In his first game in charge Dean Holden went for a 3-5-2 set-up, at least at the start. But we can’t be sure yet that this is his preferred option or just a first stab looking at the resources available, ahead of the January transfer window. I’d suggest that his problem as things stand is that in many respects we offer two potential formations, both with pros and cons but with it not easy to switch between the two. What structure he favours will presumably help to guide the comings and goings during the window.
Let’s start with 3-5-2. Now JJ opted to play wing-backs, without having natural players for the positions (Matthews, Gunter, Purrington etc while attempts to bring in players for the spots – Soare, the guy from Birmingham - failed), and Sessegnon and Clare can’t be said to automatically fit the bill, although both had their moments against Peterborough, most obviously Clare breaking forward in the second half. If Clayden returns from loan in January he might offer an alternative/back-up (although I’ve no idea how he's been getting on at Bromley), along with Chin. As for three at the back in the centre, we lost so much sleep last season being reminded of how we were torn apart with ease as to be nervous at the prospect. With O’Connell, Egbo and Thomas all currently unavailable, it has to be Inniss, Lavelle and another, currently Ness (the alternatives being Elerewe, back from loan but apparently not in favour, and Mitchell).
So 3/5 at the back leaves us stretched for personnel- the only replacement from the bench against Peterborough was Mitchell, although there was the option to shuffle the pack and change formation - but it is doable. The conundrum, for me, is what the formation means for us going forward. Basically there’s no room for wingers/widish front men, which means that as against Peterborough neither Blackett-Taylor nor Rak-Sakyi (nor for that matter Kirk, Campbell, or Jaiyesimi) get a start. Arguably two of our most potent weapons are frozen out by the formation. You do get to play a front two (Leaburn and Kanu so far with Stockley the other option, assuming Aneke is currently unavailable), but that also has its drawbacks as Payne operating as the most advanced as a midfield three doesn’t get the space coming into the box late which he does if playing in support of a lone main striker. I thought that was apparent in the first half against Peterborough.
In my view Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi come into their own in a 4-3-3 in which they play either side of a forward, usually Stockley. With Payne a better option than Kirk in the support role (although Kirk did of course bag a couple at Burton in the position), we perhaps play our best football with this formation. Both can torment the opposition by being able to go outside and inside, at pace. But the downsides are apparent too. CBT still doesn’t look able to play a full game, Rak-Sakyi also seems to tire. And when they tire we don’t have direct replacements for them, as Kirk, Campbell and DJ are more outright wingers. They can occupy the position but the play will be different, less potent. The other downside is that if a team sets up against us to sit behind the ball and deny space in their final third, doubling up on the danger men, we struggle to create anything.
There is of course a compromise between the two, ie a basic 4-4-2. That allows for two outright wingers with more of an emphasis on outright wingers getting good deliveries into a pair of strikers. That set-up would allow for five wide men to vie for two positions with replacements from the bench. You lose the Payne/Kirk number 10 role, but it looks a better set-up for Kirk, possibly the best crosser of the ball we have.
That aside, there is the problem of making changes during the game. If you start with a 3-5-2 with Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi on the bench, how do you get them involved? Either you ask them to play in a position which doesn’t get the best out of them, or at the same time you have (I think) to ditch the wing-backs and move to a back four. So you probably end up taking off a wing-back or central defender and also perhaps dispensing with the third central midfielder. In reverse, if you start with a 4-3-3 and during the game want to get a second forward on the pitch, you might have to take off both CBT and Rak-Sakyi, plus Payne, to switch to outright wingers and the two up top. And whatever the formation, the two essentials are Dobson and Fraser (with Morgan, Henry and Forster-Caskey the back-ups).
I don’t pretend there’s an obvious and easy answer. Neither is there an answer to suit every game, depending on whether the opposition will look to take the game to us or shut up shop. It’s tempting to hark back to what worked in the past, but when we blew away the division under Sir Chris we were good enough not to have to worry about how teams would line up against us, we had the team to beat them whatever. It was less clear-cut under Lee Bowyer, but that side also had reliable characters and weapons. We are a long way short as things stand, but again the shape which Holden sees emerging will presumably influence the January choices.
Some decisions may be taken for him of course. If Palace decide to recall Rak-Sakyi and send him on loan somewhere else, it would probably put an end to the ‘3 up front’ option, unless of course we brought in a similar replacement. As for other possible departures, the state of play off the field suggests nothing can be ruled out. We’d hate for sure to see Leaburn depart at this stage, or Dobson or Claire for that matter. But if good offers come in will they be turned down? I hope for their sakes that MacGillivray and Forster-Caskey get moves to places they will get to play. Both deserve better than they are getting from us at present and sometimes it’s just better to move on, unless Holden gives them a good reason to stay.
As for whether or not Sandgaard is in the process of selling up, I can only follow the rumours. What I find especially sad about the current state of play is that he has effectively gone into hiding. Not appearing at games, not engaging seriously with the Trust and others. It’s as if as soon as he wasn’t being treated as the messiah it was no longer fun for him and time to withdraw. If that’s the case it is to be regretted all round. I thought his enjoying his tenure was a very welcome contrast to the Duchatelet years. And it’s worrying as the further he is distanced from the club the less concerned he is likely to be to ensure it ends up in safe hands if he ‘sells’ (that being an odd term for disposing of an asset which in itself is worth nothing).
Me? I’m looking forward to the game tonight, to us finally breaking the winless spell, then heading off to Nimes for a few days to welcome in the new year (which means missing the Portsmouth game, unless there’s a bar …) So let us hope 2023 brings us the things we want. As we sang at half-time the last time we played a cup tie at Old Trafford, ‘things can only get better’.