Last night we finally heard the news that we’d all been awaiting for much of January, Leon Clarke had officially signed for Wolves. A month that began with Leon Clarke stoically leading the line in hard fought wins over Barnsley and Rotherham has ended with Coventry fans glad to see the back of him. His absence in both the Crawley and Leyton Orient games was quite clearly due to his desire to leave and on Tuesday night Steven Pressley left no doubts that this was the case in his post match interview. Now that Leon Clarke has got his move away from the club what do we do next?
Tuesday night saw the 16-year old forward George Thomas make his debut for the club, but his performance suggests that he won’t be a long-term fix. In the games we’ve played this season without Leon Clarke in attack we’ve often looked directionless and lacking ideas in attack. In the 7 games this season we’ve played without Clarke in the team we’ve only scored 2 goals from open play with the rest of the goals coming from set pieces and the penalty spot. In those 7 games we won only once, drew 4 and lost 2, in all scoring 9 and conceding 17.
With today’s news that Jon Stead has turned down a loan move to the club, it’s clear we’ll struggle to find either a direct replacement in terms of goals or attacking impact. We’ll have to try something completely different to what other football clubs would do after losing their top scorer as we are no longer just any other football club.
We can try playing in exactly the same way that we have done all season and signing two or three players who’ll make up for the shortfall that Leon Clarke has left us with. That could mean going firstly for an out-and-out goal-poacher, someone in that Robbie Fowler/Jermain Defoe mould of contributing very little to the play except goals. This may be detrimental to our pressing game but I feel that Pressley would be able to coach a willing player into our system.
The second player would be someone to play between the lines of attack and midfield in a more orthodox ‘number 10’ role than what we’re used to. This would replace Clarke’s role as an attacking fulcrum and help link play, eventually being the player to supply the passes to Callum Wilson once he returns. It was clear that Callum Wilson thrived off Leon Clarke’s link-up player and the worry is that Wilson’s impact would be muted should we fail to identify someone capable of replacing this element of Leon Clarke’s game.
The final type of player you would need would be someone to improve the overall quality and depth of the squad. Simply having another relatively experienced player who improves the overall collective strength of the team will be vital given that we’ve lost such a key experienced member of the squad. The position I would look to strengthen would be bringing in a genuinely left-footed winger into the side. Having a left-footed on the left of midfield has been something we’ve clearly lacked as our attacks have been slowed down on the left by either Franck Moussa of Billy Daniels have had to cut inside to produce a delivery. Preferably this left-winger would have some pace to make up for the temporary loss of Callum Wilson to the side and allow us to play balls in behind defences in the next month or so.
The either way we can evolve after the loss of Leon Clarke is to have a rethink about the way we play. Our hard-pressing, open style of play has won many plaudits this season but has left us woefully exposed at the back. This is to be expected but we were often allowed to get away with defensive mistakes due to Leon Clarke’s play in attack which gave us a cutting edge. With Leon gone we’re going to lack the ability to carve teams open quite so easily by playing in the same manner. So why not adapt the style to reduce the defensive errors?
Clearly a League One side is not going to go completely cut out individual defensive errors, but we can reduce the risk of this happening. Adding an extra man to midfield is the first option we have and with Adam Barton in the side we can do this straight away with out current resources. In my opinion there are three forms of defending in football, pressing the opposition high up the pitch, defending deep or keeping the ball from the opposition. The final option is something that we’re predisposed to doing and seemed to be Pressley’s initial plan upon taking the job. Currently we’re a side that’s very eager to play that final killer pass to open up the opposition, this can pressurise opposing defences but is also a sure-fire way to concede possession and leave yourself open to a swift counter attack. If we play at a slower pace we can have players in positions that both hurt the opposition but leave us relatively safe from the threat of the break. With Callum Wilson currently injured it also be a way of hurting the opposition without relying on sheer pace.
The downside is that possession football invariably relies upon the ability of your defenders to play the ball out from the back, which will lead to errors and goals at this level. It also relies upon your ability to win the ball back from the opposition reasonably early. This system is not necessarily incompatible with our current playing squad, it would require more runs to be made from our central midfield players into the penalty area than we currently get. We would also need to be patient and content to win games 1-0 rather than constantly pushing for another goal with possession the main aim of this system.
Alternatively we could scrap the pressing game that we currently attempt to play and go for a more conservative counter-attacking system than we currently play. However given Steven Pressley’s stated footballing ambitions I have a feeling that he wouldn’t like to play this way. Additionally you wonder whether plays like Cyrus Christie, Carl Baker and Franck Moussa are reliable enough in the attacking third to make the odd counter-attack pay in a tight fixture.
This piece was to highlight how replacing Leon Clarke won’t just be about signing an appropriation of his presence on the pitch. We are going to need to something different given our limited resources and I wouldn’t be surprised to see only 1 player being signed. Pressley’s going to really have to make his next signing count, especially as he has a quite poor track record in signing players thus far at the club. The main cause for optimism though would be Pressley’s time at Falkirk where his team was continually gutted season after season and he kept on producing results that kept them challenging for promotion to the SPL.