Saturday’s 2-0 Yorkshire derby loss to Sheffield United proved to be another difficult occasion for the 2013/14 player of the season, Stephen Darby. Meanwhile the return of Jon Stead on loan offers the potential for a different strike partnership. Gareth Walker asks WOAP pundit team members Alex Scott, Andrew Baxter, Damien Wilkinson and Katie Whyatt their views on the game.
Is it simply the formation that is causing Steven Darby problems this season and, if so, is he capable of adapting his game to cope with his new role?
Andrew: I think the diamond formation does hinder Darby, with the lack of width. He gets faced with opposition overlaps quite a lot, and can’t really bomb forward and overlap himself like he did so frequently last season.
In terms of adapting his game, I think he is capable, but it may take time, the cover he had last season in the form of Garry Thompson who is no longer at the club has gone, and Darby needs to pick his moments (in terms of going forward) carefully, to avoid being caught out of position.
Alex: It’s Darby’s lack of comfort which is unavoidable. He has excelled in the past two years in a defined role, with clear boundaries. Everything he has been asked to do he’s been comfortable and confident with, and he’s excelled. This season, however, he’s been forced to do things out of his zone of comfort both offensively and defensively.
Going forward he is being asked to take on an extra burden – he can’t just pass up the line or ping the ball long to Hanson on the diagonal anymore, he has to offer more. And he has never looked confident. Defensively, as Andrew noted, he no longer has cover and so often is left isolated against attacking full backs overlapping. Saturday’s instinctive, panic decision for the second yellow belied a lack of confidence in himself directly attributable to his season so far in this formation.
The question of whether he is capable of adapting to fit in the formation requires an expertise I don’t have, but the issue is that he is being asked to do something with which he is not comfortable. This is the big change from the last two years, where everyone’s roles were clear and defined.
As the season has progressed, more and more players are being forced out of their comfort zone to the point you wonder whether the benefit has evaporated the manager may be about to go back to the drawing board.
Katie: I wrote an article on the eve of this season discussing Darby’s promotion to captain, and any mention of the formation was reduced to a footnote, effectively. I was confident in his ability to adapt to the diamond – and why not, after last year?
There are flashes of the player of old occasionally, but there’s just not the assuredness we’re used to seeing. Saturday felt like a case in point, symbolic of Darby’s campaign thus far.
The initial lack of width in the first half allowed United’s wingers to exploit the space and run in behind the back line; there were varying degrees of success in terms of their clinicality in the final third, but it just felt like Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle were constantly hauling City out of the last ditch. It was only really after Darby’s dismissal that the Bantams strictly shifted to a more rigid 4-4-1 with a tighter midfield line – if they’d done this earlier, perhaps Darby wouldn’t have been dismissed, as the second booking stemmed from him scrambling to recover lost ground.
In terms of what’s to blame, I’d be tempted to look towards the formation and the personnel reshuffle – as Alex has said, everyone’s functions are suddenly changing. There’s Kennedy replacing Thompson and playing in a more central role, and, on top of that, you’ve got no direct defensive cover without stretching the diamond. And then it’s a vicious circle: jittery performances don’t breed self-belief.
I think Darby probably could adapt his game, as there have been glimpses of potential there (Leeds and Coventry) but, as Alex touched upon, would it be worth it? For me, the diamond was the wrong choice on Saturday because of the width Sheffield sought to play with, but I still believe it’s worth persevering with. City have brought in the players to make it work, but we just need to build confidence within the squad and get Aaron Mclean firing. The margins with the diamond are paper-thin and it will be so tricky to get right otherwise.
Damien: I get the points noted regarding the impact the diamond has on Darby’s game, but you just wonder how much of his apparent lack of confidence is now stemming from the increasing observations that he can’t operate in this system!
From some of the conversations you see elsewhere about him struggling you would think we have converted him from right back to goalkeeper, and there is also a danger that this is rapidly becoming this season’s “Jones’ legs have gone” catch all sentiment.
He certainly seems to be almost trying too hard at times, and maybe the burden of the captaincy isn’t helping him.
Katie: Maybe the observations from the stand are undermining his confidence, which would be devastating, but I think there will be so much personal frustration there, too, because he’s not matching the standards he set himself last season. I felt his expression upon receiving the second yellow yesterday betrayed that underlying exasperation, and, if this is the case, I hope the break he spends serving his suspension allows him to wipe the slate clean and come back firing on all cylinders.
I agree with Damien and it’s been far from an unmitigated disaster – only when you compare his displays to those of the last two seasons do you begin to panic – and I have every faith he’ll sort it out this blip. It’s still early days and we’ve had a tough run of fixtures over the past few weeks.
In light of James Hanson’s return to fitness, is Jon Stead the right loan signing for us and is Aaron Mclean capable of forging a partnership with either of them?
Damien: It was concerning that in the first half Mclean didn’t seem to be on the same wavelength as Hanson, and a lot of good knock downs from the big man went to waste. Mclean did seem to operate more effectively with Stead at the back of last season, but I would much rather see Hanson in the team to be honest, and the weekly debate about getting the best out of Mclean unfortunately rumbles on…
Katie: I think Stead is probably just a tad more creative than Hanson, which could help McLean in terms of how the former Hull man reads the game, but the problem is that a long-term solution is needed. It’s the Hanson-McLean partnership that needs to work.
Maybe Stead will be the precursor to the Hanson-Mclean dynasty? From what I can remember of last year, Stead offered a lot in his build-up play, and this will help a Mclean that can’t read Hanson’s knockdowns and likes balls-into-feet on the cusp of the back line.
So will City seek to get that system working, then switch Hanson back in when Stead’s loan expires? I’m not sure – just thinking aloud here…
Alex: I can’t envisage a scenario where Hanson is fit and doesn’t play. Even Saturday, amidst a dismal first half performance, he looked impressive. Without question, right now, our best two forwards are Hanson and Stead. But playing those two without wingers is illogical.
The double signing of Andy Holliday and Stead may imply that a move to a flat midfield four may be in the works. Filipe Morais was effective toward the end of the game, and with a makeshift right back in for Tuesday night, some extra support in front may be of benefit.
Saturday’s option of a narrow diamond that included a central defender, a forward, and a winger in Mark Yeates, whilst two central midfielders sat on the bench screamed of muddled thinking, and perhaps going back to basics in the next few weeks may be a better option for everyone, Darby in particular.
Andrew: I thought Stead was steady (no pun intended!) last season, but I think, in terms of style of play, he is too similar to Hanson. I would like a pacy striker brought in on loan to feed off Hanson’s knock-downs. Having said that, a Stead-Hanson combination could be successful, given the right service.
As for Mclean, his workrate is good but he never seems to be in the right place at the right time. I lost count of the times on Saturday that Hanson won a header, and Mclean was nowhere near where the knock-down ended up.
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Categories: The Verdict