If we had to start the 2013/2014 season with our current squad, do you think it would be good enough for a top-six finish? It’s quite obvious – as we’ve said in many previous posts – we need wingers but imagine the transfer window closes tomorrow and we have to make do with the team as it is. What would be our best line-up and best formation? We’ve seen Brian McDermott utilise the 4-1-2-1-2 narrow diamond since being appointed manager at Elland Road, and in the two pre-season matches, although we’ve played a different XI in each half, we have continued to play in that formation.
He said last season he would base the formation on the ‘type of players’ we have and something that would ‘suit the players’. I guess at the moment there’s one or two formations that would suit our team. How can we use one that requires wingers when our only real ‘pacy’ wide-man is Ryan Hall. We know Aidy White, Sam Byram and Luke Varney could all play out on the wing if required but they’re not exactly what we want – maybe Byram excluded as he was very good when employed there, but I’d rather have him at right-back.
So just what other formations could we use, and what is our best starting XI in each?
Firstly I’ll talk about our strongest team.
Paddy Kenny is going to be our number 1, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that – unless another keeper is brought in. I’d like to see Jamie Ashdown given more opportunities but it’ll be hard to push Kenny out if his performances are as good as they can be.
We need a back four where our full-backs are capable of bombing forward, allowing us to get the ball out wide, whilst still being solid at the back. Sam Byram was excellent last season, and we all know Stephen Warnock is experienced enough and good enough to provide width on the other side. Our best central defensive partnership last season was Lee Peltier and Tom Lees, and if no other centre-half is brought in this Summer, I would expect that to continue. A lot was expected of Jason Pearce when he signed from Portsmouth, I think if given a chance he would be a solid defender, but can he cope with our new ‘passing’ style of play? Endless times last season we saw him hoof the ball when under no pressure. Maybe that was just because of Neil Warnock, so I’ll give Pearce the benefit of the doubt at the moment.
The key to any formation where a passing style of play is implemented is the midfield. At the moment we have eight central midfielders, ten if you include McCormack and Diouf playing in the ‘hole’. It’s fairly obvious this will be cut down before the season starts. In my opinion Ross McCormack is our best player and is a class above the rest of our team. I would definitely have him playing behind the strikers, as long as he isn’t sold. Paul Green looked solid as our defensive midfielder last season. This role is going to be very important as the player is going to have to pick the ball off the defence and instigate our attacks. Luke Murphy could easily play here, as a deep-lying playmaker. Rodolph Austin was better as a box-to-box midfielder as opposed to a defensive, holding player and I think that’s where he’ll continue to play. Michael Brown, David Norris, Zac Thompson, Michael Tonge and Chris Dawson are our other current central midfielders. Brown shouldn’t be anywhere near the first team. Norris and Tonge are very similar players, and both are 30+. That leaves Thompson and Dawson, both young players with good potential to be first-team players in the future. I was hoping both would maybe get out on loan to gain some first-team football, but I think with some players being sold (needs to happen to free up wages), both will be somewhere near our own first-team.
So for me our best midfield would be Green as the holding midfielder with Austin and Murphy as our central pairing, and McCormack playing just off the strikers. That is a pretty strong midfield in my opinion.
New signings Matt Smith and Noel Hunt have both figured predominantly in pre-season, and both have been among the goals. Dom Poleon fresh from scoring in our final game of last season has two in two. Smith looks to be a very good player in the air, as well as when bringing other players into the attack. Playing Smith up top may encourage more long-ball but it hasn’t seemed that way in our first couple of games. Hunt has a fantastic leap, a decent amount of pace and very good energy. He will chase lost causes at every opportunity and I believe he will get at least ten this season. Poleon on the other hand has plenty of pace and power, but he is young, and his decision making needs plenty of work, he needs to learn when to shoot and when to pass. Ross McCormack and El-Hadji Diouf are capable of playing up front, McCormack especially, proving that in the 2010/2011 season. Diouf was a very good signing for us and provided plenty of experience and calmness when we needed it. Somehow this season I just can’t see him getting into the team as much. As I’ve put McCormack as a midfielder I think at the moment our best front pairing would be Hunt and Smith.
Now I’ve spoken about our best starting XI, how would they fit into each formation?
The formation we’ve been using during pre-season, and the one I’ve based my best 11 on. As I said width is key so the full backs have to be capable of getting forward to enable us to get the ball out wide. With Matt Smith’s height it would be quite easy to lump it up to him and hope he wins every knock-down, but it isn’t going to work like that. We’ve got to get the crosses in for him to attack, rather than him have his back to goal at all times. As long as the midfield are disciplined enough not to all go forward at once, this should work well.
Doesn’t really look a bad line-up does it? Maybe another centre-half ahead of Peltier and a goal-scoring poacher and we mean business.
A personal favourite of mine, and a formation we’ve seen used to good effect back in the 2010/2011 season. Jonny Howson behind Becchio, he used to pick the ball up between the oppositions defence and midfield. We had Robert Snodgrass and Maxi Gradel in the wide positions. Both were able to go outside and get crosses in, and both had the ability to come inside when needed and chip in with goals. In back up we had Sanchez Watt and Lloyd Sam.
How would that work this season, with us having once real winger? Ross McCormack could be pushed out to the left, but we all know he influences the play better when through the middle. Maybe Luke Varney or Aidy White could play on the left with Byram or Hall on the right. But none of them players have the ability to be able to go both outside and inside. It would be easy for the opposition to work out where they’re going and what they’re doing.
If rumours are to be believed, we’ve bid for Gary Mackay-Steven of Dundee United. If he signed it’d be a big step forward in terms of being able to use a winger. I still believe we would then need another pacy winger. Dom Poleon could always adapt to playing on the left but then his decision making isn’t always the best, although that’s going to improve with experience and age.
Then it would be who to play up top, Smith or Noel? For me, from what I’ve seen and heard, Hunt has the better all round game (and a pretty decent leap to be fair). Then again, he could always be moved onto the wing or behind the front man.
This probably isn’t the best formation to use with the current state of our squad. Below is an image of, in my opinion, the best team we could field in a 4-2-3-1. Lack of pace on the wings as expected. If we did need pace we could always use Aidy White and Ryan Hall, but White’s decision making has really stopped his career in its tracks. Rarely used last season but he could still prove me wrong under Brian Mac. Hall on the other hand, just why hasn’t he been played? Could it be an attitude problem, or was it just again because of Warnock and his direct, rigid approach? Like White, deserves a second chance under McDermott.
Another option could be to play a 4-3-2-1. This again would be a formation with no real wide play in the midfield, so the full backs would be key.
I guess this is quite similar to the diamond, but rather than have one player in the hole we’d have two. This could also be turned into a 4-3-3 if the two attacking midfielders were pushed further up the field.
I think if this was tried and tested it would work quite well. You’d have the three central midfielders which would give us the edge over teams with the two. They could rotate and take it in turns to help support the attack.
The full backs – Byram and Warnock – could supply width at times, whilst the attacking midfielders could also move out there giving us other options.
With all three of these formations there would have be quite a bit of rotation and fluidity, rather than just playing a rigid 4-4-2 and not having any movement. Is our current squad capable of providing this? At a push, probably. But if one or two players got injured, then we would struggle. We need to build a squad, not just a team. Two, maybe three players capable of playing in each position and we’re looking good.