So the transfer window has closed, all of the business has been done, and we’ve finally finished the international break so ‘real’ football can return.
Garry Monk and his completed Boro squad visit Championship strugglers Bolton on Saturday, ready to get their season up and running (even though things aren’t disastrous just yet). The big question on the mind of all Boro fans at the moment is a pretty straightforward one; who will start and where will they play? Now I can’t say that I have any insight into what Monk and the squad have been up to at Rockcliffe Park over the last two weeks, but I have a few ideas that I hope to share about how we could possibly line up.
Rather than think about every formation under the sun, I have picked two formations that I think would bring the best out of our players, and tried to describe how these systems would function with the current crop of players. I have skipped over the 4-1-2-1-2/4-3-3, as I have gone into detail about this formation in the previous Talking Tactics post.
As I write this post, Rudy Gestede’s injury has hit the headlines and will keep him out for the foreseeable future so I have discounted him from these line ups. Similarly, I have not included Martin Braithwaite in these selections as he won’t be considered for a few weeks.
Formation – 3-4-2-1
Line up – Randolph, Shotton, Gibson, Fry, Johnson, Christie, Clayton, Howson, Baker, Bamford, Assombalonga
Boro have a strong crop of central defenders, with Gibson, Ayala and Fry all on the books at the start of the season. The addition of Championship veteran Ryan Shotton is an interesting one. He was a consistent performer for Birmingham last season and featured in the top 30 for minutes played in the Championship last season with 3,826. With that in mind I don’t think he has arrived to make up the numbers or simply to enjoy his probable pay rise. I would not be surprised at all if we started Shotton alongside one of the three existing Boro defenders in a number of games this season.
The way this system would work is similar to how Chelsea function at present. They play with three defenders who are all comfortable in possession, with Azpilicueta moving right to push the play out wide if necessary. This allows the player in front of him (Moses) to play higher up the pitch. Moses is a converted midfielder, and in this system I could see Marvin Johnson occupying the same role, albeit on the left.
In this 3-4-2-1 formation, Johnson would function as a powerful wide man, delivering crosses into the box and trying to use his obvious skill and pace to create problems for defenders. On the other side, Cyrus Christie would be the more defensive of the two wide players, but still with a license to roam forward. Chelsea’s more naturally defensive wide player Marcus Alonso has enjoyed the attacking side of his role immensely, scoring 6 goals last season, which is the total number of goals scored in the previous 6. Although Christie won’t contribute in the goal stakes, he would continue to provide excellent width and attacking prowess.
With the wide players capable of defending and moving forward, the central area is crucial to this formation being successful. Two all round midfielders provide solidity in the centre, but ensure key players in the system are free to attack.
As well as Chelsea, Tottenham have utilised this formation at times over the last 12 months and they use Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama to break up the play and facilitate attacks. Their assist numbers are not as high as Matic, Kante and Fabregas at Chelsea, but they are still a key part of initiating attacks. They have the freedom to join the front three, but know they must remain disciplined to provide the solid base required.
Although I am in no way comparing our more diminutive midfielders to these top class Premier League middle men, they would serve a similar function. Taking Spurs as an example, Clayton would function in the Wanyama role, playing closer to the back four and covering the counter attack. A role such as this would probably involve Clayton picking up his usual booking even earlier, but some things never change.
Jonny Howson would become a little freer to move through the central areas of the pitch, carrying the ball and trying to contribute in terms of goals and assists. He would still have defensive duties, and alongside Clayton, would be charged with protecting the back three. This central block of 5 players, in a 3-2 shape provides the base of the system and creates angles and space for the defence and midfield to start attacks.
Further forward, Patrick Bamford and Lewis Baker would take on the Hazard/Pedro/Alli/Eriksen roles. Their defensive responsibilities minimal; remembering that there are 7 players in the defence/midfield to keep things tight.
As a pair, Hazard and Pedro defined these positions last season, scoring 25 goals between them and laying on another 14 goals for their teammates. That’s a colossal 39 goals that those two were involved in over the course of the season. At White Hart Lane, Eriksen and Alli scored 26 goals between them, and created 22 more. Even more impressive than Chelsea’s two forwards, Eriksen and Alli were involved in 48 goals. So, those two positions are pretty vital and you need technically gifted players who can provide the end product required to make the system work.
In the 3-4-2-1 system, Baker would function as chief creator with the freedom to find space in between the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition. He would have the chance to lead counter attacks, and bring other players into play. Bamford, who has improved his passing and all round gameplay this season, would be a more direct runner with the ball, giving him the opportunity to get on the end of through balls and crosses, playing close to Assombalonga.
In the role of lone front man, Assombalonga would be asked to press and harry the opposition’s back line. Prowling across the frontline, making things difficult for defenders on the ball, would be his key role, and one that I think he would fulfil with aplomb. Whereas his conversion of big chances might not be as impressive as it could be, his work rate and movement have been promising. Playing in front of Baker and Bamford, two confident and creative ball players, would give Assombalonga the chance to exploit gaps in the defence as they are pulled across the pitch.
Overall, I think this formation would cause problems for a number of Championship defences, which normally have tall, often immobile central defenders who lack pace. Effectively, Boro would be attacking with seven players, and without the ball, would have seven players back, with the wing backs dropping deeper to form a back five. Another benefit to playing someone like Lewis Baker, is how comfortable he is in the centre of midfield. There should be no reason why he couldn’t drop back into a central role to provide further support if required.
Formation – 4-4-2
Line up – Randolph, Christie, Friend, Shotton, Gibson, Howson, Clayton, Traore, Johnson, Bamford, Assombalonga
In terms of personnel, a standard flat back four with two way full backs, supporting out and out wingers would be the key feature of this system. Christie and Traore would provide the width on the right, with Traore generally wreaking havoc against whoever he would face. Christie has proven to be an able attacker, and functions in a similar way to Traore with his dribble first mentality. Crossing would obviously be an issue on this side, but the focus would be about getting in behind the defence to create open spaces for Bamford and Assombalonga.
On the left, Friend would support Johnson in what would be a versatile and all action left side. Friend has always loved to get forward, and Johnson seems to have a similar attitude to the offensive side of the game. As a decent reserve option at left back, Johnson would be more than able to cover Friend after another one of his galloping runs. A similar relationship to the Nsue-Admoah partnership in the promotion season would be more than able to create plenty of chances at this level.
Traore and Johnson would also be given plenty of license to cut inside from their wide positions in order to disrupt the opposition’s defensive shape. This also creates space in the widest areas of the pitch for the full backs to move into dangerous attacking positions. A slight reservation with the use of a tactic similar to this, would be Traore and Johnson’s technical passing ability, as they would possibly be more effective as old fashioned up and down the touchline wingers.
In the centre of the pitch, Clayton and Howson would be tasked with breaking down attacks, and winning second balls. A key part of the system are the front four attackers pressing high up the pitch against the three defenders closest to the ball, leaving the full back on the opposite side of the pitch isolated. Clayton would be the one to sit deepest of the two, closing down other midfielders to block off any passing lanes into the centre of the pitch. Howson, would play slightly further forward, moving into the pressing unit that would look to disrupt attacks.
A similar system is operated by German upstarts Red Bull Leipzig, with Liverpool’s newest pre-signing Naby Keita functioning in this role, and although Howson is not as mobile as Keita, he would operate as a direct box-to-box midfielder. I think this would suit Howson, as at present, Lewis Baker does not have the positional discipline to perform this role effectively.
As part of the two man strike force, Britt Assombalonga would be a target for direct passes from the goalkeeper and central defenders. Patrick Bamford would look to stay high up the pitch to stretch the defence vertically, moving into space in order to disrupt the defensive shape. Bamford would perform a similar role to Red Bull Leipzig’s German goal machine Timo Werner. The young German is tasked with closing the lines between defence and midfield when the team don’t have the ball, but as soon as the team attacks he would find space in between the full backs and central defenders.
Assombalonga would be utilised almost as a target man. He would drop slightly deeper, playing in between the opposition’s defence and midfield to allow other players to exploit the space. He would also act as a link man to bring in the wide players as they move inside to overload the important central area of the pitch. In terms of attacking around the box, he would still be expected to chip in with his fair share of goals, using his strength and power around the area to cause central defenders a number of issues.
A major negative with any 4-4-2 system is the lack of opportunities to overload in central areas. Using only two players, without a single or double pivot, means that the forward line need to press high to try and win the ball before the opposition can build play through each phase. With the current Boro squad, I’m not sure if we have two central midfielders with the energy or mobility to fully capitalise on the potential this system would bring.
In conclusion, and on a personal note, I would love to see Boro play a high pressing, direct version of a 4-4-2 similar to Red Bull Leipzig and reigning French champions Monaco. Our personnel would be able to function in this formation confidently in the Championship, especially with the new signings we have made.
For me, a key component of the system is not that we would have two ‘classic’ wide men, but by playing a pressing game much higher up the pitch, we could look to strike against the opposition in the most vulnerable areas. Personally, I loathe the sight of a single striker charging between full back and centre back, only to scurry back to the full back and repeat until he is not only exhausted, but completely out of position as the defence build up their attack.
Monk has plenty of options, and plenty to think about, and I’m not sure if we will see a new formation against Bolton at the Reebok or a return to the 4-1-2-1-2. Hopefully, all of the players in the first team squad will have the opportunity to make a difference to the team, and positively affect the promotion charge in whatever formation Monk chooses. Only time will tell.