Midlands clash displays contrasting styles
Approaching the halfway point in the pre-season schedule, most teams are now settling on the formation with which they will begin their league campaigns. In a pre-season friendly at Sixfields tonight, contrasting styles demonstrated the dilemma currently faced by Football League managers.
League Two hopefuls Northampton Town, under boss Ian Sampson, fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation with two deep-lying central midfielders, Nathaniel Wedderburn and Abdul Osman, shielding the back four. Further forward, veteran Steve Guinan was the lone striker supported centrally by Kevin Thornton and in wide positions by the mobile Liam Davis and young workhorse Billy McKay.
Sampson’s side, although understandably weaker in possession than their more illustrious counterparts, nevertheless managed to look bright when counter-attacking, thanks to some neat triangular passing at a quick tempo. This was made possible by their 4-2-3-1 tactic. In contrast, the visiting Sky Blues were unable to fully display their Championship credentials for long periods because of the rigid 4-4-2 adopted by their new manager Aidy Boothroyd.
The Sixfields setup
Northampton’s Thornton is a rare breed in the lowest division of the Football League, a ball-playing midfielder who is not blessed with pace and lacking the workrate of a typical League Two stalwart. The formation is designed to get the best out of him, with the combative Wedderburn and Osman asked to do the Irishman’s dirty work in an increasingly familiar setup.
The Cobblers largely dealt well with the attacking threat posed by Championship outfit Coventry but struggled to create clear-cut chances from open play. Their main weapon is the left foot of Thornton, which is best utilised from set pieces. Four excellent deliveries from diagonal positions provided Northampton’s greatest attacking danger, although they were unable to capitalise.
Sampson should persevere with his new formation, preferably with a different spearhead. Guinan is a willing worker but lacks the height or pace necessary to lead the line effectively alone. Former Darlington striker Tadhg Purcell may be the better option to play the centre-forward position.
Light in attack
Up front for their opponents, new signing Roy O’Donovan had a game to forget despite linking up well with fellow striker Freddy Eastwood on more than one occasion. Coventry look likely to struggle for goals, having not yet replaced Clinton Morrison, who departed for Sheffield Wednesday in the summer, or Newcastle’s January signing Leon Best.
Boothroyd’s side rely heavily on the central midfield pairing of Aron Gunnarsson and Sammy Clingan, two box-to-box players equally at home tangling with their opposite numbers for possession and shooting from distance. Gunnarsson’s flat, long throw is also an important part of Coventry’s attacking arsenal.
The hard road ahead
The new manager faces a challenge to get the best out of players such as Gary McSheffrey, newly re-instated in sky blue following an extensive period up the road at St Andrew’s, and the aforementioned Eastwood. Both have the talent, but McSheffrey in particular looks a shadow of his former self. After failing to shine on loan at Leeds United in League One last season, the left-sided attacker will need to improve upon the performance he put in at Sixfields to stand a chance of retaining his first-team berth.
Boothroyd’s approach is a largely unimaginative one. He demands that his players press high up the pitch and force mistakes from their opponents, praising those who put in extra effort and providing a running commentary of all their positive effects on the game.
Unfortunately for Coventry, they do not possess a Marlon King or an Ashley Young – the two players that provided cutting edge to the otherwise workmanlike Watford side from whom Boothroyd managed to glean a promotion.
Reliance on the engine room
While Gunnarsson and Clingan are involved, Coventry will be competitive. At the back, James McPake – who scored the only goal of the game at Sixfields to secure a 1-0 win – is a reliable attacker of aerial balls and he and his fellow defenders are safe in the knowledge that they can play in front of Keiron Westwood, one of the best goalkeepers in the division.
If, however, either of Boothroyd’s central midfield duo are unavailable for any length of time this season, they may find themselves struggling to better their poor league finish from last term. Most clubs are desperately trawling the transfer market for new players at this time of year. Coventry need to be especially shrewd over the coming weeks.