Carl McHugh and contextual positioning

The more I watch football the more I am convinced that the game is more about character than it is about positions.

That prefaces the following statement: that I do not know if positions are everything or nothing in football. I veer from one conclusion to the other.

When I was a younger man positions were simple. Goalie, right backs, left wingers and so on. It was easy to look at the teams of the 1970s and put a man in a hole.

Easy but wrong. Because there was an increasingly level of subtlety to those positions. You can blame Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley if you wish. In Mexico in 1986 they played up front together for England and by no means were they both just “strikers”.

And so terms like “drop off man”, “goalgetter” and “in the hole” started and those are functional but following them as a train of thought takes you to a conclusions which is that in describing the positions in which Lineker and Beardsley played one was actually describing the tasks they performed.

Which rendered the need to talk about positions obsolete. There was a task to do on a football field of getting the ball in the area between the defensive line and the midfield and that was what Beardsley did. That he did it from “attack” rather than “midfield” is largely irrelevant because on the whole he was spending his time in that position.

Add David Platt to the England team following Beardsley’s (premature) exit and you have a player in the same position who is titularly a midfielder not a forward. Have Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard Jnr in your team and it may say that one is a striker and one is a midfielder in the Panini sticker album but both are spending 90 minutes in the same square footage of the field. That is a problem that England never mastered.

And so these tasks became described as roles which and the notion of positions was refined with more granularity. Words like “holding midfielder” came into the lexicon of the modern football supporter and that was no bad thing.

But the more that tasks were named the less importance on the fact that those tasks needed to be carried out was obvious. Someone needs to win a ball back in midfield and that is described as a “holding job” and rapidly came to seem like an option rather than a necessity.

Which is where I veer. If described in enough granularity positions are everything in football. If thrown around they are meaningless and ignore the importance of the tasks that need to be performed.

Wayne Jacobs talks about Phil Parkinson’s use of Carl McHugh and Matthew Bates at left back and does so with an authority. “Matthew’s right-footed and that causes a problem when you try to link up and get down the left wing. He is obviously tempted to drive infield. I’ve been really impressed with Carl’s attitude… however he is a centre half and sometimes if you come up against a real out-and-out winger, agility and movement can be an issue when you’re playing in that role.”

Which was obvious when McHugh faced Jamie Murphy of Sheffield United who exposed those flaws in his game away at the Blades. At home to Port Vale and MK Dons had wide players who pressed less and were happy to contain. This let McHugh perform a different set of tasks, ones he was more comfortable with, and thus did better at. From that we might conclude that the statement “he can play left back” is – in some way – contextual.

McLean’s debut continues City’s story of the season

With the kick of off his first Bradford City game a minute away Aaron McLean wandered backwards from middle of the field and started to bump fist and slap hands with his new team-mates. He drifted to left back and bumped Carl McHugh, he slapped Gary Jones, and walked forward with purpose to start his this new part of his career.

A player is rarely under more scrutiny than on his debut and McLean was the focus of attention for the three thousand plus Bradford City supporters. His first touch was the kick off, his first in play was a contested ball with Blades defender Harry McGuire which the defender won but McLean put his body into in a way which was not at all reminiscent of the previous occupant of the number twenty one shirt which the new recruit wore.

Phil Parkinson made no bones about wanting to bring McLean to Bradford City and immediately favoured him over seventeen year old Oli McBurnie. As McLean won his first win of the ball from the towering McGuire it was obvious that Parkinson saw this as a physical encounter. A battle, and one which City lost in the opening forty five minutes.

Jamie Murphy was the first recipient of two goals in the first half which will were to prompt action from the City manager at half time as Carl McHugh’s failings at left back were exposed by winger Ryan Flynn. McHugh was an island adrift in the City team not connected to Kyel Reid or Mark Yeates in front of him, adrift from Matthew Bates to his right Flynn first combined with Tony McMahon who whipped a ball low in to Murphy to finish from inside the six yard box and later forced a corner which McGuire headed a second from.

And City struggled. Struggled to find a plan when Kyel Reid went off on a stretcher after turning his back onto a Hospital ball and having a defender tackle through the back of his legs. Struggled to find a way around McGuire and at the heart of the Blades defends. Struggled to find a blend of the midfield in which Gary Jones and Jason Kennedy not only look similarly but seem far to keen to take up the same position.

Kennedy could be so much more than he is at City and hopefully will be. Games pass him by and he seems to do neither part of his role well. He is not the best player of City’s season so far by a long way but he is the story of the season: unable to get out of low gear but not for the want of trying.

The second half and McHugh was switched with Bates to the central defensive position he was more comfortable with but more over performances were stepped up and for a time City were able to take the game to the home side. Kennedy and Jones were at their most useful in that period after half time which brought two goals and it was Jones who got the first – a massive deflection taking the ball past George Long in the home goal.

Jones’ shot, not a well hit one nor would which was going in before the deflection, came after McLean had won the ball and played in the midfielder. Parkinson deployed McLean behind Hanson as he had McBurnie the week before but often with Nahki Wells in the side the faster forward would be on the backline and Hanson withdrawn.

As Jones slapped McLean as a friendly credit for the assist one might wonder if Parkinson is not unhappy with the outcome of January so far. Wells forced a way of playing – big man/little man – and he would have been foolish to ignore the potential of that but big man/big man with both working hard is more in keeping with the manager’s promotion side at Colchester United.

The second goal was an untidy finish by James Hanson and a note goes to the maligned Garry Thompson who made enough poor decisions to keep his detractors happy but did involve himself when it mattered.

From that point on United laid something of a weak siege to City’s goal. They had chances to retake the lead but City had returned to some stability and strength. 2-2 came and City were happier. Away draws are always good results.

And some might feel that Aaron McLean should have had a penalty late on when a bouncing ball bested McGuire and the City man almost got to the ball but McGuire stayed strong and McLean bounced off him. McGuire may be leaving Bramall Lane this winter with talk of £4m bids. He seems to lack a level of mobility for top flight football but he was very impressive.

As was McLean. He worked hard – his virtue we are told – and in offering strength and hold up play as well as some pace he gives Parkinson an option he seems comfortable with. His part in the comeback was no more nor less than his teammates and that will no doubt suit Parkinson who prizes effort over all else.

Which is the story of City’s season so far. There is hard work and there is reward, sometimes, and the way to increase those rewards is to work and work harder.

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