Prior to the Liverpool fixture, there had been calls for change. Not of the managerial kind or even necessarily with regards to personnel but of the system.
There had been claims made (by myself included) that Town had hit a metaphorical wall whilst others claimed that Town had simply ‘been found out’.
The change of system did arrive as David Wagner elected to play a variation of the 3-5-2 formation, albeit against Liverpool, it was very much a 5-3-2 containment set-up.
However, the system didn’t quite have the impact that we as fans and David Wagner may have been hoping for.
It will be interesting to see if over the coming weeks and months, David Wagner persists with a variation of the 3-5-2 or if he decides to revert back to the more orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation.
This piece offers an alternative to Town’s current alternative which falls between the 4-2-3-1 formation and the newly implemented variation of the 3-5-2.
Why the change in system?
Whilst hitting the metaphorical wall is an explanation in itself, there are other explanations as to why Wagner decided to deviate away from his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 set-up.
Lacking creativity and/or quality in the final third
In an earlier piece, I addressed Town’s goal problem. This piece looked at Town’s lack of creativity and chance creation through the statistic of “key passes” to explain why Town were struggling to score.
Looking at the table above, it appears that the lack of creativity stems from the trio of attackers that currently play behind a lone striker in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Aside from Collin Quaner with three assists and 0.7 key passes per game, Tom Ince and Rajiv van La Parra have yet to register a single assist this season.
Due to this consistent lack of chance creation from the trio behind the loan striker, Wagner’s switch to three conventional midfielders as part of a formational change appeared to make sense for a number of reasons.
There is, of course, the obvious reason of containment and crowding the midfield which Wagner has utilised on numerous occasions against superior opposition.
However, the change in system also made sense as it offered an opportunity to Aaron Mooy to re-find his form as part of a three man midfield.
The switch, hypothetically, allowed Mooy to play with more freedom as his work-load is lessened significantly, compared to his usual role as a double pivot.
The wing-back experiment
The other major reason why the change of system made sense was, in prospect, to allow Town’s full-backs to play in a more advanced wing-back role.
Looking at the chart above, it is clear that Tommy Smith and Florent Hadergjonaj have been two of Town’s most influential players in the final third, this season.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering how vital the full-backs were in Wagner’s 4-2-3-1 system last season.
This switch to a variation of 3-5-2 should have given the now wing-backs more freedom to move forward and act as a supply line for Steve Mounié and Laurent Depoitre.
Against Liverpool, this almost did materialise when Philip Billing’s knock-down found Chris Löwe who had provided an ambitious overlapping run and the subsequent cross was almost converted by Depoitre.
As well as adding a dynamic going forward, it should have also meant that with the support of Town’s three man midfield, the vulnerabilities and frailties of Town’s full-backs wouldn’t be exposed.
Isolated in one on one situations, Town’s full-backs have struggled to deal with the pace, power and trickery of Premier League wingers, however, within this system, that threat should have been nullified to a large extent.
Whilst the 3-5-2/5-3-2 system didn’t quite work against Liverpool, perhaps purely because of the calibre of the opposition, there is truth to the reasons stated above and a change in system may still remain the best solution.
However, this piece makes the case that a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond could be a better fit for Town’s squad than a variation of the 3-5-2.
The most likely midfield combination if Wagner did turn to this formation would see Jonathan Hogg anchoring the midfield and Alex Pritchard at the tip of the diamond with Aaron Mooy and Philip Billing playing the box to box role on either side.
This could be effective for a number of reasons.
Some questions have begun to be asked about Jonathan Hogg’s capabilities when in possession. Whilst there is no questions to be asked about Hogg’s contribution out of possession, at times, he has looked limited with the ball at his feet. This is in stark contrast to the growth he demonstrated in his passing ability last season in the Championship. There has clearly been a regression of proficiency or perhaps, more brutally that his ability has been found out in a higher division.
With Aaron Mooy and Philip Billing as well as the inevitably overlapping full-backs, there would be more options for Hogg to turn to, rather than playing lateral and backwards passes.
For Mooy and Billing, there would be a greater degree of freedom to roam forward and offer another dimension to the attack through late runs from midfield into the box.
Finding a system which allows Mooy to return to his influential best could be the difference over this stretch of crucial games.
Finally within the midfield, this system would enable Alex Pritchard to play between the lines and act as a bridge linking Town’s midfield to Town’s attack.
Questions may be asked where Town’s width would come from with no natural wingers on the pitch. However, as I have stated above, Town’s most influential wide players this season have been their full-backs.
This system, if a balance can be struck in the midfield, could bring Town’s best features from the 4-2-3-1 formation and address the issues which has led to calls for a change in system.
However, for this system to work, it would mean that Town would have to re-find their ‘terrier’ identity. They would have to have the confidence self-belief to willingly commit men forward.
As Wagner continues to search for different systems to help Town bounce back from their drop in forms, perhaps the 4-4-2 diamond as an alternative to the alternative could be the answer.