Well, that’s not strictly true, obviously, but it’s very difficult to learn anything concrete in four league games and a cup game which will long be remembered as something more than just a local derby. The four ‘real’ games have seen just three goals – none by a striker – but leaves us with five points, our best start since… well, ages ago (2003 to be exact, in the second tier at least). More to the point, we may as well write these games off as pre-season as McClaren has neither the players he wants or needs yet and is still assessing the squad, what the first XI will be and their best formation. He should have learnt more than we have — Cohen can (just about) play left-back but he’s better off in midfield, neither McGugan nor Majewski should play on the wing, we have no real width as Billy Davies struggled with towards the end of last season — and implementing his style of football will take a while…
It’s clear McClaren favours 4-2-3-1 and, in many ways, it’s the ideal formation for a Championship team pushing for promotion — it offers protection for the defence, numbers in midfield, support in attack, width for wingers and wing-backs and movement between the traditional lines. That said, it’s entirely dependent on the players available and whether they can work the system. As it is, we’ve moved between 4-2-3-1, 4-1-3-2, 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1, a flat 4-4-2 and a midfield diamond… Clearly the lack of time to prepare and the difficulty bringing in players has stifled the development. In an ideal world McClaren would’ve been appointed on 17 May, the players he wanted would’ve signed by 1 July and he’d have trained, coached and drilled them to within an inch of their lives by 6 August. In reality, we’re about a month behind schedule.
Again, the basis for the future is being laid out but until the players understand their role, establish a relationship on the pitch and the square-peg/round-hole conundrum is solved it’s going to be a matter of weeks or even months. A possession game based on keeping the ball (obviously) and pressing takes practice and training to perfect. And it’s quite clear that McClaren’s footballing philosophy is based on width: spread the play, stretch the opposition, exploit the space… He got it badly wrong on Saturday against Leicester but without mistakes how can you learn? (Greening and Chambers take note.) Two games this week against Wycombe and West Ham will see us through to the international break and the end of the transfer window — a welcome breather in more ways than one before we take on the two clubs with 100% records: Southampton and, er, Derby.
You can’t argue with the quality of players McClaren has brought in – three midfielders and two strikers with experience of the Premier League, blending youth and maturity. It’s clear he’s not finished yet and the loss of Wesley Verhoek was clearly a huge setback. The key question now is how the side settles: if we’re playing 4-2-3-1, then Boateng and Greening need to develop an understanding and decide which, if either of them, will sit deep and who will press forward. The signing of Miller is key to making any of the aforementioned formations work; his strength, aerial threat and ability to hold the ball up alleviates the pressure not only on the defence but the whole team. McClaren clearly sees something in David McGoldrick that many fans can’t – whether it’s his transition to attacking midfielder, restoring some confidence or simply putting him in the shop window, only time will tell. But if McGugan isn’t on form or injured then we need an alternative and the suspicion is that Majewski’s best position may be as a deep-lying playmaker (regista) rather than the classic no. 10 role (trequartista).
Whether they’ve been slaving away all summer – and there’s no doubt that the Verhoek deal was a while in the planning – or McClaren is belatedly getting his way, the much-maligned ‘transfer acquisition panel’ has got into gear… Quite which gear remains to be seen as there’s still some business to be done. With Anderson and McCleary injured, and Reid not exactly the fastest on the pitch, it’s absolutely essential we have some pace and width. Findlay might be able to do a job but the addition of out-and-out wingers will be key to our success or failure. There have been several rumours about incoming players but either way season-long loans or permanent transfers are required – not forgetting the suggestion that another left-back loan is on the horizon; McClaren realising the need for Cohen’s drive in midfield and also the obvious benefits of a wing-back.
There are no easy games in the Championship but seeing as we’ve gained five points, as well as getting away games at both Millwall and Doncaster and a home tie against Leicester out of the way, it’s by no means a bad start — despite the performances. We should be able to better assess McClaren at the end of September but while the expectation is to be pushing for a play-off place this season, it doesn’t do the club, the manager, or the players any favours by expecting miracles. Finishing sixth last season masked a number of problems yet to be resolved.
All comments welcome…