A Formation Conversation

I hope you’ve got your tactic caps on, guys. Guest blogger Dan Gage has some ideas for you to mull over…

With two wins and two defeats, it has been a stuttering start to League Two for the Sky Blues. Whilst the early wins were hugely encouraging, the subsequent defeats provide a depressing prism through which to view those victories, and raise questions about the compatibility of the squad Mark Robins has assembled for his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

There is no doubt that it’s a great formation if you have the right players (just ask Tony Mowbray!) The two defensive midfielders offer solidity and protection to the defence and the inverted wingers often result in exciting and fluid attacks. With a fully fit and firing squad I think Robins would be right put his faith in this shape.

However, 4-2-3-1 is at its most effective with attacking full-backs who are fit, pacey and comfortable beating a player. Looking at the squad Robins had at his disposal during his first tenure in 2012, our full-backs (Cyrus Christie or Jordan Clarke on the right and Blair Adams on the left) were a huge feature of our attacking play and would often find themselves exploiting the space left by Carl Baker and Franck Moussa driving infield from their wings and dragging defences with them. On current evidence Grimmer and Stokes cannot play this role to the same effect. Whilst they frequently get into good attacking positions, their use of the ball has so far been poor and, on the evidence of the first four games, both look knackered after 60 minutes. Dion Kelly-Evans and Ryan Haynes may be a better fit but with Haynes injured and Kelly-Evans apparently out of favour, this doesn’t seem to be an option that Robins will (or can currently) go for.

As the use of this system has become commonplace over the last decade, methods of neutralising it have also become standard. By pushing their wide midfielders back, opposing managers are able to flood the midfield, and double up on Jodi Jones, our main creative outlet, which places greater emphasis on the passing capabilities of our defensive six. They either have to spring Jones with a ball that beats the wide midfielder and full back simultaneously, or play through the middle with intricate passing. This is neither Doyle nor Kelly’s forte and with McNulty in the number 10 position, we don’t have someone who is convincing receiving the ball with his back to goal and using it wisely (Beavon or Andreu could be a better option in the number 10 position).

Robins appeared to have planned for this scenario by bringing in Peter Vincenti to give us an aerial outlet on the opposite wing to Jones – and it worked to excellent effect against Notts County where we were able to bypass their flooded midfield by using his height and having Doyle or Kelly pick up the second ball then freeing Jones. However, Vincenti wasn’t as effective against Grimsby or Newport and Duckens Nazon prefers to “out-bustle” his markers rather than beat them in the air. While this is effective, it doesn’t present us with an opportunity to vary our game with him on the right.

There is also an argument to suggest that Nazon might be the best centre forward option for us in this system. A forward with pace and an unpredictable quality will inevitably make the defence drop back to negate the ball over the top into the channel, which would create the space we need for our wingers and number 10 to influence the game.

With Beavon or McNulty playing as the central striker the ball into the channel rarely sees them haring past the defence and bearing down on goal – a more common sight is for them to engage in closing down a defender on the turn which results in a scrappy and congested game. We are then forced to try and play through the middle or try and free up Jones.

If Robins persists with this system then it is key that we get the first goal to draw the opposition out. As we have seen in the previous two matches, teams are quite happy to sit with a four in defence and a five in midfield and wait for us to make a mistake (we’ve been pretty obliging on that count). On current showing we don’t quite have the guile to be able to pick our way through this.

This system could work well for us this season but Robins should be clever about when he uses it. I think we’re best suited to it with a fully fit squad of the below:

4-2-3-1 – Our best system?


With Ryan Haynes and Dion Kelly-Evans on the flanks this system becomes much more effective for us as they offer the ability to carry the ball up the pitch and penetrate the opposition. Also key is Stevenson as he would give us the option of playing through the middle of the pitch as he can link with both full backs, wingers, and Andreu with a short pass. It also means that the angled high ball from McDonald – our most cultured centre-back – to Vincenti is always an option. With Vincenti on the left flank, as he often was in the first three games, it means that Willis is the man that needs to pick him out – and his passing is erratic at best.

I would also have Devon Kelly-Evans and Kwame Thomas as an option from the bench. If Vincenti’s aerial threat is snuffed out then Devon would give us an option of having two players capable of dragging defences out of shape on either wing. Kwame Thomas showed last season that he has the attributes to play the lone striker role successfully.

Looking at the players we currently have available, and taking into account the quality of the opposition and their tendencies to set up defensively, perhaps the best use of our players is in a variant of the 3-4-3.

I would go with something like this:

3-2-2-3 – A creative alternative

The main advantage of this system is that we’re not asking our defenders to be pivotal to our attacking threat – they can focus on defending. It also creates a potentially dangerous axis between Stevenson, Andreu and Jones and means Kelly can push onto the opposition’s defensive midfielders and attempt to win the ball back high up the pitch.

The role of the flanking centre-backs and the defensive midfield players are perhaps the most unusual here. It would be the responsibility of the flanking centre-backs to close down any advancing wing play from the opposition, but should Stokes move left then Doyle should drop back into a centre back position. On the right, Stevenson would cover Willis, meaning that McDonald is always in the middle to cut out any crosses beyond the near post. Whilst this would require a little coaching it should provide a solid back line.

So far the attacking threat of the teams we’ve faced in League Two could be best described as ‘functional’; happy to sit back and hit us on the break. It makes sense for Robins to have a formation up his sleeve that maximizes our attacking threat whilst playing to our players strengths.

Subbuteo image by Inkwina (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



  1. This is a really interesting article. I think Tony Andreu is key to the way we’re playing at the moment. With teams dropping off, having someone in the no.10 position who can receive the ball, turn, and create is really valuable. But as you point out, the support of attacking full-backs is also critical in that formation..
    Strikers like Beavon and McNulty thrive on balls coming into the box, and with no natural wingers in the team, those are currently in short supply. That’s why I think we need to look at other striking options, and someone like Nazon who looks like he can create chances out of nothing (rather than needing a supply line).
    I find it strange, though, how we haven’t done what so many other lower league teams have done and invest in a target man. It would give us another option if plans A & B aren’t working, which has more often than not been the case so far.

  2. Totally agree Ian! Robins was clearly looking for a striker of that ilk (rumours of James Collins and Andy Williams). Perhaps Biamou fits that mould – he looked good against Yeovil (as Neil pointed out he won five cracking headers) and with some time could come good…Other than that maybe he was thinking of using Vincenti as a wide target man (makes sense!) but it hasnt quite come off yet.

  3. Good article – though I admit such detailed discussions are more pertinent to me in writing, outside of matches.

    Whenever I watch a game I find I no longer have a clue what’s going on and am just reacting to the emotional ebb and flow of the coloured tides of players. Thoughts like ‘they’re bound to score now’, ‘bloody hell, that stocky lad over there looks dangerous’ or ‘I wish we weren’t singing that, it’ll only blow up in our faces’ replace completely any reading of formations I may have armed myself with beforehand.

    So I am highly admirative of your ability to project players’ names and responsibilities onto the shape of a game! Do you find yourself spotting much of this in the tumult of a, say, 0-2 defeat at Yeovil?

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