Woody’s Tactical Woes
By Isaac Johnson Caddell
Thursday 18 Jul 2019 17:01:00
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Upon taking charge at Middlesbrough Jonathan Woodgate has been keen to emphasise a desired change in Boro's tactical setup. In his first interview as head coach, the former defender stated that he wanted the men in red and white to ‘press in different areas’, and ‘know when to press and how to press’. All this comes as part of a new brand of ‘attacking, exciting football’ that the new manager hopes to implement. However, do circumstances at the club mean that Woody’s expectations may be let down somewhat? Realistically, what can fans expect to see football-wise in the coming months?

The use of a high press, where, instead of dropping back and defending with ten men behind the ball, players proactively seek to win the ball back in the opposition half, has garnered popularity in recent years. The two far-and-away league leaders in the Premier both operate a form of high press; Guardiola’s Cruyff inspired possession system has led to Manchester City winning two consecutive titles, and Klopp’s ‘gegenpress,’ or, as he termed it in one interview ‘heavy metal football,’ has also enjoyed success at Liverpool.

The aim of such a system is to win the ball back as soon as possible once possession is lost. This is achieved by tightly controlling the space in which opposition players pass the ball, thereby limiting their zone of influence on the pitch. Ideally, players will then set up a counter attack, baffling opponents who are themselves transitioning into the attacking phase.

When implemented properly, high pressing can make for exhilarating football. One of the finest exponents of the system was Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. A quick search of the Youtube highlights of their home game against Barcelona in 2013 demonstrates precisely why the ethos is so popular; the opening goal for Bilbao results from Barca being literally hounded off the ball after attempting to play out from the back. In a similar vein, the match at Anfield between Man City and Liverpool the season before last saw the visitors, who had barely looked like conceding all season, frequently give the ball away in their own half, resulting in three beautifully taken goals from Liverpool’s front three and a famous victory for the Reds.

When put in this context, you can see why Woodgate is pushing for a more dynamic pressing system. Boro fans responded positively to the new gaffer’s proposed vision, no doubt as a result of the scarcity of exciting football under Pulis throughout last season.

There are a few issues, however. For one, there is the simple fact that carrying out a complete overhaul of a tactical setup takes time at any football club. Players will still be getting accustomed to not playing the Pulis brand of football, which was largely reliant on long balls up top and defending deep. Intense pressing doesn’t come over night, as demonstrated by the friendly against Gateshead earlier this week; after the match Woodgate expressed his ‘irateness’ at the fact that his players were dropping back to defend rather than looking to win the ball back.

Secondly, a high press generally requires the forward to drop deep and contribute to harassing opposition players off the ball, known as a ‘false nine’ tactic, and this is a task that the current crop of Boro strikers may not be up to. Britt Assombalonga is best played as a pure target man striker, and so it’s unlikely that he’d be asked to play a more defensive role. Ditto for Martin Braithwaite and Rudy Gestede, both of whom who may well be moving on anyway.

The most likely candidate is Ashley Fletcher. The 23 year-old possesses pace and physicality which our other attackers lack, making him suited to the central false nine role. However, Fletcher will also have to make runs in behind to create goalscoring chances given the Boro’s current lack of pace out wide, and so the new system may ask a lot of the young forward.

Finally, our current squad is wanting for a dynamic midfield. At the pressing clubs mentioned earlier, the midfield is vital to the shape of the team when out of possession, with a central defensive player dropping to cover the centre backs, and two more attack-minded players to each side ready to track back and regain possession. The Boro are somewhat wanting in this area of the pitch; Jonny Howson has expressed his wish to play more at right back, leaving Saville, Wing, Clayton and McNair as the primary options.

While all these players could no doubt fulfil the required profile, it is blindingly obvious that we lack strength in depth. Not only this, but even the options we have are uncertain; McNair has received interest from both Sheffield United and Celtic, and at 30 Clayton is nearing the end of his best days as a player. This transfer market is therefore imperative in strengthening in the centre of the park, as well as pursuing targets to add to the forward line.

The Wing/Saville partnership is somewhat lacking as well. In certain games last season, the two dynamic midfielders at times linked up poorly, with little failures in communication causing unnecessary possession loss. If both are given more license to get forward and create chances the picture may be different, but given that pressing requires strong co-operation and co-ordination so as not to cede possession to the opposition, it remains a concern.

A broader point with regards to the squad is that a pressing game is intense and often exhausting, and it is easy for teams playing such a style to run out of steam. A perfect example of this is Bielsa’s Leeds, who last season began dropping points left right and centre towards the end of their campaign, with the cherry on top being the famous playoff semi-final loss to Derby at home. A lot therefore rests on whether the Boro players next season are up to the task in terms of fitness and ‘going the extra yard’ as Woodgate was keen to note in his first interview.

To summarise, it is incredibly encouraging that Woodgate is opting for a different approach to that seen in past seasons. If done right, the style of football the new coach is pursuing may well blow other Championship sides away, and give us our ticket back into the Premier League. However, Boro fans shouldn’t count their chickens before they come home to roost. It’ll take time for the new system to settle, as recent performances have shown that the men in red and white haven’t quite grasped the type of game that Woodgate wants them to play. There are also concerns about the suitability of the squad to such a system, with fatigue and lack of options in midfield both key concerns.

Despite the worries, though, you can’t say nowt until a ball’s been kicked.



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