Game changer: Grimsby's close-season needs

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

5 May 2019

If Michael Jolley is to bring Town's style up to date with modern trends, how does he need to mould the squad this summer?

Michael Jolley has been criticised by some Town fans for the formations he has attempted to implement at the club. Notably, the wing-back system has proved controversial. Persevering with three at the back has not been popular with fans who recall the success Alan Buckley brought to the club playing with conventional wingers: Childs on one side and Gilbert on the other. But is that still the way to go?

The Irish Times recently published an analysis of how the game at the top level has changed over the last 10 years.

Average per game  2007-08  2017-18 
Tackles 24 17
Crosses 16 12
Passes 358 459
Successful passes 265 365

There are fewer tackles: the more skilful defenders concentrate on closing down and blocking players, forcing them back rather than risking cards. Most crosses are coming from full-backs rather than wingers: six out of ten of the top crossers in the top flight this season are defenders. If the ball is played in by a full-back rather than a forward then there can be more players in the box to be aimed at. But a cross is placing the ball into an area in which it can be attacked by the defending team and lost. So there are fewer crosses but more passes today than there were 10 years ago.

The trend therefore is very clear. At the top level the modern game is about keeping possession, passing to feet, and using full-backs to press forward. This in turn enables you to squeeze the opponents into the final third by having more available forward players higher up the pitch. It also has the effect of making the team less vulnerable to counterattacks as the opposition are forced back into deeper defensive positions.

New thinking

So where does that leave Grimsby Town? Jolley is from the new generation of modern coaches. He spent time working with both Burnley and Crystal Palace under-23s in the recent past, and will have been schooled in the new ways of thinking about the game. But whatever system is preferred, it can only be effective if the club has the players to implement it. Could he make it work here?

A key requirement is for pacey full backs with good delivery. Though he may lack a little pace, we have seen some very good crossing from Luke Hendrie, and Reece Hall-Johnson has the potential to be effective. The system often relies on having three centre-backs. Clearly Ludvig Öhman fits the bill, and Mattie Pollock looks promising, though is perhaps a season short of being a first pick. We currently have Harry Davis and Alex Whitmore, both of whom can do a job, but Danny Collins is at the end of his career.

Michael Jolley is schooled in new ways of thinking about the game. But can he make his preferred system work at Grimsby?

It seems we need another experienced centre-back and a proven wing-back to equip us with the defensive resources to operate a wing-back system. Of course it is possible to operate a high pressing game with a flat back four if the right full-backs are in place, and this could lessen the need to recruit defenders.

More significant shortfalls appear further up the pitch. With Martyn Woolford leaving, we are short of midfield options. Jake Hessenthaler and Harry Clifton are both hard-working, industrious payers, and though Elliott Whitehouse is an unknown quantity so far, he is another highly energetic player. But while it is vital to have such players in the midfield engine room, the passing game requires an element of craft and creativity, the vison to spot the defence-splitting pass, and the skill to deliver into areas that create chances. We need at least one player in the Waters or Boylen mould who is capable of doing that.

But more important still are the forwards to receive those passes. One of the things that has disappointed me this season is the off-the-ball movement from the front players. Too often they seem rooted to the spot. It is vital that forward players make the runs into space that pull defenders out of position and create openings.

We have all bemoaned the lack of goals this season, but this is not only due to an absence of a natural finisher, such as a Pádraig Amond. It is far easier to score a tap-in created by intelligent movement than to have to rely on a skilled marksman spectacularly converting half-chances. Such high quality finishers are expensive and, given our budget, are most likely out of reach.

The forwards we do have at the club – notably Charles Vernam and Jordan Cook – are pretty good, on-the-ground footballers who could fit into a more incisive system. Kristian Dennis, if he stays, may also flourish in such a formation.

Lack of service

The bottom line is that both pieces of the jigsaw need to be in place if the team is to improve its goal tally. We need the forwards with the pace and skill to convert, and the midfielders with the vison to pick them out. One without the other won't cut it. The lack of midfield service to the front line has been a problem for us this year and may go some to explain the baffling phenomenon of Jamille Matt: he looked shocking for us, but his 14 goals have helped Newport County to a play-off place.

Clearly Jolley is trying to move the club forward with formations more in keeping with developments in the modern game. But from where the squad is currently, we need a number of quality signings: the absolute minimum requirements are a centre-back, a wing-back, a creative midfielder, and one or maybe two forwards, of whom Dennis could be one. That's five new quality players at the very least.

That may sound a daunting wishlist, but it's not quite the wholesale change of personnel we have cried out for in seasons past. It's quality rather than quantity that we need to bring in now, building on what we currently have.

Ultimately it will come down to budget. I am sure Jolley knows the formation he needs to make us successful. Whether he can attract the right players to facilitate these ideas is, of course, another matter.

Do you agree with Ron's analysis of Town's requirements this summer? Let us know