It’s fascinating the dramatic effect single games can have. What has for a while felt like a dodgy patch, but fixable patch, suddenly presents itself as a far more critical period following a defeat to worst team in the league (according to the table). Not to get on our high horse about this but we’re higher in the league, have won more games, and by extension should be going to Crewe and demanding a result – that’s only right.
I should say now – I don’t know how to fix it. I just have thoughts; musings about the situation. We’re stuck in a rut and in these periods it’s obvious that it becomes a mental block more than anything else. There are countless ways of potentially addressing it – but the problem is that every football match is inherently different. There’s no guaranteeing that something that works one week will work the next – and not because your team has played worse either.
So what do you do in a world where the paradigms shift on a weekly basis? Change your approach every single game in an attempt to anticipate how it may play out against the next opposition, or stick to your guns and hope that more often than not your system and tactics will prevail?
I think we all know the answer is that sweet spot in the middle. A successful team is one which finds a winning formula, harnesses the confidence they gain from their comfort within a system, has the cohesion to override the opposition on a regular basis, and then shows resilience and adaptability when their ideal approach does not work for them. You know, the old “winning when you’re not playing well” syndrome.
Reading back over the previous paragraph again, it still rings true (mainly because I just crafted it), but a further thought occurs as you dig into what it actually means – there are a lot of things you need to go your way for football to work out for you.
And that’s exactly it. I’ve always felt that the first phase – finding a team selection that can win a game – relies as much on luck as anything else. You may even stumble across a selection which really shouldn’t work, but the team gels as a unit far quicker than the system you’ve spent 3 months meticulously planning. An example prime in my mind is from about ten years ago when Liverpool had great success with Jamie Carragher at left back. Every rule in the book tells you that a right footed player at left back should not work and is an unsustainable solution. But Liverpool managed to gain huge success with him doing a fantastic job there for a large chunk of the season.
That wasn’t planned, and every expert would tell you that you don’t do it – but it just fell that way and that stroke of luck formed one part of a season of great success.
What I’m trying to say is that there is no set formula to winning games, and the quandary a football manager will always find themselves with is attempting to find a balance of committing to their beliefs and the system their players are well drilled in, and also changing things up into the potentially unfamiliar when things stop working.
I’m not going to sit here and berate Steven Pressley for playing a 3-5-2 formation – that system isn’t the sole reason we’re losing matches. It’s far too simplistic to define our form as being a reflection of a shape. For one thing, we went 7 unbeaten with it earlier in the season, so there’s obviously some semblance of success available with it. But we looked at our most dangerous when we had Reda leading from the back, Nouble causing all sorts of issues up front, and players like Ryan Haynes thriving on the counter. The jigsaw fell together fairly seamlessly with that collection of players gaining familiarity with the tactics and their teammates, and there’s no denying it was starting to work. 3-5-2 isn’t a fundamentally flawed system as has regularly been suggested during post-match hysteria – it can be the foundation of success for any club. But the pieces have to sit correctly, and that’s the crucial dilemma we have right now.
Against Crewe the team on the pitch was hugely different to the one which provided us early season success. If all of the missing players were available, there’s full justification in using 3-5-2 as a system because to a large extent they made it work for them. But by removing just a couple of players – namely Reda and Frank – you have a completely different team, and sometimes you need to acknowledge that while your first choice team is capable of implementing your ideal formation, that may not be the case when you have to start replacing bits of it.
One thing I’m always keen to stress is that I personally don’t believe there is, or ever will be, a magic or definitive formula for victory. The team the manager puts out often applies as much finger-in-the-air determination as we use from the sidelines as fans. But the dynamic of a football team can alter dramatically when there are different bodies in different positions, and as a manager you clearly have to recognise that. Your role is to both predict and react – and while I don’t think any football manager should be hauled over the coals for something as truly arbitrary as predicting how new lineups are going to work, the crucial element of their job is being able to react when the signs present themselves that things aren’t working.
We all want Pressley to build a dynasty – the man is a stunning leader, a tremendous student of football and in particular the tactical and technical aspects of the modern game which have proven to the most effective methods of victory. He has brought great technical improvements to our players, and has so many positive attributes that we’d be mad to contemplate releasing him from our club on the back of a bad run of results.
But we’ve been here before, with players and managers – where things start to go downhill, and as a group of fans there’s a risk we begin to fixate on the most consistent elements of our play as being the most influential factors to defeats. But we have to acknowledge that in the absence of any definitive rules, we could also be providing a convenient answer to a problem. We’re all so desperate for a resolution, we tell ourselves that it has to be that. If the pattern fits, we believe it.
And that leaves Pressley in a tricky position right now. Personally I would argue that diminished confidence is one of the most influential factors in the performance of any football team, but as Crewe demonstrated yesterday – a team that had only won one game also season before yesterday – you can gain it as soon as you lose it. The key is how you go about finding the opportunities to boost your own belief. The one thing that I would call for from Pressley is flexibility in how he attempts to find it. As Jamie Carragher showed, you can find it in the strangest of places.
Of course I want him to be strong, I want him to resolute, and I want him to protect our players from the destructive influence that can fester within a squad when you go on a losing run. But he also needs to accept that his preferred method is no more tried and tested than any other formation or style of play in football. You can win with it, and you can lose with it. So don’t see it as a sign of weakness to change it.
He will only ever be judged on his ability to gain results for out club – and has to be aware of the risks that lie with sticking with something so visible which continues to accomplish negative returns.
I can’t postulate any insight or answers to this – I’ve mulled the situation over and can’t identify anything which is of fundamental concern to me. This isn’t an Andy Thorn team. We’ve had poor games, but a lot of the time we’re just losing, and the more we lose, the harder it becomes mentally for our players to come out of the other side. It’s a tough period – but it’s not terminal. We just have to hope Pressley finds an answer soon enough, either by luck or design, and key players like Johnson and Nouble return as well. Because in short, bottom half of League One is nowhere near good enough, and we all know the criticism of him is only going to intensify if he can’t.
I’m sure none of us wants that.