and red arrows show incomplete passes.

1st Half

Luke Summerfield 1st Half v Acc Stanley

2nd Half

Luke Summerfield 2nd Half v Acc Stanley

That’s for you to see where his passes were made from and where they were played to. Now for some of the numbers:

Luke Summerfield vs Acc Stanley (2)

Pretty good retention rates from Luke throughout the game, even if he might have wanted to get on the ball a bit more. The next few numbers give a bit of an indication as to where his passes went.

Luke Summerfield vs Acc Stanley (3)

Luke was chosen as the Match sponsor’s MOM for the game as he continued his good run of form this season. He also had a few efforts at goal during the game but it’s his accurate and progressive passing that has been part of what’s made Luke stand out so far this season.

With 77% of his passes going forward and a good chunk (41%) getting the ball out wide where there’s often more space, he shows a desire to get the ball moving quickly and with a purpose.

The three occasions he gave the ball away came from a failed cushion-volley back to a throw-in taker, a loose ball that he got to and tried to play into a centre-forward first-time, and an attempt to switch the point of attack by getting it wide which fell just behind the winger.

An overall pass completion rate of 88% sounds quite impressive for a central midfielder in League Two. And had it been a match in which Grimsby enjoyed a bit more possession, the figures may have been even more interesting.

Hopefully some of you found this interesting. Thanks for reading.

 

 

The Rise and Rise of Shaun Pearson

In July 2011, Grimsby Town signed a 22 year old central defender from Conference North side Boston United named Shaun Pearson.

Five and a half years later, Pearson captained the side in his 250th appearance for the Mariners.

537567878

Picture by Getty Images

He’s been on quite a journey so far, yet there could still be much more to add to his story in years to come. So far in his career he’s had promotions from two play-off final victories, a play-off final defeat, three more play-off semi-final defeats, two FA Trophy final defeats and two Lincolnshire Senior Cup wins. He’s played at Wembley 4 times and represented his country at England C level.

And at 27, he’s still probably another couple of years away from hitting his prime as a professional.

It is worth making sure that Shaun is congratulated for reaching what is a great milestone of 250 appearances for one club, especially in modern day football when players (particularly in the lower leagues) seem to move clubs more frequently than in years gone by. There was a short piece in the Grimsby Telegraph on Monday about Shaun’s achievement but I’ll go into Shaun’s time at GTFC so far in a bit more depth.

He arrived in the summer of 2011 following Town’s first season in the Conference had ended with a disappointing 11th place finish. Rob Scott and Paul Hurst had been appointed Joint Managers at the Club midway through that season and were now able to rebuild the squad to their liking in pre-season. Pearson had played for Scott and Hurst at Boston and they wasted no time in bringing him to Grimsby at the earliest opportunity.

Debut

His Town career didn’t get off the best of starts. After being an unused substitute in the season opener against eventual champions Fleetwood, Pearson made his debut 3 days later in the infamous 5-0 away defeat at Braintree. Have a look at Town’s starting line-up that day:

town-v-braintree-16082011

Shaun was in and out of the team in his first season in full-time football. He made 33 appearances (including sub appearances) as he competed for a place with Darran Kempson, Scott Garner, Charlie I’Anson, for a little while Will Antwi, and from January onwards Ian Miller. By the end of the season, Shaun had established himself in the team as part of the first choice central defensive partnership with Ian Miller. Town finished 11th after flirting with the play-offs with a great middle third to the season, but having a poor last 2 months.

I think the Town fans took to Pearson quite well. His all-action style as a defender who would throw his body in front of shots to prevent a goal, and who would put his head where some wouldn’t put their feet, helped Town’s faithful warm to him.

For the following two seasons Town would be much more consistent and reach the play-offs in successive years only to be knocked out in the semi-finals. Pearson played a big part in this as part of a well organised defensive unit. At times during these seasons Town actually looked like they might challenge for the Conference title and I remember Shaun being obsessed with clean sheets and coming in after games checking to see how many goals other teams had conceded to see if we still had the best defensive record. This competitive mentality is part of what has made Shaun successful.

I think he was seen by fans, in general, as a great conference defender. Not a great deal of pace but a good reader of the game with great bravery as mentioned above. I also think he was, a little unfairly, seen as being poor on the ball. In my opinion this was down to his tall, gangly appearance that doesn’t look as natural on the ball as some others. However I do actually think he was always better on the ball than given credit for.

Yellow Cards

One of the early deficiencies in Shaun’s game was the amount of yellow cards he picked up. He picked up far too many bookings for dissent and spent too much time arguing with referees. He got a massive 16 yellow cards in the 2013-14 season but I believe that year was the turning point for him. His 16th yellow card was in the 1st leg of the play-off semi-final against Gateshead which caused him to be suspended and miss the 2nd leg (which Town lost). The following season he improved on his number of bookings and was only booked 9 times. In Town’s promotion season he was booked just 3 times and so far in League Two he has picked up just four yellow cards.

Pearson had played at Wembley for the first time in his career when Town lost on penalties to Wrexham in the 2013 FA Trophy Final, and was back at Wembley with the Mariners in 2015. Pearson had formed a good partnership with Toto Nsiala all season and stayed in the team despite the late-season signing of Josh Gowling. Unfortunately Town were again defeated at Wembley in a penalty shoot-out.

Loyalty to GTFC

Pearson was now out-of-contract at Grimsby and rumours were circulating that he was about to leave the Club. I think BBC Radio Humberside had reported that he was in talks with Barnsley. Sure enough, Shaun signed a new 2-year deal with Town and had another crack at getting Town promoted to the Football League.

In the 2015-16 season though, he would spend most of the season just deputising for the first choice pairing of Nsiala and Gowling. He did still make 32 appearances, with many of these coming as a substitute or in games where Nsiala was deployed at right-back. Throughout the season, we would never hear of Shaun complaining about lack of starts or asking to move. He was the ultimate professional during this time and performed well whenever he was playing. The season ended with success at last for the Mariners as we triumphed over Forest Green at Wembley to earn promotion to the Football League via the play-offs. Pearson was to come on as a late substitute for the goalscorer of Town’s third goal, Nathan Arnold. It was probably fitting that when the final whistle went to confirm Town’s promotion, Pearson was on the pitch along with Craig Disley and James McKeown, two guys who also started at Braintree in 2011, and who had all been through the heartache in recent years.

The Football League

So on to the Football League. Another step up for Shaun to make after moving from Stamford to Boston, and then Boston to Grimsby. Grimsby had now become a League Two Club and Pearson was now a Football League player. I have to confess, I personally wondered whether there would be a future at GTFC for Shaun Pearson last summer. He had spent most of last season out of the team and I wondered whether his lack of pace/mobility would be more evident at this higher level.

I’m delighted to say that in the months that have passed since, I have been proved wrong, and then some. Pearson was on the bench for the opening game against Morecambe. He played at Derby in the cup a few days later and had Darren Bent in his pocket but was then out of the starting line-up for the next couple of league games. Then he got back in the team for the home game with Leyton Orient and despite a slip that couldn’t be helped leading to an Orient goal, Pearson had a solid game. He deservedly stayed in the team for several weeks before being strangely dropped by Paul Hurst after the EFL Trophy game against Leicester City u23’s. Pearson had gone in goal during this game after McKeown had been sent off so it seemed strange to see him out of the team in the next game after he’d previously been in good form.

He spent the next 3 games out of the team before Hurst left for Shrewsbury. Then caretaker boss Dave Moore kept Gowling and Danny Collins as the central defensive pairing for his 2 games in charge. Marcus Bignot came in and also kept faith with Gowling and Collins for his first 5 league games, before Pearson made an unexpected start away at Doncaster in December. Shaun has been in the team ever since.

In his current run of 12 straight starts, Town’s number 5 has been in contention for Man of the Match on several occasions, has barely put a foot wrong and has been dominant against League Two forwards he’s faced. He has looked comfortable in both a back three and a back four, and ensured his name is probably one of the first on the teamsheet at the moment for Manager Marcus Bignot.

Remember that line-up for his first appearance in black and white?

Compare that to the team he led out as captain on his 250th Town appearance:

town-v-mansfield-18022017

Individual Development

Shaun’s development as a player over his five and a half years at GTFC is plain to see. Comparing the two line-ups of his 1st and 250th games, and the company he now finds himself in tells you a bit about how far Shaun has come. For starters he’s playing alongside a former Welsh international with around 150 Premier League appearances to his name.

In terms of his own game, he’s no longer just seen as a brave defender who’ll throw his body in front of shots and head the ball out of dangerous areas where boots are flying in.

His reading of the game has improved year on year. Very rarely do you see him having to make last-ditch tackles, because he doesn’t get into a position where he needs to.

His ability on the ball is an area he has always been improving. As I said earlier, I think he was better on the ball to begin with than he appeared to some, but there’s still no doubt this is an area of Shaun’s game that has made great strides. In a recent game against Notts County, he had his manager comparing him to Franz Beckenbauer after the way he brought the ball out of defence and pinged long range passes out to the wing-backs. Against Luton, he left a defender for dead in the opposition penalty area after a quick stepover. But that wasn’t the first time we’ve seen skilful moves like that from him. At Alfreton away a few years back he set up a goal after a bit of skill and again away at Southport. But his general ability on the ball and composure in travelling with the ball out of defence is helping him look more than at home in the Football League.

He’s also much more disciplined in terms of keeping his name out of the referees book these days. As touched on earlier, he was seeing far too many yellow cards in his early days at GTFC, but rarely now do you see him back-chatting referees and getting needless bookings for dissent.

Finally, has he also developed physically too? It does seem like Shaun is maybe a bit sharper now, slightly quicker and fitter than he may have been, certainly after his step up from part-time football with Boston.

Shaun “GTFC” Pearson

On top of his great service to Town on the pitch, and his great personal development, Shaun has also done more than most for the Club off the pitch. He helps out with the FITC and the GTFC Academy and is always seen doing bits in the community. This only adds weight to the thought that Shaun Pearson is writing himself into GTFC history and on his way to becoming a Club legend.

He’s only 27 and I’m sure there’s more to come from him – both as an individual and for him to achieve more success with the Club. See you in another 250 appearances Shaun!

“THERE’S ONLY ONE SHAUN PEARSON”

#gtfc

Giving Ownership and Responsibility to a Developing Player

I’ve just done a Futsal session with my under 10’s tonight and it was very much a “player-led” session for most of it. I’m a believer in giving responsibility and ownership to kids but tonight was the most I’ve had the players lead the session and it was definitely the most rewarding in terms of outcomes in the “psychological” and “social” corners.walthammarinersfutsaltourn04022017

I gave them ownership of most aspects of the session and gave them the responsibility of organising and adjusting the practices.

For starters, I told them to set up their own arrival activity. The boys took some cones and the futsal balls and away they went. I watched as some of them discussed it, before they set up some small channels to play 1v1 line-ball and got on with it.

As the last few players arrived, they came in the sports hall and asked me what we were doing. I just told them that the players had set this up so ask them. Soon enough, everyone was taking part in these 1v1 line-ball battles. With each pair choosing a slightly different shape or size channel for their game.

Coincidentally this allowed me to see who had remembered what we did in the 1v1 defending session I did just 2/3 days ago, so we just carried this on for the first part of the session. I coached a few players on their defending and offered a few reminders, before eventually stopping them. Just a brief 20-second stoppage to ask them to think about whether they want to change any rules of their game or the area they were using.

I stood back and watched again to see what they would do, if anything. Some wanted to make their area bigger, some smaller. I didn’t mind what they did as long as they could tell me why they did it. One group made it wider as they wanted to keep the game flowing as their ball previously went out of the area in their narrower channel. Another group made it smaller (a lot smaller) and when I asked why, they said it was to make it more challenging. I liked that making it more challenging was their aim, but I queried who it was more challenging for by asking “is it more challenging for the defender?”. At this point I think I could actually see the cogs turning in his brain again. Making him think was the aim. They carried on for a bit and then changed it again.

After the boys picked up all the cones they had used (only 4 cones for each pair) I gave them a vague brief on what they were to do next.

“There’s 9 of you. Split yourselves into 2 groups. Here’s 4 cones for one group and 4 cones for the other group. Both groups make yourselves an area to play a rondo, one will be 3v1, the other 4v1. Go.”

After they split themselves into 2 groups I watched who was leading the discussions or communicating their ideas or suggestions. The group of five set up their square to play a 4v1 within. As they were about to start it, one of them suggested that instead of the 4 all standing in the corners of the square, they should each stand on one side of the square each, so that they wouldn’t have a cone getting in their way. They also decided that they would play quick-fire rondo with only first time passes allowed.

The other group setting up for a 3v1 had a similarly sized small area and didn’t limit themselves in terms of number of touches. After a while I asked this group if they wanted to change anything about their game. They decided to make their area bigger. The gist of their reasoning ( I can’t remember the words they used) was that because they only had 3 on the possession team, they usually had to have one player making a move to one side to ensure 2 options for the player with the ball – so could do with the extra split second on the ball a bigger area would give them.

I asked if this group wanted to add any challenges into it. After one of them suggested 1-touch each, I gave them the option of playing 1-touch each or having the challenge to play 1-touch when possible. They recognised their smaller number and decided to play with the challenge to play 1-touch rather than the condition to. Very good. This also gave me a few moments to coach. A couple of them tried to play a first time pass when it wasn’t really possible to and the ball went astray. I asked one of them what he could’ve done differently. “I should have taken a second touch” he said. Good, I thought, as long as he understands why. So when prompted to elaborate, he re-enacted the movement he had to do to try and pass it as the ball came to him quickly at an awkward height and between his knees, and said he couldn’t pass it like that so should’ve controlled it first. Always ask why so you can check their understanding, and make sure they’re not just giving an answer because they think that’s the answer you want to hear.

The 5-player group changed the rules of their 4v1 rondo to now include a player in the middle with the defending player. So 3 players on the edge of their square playing into their team-mate in the middle who was closely marked by the defending player. Interestingly they hadn’t made the area any bigger to allow for this, but they coped with the small area brilliantly with some good, sharp passing and movements.

After a quick drinks break I said we’d play a favourite of theirs – “Keep it on the Court”.

I’d already put the cones down for the area we’d be using for this at the start of the session so just gave 4 of them bibs to put on. I asked the team of 5 to discuss how they would make their one-man advantage count. And I told them that if they don’t win I would ask them afterwards what they haven’t done. They had a little chat amongst themselves as I went to prompt a discussion on the other side. I heard one of them say they would make the pitch big, so I knew they were thinking along the right lines.

Similarly, I challenged the team of 4 to think how they could try and beat the non-bibs bearing in mind they were a man short. After they picked a formation for this small game I heard something I liked. One of them said “we’ll just let their deepest player have the ball and not mark him.” Brilliant thinking and understanding. High-five for the lad.

After the game of “Keep it on the Court”, which the team of 5 just shaded, I had some more ways to engage their brains. We were just going to play a game of Futsal now but I’d written on the whiteboard in the sports hall a challenge for each team. The orange’s would earn 5 points for a goal if they won possession in the opposition half and then went on to score. The green’s (team of 4) would earn 10 points if they won possession in their own half and then attacked and scored in that move. I placed a greater reward for the 4-man team because a) it’d help them as they were a man down, and b) at u10 its instinctive to go and win the ball immediately so I thought theirs it would be a greater challenge.

I told them to go off in their teams and discuss how they would set up and what tactics they might play to try and achieve their challenge. And then we started. The 4-man greens dropped deep to allow their opposition to come forward into their half before trying to win the ball and break. The oranges sent bodies forward to win the ball high up, but couldn’t manage it. They scored 5 goals but all after either attacking from their own half, or after playing it in from a kick-in inside the opposition half. So only single point scoring goals. The green’s had scored two single-point scoring goals. Then in the last minute before we were moving on, the green’s retreated into their own half, allowed an orange player to travel over the half-way line and then pressed. They won the ball and broke forward 2v1 to score a 10-pointer to win 12-2 with the last kick. Their own tactics and thinking had won it for them. Very pleased with the outcome of that.

Lastly, I had a game scenario written on the board for them:

“2 minutes left in the FA Cup Final. Green’s are 2-0 up but have one player less. What are your priorities 1) when you have possession, and 2) out of possession.”

I sent them away in their teams to quickly discuss how they were going to approach it. The green’s decided to have 2 defenders and 1 player ahead of them, and would try and just keep the ball. The orange’s straight away said they were going with 1 defender and 3 attackers and would play quickly, trying to get the ball off them as quickly as possible. We played 2 minutes and despite the orange team having chances, the green’s played to their plan well and eventually scored to make it 3-0 in the last 5 seconds.

I was really pleased with some of the stuff that came out of the session. I’d placed a bigger focus on the psychological and social corners of development and was delighted with the thinking behind everything they did and the logic used when explaining to me why they’d done something.

I thought that, as well as the players enjoying being given responsibility and ownership of their own development, they also got plenty out of it too. And mixing that in with my prompts and questions in future will be a good combination.

It was by no means a perfect session. It didn’t have a single topic/theme running through the session like I run my Saturday “football” sessions. And thinking about it later I could’ve given more ownership to them by getting them to pick the teams for the game (one for next time maybe). But overall I think there’s huge benefit to be gained from taking a step back and letting players lead elements of the session like that. Even if you need to give a bit of guidance and just ask the right questions to get the answers you’re looking for. But always make sure they can explain why, and that they’re not just answering with what they think is the right answer.

Give it a try. Let your players lead. Give them ownership and responsibility.

And let them play.

An England Friendly with a Difference

Tuesday evening’s international friendly between England and Spain wasn’t the average England friendly. It was interesting, at times entertaining, and we could actually learn something from the game.

Gareth Southgate set his side up with a tactical plan that was working to perfection for 80 minutes. We got back into defensive shape when Spain had the spells of possession that you’d expect from them despite it not being their strongest XI. And on set triggers, the team pressed. When one player went to press an opponent, he was backed up with everyone behind him squeezing up and the front 4 looking to win it high up the pitch. We broke forward very well with the pace of Sterling, Vardy and Lingard complimenting the skill of Lallana.

Lallana

Liverpool’s Adam Lallana is fast becoming England’s best player. He added to a string of recent good performances for his country with an influential first half until injury forced his withdrawal. England missed his skill, vision and creativity in the second half as his influence on this England team grows. 

Playing out from the back

Southgate clearly wants his England team to play out from the back. At times Scotland forced errors when we tried to play out so Spain and their high press was a good test for a way of playing that is alien to England defenders of years gone by. I actually commend the new England for this and love to see John Stones calm under pressure. The problem is, there aren’t many others in the defensive third of the pitch on Stones’ level in possession. Cahill always looks panicked on the ball, Henderson is quite one dimensional and as much as I rate Dier, he’s no Busquets. When  Jagielka came on he made no effort to make angles to receive the ball and was hoping for someone to launch it long. Jagielka is not an international class defender anyway though so that’s not likely to be an issue going forward. 

The midfield need to work harder and have to want to get on the ball more than they do. A lot of the time Stones has the ball and looks for a pass into midfield. Dier would come short but he’s followed by a Spanish forward. He should then be looking to rotate out of that space for someone like Henderson to move into and receive the ball on the half-turn. And only Stones really sprints into a position to receive after the ball’s gone back to the goalkeeper. Several times in the game saw Cahill and Stones make a long pass back to the goalkeeper because they’re incapable of opening up and playing a simple pass with their left foot. I think we can learn to play out from the back, but we need some better technical players in the right areas.

Competing with the best

This game, along with the friendly away to Germany earlier in the year, gives at least a hint that this England side could be capable of doing OK against good opposition in major tournaments. The worry now is whether we can reach the stage in tournaments where we’ll get to play the traditionally bigger nations. Because recently it’s the smaller countries (Iceland) or the teams who just “park the bus” (Slovakia, Slovenia, Russia) who we struggle against. This is because even poor teams can now be well-organised and we have just ran out of ideas against these types of teams.

The Rooney Conundrum 

What this England performance showed is the effectiveness of pace and energy in the final third. Could England have pressed quickly with Rooney in the side? Possibly not. Could England have counter attacked so quickly and effectively with Rooney in the side. Definitely not. I maintain the view that there isn’t a place for Rooney in the current England side. He is not a midfielder. If he is to play it must be as a #9 or a #10. I’d say as the #9 really, because he doesn’t have the dynamism or spark to play as a #10 anymore. But with him as the focal point of the attack we wouldn’t break forward at pace like we did at times against Spain.

All in all, England actually looked and played like they had a tactical plan. Credit to Southgate for that. If we want to play out from the back we need better technical players in defence and midfield. Maybe the promising England youth sides will provide these players. And while Rooney is looking more like a bit-part player, Adam Lallana is emerging as the key talent.

Town not Learning Lessons in Limp Towards Play-Offs

A little under 3 weeks ago, I wrote about how Paul Hurst had got it tactically spot on for a 1-0 home win over Wrexham. What’s happened since strongly suggests to me that Hurst either didn’t plan those Wrexham tactics in as much detail as I described it, or he didn’t understand what made it work. In addition to that, the Town boss has also shown up several Managerial deficiencies that has lead to a lot of fans losing confidence in his ability to lead us to promotion.

Since that win on March 26th, Town have taken just 4 points from the 15 available.

Paul Hurst 2

Tactics Wrong at Moss Rose

The game immediately following the Wrexham game was away at Macclesfield. Hurst stuck with the same lop-sided midfield system with Nolan coming inside to make a central 3. This was never going to be as effective and Hurst was tactically naïve to think it would. Robertson came in for the injured Horwood at left back and Robertson, for as solid a defender as he is, doesn’t have the legs to get up the pitch quickly to provide the width on that side if the midfielder in front of him is asked to drift into the centre. Not forgetting the main reason Hurst had used this system against Wrexham – the 3 man midfield we were up against – was no longer a problem with Macclesfield’s 4-4-2.

No Reaction with Game Slipping Away

Next up for the Mariners was an away trip to the leaders – Cheltenham. Refereeing decisions went against both sides during the game but Town were not at the races for the first 40 minutes, during which time they went a goal down. Having got an equaliser early in the second half, Cheltenham soon went back in front which immediately knocked the stuffing out of Town. We couldn’t get any sort of play going but Hurst made no changes until after Cheltenham got a third goal, sending Bogle on for Arnold in the 78th minute. This was hugely frustrating to watch Town struggle to even get a foothold in the game yet Hurst allowed the clock to run down without injecting new life/energy into the side or changing our shape. Only when it was too late did he try and do something about a game that was slipping away from us ever since Cheltenham got their second goal in the 58th minute.

Lack of Invention

The following three games had highs and lows but that only adds to the frustration Town fans feel. We came back from 0-2 down to win 4-3 away at Aldershot and this appeared partly down to the introduction of Omar Bogle and Jordan Stewart at half time. It was unusual of Hurst to make substitutions at half-time and it later transpired that Monkhouse and Hoban had been struggling with knocks.

Saturday saw Eastleigh come to Blundell Park and Hurst stuck with the same eleven that started the second half at Aldershot 4 days earlier. Most would have agreed with the line-up and it was only poor finishing and/or an excellent goalkeeping display by Ross Flitney that denied Town 3 points as they settled for a point against the 10-man Spitfires.

Again though, only 2 like-for-like substitutions in the 72nd minute against a side playing with 10 men since the 49th minute showed a lack of invention from the bench.

That lack of invention was also evident on Tuesday when Braintree were the victors at Blundell Park.

Insanity

Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

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I could apply this apparent “insanity” to the management of GTFC in two ways.

  1. We have consistently struggled to break down sides that come to Blundell Park and are fairly well organised and set up to frustrate us. We know teams will come and do this. Yet we haven’t attempted at any point to come up with a different idea of how to approach these games and continue to predictably struggle against a deep defensive block set up by a well-drilled side.
  2. During an individual match, Hurst and the players either do not recognise when something isn’t working or the management only want us to play in a certain way and not differentiate from that. Sometimes we play dozens of long high balls up to the front two with very little success. Yet we continued to launch it forward. Were we expecting Amond and Hoban would grow 6 inches during the game and suddenly become a match for Braintree’s dominant centre halves in the air? And if a flat 4-4-2 isn’t working to break a team down, we never try something else to change shape or give the opposition different problems to think about.

Where Did We Fail Against Braintree?

Braintree are known for being in tight games with few goals and their defensive record is second only to Cheltenham in the National League this season. It was clear to everyone how they would come and play. Keep it tight, keep a deep defensive block with 5 in midfield, clear their lines early playing percentage football and looking for set-pieces.

Yet Town played predictable football with no invention from the bench or on the field. In all honesty Town could’ve played for 3 hours and wouldn’t have scored. Braintree were always going to get one chance, and they took it to deservedly take the points.

Shape

It’s a trait of Hurst’s sides to keep their shape very well. This is no bad thing. The problem is, we also keep to our shape when in possession. The rigid lines of the 4-4-2 leave few passing options and it is easy to defend against a team so inflexible when in position. Keeping our shape when we don’t have the ball is imperative, but when we have the ball we need to have players coming out of their disciplined zones. On Tuesday there was no-one creating space, either for themselves or for the team. We didn’t stretch a team that were always going to be happy for us to play in front of them. There was no movement to drag Braintree’s well-drilled players out of their positions, not enough third man runs (only Tait offering this from full-back). Arnold could have drifted infield between the defensive and midfield lines to pick up the ball. Monkhouse moved to receive the ball but when he gets it he needs an early pass to be on as he can’t carry the ball forward himself. One of the forwards could pull wide or drop deep. Look our shape when we’ve got the ball and compare to when we haven’t. There isn’t a lot of difference. And there’s no intelligence of movement or patterns of movement to break away from the 3 straight lines of the formation. Because of this, the gap between our midfield and strikers is always too big, with no midfielder or forward getting in the space between the opposition midfield and defence.

Front Two

Even the strikers stuck rigidly to the shape on Tuesday, both playing level together in a line, right up against the defenders. With Amond and Hoban both having a defender right up their backside whenever the ball was played up to them they would struggle to hold it, let alone be able to receive and turn, where they might be dangerous. I could’ve counted on one hand the number of times that either of them came short to show for a ball into their feet in a no.10 sort of position. If one of them drops short like this, his marker could also go with him and create more space for the striker in the no.9 position against the other central defender left in the back line.

Defenders taking the flak

There were a lot of occasions on Tuesday were it seemed Nsiala and Gowling were being criticised for playing too many long balls forward. I certainly think a lot of the time our centre-backs were left with no option. Nolan always wanted the ball but sometimes couldn’t make an angle for a pass, was tightly marked, or was rotating in midfield for Disley to come short. When Braintree had the midfield closely marked, there wasn’t enough movement as individuals in midfield or desire to want to get on the ball. And there wasn’t much coming short from the strikers as mentioned earlier, so there was sometimes no passing option available.

Width

One thing we should’ve been attempting to do is stretch the game as wide as possible to stretch the defensive unit of Braintree and open up bigger gaps. The problem is Monkhouse isn’t the type of winger he was when he was giving Iain Ward the run-around in the late 90’s/early 00’s in his early Rotherham days. He likes to come infield, he’s an intelligent player but needs pace or movement in the team around him to flourish. On the other side, Nathan Arnold has been badly out of form for several months and in truth might as well not have been on the pitch on Tuesday. He didn’t look like he wanted the ball and didn’t do anything when he had it either. So we had neither winger getting wide to the touchline.

Changes?

It was obvious to many that we weren’t going to score from very early in the second half. Again though, there was no changes in the offing. Bogle and Jennings stayed on the bench until the 72nd minute and Pittman had somehow jumped ahead of Bogle in the pecking order to come on ahead of them in the 62nd minute. All three of Hurst’s subs came before Braintree’s winner, but none of them altered the way we were playing or the predictably rigid shape of our team that Braintree were dealing with comfortably. And “comfortably” is an understatement. Remember the “insanity” quote? What we were doing was getting us no-where and we were only ever going to draw the game at best. But we changed nothing except for the personnel asked to carry out the specific roles in the team as we continued with the same shape and methods. Could we have gone 4-3-3, 3-5-2, or 4-3-1-2 with a player linking midfield and attack? Could we have substituted Arnold and left our 30-goal striker on?

Chances

We had one real chance and that was in the 93rd minute. Very worrying. If we make the play-offs, surely whoever we face in the semi-final only has to look at the blueprint that many have used in the last couple of years to take a point or three away from Blundell Park?

Lessons Learned?

Would we suddenly find a way to play against such tactics and break down a well-drilled low defensive block? Nothing I’ve seen gives me any confidence that we would. When asked by Mike White on BBC Radio Humberside what he learns from a game like that, Hurst’s response was: “I’m not going to get too hung up about the game, I think we move on.”

That comment, coupled with the same way we go about approaching these types of games (and often fail), is why it seems like Hurst doesn’t actually learn from the mistakes he makes both with preparation and game-management. It leads me to believe that the next time we come against a Braintree or a Guiseley at home, we’ll just play the same way and probably get the same disappointing result. I know we’ve had a lot of positive results at home too, but the teams that are well organised and efficient enough to execute a defensive plan like Braintree can easily make it difficult for us.

Outlook

After the apparent tactical successes against Wrexham less than 3 weeks ago, it unfortunately appears as if it wasn’t quite so thought-out as I interpreted it in previous analysis. Because what’s followed has been a few strange selections (Bogle in, out and shaking it all about), omissions (Stewart waiting 6 years for a game then “rested” from the 16 to play a reserve game 24 hours later) and lack of tactical ideas and imagination.

Could we still get promoted? Yes.

Am I confident we will? No.

UTM.

 

 

Hurst’s Tactical Adjustment Takes 3 Points for Town

Grimsby Town took on Wrexham on Saturday afternoon as two of the Vanarama National League’s form sides came head-to-head at Blundell Park. The Mariners welcomed a Wrexham side who had kept 6 clean sheets in a row and featured a few familiar faces in their line-up. Former Town trio Connor Jennings, Simon Helsop and Jamal Fyfield were joined by ex-GTFC loanee Javan Vidal who came on as a second half substitute.

Paul Hurst

The game also saw bosses Paul Hurst and Gary Mills renew acquaintances in opposite dugouts. Hurst has had mixed success against Mills’ teams in recent years. Despite the odd success for Hurst (6-1 away win at Gateshead), Mills has generally had the upper hand. His York side had the better of Scott & Hurst’s Town side 3 times in 2011/12, he got the better of Hurst when Gateshead progressed to the Play-off Final at our expense in 2014, and a 2-2 draw for Gateshead at Blundell Park end any hopes of our title challenge in 2015.

Gary Mills

Mills always has his sides playing 4-3-3 and they usually play good football, building from the back, passing and moving with players comfortable in possession.

Today, Hurst strayed from the usual straight-forward 4-4-2 in a tactical move that helped Town deal with the problems that a side playing 4-3-3 poses for a 4-4-2. The result was Wrexham looking anything like a “Gary Mills team” in terms of style and Town taking all three points after a 1-0 win.

Town v Wrexham 1

Hurst made two changes to his starting line-up, bringing Toto Nsiala in for Shaun Pearson at centre-back and Craig Clay in place of Danny East in midfield. Nsiala was seemingly brought in as the more athletic defender to combat deal with the pace of Wrexham forward Kayden Jackson. Clay’s inclusion allowed Nathan Arnold to switch back to the right of midfield and saw Jon Nolan take up an unusual position on the left side of midfield.

The graphic above shows the starting positions of the Town line-up – with Nolan narrow on that left side. However, if Opta or whoever provides all the stats for Premier League football were to produce heat maps for Conference football, then the average positions of the team would look a lot different to the above.

Mills’ 4-3-3 often leaves Hurst’s 4-4-2 outnumbered in midfield, so Hurst’s plan was for Nolan to drift infield and to create a 3v3 in the middle of the midfield. As he did this, Evan Horwood got forward well to offer the attacking width on that side. This was most evident from James McKeown’s goal kicks, when Horwood would up a very high position ahead of the midfielders. To compensate, Richard Tait’s forays forward from right-back were limited as he needed to sit alongside the centre-backs whilst Horwood pushed forward on the other side.

Nolan not only drifted infield to even the midfield numbers, but he was usually the one midfielder that broke lines and got forward to support the Irish strike pairing of Hoban and Amond.

When Town did lose the ball in the middle third, we were often able to win the ball back quickly in defensive transitions because we already had that three in the middle.

Town v Wrexham 3

This second graphic shows the more realistic positions that the town players took up during the game, and how it lined up against Wrexham’s first half set-up. As well as Tait’s more conservative game today, Disley also generally sat deeper to allow Clay and especially Nolan to support attacking moves.

This approach completely nullified Wrexham’s ability to play out from the back and they invariably hit long balls over the top for the quick forwards to chase. At half time, Gary Mills made a substitution and changed to a back three, and whilst his side put up more of a performance in the second half, they were still unable to really test McKeown in the Town goal as the home side remained more threatening.

The goalmouth scrambles after Wrexham set-pieces in injury time was the first time the Town goal was under threat since Hoban headed off the line late in the first half. Wrexham remained direct in the second half and were now going long to substitute Wes York more often than not but Tait stood his ground well at right back.

The match-winning goal came in just the 7th minute when a Grimsby corner made it to the far post where Nathan Arnold calmly cushion-volleyed down for Craig Disley to smash home from 6 yards. The goal just cemented what was a good start to the game from the Mariners, and they went on to play some good stuff throughout the half. Hoban had a shot blocked after a cut-back from Horwood and Nolan mis-hit a shot after a nice lay-off from Hoban as Town pressed for a second.

After half-time it was still looking more likely that Town would double their lead, with Hoban guiding a header goalwards that cannoned back off the crossbar, Clay hitting a volley over and Nolan shooting just wide when 1v1 with the goalkeeper after a great first touch from Amond’s reverse ball.

But after Town saw out those final few minutes of injury time (where the referee found 4 minutes to add on I’ll never know) it was Paul Hurst celebrating in the home dugout. After facing criticism at times during his reign of being out-thought by rival managers (even as recently as Cheltenham at home this season), Hurst should be praised for his tactics today.

Gary Mills is a good, experienced Manager and Wrexham will cause other teams problems in the run-in. And Hurst rightly saw this as an important win judging by his reaction after the full time whistle. Yet we can also take confidence from Hurst seemingly winning a battle of tactical minds with a rival Manager. Potentially a good sign with a Play-Off campaign probably coming up in May that’ll hopefully involve 3 games? Time will tell.

Grimsby Town 1-0 Wrexham

Disley ‘7

Att: 4581 (315 away supporters)