It’s that time of the year again, when clubs decide whether or not to go for it. When heads come out of the sand and the realisation dawns that they might not be where they hoped. Their league position at the end of January could determine their season; is it to be play-off’s, can they get promotion or is it to be the dreaded relegation? Can they squeeze every inch of ability out of their team and win enough games to achieve their pre season goal. All manner of thoughts will be racing through a manager’s head; systems, tactics and formations at the forefront, but ultimately it comes down to players. It ALWAYS comes down to players and how they perform.

Tactically, league position and club ambition can dictate an awful lot about how a coach approaches the final third of the season. Contrary to popular belief, very few managers and coaches ‘wing it.’ There is always a lot of thought and individual planning goes into tactics and formation and, depending on league position, approaches to that crucial period can be very different. There is no doubt the higher position in the league and the better players you have, will allow you to play more open, expansive football, whilst trying to protect a team from going down, will generally result in a more pragmatic, even negative approach. As a rule of thumb, if your team is going down, they’ll rarely have been great to watch.

You may not be aware though, that you could have saved yourself a lot of end of season heartache. If you’d checked the league table after 12 games, you’ll probably find your team were not that far away from their finishing position at that point. It’s a little known fact that the table changes very little from that point until the end of the season. Clubs fairly quickly find their level.

Just don’t blame me if you realise your team are going to be relegated after 12 games.

The Sky Factor

Andy Gray has a lot to answer for. I had rarely heard of “one up top” until Andy started spouting it on Monday Night Football. Now they’re all playing it. My coaching philosophy and therefore that of most of the teams I coached was based around being compact, difficult to beat, playing high up the pitch and playing with two strikers. The ‘lone striker’ was something rarely considered and only in certain circumstances when you wanted to become REALLY difficult to break down. But I’m aware times have changed and more flexibility in your system is an essential these days for success.
In our second season at Dundee we had one particular occasion were ‘one up top’ became a requirement, a League Cup tie against Celtic at Dens. Our particular lone raider was a relatively unknown Czech, Jan Zemlik, all 6ft 7in of him. In truth, big Jan wasn’t a great footballer, but on this occasion, his size and strength proved the foil we needed as he was able to hold up and retain possession, whilst occupying both centre backs, allowing us to play an extra man in midfield to stifle Celtic’s obvious quality in there. He buffeted and bruised his way through the game and gave us a tremendous platform to contain and counter. As it was, we lost 2-1, but we gave them an enormous fright and proved to us that we could change and adapt our style when required.


But that’s ok in a one-off game, a situation where you can try something different. It’s far more difficult to convince players, and indeed yourself, half way through a season to sway from the norm. Most teams set out their stall depending on objectives and budgets. If you want to win titles, gain promotion and win games, you have to score goals. If you want to avoid relegation, you have to stop losing them. It is very, very rare – unless you are coaching at the very top level – that you are able to combine the two in equal measure. It’s one of the reasons why the top players and top coaches are highly paid and highly sought after. They are able to adapt equally at the very highest level.
In Scotland, we just have to do our best with the players we have at our disposal. There is no option to buy your way out of trouble.

That second year at Dens, we were able to play with more flair and freedom. Some of our players had matured into better players and we were able to bring in some quality due to budget constraints being ‘loosened’ a little. But it was only possible due to the building blocks we had put in place in our first season. A testing, brute of a season, where we had to sacrifice quality for functionality and do the best with what we had. The foundations were laid on the pitch, but in a rather different way than you might expect.

Narrow minded

When Alex and I got the job at Dens, we had a point to prove. We took over a team who had finished 7th in Division One, and had been ravaged by administration. We had a threadbare squad with nine signed players and a budget which was never going to allow us to compete at the top end of the table, but, for the sake of our football futures, we had to fight and show people we could do something with that squad. We knew if we could get them into a competitive position, the board would trust us for a second season and we could have a go at promotion. Expectation levels were high at Dundee, but at this point after the trauma of administration, they were happy to still have a club IN the division and, had we managed to get that band of Bosman’s and strays into the SPL, our next task would have been to turn water into wine.

We set about our task, knowing that realistically, a top four finish, would be an achievement given our squad. We trawled DVD’s of the previous season’s games and it became glaringly obvious, we were going to struggle. We had to find an angle, something that would give us an edge, an advantage, anything. Everyone seemed to enjoy playing at Dens – a big, wide bowling green of a pitch. It was an opponent’s dream. Watching those DVD’s, our players couldn’t get near the opposition and when better players are given room to play, they excel. We had to deny space and snarl our way through games. So we shortened and narrowed the pitch. A lot.

Not only that, we let everyone know, the press, opposition coaches, the fans, everyone. It was great watching experienced managers come and the first thing they did was pace out the pitch and scratch their heads. We had got into them and as well as a slight psychological edge, we had given our players a better chance. The football we played may not have been great that season, but it allowed us to bed in our philosophy of high tempo, aggressive, pressing football. A finish of 3rd was enough to give us another year in the job and with priorities (and budgets) now changing, we could afford to add some flair to the eclectic mix of endeavour and organisation.

Rarely do teams get the opportunity to change their philosophy at the business end of the season. Priorities are assessed and targets set at the beginning of the season. Money can change a lot of things, but when you’re at the nuts and bolts of the game and you don’t have it, you’ll find that those at the top score more goals and those at the bottom lose more. If only it were always so simple.

Finally… Kevin Mirallas. Unfortunately, his action in taking that penalty the other evening, epitomised many fans’ perception of the current type of player being imported to the English Premier. It was selfish and self motivated, with complete disregard for the team, although contrary to many people’s thought, I don’t believe it would have been pre-meditated for a ‘cause.’ He wanted the glory of scoring the penalty for himself. It’s alien to us a nation, but it’s very much in the nature of the ‘European’ footballer. Thankfully, Roberto Martinez put the player firmly in his place by taking him off, a move which will have gained him the respect of the rest of the players AND Mirallas himself and guaranteed a nurturing of team spirit. Mirallas may have to be sold in the end, if he doesn’t buy into Martinez’s play, but it will be worth it in the manager’s eyes for the sake of the club and for the morale of the group as a whole.

One thing I would like to add though is to question the mentality of Leighton Baines. With his record from the spot and his undoubted set piece ability, I know I wouldn’t have allowed Messi to take the ball off me, never mind the bold Mirallas.

Onto the return of the Guest Tipster treble. With the opportunity of the job in football not coming to fruition, I am free to give the chance for my old pal and ex Hamilton legend Paul ‘Wolfie’ McKenzie the chance to be the first guest to bring home the bacon. His selections this week are – Inverness (8to5), Dundee (6to4) and Hibs (11to10) for a tasty 12to1 treble

Good Luck

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

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