Five-Four-One: The Coleman Conundrum

A new season dawns and Chris Coleman will have only a month or so to decide who will take the place of the suspended Joe Allen against Austria. Hywel Picken looks at the personnel and formation options.

The Austrians are coming.

The game in Cardiff is make or break – a textbook six-pointer if ever there was. The phrase ‘must-win’ was surely coined for occasions such as this. The group is tight but it is most certainly advantage Serbia and Ireland. Their four point lead coming into the closing straight looks strong without being commanding. Our draw in Serbia saw us climb threateningly from the canvas. It remains all to play for.

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Joe Allen’s absence is a huge loss and the sense of a large hole in the centre of the park turns into a gaping chasm when you consider that his midfield counterpart Joe Ledley has barely played since the turn of the year and has yet to sign for a new club ahead of the coming campaign. Cookie will be playing it cool, but have no doubts – this will undoubtedly be causing him sleepless nights.

So what are Coleman’s options ahead of this crucial tie?

A series of five consecutive draws has seen a clamour from a section of the support to move away from the tried and trusted 5-4-1 / 5-3-2 system that has served us so well over the past three years. According to some, it is time for Coleman to revert to four at the back and look to bring in an extra attacking midfielder; someone like, say, Ben Woodburn.

Ben Woodburn has been heavily involved in Liverpool’s pre-season and has played in a variety of midfield roles. At various times during Liverpool’s adventures across Asia, Europe and England Woodburn has played at the base of the Reds’ three man midfield as well as on the right and the left. In an interview with Melissa Reddy Klopp was quick to heap praise on the18 year old stating that:

“Look at Ben [Woodburn], what a player! He was put as a No.8 against a strong Crystal Palace side and it was like he has never been in any other position in his life even though he’s only been there a few times. When Gini [Wijnaldum] pushed up, he dropped to become our ‘six’ so game intelligence is a big skill of Ben’s and he can only get better.”

High praise indeed. The question for Coleman is – does he trust such an inexperienced player to take to the field in such a crucial game?

It is highly unlikely. Voices from inside Anfield suggest that Woodburn’s lack of pace has curtailed his ambitions to play as a striker, however, Klopp’s reluctance to add to his squad despite his failure to sign Naby Keita has been put down to the fact that he feels that Woodburn has a high ceiling and is quickly turning into a player that he trusts. If Woodburn is involved in 15-20 games this season it will have been a good season for him.

So what should Coleman do against Austria? Allen is out, Ledley is unlikely to be anywhere near match-fit and Woodburn is far too green. Should he look to move Bale further back?

Should we be looking to bring Tom Lawrence in an attempt to provide us with a greater cutting edge and goal-threat? The options for Coleman are few and far between.

I will be amazed if Coleman changes this system. Like or loathe it, we remain unbeaten and, despite rarely looking particularly threatening offensively, we have often been the side dictating the tempo of the game. I would argue that Coleman attempting to change his system at this late juncture could be catastrophic. The amount of time that he has with his squad is already desperately short. Anyone who believes that it is easy to change a system and style of playing that has taken years to perfect is utterly deluded.

In addition, what message is Coleman giving to his players if he decides to deviate? A message that he no longer believes in the system, or a message that he doesn’t believe that the players have the ability to deliver. A feature of Coleman’s reign has been the players’ enthusiastic championing of their boss. He believes in them and they believe in him. The culture of the squad is fantastic. Their positivity and confidence are in stark contrast to previous regimes where division, back-biting and indifference have reigned. Collectively, they know the plan, they know the system and they know how to deliver on the big occasion. Coleman may tinker with the system to combat the strengths or capitalise on the weaknesses of the opposition but he will not (and should not) change.

Don’t believe me? Well here are Herr Klopp’s thoughts on it. He’s much more fashionable than Cookie, though I suspect their thoughts on football are remarkably similar:

“They listen to these voices, the whole club listens to these voices that go ‘oh, it’s again like this, they don’t have Plan B for deep-defending sides, they can only play one way.

“We smashed teams at the start of last season by altering our style in different ways to play to our strengths and minimise the opposition’s like against West Brom at Anfield. We limited their set-piece situations, which we know they are really dangerous from.

“The talk of Plan B shows a lack of understanding. In the moment when you are not feeling confident, you cannot change too many things – that’s insecurity.

“It’s not about showing what you can do – like ‘hey, here is Plan D, F, Q!’ My job is not to prove that I can do 1000 different techniques or no-looking coaching or whatever, it is to do what is best for the players I have, with our skills, in the situation we are in.

“When I hear or read these things about us, I know I 100 per cent do not listen. But oh my God, everybody else listens, so we have to block that out and focus on us and our way.”

Finally, a cautious word of warning from a lover of egg-chasing. The grass isn’t always greener. The last three years have exceeded all of our expectations. Coleman (like Waren Gatland) is not a magician. He has made the most of the tools he has to hand and has made a fine fist of it. The Monday Night Football era means that every armchair fan is a tactical expert who is only too happy to voice (or pen their opinion). One thing is certain: Coleman, Roberts and co know more than me and more than you. Let’s get behind them contribute to another famous Welsh night at the Cardiff City Stadium.


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2 Responses

  1. Wyn says:

    A well argued point of view, but if this is the case for the “defence”, I will put the case for the “prosecution”.

    The first two witnesses I would call for the prosecution would, irony of ironies, be Coleman and Roberts. When they adopted the wing-back system at the start of the last campaign, it was met with much scepticism (including from myself). This was a radical departure from the longstanding 4-2-3-1, and seemed very risky as very few of the players at the time would have experience of a wing-back system with their club sides. Although things very nearly went pear-shaped out in Andorra (more down to that disgraceful pitch than the formation), it cannot be denied that the change of formation proved to be a master stroke. The success of a change in formation wasn’t a one-off either. The move from a 5-3-2/3-5-2 to the 3-4-2-1 box formation for the match out in Haifa, although a less radical change than from a flat back four, was still a bold move, and gave us the blueprint for qualification and tournament success.

    The other strong argument in favour of a change of formation would be that our current two favoured alternative formations the 3-4-2-1 or 4-2-3-1 both involve two holding midfielders. The absence of Allen, combined with a half-fit Ledley (who will need to contribute far more offensively and mobility wise in the absence of Allen’s all-round game), is a serious headache. Not only that, but the game out in Vienna was just about the only game in this campaign where we were second best for the majority of the game (62% possession to Austria, and 15 shots and 7 on target to our 7 and 3 respectively). This in spite of having Allen and Ledley available to anchor the midfield – with Ramsey being the only notable absentee. Allen’s departure on 56 minutes was particularly telling. So, there is good reason to fear being over-run in the middle of the park at the CCS.

    Having said all this the problem with a change of formation is that there isn’t a system that obviously addresses the concern about the defensive midfield problems caused by Allen’s absence. The best I can come up with is a 4-3-3: Hennessey, Gunter, Williams, Chester, Davies, Ramsey, Ledley, Huws, Bale, HRK and Lawrence/Woodburn. Offensively, with a very mobile front three, that could be a formidable line-up – but it would be a big departure, and it’s not clear that it would really improve the defensive midfield problems.

    So, all in all I the case for a change of formation isn’t clear-cut at all. But neither is the case for the status quo. As you say, Coleman will be having many sleepless nights over this. Precedent suggests that if Coleman were to change things, then the first game of the international season is probably the best time, with the two aforementioned changes coming at the start of the season and in after the end of the club season. As it is, I expect Coleman to keep things largely unchanged. The most radical change he may be contemplating is to drop Ramsey alongside Ledley, and play Lawrence, Joniesta or Woodburn (off the bench) alongside Bale in the dual-10 position. This isn’t Ramsey’s best position, but we need some creativity from deep, and Ramsey certainly has quarterback capabilities.

    The most telling aspect of the post is the absence of any suggested pairing to replace the Ledley/Allen duo. This mirrors discussions elsewhere. Where suggestions have been made, they’ve been very unconvincing – any combination of Ledley, Edwards, King or Huws is either lacking in creativity, dynamism, ball retention capability or experience, to varying degrees.

    In the absence of any convincing suggestion as to how we can accommodate the absence of Allen, in terms of either personnel or formation changes, perhaps the mantra “in Coleman we trust” is about as good as it gets. That and a bit of overdue Bale magic.

    • Russell Todd says:

      Hywel replies:

      Great points – well made, Wyn. I do not disagree with anything that you have said there. Allen’s absence is showing that his presence is every bit as crucial as Bale and Ramsey – if not more so.

      I think he has to bring Lawrence into the mix somewhere. He had a good season last year and has looked bright for Leicester in pre-season.

      I’m not sure you can even pick Ledley – no club, no pre-season – it’s a big ask.

      I’m not sure I’d pick HRK either. He’s played very little football over the last 12 months. He trusts Edwards so he’ll come in. King is another fringe player who has yet to do anything of note for us, so Lawrence would be the obvious choice.

      Woodburn is an interesting one. I like the look of him. He’s clever, has an eye for goal and a killer pass and is well used to pressing. He’ll be extremely fit and desperate to prove his worth. It’s a gamble though.

      I think Coleman’s first thought will be to keep it tight. With that in mind – he’ll play Edwards next to Ledley (if fit). Your point on Bale is a good one. He really isn’t the all action rampaging wing back he once was – there isn’t a hige amount of running for us and I question if he needs to be further back to allow him to get on the ball more. Either way – he is due a big performance after an indifferent 12 months.

      Thanks for reading and responding so thoughtfully.


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