Where is Gary Johnson going wrong at Peterborough United?
This is what running a Football League blog is all about, in my opinion. You won’t find many words written about Peterborough United anywhere else, let alone 1,700 of them. But I wanted to know why Gary Johnson was failing so far at London Road and, luckily, John Verrall is here to explain in detail.
To say last season was a disappointment for Peterborough United would be an understatement. There was talk of an unprecedented third straight promotion from the ambitious chairman, Darragh MacAnthony. An exciting young team, under the guidance of “the brightest young manager in English football”, would do the impossible and get the Posh” to the promised land. To the Premier League.
Instead, Peterborough slumped to relegation, finished rock bottom of the Championship and became the laughing stock of English league football. It was not the relegation that did this. It was the manner of the relegation. 2 away wins, 34 points (15 away from safety) and 4 managers. The fairytale had well and truly ended.
This season was supposed to be the revival, though. A new, experienced and proven manager in Gary Johnson was appointed. The budget increased. Accomplished players for levels above League One were brought in. It was the end of the revolutionary “young and hungry” policy that had served the club well in the past, but which had ultimately failed in the Championship.
This time the Posh were to break the bank and achieve promotion. MacAnthony wanted the League One title and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy to put in a trophy cabinet that, despite recent success, is still gathering dust. Yet with almost half the season played, Peterborough United are languishing in an upper mid-table spot that their performances barely merit.
Even with the managerial merry-go-round travelling faster in Peterborough than anywhere else in the country last season, some Posh fans are already calling for Johnson to be sacked and another manager to be appointed. It is a thought that has crossed the chairman’s mind too with Johnson seemingly being given 5 games to save his job. So where is it currently going wrong for Peterborough United?
A quick glance at the League One table highlights Posh’s defensive inefficiencies. 41 goals conceded in 20 games, the highest total in the division. Indeed, only Preston (who have played two games more) and Leicester (who have played four games more) have conceded a greater number of goals than Peterborough in the entire Football League.
You have to look back to the start of October to see the last clean sheet that the Posh kept. They have only managed to stop the opposition from scoring three times in total this season. As a result assistant manager, and defensive coach, Nicky Eaden has lost his job.
A major contributor to this large total of goals conceded has been due to the amount of hammerings Posh have suffered to other promotion contenders within the division. Southampton (4-1), Brighton (3-0), Bournemouth (5-1), Charlton (5-1) have been beneficiaries of Posh’s defensive troubles.
Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that supposed smaller clubs have also capitalised. Swindon (4-5), Notts County (3-2) and Hartlepool (2-0) have all boosted their goals-for tally considerably when playing against Peterborough.
So why is this happening? Individually Posh’s defence looks relatively strong. In goal, Joe Lewis has been one of Peterborough’s top performers and has an England senior call-up to his name as well as numerous Under-21 caps. Ryan Bennett, who doesn’t make the starting line-up, has been linked with moves to Premier League giants Arsenal and Tottenham and, although error prone, has shown his talent.
Gabriel Zakuani played a key part in Stoke’s promotion to the Premiership and was the subject of a seven-figure transfer to Fulham before joining Peterborough. Mark Little, a regular on Soccer AM, performed to a high standard while Posh were faltering in the Championship last season.
Yet, collectively, the defence looks a shambles at the minute. Generally Mark Little, Kelvin Langmead, Gabriel Zakuani and Tommy Rowe make up the partnership of choice. Little seems way out of his depth. Positionally he looks clueless and his marking is non-existent.
Langmead, at centre back, is sluggish and, although he looks intimidating, he is regular out-muscled by smaller strikers. Zakuani is technically terrible and, though he is a fantastic “last ditch” defender, this weakness has been exploited on occasions. Rowe is only just starting to adapt to a new position, having been converted from the left wing.
Johnson’s summer signings
As already stated, the budget was increased considerably this season to help Gary Johnson push for promotion. The Posh are paying 50% more in wages than they were last season in the Championship, with a far higher average attendance to subsidise for the expenses. Over the summer Grant McCann, James Wesolowski, Arron Davies, Kelvin Langmead, Dave Hibbert, Mark Little, Nana, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Lee Tomlin joined.
It was only natural for Posh fans to be excited. McCann and Davies had both been part of promotion campaigns at this level before, while McCann had even been a success in the Championship with Scunthorpe. Wesolowski was supposed to be “the next big thing” at Leicester before two broken legs hampered his progress. Nana was linked with FC Twente, in the Champions League, before joining Peterborough. Mendez-Laing was touted as a huge prospect, as was Little.
In truth, it has been the lowest profile of all the signings, a reminder of the “young and hungry” policy the club previously had, that has been the most exciting on the pitch. Lee Tomlin has excelled in his brief spell at Posh, since joining from Rushden, and has become a key part of the first team squad. Some supporters even suggest he has the potential to be better than the mercurial talent of George Boyd.
The rest have been a disappointment. McCann seems lazy and is often guilty of dallying in possession. Wesolowski has found his place on the substitute’s bench and has already been replaced by Adam Clayton, a loan signing from Leeds. Mendez-Laing is an impact sub rather than a regular starter. Nana is simply terrible.
For all the money and the wages spent, Johnson’s transfer record is poor. Even two loan signings he made — Marcus Williams and Lewin Nyatanga – to plug the defensive leaks were shocking, despite both having had a wealth of Championship experience. With the club financially stretched, MacAnthony has made it clear that the Posh are “over-budget”. This has led to the sale of Aaron McLean, a protagonist in Posh’s successful campaigns, to Hull to provide some money for Johnson to spend in January.
The “Trinity” not combining
Over the last four seasons, three players have stood out. Since their transfers in January 2007, they have shown the London Road crowd a level of quality rarely seen by fans of Peterborough United. Aaron McLean is a potent striker with a real eye of goal. Craig Mackail-Smith works like a trojan and doesn’t stop running. George Boyd has as much skill as anybody in the lower divisions. Yet, even though the goalscoring records suggest differently, this season none have been on top form. In fact, none have found their brilliant best since Darren Ferguson’s departure.
Both strikers have scored a large amount of goals — Mackail-Smith has 9 and McLean has 10 in the league — but, as a partnership, their link-up play has not been particularly effective. In previous seasons, McLean and Mackail-Smith have created chances for each other through sheer hard work but this season both have relied more on the creativity to come from midfield players, rather than linking up together.
The most disappointing has been Boyd, though. He is a shadow of the player he was last time Peterborough were at this level when Boyd would terrorise opposition defenders. The skilful winger has been out of form and appears to be lacking confidence in his game.
Some of the blame must lie with Johnson too. This season, Boyd has been asked to defend far more often than ever before, to compensate for Tomlin on the right hand side of midfield, and it has meant that he hasn’t been granted the creative freedom he had before. Back then, Boyd was the focal point of every Posh attack.
When Boyd plays well, Peterborough play well and until the left winger finds his best form again it is unlikely that Peterborough will play to the maximum of their potential.
Considering Johnson’s track record is so impressive, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Peterborough seem so naive tactically. As Posh are reliant on their attacking talent, it means the midfield lacks balance and at times the formation seems to be a 4-2-4, with both Boyd and Tomlin bombing forward at every opportunity.
For this to work it relies on a solid defence, something Posh don’t have, and two deep lying midfielders. Yet Clayton appears to be playing as a box-to-box midfielder and Grant McCann, although asked to play in a deep-lying role, is an attack-minded central midfielder and regularly drifts forward. As a result Posh’s defence, at times, is completely exposed and Peterborough are very vulnerable to the counter attack.
With McLean’s impending departure, it seems that the midfield will be more balanced — Tomlin is likely to move up front, taking McLean’s role, with Whelpdale taking the position on the right hand side of midfield — but whether Peterborough’s defence will improve as a result remains to be seen. However, there is an argument to suggest that Johnson should have been braver and, if necessary, dropped one of the four attacking threats to provide a more balanced starting line-up.
In truth, Posh’s decline seems to have started with Ferguson’s departure. The hangover of last season still looms over the squad and it is a team that is not playing with confidence and zest. While defensive issues still remain and Peterborough continue to falter, Johnson’s position will continue to be under threat, even with the instability of last season, and MacAnthony demands success.
If Posh are still performing like this in February, it may well be that Johnson is shown the exit door. Which means Posh, yet again, will be looking for a new manager and, despite both MacAnthony and Ferguson being very stubborn men, could there be a slim chance that Ferguson could return to manage at London Road again? Or will Johnson turn things around and guide Posh to the promotion campaign that is needed to get them back on track?
Whatever happens, this is a crucial season for Peterborough United and their position in May could have a major influence on the future of the football club.
You can read more of John’s writing at his new blog The Free Role.