Issue #50 Michael Wood on Why you cannot fit a system around Aaron McLean

Aaron McLean has joined Peterborough on loan for ten weeks – although one suspects that he will not play for Bradford City under Phil Parkinson again – and so a tedious post-mortem on his time at the club begins.

Did the board panic by McLean? Not really. Was he Parkinson’s signing? Seemingly so. What does that say about Parkinson? Nothing good. Will McLean be a great success “home” at London Road? Seemingly inevitably.

McLean’s parting shot was gentle enough. He suggested that the move was the best for both him and City because he did not fit into the system that Parkinson played. As has been debated much this season Phil Parkinson has tried very hard to change his system from a 442 with James Hanson leading the line to a 4312 centred around Mark Yeates.

The transition has proved difficult and but McLean has not suffered any more or less with the change from playing off James Hanson in a target man system to the Mark Yeates playmaking system that City started the season with. It would be fair to say that he has not done well under either of the two different approaches to the game.

System that McLean did not fit into

With the Hanson system McLean’s role would be to get close and look to be found, or find, head downs and flicks on or defensive clearances. In this the second striker role McLean would have been tested on his speed of reaction and his ability to read the game.

If the target man wins the ball and heads it on the second striker has to be first to set off – the first yards are in the head – using his anticipation and reactions. If the defender wins the ball but does not clear well, or a mistake is made, then the second striker must read the game well enough to be in the position to benefit.

Wayne Gretzky – who some call the greatest Hockey player of all time – was the master of this type of game reading. He would seem to skate in the opposite direction of play and almost by magic the puck would end up at his skates.

It seemed like an innate ability but, as with most innate abilities, it was the result of a significant effort on Gretzky’s part and Gretzky’s father who schooled him in the game from an early age. Gretzky was not big, so he had to be there first, and to be there first he had to know where the puck would go.

This is pattern matching in sport and in the case of the great man Gretzky it came from a dedication to study the game and break it into patterns the outcome of which were predictable. The puck would come out in that position this time, because it most often did.

Dean Windass was very good at this game reading too and a lot of his goals came from him “being there” as if through blind luck. One doubts Dean thinks too much about how that happened.

Aaron McLean showed no real capacity to pattern match especially well. McLean was not “there”, nor was his first off the mark as Nahki Wells had so often been. It is easy to say that McLean did not fit into that system because he was not Wells but its accurate to say that he did not because he did not have Wells’ characteristics as a player.

System that McLean fit into

The Yeates playmaking system required the striker to move around more and create space for other players to fill, and to move into space in dangerous areas in anticipation of the playmaker either passing to that space, or to someone who moves the ball into space.

When playing with a target man a striker reacts, the strikers in a playmaking system have to be proactive. They have to either create a target or play a part in someone else being a target. The onus on the striker is to work hard without prompting and often without reward.

Every run a striker makes probably is not picked up on by teammates and much of the time the striker seems to not be effecting the game. The reward is that when the run is picked up then the position that the striker finds himself in is – on the whole – a better chance.

Aaron McLean – a strong player with a powerful shot – always showed that when in those position he was able to control the movement of the defender near him and, when called upon, shooting accurately and with power.

Off the ball McLean could find pockets of space – his typical goal is to cut across a defender and use his power to keep the defender where he wants while he finishes – but he did that infrequently.

McLean’s strength, technique or movement was not a significant problem but his motivation to keep on making those runs that the playmaker system requires was. For whatever reason McLean was not doing what he needed to be doing.

We could probably wrap this up into the cliche of “losing confidence” and not be paying anyone a disservice but I expect it is deeper than the term often connotes.

Why Parkinson lost patience

With McLean in the side Bradford City played – broadly speaking – two systems. One of which did not suit him that Phil Parkinson moved away from it. One which did suit him but he lost confidence in it.

It is no wonder Parkinson sounds terse when talking about the striker whose exit will be “better for both sides”. He gave the chance to Mark Yeates to be playmaker and Yeates responded. He gave Aaron McLean the chance to be a powerful striker and McLean beat a path to the door.

And Parkinson is not alone. McLean came from Hull with warm regards for his effort but a recognition that he “was not suited to the right wing” or “was playing out of position” and one wonders how much of that masked the same problem of struggling to find a system to fit McLean into with managers finding out as Parkinson has that when you do fit him into a system he does not deliver what the manager wants.

Now City have reverted to playing off a target man – be it Jon Stead or Hanson – McLean does not fit into the system and moves onto Peterborough where Darren Ferguson will try do what managers at Hull City, Ipswich Town, Birmingham City, and Bradford City have failed to do and find a way of getting enough out of Aaron McLean to justify fitting a system around him.