The team-by-team Football League tactics bible - #2: Stevenage
The second of our team-by-team Football League tactics guides looks at Graham Westley’s Stevenage. They may not be Westley’s for much longer as he is currently in talks with Preston North End, so this may be of unexpected interest to fans of the Deepdale club. Daniel Speller is your host.
Current formation and variations
The beginning of the season has been an odd one for Stevenage in terms of their formation. Injuries to key players saw them switch to a 4-5-1 for a while and now, as players slowly return, they have switched back to a more familiar 4-4-2. It could even be said that before John Mousinho’s injury they were playing a 4-4-2 diamond in the middle of the park.
Leaving Chris Beardsley up front on his own was ineffective as, more often than not, support from the middle of the park was lacking. However, with Westley putting confidence into Don Cowan and Byron Harrison in partnering Beardsley up front, a switch back to 4-4-2 seemed natural.
The arrival of Luke Freeman on loan from Arsenal saw Stevenage become more attacking than usual and his pace and trickery made them look dangerous in virtually every attack. With Freeman’s loan deal having now expired, it will be interesting to see how they line up against Rochdale on Saturday.
Key attacking players
Probably one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen, Wilson is lethal down the wing. His best feature is without a doubt his pace. A very temperamental crosser, Wilson normally looks to switch inside and run at centre-backs. On the odd occasion when his cross is good, it tends to be great. Defensively he is fantastic, tracking back like a terrier and starting surging counter-attacks at blistering pace. Wilson was linked with a move to Leeds last summer. Bigger clubs are starting to take note of him and it’s easy to see why.
The man who fired Stevenage into League One with a fantastic goal at Old Trafford has formed quite an interesting partnership with Michael Bostwick in the middle of the park. The two work well together and when one’s not there, the other misses him. Mousinho is a typical box-to-box midfielder – fantastic going forward and can defend when needed. He provides assists from open play and also poses a threat from set pieces, making him invaluable in the Stevenage midfield.
Chris Beardsley wasn’t even a second choice, let alone first choice, striker last season for Stevenage but has seen a new lease of life in League One, taking his opportunity with aplomb. A good finisher, he has plenty of pace and is very strong in the air. A long run in the first team has been matched with a decent return of goals. His determination is easy to see and every ball is chased down with intent. A man who simply just doesn’t give up, Beardsley has stepped up and taken the role of lead striker excellently.
Key defensive players
Sits just in front of the front four. Like nearly all of the players, has seen Stevenage rise to League One from the Conference. Bostwick has been the stalwart of the Stevenage midfield. Virtually irreplaceable and hugely missed when injured, he wears his heart on his sleeve.
Bostwick is strong but sometimes clumsy in the tackle, great in the air and has a lethal shot from distance. He links brilliantly with Mousinho in the middle of the park. If Bostwick plays well, Stevenage play well.
“He’s an animal, Ashton, he’s an animal, Ashton” chant the Stevenage fans on a regular basis and it really is easy to see why. Built like a tank, it’s not often you see an opposition striker get the better of Ashton. Partnered by captain Mark Roberts at centre-back, few sides get the better of the pair. Ashton is very strong in the air, fantastic in the tackle and, for a big man, is surprisingly pacy once he gets going.
Been there, done that. Day is the best goalkeeper Stevenage could ask for. He has still got it at the ripe old age of 36. Even with the wind against him, goal kicks sail deep into the opposition half. A calm, experienced head behind the back four, Day is a superb shot-stopper, quick off his line, calm in one-on-ones and good in the air. He proves week in, week out just why he was a Premier League goalkeeper.
Does exactly what it says on the tin. Stevenage’s main strength is their strength. A key motto and part of Westley’s mantra is “Witness the fitness” and it’s evident to see – just take a look at Jon Ashton. The winning mentality instilled by Westley is quite something too; you’ll never see a Stevenage side lay down in the face of defeat.
Every ball is challenged to the final whistle and every tackle is as enthusiastic as the first. Stevenage’s ability to deceive is also rather impressive. Labelled as a “hoof and run” side that “wouldn’t be out of place on a rugby field”, their ability to get the ball down and pass it around takes teams by surprise. Just ask Charlton Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United.
The back four stand out. Stevenage haven’t lost a league game after going a goal up this season and having the best defensive record in League Two last season certainly put them in good stead following promotion. They went over 1,000 minutes not conceding a goal from open play in the current campaign.
The best way to beat Stevenage is to out-Stevenage them, as displayed perfectly by Leyton Orient and Notts County (both at home) this season. They have gained an unfair reputation as a physical side which resorts to hoofing the ball forward at every opportunity, brutally injuring players on purpose and getting into a physical battle in the middle of the park. When visiting teams play as Stevenage are meant to, it’s very effective.
Although Wilson covers him, Ronnie Henry at right-back isn’t the quickest defender in the world and is liable to have a tough game against wingers with pace. A tendency to give the ball away far too easily under pressure in the middle of the park whenever surging forward also leaves the team open on the counter.
How to beat us
As Orient displayed after going a man down, closing Stevenage down and not allowing them to pass, although sounding very obvious, is very effective. Stopping the industry of Bostwick and the charging runs of Mousinho, sticking a quick left-back on Wilson and a well-built centre back on Beardsley can more or less nullify their threat. If you can keep these four quiet, you’ve got a good chance of keeping Stevenage quiet.
Last season Reading adopted a similar approach, closing down with determination and desire and ultimately came out on top. Keeping the ball on the floor and playing it around is also effective, with neat through-balls especially worthwhile as Stevenage’s back four is notoriously slow. Long balls over the top for a striker tend to look dangerous.
Stevenage are a side that do not lie down and are never easily beaten. With a winning mentality, determination, grit and athleticism all present, they would give any side a good game. Catch them on an off day and they will “kick you off the park” but catch them on a good day and you may well see a new side to them… promise.