Let’s wind it back a few months.
A change in style would take time
Last season under Simon Grayson, Town suffered a run of 12 games without a win, culminating in his dismissal.
The ultimate disaster of relegation never materialised with Town narrowly avoiding relegation on the season’s final matchday after sharing a precious draw with Barnsley (who also survived).
The timing of Robins’ appointment, combined with the perilous position the club was in when he took over in February, meant drastic changes as far as philosophy and style of play were concerned, couldn’t yet take ultimate priority. Instead, ensuring Huddersfield Town’s safety was paramount, regardless of how they managed it.
From 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1
It is worth noting that immediately after his arrival, Robins did change formation from a flat 4-4-2 (used exclusively under Simon Grayson prior to Robins’ arrival) to a more modern and fluid 4-2-3-1 which he used to great effect at Coventry City.
The progression from a Town side struggling not only for results but performances under Grayson, compared with that of Robins’ was apparent, not only in terms of formation, but the way in which the side were set up to play.
Considering the lack of time Robins had with the players after taking over (very little training with typically two matches per week at that stage of the season), the players grasped a quick understanding of what Robins expected from them in a tactical sense.
From being a very one dimensional, direct outfit under Grayson in a 4-4-2, the confidence among the players and willingness to improve in a new system under new boss Robins was encouraging. The 4-2-3-1 enabled greater fluidity when in possession, as well as much needed protection in-front of a fragile back four (conceding 50 in 34 games under Grayson).
After such pleasing results under the most testing of circumstances, you would’ve expected Robins to hone his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 to finer details in his first pre-season at the club. Unsurprisingly then perhaps, when the team was announced on the opening day at Nottinhgam Forest, Town were indeed lining up as predicted.
To 3-5-2 (after one training session!)
It wouldn’t be until the following Tuesday (v Bradford City in the Capital One Cup 1st Round) when Robins threw a genuine curve-ball at everyone.
Town were facing last season’s giant killers and Capital One Cup runners-up (that’s a mouthful) Bradford City in a new-look 3-5-2. A formation that post-match Oliver Norwood said they had only worked on once in training! You would never have realised…
Running out comfortable winners (more-so than a 2-1 scoreline suggests – Nahki Wells scoring a consolation for Bradford in the 92nd minute), it wasn’t so much the result (against a weakened Bradford side) but the different nature of the performance that pleased so many Terriers fans.
In the build up to the season proper, Robins placed great importance on developing a team confident in playing a more attractive brand of football.
Speaking after the narrow defeat to Nottingham Forest, Robins commented on the general work he and the playing staff had been putting in on the training field in pre-season ”I want to change our DNA” he said. ”We have to put in the work and have a real desire to want the ball in every area of the pitch, move it with speed and purpose, create chances, score goals and excite our supporters.” Encouraging comments for Town fans to hear. None of which they could’ve related to whilst watching Grayson’s Town.
This was very much a side deep in transition.
QPR at home. Huddersfield’s opening home league fixture
It was one thing choosing a cup game against a weaker opponent to experiment with a new formation – in many ways, it seemed the ideal scenario.
The real belief shown by Mark Robins in his players came the following Saturday against a genuine promotion favorite, Queens Park Rangers.
Many predicted (myself included) that Robins would revert back to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 against such an opponent.
He didn’t, instead instilling a huge amount of faith in his players by approaching the match in the same way as Tuesday night (just two more training sessions since the Bradford game, and his side up against a very different test in QPR in the sense that they would a) come up against technically more gifted footballers than Bradford, but more importantly b) Rangers would put a lot more pressure on the Town defence in a bid to catch them in possession as Town looked to play out from the back, which at this stage was very much work in progress).
Robins alluded to the difference in opposition when stating that the shape of his side was ‘OK’ and that they ‘got pulled about a little bit’.
Despite all that, Robins’ men performed admirably again, earning a well deserved 1-1 draw (after taking the lead) against a Rangers side who boast arguably the strongest squad in the division.
This got me thinking, is the 3-5-2 here for the foreseeable future, or will it be seen to be ‘just’ another option to the aforementioned 4-2-3-1.
Recent success stories
In Europe, the 3-5-2 has had plenty of success in recent times. Juventus, under Antonio Conte have cruised to back to back Scudetto’s, with Napoli and Fiorentina (along with many other Serie A sides) also impressing using the same system.
Perhaps more relatively, In last season’s Championship, Steve Bruce, rather surprisingly, had his Hull City side set-up in a 3-5-2 for much of the campaign (gaining promotion in the process). Gianfranco Zola implemented the same system at Watford (who narrowly missed out on promotion against Crystal Palace in the playoff final at Wembley) though it is worth noting that a majority of Watford’s starting eleven were made up of Udinese loanees familiar with such a system that in general is relatively unused in English football.
You would say it isn’t a coincidence then, that Mark Robins is genuinely weighing up the prospect of lining his side up in a similar fashion. Nigel Pearson at Leicester City, another Championship manager keen to give it a go with much the same squad who predominantly were set up in a 4-4-2 last time out.
DOES THE 3-5-2 HAVE A FUTURE AT HUDDERSFIELD TOWN?
In this post, I’ll highlight the tactical importance of each role within the system and offer my verdict on whether the 3-5-2 is suited to the options Mark Robins has available to him.
In front of Alex Smithies the trio, from left to right, are Joel Lynch, Anthony Gerrard, and captain Peter Clarke.
Whilst you wouldn’t say any of the three possess exquisite technical ability, all have looked efficient in terms of doing the basics correctly and making the right decision more often than not. Whilst it’s very early days, all three look comfortable in what is a change of role, in a new system, playing a different style.
Tactically, the back three adopt a fairly deep defensive line when out of possession. Smelling danger, they naturally retreat (no real pace between them) in an attempt to deny space in behind. Against QPR especially, the back three held a good line limiting QPR’s (potentially) dangerous strikeforce of Andy Johnson and Charlie Austin to just one effort from inside the box in the first half.
The danger of isolation
In the recent match against QPR it was alarming just how regularly Junior Hoilett looked into the whites of Peter Clarke’s eyes. The former Blackburn winger playing on the left wing for Rangers and up against Town skipper as his direct opponent (Clarke, playing the right of the three CBs didn’t get much in the way of protection from his right wingback Adam Hammill).
Without specific stats to back this up, it was no coincidence to see that ‘WhoScored’, a website based around statistics, had Hoilett topping the ‘most shots’ table with six, and ‘most dribbles’ with four. He was also QPR’s highest rated player in the game. Clarke, although having had a good game in general, is vulnerable to a tricky wingman with pace and the ball at his feet. Something Mark Robins will be well aware of.
The lack of cover at the back could determine just how often we see the 3-5-2. Inevitably, suspensions and injuries are likely to be problematic at some stage throughout what is a gruelingly long season.
Murray Wallace, Town’s fourth choice and only other ‘senior’ (just 20) centreback is the one shoe-in replacement. Others, including Calum Woods could no doubt do a job if called upon, but it’s not ideal strength in depth.
In such a scenario, I imagine Robins would revert back to a 4-2-3-1 – it would make sense from a defensive standpoint.
What clues can we take from Robins’ summer business?
Well, despite inheriting a leaky defence from Simon Grayson, Robins has (thus far) opted against strengthening/adding to the CB area. This potentially tells us a couple of things. a) Robins believes the current four have what it takes to improve on last season (the defensive record as far as the goals conceded column did improve post Grayson). And b) Robins went into this window with the idea of playing two CBs in a (still adaptable) 4-2-3-1.
The next couple of weeks will go a long way to deciding which route the Town manager wants to go.
The role and importance of an effective, energetic wingback
As with any 3-5-2, the success rate largely depends upon the quality of your two wingbacks. Unlike a 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 where typically two wide men (winger and fullback) occupy each side, the 3-5-2 relies solely on each wingback to stretch the pitch laterally.
In terms of positioning, it is vital the wingbacks hug the touchline. Not only does this give a teammate in possession an option, but equally creates an overload infield, offering the three midfielders more time and space.
Juan Cuadrado, Fiorentina’s right wingback in a 3-5-2 adopting an advanced position, wide right – proving an outlet to the man in possession, whilst also drawing the attention of Parma’s left winger and left back (via bleacherreport).
Speaking of a right wingback – Mark Robins has Jack Hunt who seems ‘ready made’ to fill that void. I use apostrophes because it’s a role he isn’t familiar with as yet, but one he should flourish in given his strongest attributes.
Playing higher up the pitch reduces the individual pressure on him defensively, an area of his game where he still falls short. Of course, an effective wingback is energetic in getting up and down the line helping with both defensive and offensive phases of play.
Relating back to the Fiorentina link, wingbacks Manuel Pasqual (left) and Juan Cuadrado (right) contributed to no fewer than 21 of the Viola’s Serie A goals last season. Both managed seven assists apiece (only Borja Valero managed more) with Pasqual scoring twice, Cuadrado five times. This highlights the level of importance of two offensively attributed wingbacks – they prove key to offering a direct attacking threat down each flank.
It’s a different story when out of possession. Wingbacks are often encouraged to tuck in (level with the three CBs) almost making a flat five across the back. It’s worth noting that this is manager/tactic dependent though and will vary from team to team.
Pace and stamina are two key attributes of a wingback, both of which Town’s natural right fullback Jack Hunt has in abundance. His performance against Bradford from an attacking point of view (as a team, Huddersfield didn’t have much defending to do from open play) showed great promise. He was keen to get forward at every opportunity and assisted James Vaughan’s first goal. In general, Hunt’s crossing and decision making wasn’t up to standard, but Robins would’ve seen enough potential from him in what was a lively 45 minute cameo.
Paul Dixon offers similar attributes on the other side but is currently sidelined through injury, meaning the inexperienced Jake Carroll (signed from St. Patrick’s in Northern Ireland) has been thrown in at the deep end. Although he hasn’t drowned, Carroll appears slightly out of his depth in the sense that he appears over-cautious when in possession (opting for a defensive ball infield over something more ambitious/risky/rewarding). Understandable though, at this stage, for someone with no experience of the English game (not to mention the step up in quality).
Robins echoed a similar opinion on Carroll post QPR: ”He’s never played in games like this before – it will stand him in good stead, but you’d still like him to go forward with the passes and just be a little bit more adventurous.”
You would imagine such confidence will come with game time/experience. Robins certainly holds high hopes for him in the future: ”He’s an outstanding young talent, and someone I’ve got a lot of faith in.”
The Town boss showed further faith in his players by adding that he’d take the flack if mistakes happened/goals were conceded in a bid to do the right thing: ”I’ve said I’ll take it on the chin. If we concede goals and lose games that’s my responsibility.”
Nevertheless, I would expect Dixon to nail down the left wingback spot when he returns to fitness. It’s important to pose an equal threat if at all possible down both flanks and avoid being imbalanced.
In a typical 3-5-2 you have three central midfielders. Roles and individual player instructions vary (depending on strategy), but in Town’s case it appears to be two holding and one playing at the tip of the triangle in a more advanced position, level, or even slightly advanced of the wingbacks.
Against Bradford (and I would predict for much of the coming season when Robins opts for the 3-5-2) Oliver Norwood and new recruit Jonathan Hogg both shone in deep lying roles, taking turns in receiving the ball off either Smithies or one of the CBs. Predominantly much of their hard graft/good work is done inside their own half, constantly hunting for space and creating angles for their teammates to find them with a short pass.
Together they formed an impressive understanding considering it was the first time they had played alongside each other. If ever there was a case of two technical footballers benefiting from a good playing surface and a shorter playing style under Robins, this was it.
Oscar Gobern filled in for Jonathan Hogg against QPR on Saturday (the latter out due to illness), incidentally putting in a commendable performance – but he’s a different type altogether.
Considerably taller and a far more technically limited footballer, Gobern won’t demand the ball as frequently as the aforementioned two, but once in possession, he’s difficult to shrug off.
Although looking ungainly, he has a happy knack of turning away from opponents, keeping the ball whilst being physically more imposing than Norwood and Hogg because of his rangy stature.
He’s certainly a good option to have, and is someone Robins will utilise regularly, although from a personal standpoint, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Norwood and Hogg come out as the most fancied combination in this system. Both offer greater vision and boast a greater passing range, whilst being better equipped to pick out a teammate in an advanced position with a longer pass (to a wingback on the touchline for example).
Adam Clayton, in this formation, has a role to himself. Playing in a more creative role (against both Bradford and QPR you could’ve make a case for it being a 3-4-1-2) he orchestrated many of Town’s forays through the middle looking to create chances for the two front men but also be an option in the box on offensive surges.
With the defensive duties of the wingbacks, Clayton will largely act the link between defence and attack in transitions.
You would expect James Vaughan and Martin Paterson to combine for large parts of the season where possible. Both incredibly hard working and always on the move whilst positionally disciplined if asked to lead the line through the middle.
Both crave efficient and regular service, and in the 3-5-2, particularly in the second half against a well organised, superior QPR side last weekend, they were largely anonymous. With the no long ball policy, there wasn’t much in the way of scraps to feed off, either.
Robins won’t read too much into that, mind, and nor should he. Town won’t face opposition that strong every weekend, regardless of how competitive the Championship is.
Without putting together a complete performance in either game (looked far more solid defensively, limiting opposition to fewer chances, you would like to see a more threatening look about them going forward. ), Mark Robins will have seen enough to suggest the 3-5-2 is a formation with a future at Huddersfield Town.
Naturally, the change in formation and style of football will take time to develop, but early indications have certainly been encouraging.
Whether it becomes his preferred formation remains to be seen. At the moment, two Championship games into the season, it’s too early to say. Regardless, it’s good to have different, reliable options to call upon.
What I expect to be a first choice XI when all fit/available. Could make a case for Hammill over Hunt at RWB whilst Cristian Lopez and Jonathan Stead will likely play second fiddle to Vaughan/Paterson (used from the bench).
Joel Lynch, Anthony Gerrard, Peter Clarke;
Paul Dixon (LWB), Jack Hunt (RWB)
Jonathan Hogg, Oliver Norwood,
James Vaughan, Martin Paterson;
So after all that, 4-4-2 at The Den tomorrow, anyone?
Written by Dave May.
Find Dave on Twitter @72OffWins
Huddersfield Town’s new-look 3-5-2 explained.
Let’s wind it back a few months.