If I were to summarise Michael Appleton’s philosophy, it would be that if we couldn’t out-think our opponents, then we’d simply try to outplay them. It worked most of the time, sometimes spectacularly so, but there were critical moments during a season when we’d find ourselves undone.
While we may have been equals or even betters in terms of pure ability, teams who were tactically better organised by managers like Chris Wilder, Phil Parkinson and Phil Brown were able to find ways to pick us apart just when we needed the points.
Last night’s draw against Bradford saw a tactical awakening and a significant step forward. There was an article about Pep Clotet in the Football League Paper which described his philosophy as complete discipline in defence and midfield, complete fluidity in attack. Easier said than done because some players have multiple roles. But there was evidence of it in the first hour as the team shape expanded as it broke forward and contracted as a single unit when Bradford had the ball. While constantly threatening in attack, we squeezed the life out of their options when we had to defend. It forced them to revert to the spectacular. Many teams won’t have the ability to execute a goal like their opener, which means most teams simply won’t get a sniff of Simon Eastwood’s goal if we carry on playing like this. We’d mitigated the risk to such an extent that while the goal was a blow, the fact that we could only be beaten by a moment of extraordinary ability was a huge positive.
There were other benefits; a more disciplined approach is much more efficient; we weren’t reliant on Simon Eastwood’s agility, Chey Dunkley’s strength or Chris Maguire’s mercurial talents to get us out of difficulties. Players jogged into their positions, rather than sprinted or lurched, that’s expending less energy and reduces the risk of injury. If we can use our brains rather than our bodies to win games, we’ll sustain ourselves longer.
The final half-an-hour saw something slightly different. It might have been tiredness, the disruption of substitutions or the desperation to get something from the game, but the shape of the game changed. I’m tempted to say it was a deliberate change of approach – we started passing the ball along the defensive line, but while it was viewed by some fans as indecision, perhaps it was an effort to draw Bradford out and open up some space. There were other things that were odd enough to be deliberate – Ryan Ledson drifting into John Mousinho’s right back position allowing him to lumber into the centre of midfield. It didn’t feel like a loss of discipline, more a deliberate tactical shift. Perhaps it was a way of disrupting the shape in the middle, allowing fresh legs of van Kessel and Mowatt, along with the endlessly energetic and cunning Wes Thomas, to exploit the spaces that were created. If it was deliberate, it was very clever and it worked with two very well worked goals showing the concept of ‘full fluidity in attack’ in all its glory.
While their equaliser was a kick in the guts, I suspect, this is a point that we might not have got last year. Watching the game was like a great film where the story evolved out of the tension of the piece, rather than telegraphed through a series of dramatic set-pieces, as it might have been last year. The quality of the performance, rather than the size of the explosion making it an enthralling spectacle. This growing maturity is undoubtedly progress.