Issue A footballing evolution

As told by Jason Mckeown

The theory of evolution over creationism may be passionately disputed by some, but in football it seems there’s only one type of advancement which ultimately shapes the natural order of league tables.

Managers create their squad for the coming season during the summer, but it is rarely a seven day miracle. Instead there seems to be a constant narrative they all go through in shaping and evolving their team selection, in an effort to ensure their club achieves its realistic goals. What looked the strongest possible team in August very often doesn’t prove to be the case as the games come thick and fast. Survival of the fittest is often about which manager gets his team selection right the quickest.

One can see the process of evolving the squad after the campaign has got underway in Bradford City’s two most successful recent seasons. The forever-talked about promotion of 1998/99 was delivered by a strong squad, but a disastrous start which saw City regularly beaten if not bettered had manager Paul Jewell changing around the team until it eventually clicked and started producing consistently strong results.

As he surveyed the scene at Molineux having clinched promotion at Wolves, Jewell might have reflected on how the previous August he wouldn’t have expected to have relied so heavily on Robbie Blake, Wayne Jacobs and John Dreyer in order to achieve his goals. Similarly a year after, when Premier League survival was achieved, Jewell’s squad had evolved to the point that previous heroes Blake, Lee Mills and Gareth Whalley were somewhat discarded along the way.

For most teams it doesn’t usually end up so gloriously. Over the course of shaping the squad, managers may discover – self-inflicted or otherwise – that they don’t have the players to fulfil expectations.

Sometimes a team starts perfectly only to fall away, with the manager struggling to work out where it’s going wrong and desperately trying to fix it. Often the solutions are realised too late or are the best of a bad situation. Colin Todd, for example, belatedly managed to shape his 2005-06 City team into a winning one and the club enjoyed a strong end to the season – but it had come too late to change the fact pre-season expectations of a play off spot had not been delivered.

In the modern day and particularly at the top end of football, squads rather than just 11 players are crucial in clubs achieving their aims. Part in response to increased intensity of matches, part due to a higher number of injuries than in the past, teams that succeed can’t afford for the absence of players to undermine their prospects. Of course every team has players they struggle badly without – witness Chelsea’s heavy defeat to Sunderland on Sunday with John Terry and Alex were injured – but never has the team been less about the individuals.

Peter Taylor’s has this season moved Bradford City to as close of a squad game as we’ve ever seen at Valley Parade. So often we’ve welcomed a new batch of players in the summer who’ve shown initial promise; but as the strikers went on goal droughts, the wingers revealed their inconsistency and defenders began to tot up mistakes, the season’s objectives were all too soon not going to be met.

This summer’s recruits by Taylor haven’t all worked out so far – rarely, if ever, in football does a manager not make bad signings – but as his recent evolution efforts have lifted the club out of nosediving form, the benefits of a squad approach are becoming clear. City are progressing through the sum of their parts.

Take the defence as the most obvious example. Convention in football is that you must have a settled back four in order to build understandings and prosper. If and when on-loan Burnley full back Richard Eckersley makes his City debut, he will become the 12th different defender deployed this season. That’s three separate sets of back fours.

Yet while City’s defensive record this season is far from exemplary, they have kept four clean sheets in their last eight league matches – and in another three only conceded one goal each time – despite a whole range of different defenders playing. Even the goalkeeper has changed; but even through so much enforced chopping, the backline has remained largely strong.

And the evolution of tactics has seen some curious changes. In the last two league games on the road – Bury and Wycombe – it’s been notable that the towering Luke Oliver has been instructed to attack any high balls into his penalty area, with central defensive partner Steve Williams (at Bury) and Rob Kiernan (at Wycombe) marking the spare striker and on hand to mop up any Oliver slips. Traditionally we view central defenders as marking a man each, but the effectiveness of Oliver in the air is being used to greater effect. Few would rank him our best defender, but in terms of this role he does it better than anyone.

In midfield we saw previous manager Stuart McCall move away from traditional wingers by lining City up 4-3-3 last season; but despite Taylor restoring 4-4-2 in recent weeks, wingers don’t form part of his set up. For so many previous seasons, City have lived and died by the form of their widemen. The lack of consistency and ease opposition teams can double up on wingers has limited their success. While as England proved so dismally on Wednesday, the use of wingers can leave the centre of midfield overrun.

Taylor hasn’t played out-and-out wingers all season. During those difficult days in August and September, it looked a poor policy as City struggled to create meaningful chances, but now the logic of wide midfielders rather than wingers appears sounder. Lee Hendrie and Tom Adeyemi, widemen of the last two games at least, have been able to come inside and help City become more defensively solid when they don’t have the ball. The more narrow four also encourages closer range passing, which is harnessing the ability of Tommy Doherty.

The closest the Bantams now have to wingers  are the full backs, who have a licence to roam forward knowing the midfield will cover for them.

Not only are the defence and midfield working closer than we’ve seen for many years, the forward line is linking up well with the team. Omar Daley’s City days looked numbered under Taylor, but his impact since moving to a free role playing off the targetman has been terrific. Taylor is not the first manager to deploy Daley up front, David Wetherall moved him up top for the final game of the 2006-07 season, at home to Millwall; but he is the first to ensure Daley’s talents aren’t wasted by being too far up the pitch.

Daley is regularly popping up all over the final third, dropping deep to get the ball and charge at defenders. For the opposition a major problem – who on earth is supposed to mark him?

This switch was a great leap forwards in the team evolutionary progress, because Daley has the space and freedom to take up the wide positions traditional wingers would normally occupy; and, if City played out-and-out wingers, it would probably reduce his effectiveness.

A target man is vital to City’s approach and, with the greatest respect to stand-in Oliver, it’s no coincidence form has truly lifted off after forwards James Hanson and Jason Price became available to perform that role. Hanson’s fitness remains a concern, and so Price has aided the squad approach by being available to stand in when needed.

Like Jewell at Molineux in May 1999, would Taylor have thought his team would look like this last August? We’ve seen Louis Moult, Jake Speight, Gareth Evans, Lee Bullock, Robbie Threlfall and Scott Neilson fall by the wayside, and the best hope Moult and Speight now appear to have of getting in the team is to be able to perform Daley’s free role when he is not available. For Evans the future is surely wide midfielder.

The strength of City’s vast improvement is reflected when looking at the injured list. Simon Ramsden and Michael Flynn are big players for this club, but Taylor and the rest of the team have learned to cope admirably. For now things look good, but the competitive nature of League Two means the evolution of City is unlikely to be complete. In time the opposition may formulate effective plans to contain Daley, for example, and there is the very real threat that Lee Hendrie, Tom Adeyemi, Williams and Price will depart in January.

However Taylor’s squad approach – his stated philosophy during the summer of having two players for every position – is so far working. It’s clear he’s brought in players who he didn’t plan to start every week, and the lack of public discontent suggests every player knew the score pre-season.

For the Macclesfield game, the team will remain largely the same to that beaten in unfortunate circumstances by Wycombe last Saturday. Lenny Pidgley will continue in goal in front of Zesh Rehman, Oliver, Kiernan and Luke O’Brien. The midfield will see changes with the absence of Doherty, and the smart money is on a David Syers and Adeyemi central partnership with Hendrie and Evans/Leon Osborne wide midfield. As Hanson is still bugged by a slight injury, expect Price to start in what could be – but is highly unlikely to be – his final game on loan, with Daley as a partner.

Potentially as little as three players who started the opening game at Shrewsbury will be in Taylor’s starting XI tomorrow. There are many good reasons for this, with evolution one of the biggest.