A stirring comeback against a strong Peterborough United on Saturday side has ended a desperate winless run in the league for the Sky Blues. The original intention of this post was to posit some theories as to how to get the best out this squad. Steven Pressley on Saturday though displayed why he is the professional in charge of tactics and why I am the one whose role it is to lay the plaudits on him for getting so emphatically right.
Controversially to some of our fans, Steven Pressley had utilised a 5-3-2 formation in all but one game prior to last Saturday. The criticism of the system was mainly that the two in attack were often very isolated. In addition, the wing-backs were being asked to provide too much of the team’s creativity and the midfield had to work incredibly hard to maintain possession, protect the defence, press the opposition and, when they had some free time, get into the penalty area.
Some of the best sides in this division play a version of the 5-3-2 system, just over a month ago we were sitting in third place playing 5-3-2. However we never fully convinced over the course of 90 minutes whilst playing in the system and with the defence increasingly making sloppy individual errors, we were no longer receiving the benefit of more confident defensive displays than the previous season.
A degree of credit then has to go to Pressley for recognising that the system was not producing the expected results. The decision was certainly made easier by poor recent results but given that he spent most of the summer planning to play 5-3-2, it takes some guts to admit when you got it wrong in such a high profile position. Even better than identifying a problem, Pressley took the important next step in finding the solution.
The key player tactically on Saturday was Ryan Haynes playing from the left-back position in a 4-4-2. For a long time this season I had been wondering whether Haynes was fortunate that by playing as a wing-back, his defensive deficiencies were less exposed and that in a back four he would struggle. Pressley appeared to accommodate for this by playing the defensive-minded Jordan Willis at right-back as well as another two defensive minded players in the central midfield areas in Adam Barton and Conor Thomas. He also had Reda Johnson playing as a left-sided central defender, a player whose physicality and confidence have been a major factor in helping Haynes through his early appearances for the club.
This meant that Haynes could do what he is best at, making surges into the opposition half and putting in high quality crosses. Whilst he was unable to provide an assist himself, his forward bursts gave the team an important outlet in attack. The fact that he scored from open play showed that he was free to get deep into the Peterborough half of the pitch and make the same kind of decisions an attacking player would do. I firmly believe that having a full-back scoring in open play is the sign of a team playing with self-belief, which is remarkable given that we were two goals down at the time Haynes scored.
The midfield were also balanced very well, playing narrowly and in way where each of their talents could be used to full effect. John Fleck on the left had Ryan Haynes supplying the width outside of him, this meant that Fleck could move inside into the ‘hole’ where he is capable of hurting the opposition, it also left him with fewer defensive responsibilities than when he plays in a two-man midfield. It was no coincidence that Fleck contributed his first two assists of the season and had a number of chances to score himself, this is what we expected from him when he arrived.
Adam Barton in a deep-lying role meant that Jim O’Brien an Conor Thomas were able to press the opposition without leaving the defence exposed. Barton’s calmness in possession is fast becoming a platform for the rest of the team to build from. Often Pressley has been unable to play him in a midfield two because Thomas and Fleck better fitted the pressing game that he wants from his team. In the current system Barton has energetic players all around him that will win him the ball and now we are starting to see him deliver on the promise that has always been apparent.
The second-half attacking duo also played a key role in the comeback on Saturday. It certainly aids a striker’s performance when he has support from midfield players getting forward but Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson once again looked like a truly devastating strike partnership for this level of football. Although Jackson was not on the score-sheet, his substitution was important as he gave the opposing centre-backs more to think about with his positioning and intent compared to Josh McQuoid.
Nouble though is looking like the next in the line of David McGoldrick and Leon Clarke. Whilst less concerned with playing with his back to goal, Nouble is quick, strong live-wire that League One defenders cannot deal with when on form. He generally played to the right but he floated from wing to wing when the inspiration took him. A major worry is that his loan spell expires in January but let’s enjoy him even if he’s only here for a while.
Whilst the victory on Saturday was in part down to the role of the team’s tactical shape, even more important was the spirit and desire that the team played with in the second half. It’s hard to win football games when your team can barely pass to each other and struggles to win possession back in the midfield area. After witnessing that first-half performance, few would have felt that the team would have been able to turn the game around.
If we have learned anything from last season though, it is that it is better to end well than to start well. Look at Sheffield United and Bristol City compared to us this season. A dreadful start forced them to put things in order after seasons of underperformance. The head-start we had last season with our early form allowed us to become complacent, nearly costing us our place in the division.
In the first half Conor Thomas looked slow, ponderous and devoid of confidence. In the second half he worked harder to win the ball back and was a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps it took the introspection caused by a two-goal deficit in the game to inspire such a turnaround in application. Momentum is important in football, we will now be looking forward to next Saturday and Peterborough will be the ones doubting themselves this week.
Things can be improved upon heading into the Leyton Orient game and there are still some areas of weakness that need to be addressed. The left of our team for instance looks vulnerable defensively and it appears that we certainly need a new goalkeeper after Lee Burge’s howler. Saturday showed though that confidence, momentum and desire can transform a team’s performance. Whilst it was only one win, there are signs that perhaps a formula for success has been found for this season and this squad.