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Johnny's Stay At Home Diary: Part 12

Football's obsession with formations

18 June 2020

John Marquis and Ellis Harrison
Photo: Robin Jones

A few months before the unstoppable coronavirus pandemic swept into town, there was a mini gale swirling around Cold Blow Lane.

Some of the Milwall fraternity were unhappy at the brand of football one-time fans’ favourite Neil Harris – who has since departed the club – was playing.

Up at newly-promoted Aston Villa, there was discontent brewing about boss Dean Smith, who took the midlands outfit up to the Premier League last term.

And not too far away there were questions being asked of Nuno Espirito Santo – the man who led Wolves to an incredible seventh-placed top-flight finish in 2018/19, bringing European football to Molineux.

Closer to home and just a couple of months before guiding Pompey to the League Two title, Paul Cook was the target for discontent about the way his team were playing.

At the heart of all this furore, there are often two common themes. The first is the brand of football and the second is formation, with the two inextricably linked.

If somebody asked me what system the Blues had utilised the previous Saturday, I – unashamedly – would not remember.

Newcastle boss Steve Bruce bemoaned the same thing earlier in the season, declaring that formations did not actually count for match, with application and endeavour far more important.

For me, there are 11 players on the pitch at a start of a game and how they line up is surely a fluid situation

If you begin with John Marquis playing just behind Ellis Harrison then it is announced as one up top, but it only takes a few advance steps from the former to make it two.

"If you begin with John Marquis playing just behind Ellis Harrison then it is announced as one up top, but it only takes a few advance steps from the former to make it two."

Johnny Moore

And then suppose Ronan Curtis is lurking in just as advanced a position, albeit a little wider, and suddenly you’ve got three attackers.

I swear that Bobby Campbell used to play with five forwards at times – Alan Biley, Kevin Dillon, Mark Hateley, Alan Rogers and Neil Webb were a nightmare for those obsessed with rigid formations.

It certainly made for marvellous entertainment in a season which saw 73 goals scored and 64 conceded in 42 second division matches.

The football played was up there with best and yet Campbell was sacked a day before the campaign finished, despite the fact that his 16th-placed side netted one more than promoted Sheffield Wednesday.

Back to Cook and some supporters often said his ‘brand’ was too negative, although only one team bettered the 79 goals struck in that title-winning year.

During November, the Blues were actually booed during a Fratton fixture against Mansfield which resulted in a 4-0 victory.

Then there was ‘that’ match against Crewe later in the season and when the reaction from many turned against him, it was the closest I had seen to him vacating the post.

And yet there were those who would have welcomed him back to Pompey with open arms following a slow start to the current campaign.

In my 52 years of watching the club, I can tell you that one thing certainly has not changed. The formation or brand being utilised is usually only as good or bad as the players operating in it.

The non-stop analysis of systems and styles is for those who have turned the sport into a science and want to sound intellectual.

For the laymen among us, however, it is simply about those 11 players in front of you.

The majority of Portsmouth FC staff have been furloughed as part of the government’s Job Retention Scheme. This column was written before those measures were implemented.


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