4-2-4, as I live and breathe.
We all know Tony likes to give it a go, but having tolerated years and years of managers trying to convince us that their version of 4-5-1 genuinely is a 4-3-3, we’ve also grown understandably mindful of anyone claiming similarly attacking intentions. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one of our teams line up in such a brazenly top-heavy shape as we did against Wigan however. It must be so tempting as a manager to go through the motions, stick to the expected and avoid risk, but yesterday showed true tactical flair from Mowbray and that ingenuity transferred phenomenally well onto the pitch.
It was a performance of real energy, genuine incisiveness and blistering pace, a style of play we’ve never really recaptured since Callum Wilson left.
Much of the pre-game concern surrounded our lack of striking options. As it turns out, you can counteract a lack of actual strikers by asking your midfielders to do the job instead. What was most fascinating about the shape was how we didn’t actually play anyone in the number 9 role. It was a line of four, but with each player occupying a slightly deeper number 10 line. Jim O’Brien and Adam Armstrong started on the flanks, with the wily Lameiras and Maddison tasked with pestering the central defenders.
Unlike some of the comments I’ve seen since the match, I wouldn’t say Wigan played poorly. They controlled the ball well and spread the play pretty effectively. But they simply couldn’t match the level of incisiveness we showed, and our shape remained resolute throughout. That was the difference.
While our high-pressing of Wigan helped to keep their attacking intentions restrained, most of our defensive sturdiness came from the dominant central partnership of Ricketts and Johnson. They are very different players in stature and style, with Réda seemingly only ever capable of playing in a steam-rolling manner, while Ricketts showcased his excellent reading of the game and self-assurance by managing any moments of danger with ease. It was an extremely impressive debut by our new captain.
The day belonged to 18 year old Adam Armstrong however. We knew to expect a dynamic performance, but he went so far beyond that. He was devastating. His first goal perfectly highlighted two of his most prominent abilities: lightning pace to leave the Wigan defence in his wake, followed by truly clinical finishing when presented with the opportunity. The majority of our fans will have never seen him play before, but as he bore down on goal there was something eerily routine about how he dispatched it.
Football has an annoying tendency of spoiling good performances through bad luck and moments of madness, so Armstrong’s deft finish for his second not only his cemented man of the match credentials, but it also provided a critical buffer and allowed us to manage the remainder of the game with a refreshing sense of competence. It was a great goal and highlighted an undiluted eagerness by the team to put the ball in the net, not the anxiety that felt so prominent last season.
The threat of a Sky Blues counter was a strong enough deterrent and even if we had conceded, having struck the woodwork a couple of times and two or three excellent chances, you always felt if we really needed to score another we could have found a way.
Of the other debutants, Vincelot was metronomic in his efficiency; intercepting, resetting, and controlling the ball with ruthless decidedness. Lameiras offered many snippets of his talent, and embedded an Angel Di Maria comparison in my mind that’s going to be very hard to shake. His first touch was entirely natural, and while he clearly lacks the stature to battle as effectively as someone like O’Brien, his sticky feet seemed to do a great job of tempting the tackles and drawing the fouls. He appears to play the game at his own pace, which will take some adjusting to as we are always keen for our players to play the passes as we see them, but while his release time appears slower than the rest, it wasn’t to the detriment of his distribution and he regular found a worthwhile pass.
The spotlight has been on the speed of Maddison’s development over the last few months, and all told, it was another exciting and hugely encouraging performance by him. It took him a while to find his place in the game but his undoubted adeptness at exploiting the gaps that appear later on was clearly demonstrated. He’s had greater influence over games than he managed yesterday, but the glimpses of quality when he was involved reinforced the belief that he’s going to play a big part in our season. The feint that led to his shot clipping the post was gorgeous, and his confidence in shaking off a couple of poor touches also showed the mindset of a player who realises what football is all about. You can’t let a poor touch have any bearing on your performance at all, and he didn’t.
Finally, a note to the second half influence of John Fleck, who charged up the gears and became the key instigator of so many of our attacks. Fleck will be mindful of entering his fourth season at the club and should be looking to reaffirm his standing as one of our most important players. His anticipation and well crafted assist for Armstrong’s 2nd goal showed his ability when he gets closer to the box, and with Vincelot now looking to take the back seat as the midfield holder, the door could be open for Fleck to finally start flexing his creative muscle when the opportunity presents itself.
Yes, it’s just one game, and there are a lot of ups and downs to come, but the opening game of the season can act as so much more than just a single notch on a fixture list. Especially if you get it right. These games help to set the tone for your intentions. Of course you can shake off defeats as well, but victories always seem to be more impactful. They’re an opportunity for the players to give the fans something to believe in. It was a terrific way to open the new season, aided too by the shining sun and sense of freshness which served to enhance an already vibrant atmosphere at the Ricoh.
The players have set a standard now with their mix of spirited exuberance and resolute professionalism, and with that have also set about erasing the negativity that was threatening to take a grip following the disappointments in pre-season. We’re back, with a manager who’s seemingly not afraid to trust his judgement, some extremely promising individuals, and a fanbase that is slowly but surely starting to realise that there actually could be something to cheer about if we put our collective minds to it.
That’s certainly something I can get on board with. Roll on Tuesday.