I cannot profess to have the knowledge of a Jonathan Wilson when it comes to football formations, but having watched Derby County for many years, I think I can contribute to the tactical discourse.
Since his appointment in January 2009, it’s fair to say that Nigel Clough has, generally, been a 4-4-2 man, although he isn’t as rigid or stubborn with his formations as people think. At the start of the 09/10 season (his first full season as Derby boss), he started the season encouraging passing and width in a 4-5-1 formation, with energetic midfielders Paul Green and Stephen Pearson (don’t laugh) pushing on whilst Robbie Savage sat back in the centre of midfield, with Gary Teale and Lee Croft filling the wide areas. Furthermore, influenced by backroom coach Johnny Metgod’s native Netherlands team at the 2010 World Cup, the 10/11 season began with a 4-2-3-1 fluid passing system. Nevertheless, ‘started’ and ‘began’ should be highlighted here; when results have gone awry, Clough inevitably shifts back to a 4-4-2 approach. This formation reversal has had mixed results; results generally picked up when Kris Commons played off Rob Hulse in the 09/10 season, but despite successive defeats mid-season 10/11, a return to 4-4-2 didn’t really reignite the season.
I admit bias here, as I’m not a fan of 4-4-2. We’ve seen at international level the weakness of it; ask England at the 2010 World Cup against Germany. None of the top teams, at club or international level, play it anymore, and 4-4-2 proponents will often find their teams simply outnumbered and overrun in midfield. I don’t wish to appear too harsh on Nigel Clough; he has a positive footballing philosophy, and wants his teams to play attractive, attacking football. However, this approach is often sacrificed for ‘solidity’ in Clough’s case, so his creeds aren’t always borne out for people to see; it is very common for central midfielders to be shifted to the wing (think Paul Green, Stephen Pearson, Ben Davies and Paul Coutts, to name a few).
Turning to the present, Clough has the (happy) dilemma of accommodating three quality central midfielders in Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick and the rising star of Will Hughes. In the 12/13 season, Clough was not averse to playing all three, but too often Bryson was placed uncomfortably on the left wing, somehow trying to tuck into a 4-4-2. Coutts, who started the season brilliantly, faded, and played out of position. With Michael Jacobs arguably the only natural winger in the team, the starting XI often looked lopsided. However, 4-3-3 looks to be the likely scenario for next year, with this team the likely outcome (with current players as of 01/07/13):
In this formation, Russell and Ward could provide the width, whilst providing licence to drift in and capitalise on their flair abilities. The hard-working nature of the pair should take care of tracking back, and John Brayford’s over-lapping prowess is plain for all to see (with Craig Forsyth hopefully doing the same job on the left). Hughes could sit deep and use his burgeoning abilities to retain possession and start counter attacks, with Hendrick and Bryson pushing on and doing the box-to-box work. As a Plan-B (or even Plan-A), Hughes could push further forward into more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, playing in the trequartista role and threading through killer balls in the final third. Whilst dividing fans at the best of times, Sammon’s pressing and hard running could create space for Russell and Ward (and maybe even Hughes). Michael Jacobs is more than capable of filling in for the Russell or Ward role in the front three, with Paul Coutts and Ben Davies other candidates in a more solid approach. Should injury inevitably hit the first choice midfield three, I’d like to see Coutts and Davies coming in to their more natural roles; they’re not at the standard of Hendrick or Bryson, but they typify the hard-working approach which Clough demands. Injury to Will Hughes would be more problematic, but I’d like to see Jacobs coming into the side and play off the striker in a 4-2-3-1 shape in that scenario; he excelled in the role around January time in 2013 in a 4-4-1-1 preference.
I think the XI listed above could provide attractive and attacking football for the 13/14 season, promising football which we saw in parts last year. I’d like Clough to stick to his guns with a 4-3-3 outlook, but when results haven’t gone well he has often been under pressure to “stick another striker on” and “be more positive”. However, “one up front” doesn’t have to be negative; it’s the approach that counts. When on the front foot, as many as 4 or 5 players can be attacking in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, whilst there’s nothing positive about playing 4-4-2 against the likes of Brighton when you’ll lose the possession as well as the numeric battle. Nevertheless, when the inevitable “4-4-2 chants” emerge, it won’t be difficult for Ward or Russell to partner Sammon up front, with the other switching to the left wing and Jacobs (ideally), Davies or Coutts coming on to fill the right-wing slot.
For a 4-2-3-1 to work next year, a bit of flair is needed for the trequartista role. If Hughes isn’t playing there, then additional signings are required. Chris Martin could play there, as could Johnny Russell and Jamie Ward, but in these instances it’d be hard not to see a cloaked 4-4-2. I’ll put my tin hat on and say that yet another free transfer from Nottingham Forest could work in the shape of Lewis McGugan, but it is unlikely to happen for financial and tribal reasons. I’d dearly love another season-long loan for Alberto Bueno or even Arturo Lupoli, but again I cannot see these signings happening. Chris Burke would have been a great signing to solve the dearth of wingers in the side, but he recently extended his contract at Birmingham City, although they may still be tempted to sell in their financial state. However, having signed Lee Grant, Chris Martin, Johnny Russell and Craig Forsyth (for an outlay of just under £1 million), Clough’s stance seems to be that only a centre back will be added now to the ranks, with an optimistic punt for Richard Dunne mooted. However, an addition of flair in the mould of an Alberto Bueno would greatly complement the hard-working philosophy which is firmly instilled, but money is tight without selling Will Hughes or John Brayford (and I hope they won’t sell them).
Whatever the formation that Clough chooses, there’s a buzz of optimism around Pride Park for the upcoming season. Whatever my personal preferences, Clough can shut me up and keep me contented by grabbing three points on a regular basis.