By Tim Penfold
Phil Parkinson has a key month ahead of him as he tries to turn around a team that has begun to wobble in recent weeks. Defeats at Sheffield United and Gillingham have seen City slip to mid-table, and the lack of goals is now a major issue. So what can he do to fix it tactically? Here are five suggestions:
1) Swap the wingers
One of the main reasons for City’s struggles to create chances is that attacks only really go down the left. Kyel Reid is an out-and-out winger, and James Meredith and Greg Leigh are both naturally attacking full backs who get forward and overlap well. However, on the right we have Stephen Darby, a more orthodox fullback, and Tony McMahon, who for all of his set piece qualities doesn’t really create much from open play.
This makes the team very unbalanced, and easy to shut down – Sheffield United managed this by pinning Leigh back with Billy Sharp’s runs into the channels, then putting two men on Reid. By swapping the wingers over, it means that there is an attacking outlet down the right in the winger, and the more defensive wide man tucks in on the left, stopping the central midfield from being overrun and creating space for the overlap.
City played this way in late August/early September with Marshall on the right and Josh Morris or Paul Anderson on the left, and looked more fluent than they have all season, against the likes of Oldham, Fleetwood and Sheffield United at home, but the injuries to Morris and Anderson have prevented this from being replicated. Perhaps it’s worth another go?
2) Build the midfield around Knott
Billy Knott had a poor game against Gillingham. He was slow and sloppy on the ball, repeatedly surrendering possession, and was rightly substituted after an hour. However, with Lee Evans returning to Wolves an opportunity has opened up for him and it’s one that he should be given a proper chance to take.
Out of all of our central midfielders, he’s the only one with the eye for a pass and technical ability to be able to create chances from the middle – see the wonderful through balls for Cole against Oldham and Fleetwood, and the pass to Leigh against Aldershot.
He’s inconsistent, but some of that must be due to him not getting a run of games, as he’s often dropped away from home. Over the next month, he should be given the main playmaking role in midfield and told to show the ability that we’ve only seen in fits and starts so far.
3) Sort out the strikers
Hanson and Cole? Hanson and Clarke? Cole and Clarke? And what about Steven Davies? City haven’t really had an obvious strikeforce for much of the season due to injuries and issues with form.
Hanson has been short of his best for much of the season, but calls for Clarke and Cole to be paired are likely to fall upon deaf ears, and rightly so. The defence relies on having a physical outlet up front to hit, and Cole isn’t strong enough, nor is his hold up play good enough, to play that role – with him up front, the ball won’t stick.
Until Davies is back, Hanson will remain as the main front man, but he’s not a natural goalscorer and while his flick-ons created plenty of goals for Nahki Wells, neither Cole or Clarke thrive off them.
The question then is who to pair him with. Clarke provides extra creativity but doesn’t look like scoring at the moment – his injury early season has taken a lot out of him. Cole, meanwhile, is a penalty box poacher (with the exception of the Gillingham game) but doesn’t provide any means of creating chances. Therefore the choice is between creativity without someone to finish them or someone to finish the chances that nobody is creating.
It’s not an easy issue to solve – my instincts would be to go with Clarke and hope that Hanson returns to form, but I’m not convinced that this would help.
4) Return to the diamond
Of course, there is one way of fitting Hanson, Clarke and Cole into the same side – the much-maligned diamond. This restores Clarke to the role behind the front two where he excelled last season, and Cole is suited to pulling wide as one striker has to do in this formation. It also suits James Meredith, who excelled in the left back role last season, and provides extra solidity in midfield.
However, the diamond is often too easy to shut down, as it focuses everything through the centre, and, like the current side, nothing would be created on the right (assuming McMahon plays on the right side of the diamond). This is also a system that doesn’t fit in either Kyel Reid or Mark Marshall, and relies entirely on Cole for pace.
Like most tactical systems, it solves some issues but creates others.
5) Or a back three
Again, this is a way of fitting Hanson, Clarke and Cole into the same team. The front line would stay the same as it did in the diamond, but Liddle shifts further up and Meredith at left wing back has license to go even further forward.
There are, however, a couple of issues here. Neither Darby nor McMahon are natural wingbacks, although McMahon is a bit more suited to it, and this system either drops Darby or puts him on the right of a back three, which isn’t his natural position.
This provides more width than the diamond, but at the same time it means disrupting the defence and changing it to a system that the players, particularly the defenders may not be comfortable with. The last time City tried a back three they abandoned it when 2-0 down at half time, so this would be a huge gamble.