Death of the 4-2-3-1 Fleetwood Town formation

Now the experiments begin. Fleetwood Town – perfunctory tendency to over assess the opposition in the first half of games rather than impose themselves – tried a new shape Tuesday night. More 4-4-2 rather than Scott Brown’s preferred 4-2-3-1.

For the first 45 minutes it didn’t work. Then it did. Brown could easily have raided the bench at half time and thrown on three players, but instead opted for one: Danny Andrew.

Andrew, head in hands Saturday – ghosted by Exeter’s no.12 Joshua Key which led to a 93rd minute defeat and a downhearted trip back from the ends of the earth – took up a different role: that of left winger. Surprisingly, it did three things: added muscle to the midfield; put Forest Green Rovers on the back foot; and vastly improved Fleetwood’s ability to whip the ball into the area.

One player and the whole complexion of the team altered. They believed again.

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Forest Green – bottom four in the table – ran around in that first half like a team short on confidence, but Fleetwood’s own psychotherapy treatment meant that Ian Burchnall’s men grew in stature as the half progressed.

The Cods lacked a real work ethic in that first period. Plenty of chances – yes. But a vital ingredient missing. Like watching a load of jaded factory workers pick up their pay packets. Then came the change – Danny Andrew.

Fear can be a good thing. It can give balance, stout hardiness and ripples of optimism to a once struggling ship. Andrew’s presence induced such terror. All of a sudden Fleetwood looked normal, able to fulfil their head coach’s demands.

Fluidity. Surging runs. A sense of commanding the field. Working for each other. All of these footballing nuances came together – were somehow borne from Danny Andrew’s introduction on the left wing.

Note the transformation in Josh Vela, Shaun Rooney, Callum Morton and Fleetwood’s Rolls Royce, Carlos Mendes Gomes.

Vela is a mystery. How he came here. Why he came here. To such a small club. And his first few games as a FTFC player resembled someone going through the motions – an imminent retiree. But that second half against Forest Green – wow! He bossed the show at times. Knew he was the most gifted player on the park. And actually led – played the role of a captain.

Vela broke from midfield because of the protection around him. Because of Lewis Warrington (strangely replaced in the 67th minute). Because of Danny Andrew. Because Fleetwood became a different animal. And such a role, such a difference to his play, begs the question: Why hasn’t he been let off the leash before?

Vela is essential to Fleetwood Town’s mental health. Rubber stamp his forward runs (unexpected by the opposition), wind him up and thrust him in the lead role for up-and-coming productions.

Rooney – the Bellshill man, formerly of St. Johnstone, strange circular holes at the back of his socks cooling his calves – was quiet, by his standards, in that first half. And it gets you thinking. If the grizzly bear of Fleetwood Town no longer seems annoyed, vexed, crabby and irritable, then the passion and enthusiasm that Highbury should always witness in this side must have sadly dipped.

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Apathy is the Death Star in football – capable of killing saplings, hope , promise, entire belief structures running through a squad. When it is allowed to sit in the canteen, stand on the sidelines at training or infect the team, then action needs to be taken.

A little tweak, a small adjustment and the engine starts to run well again. There can’t be many better examples of a Jekyll and Hyde performance than Tuesday versus Forest Green. And whilst it didn’t exactly go to plan (no three points), the learning curve was immense.

Scott Brown said, after this match:

Callum [Morton] wants to play as a striker, and we managed to get him and Joe [Garner] up top. We played the two of them and tried to control the game a little bit more with Carlos [Mendes Gomes] playing in behind, backed up by Roons’ running power, which I thought was excellent today.

Morton worked tirelessly Tuesday night. He gets pushed around, thrown to the floor and generally mistreated by roughhouse centre halves, but one thing he always brings to the party is energy. His equaliser in the 70th minute – an audacious back heel following Rooney’s penetrating run and assist – was fully deserved. He, in so many ways, embodies the fighting spirit which Brown is clearly trying to insert into this club on a consistent basis.

His wish to be in the limelight is admirable, ambitious and bold. Morton, still only 22, of Torquay descent and familiar with Fleetwood having been on-loan here before, officially signed from West Brom in the summer on a three-year deal after living the now-common ‘on the road’ life of a loanee.

Three years suggests promise and faith. Morton has yet to prove himself as a regular striker, but I am happy to be proven wrong. A player’s eagerness and buoyancy do that to me.

Better for now to rotate him and Gomes up top, I think – even during games. Confuse the opposition – give Fleetwood that rampaging, unpredictable quality which opposition defences loathe; Warrington sitting deep with Gomes, Vela, Morton and Andrew running  the show.

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That leaves two questions and a big headache for Brown. Who to play at left back? And who to play as our main striker or behind Gomes or Morton?

Josh Earl played at left back Tuesday night. We cannot, alas, afford his absence at centre half – commanding things and keeping the ship afloat, full of canons and strength. Harrison Holgate at this moment in time – despite his improvement and the goal-line clearance against Forest Green – arguably needs maturing a little more in the wine cellar, making way for Earl and one of the finds of this season, Drew Baker.

Baker is plucky and spirited. The former FC United of Manchester player ignores his obvious height disadvantage compared to the likes of Rooney and Earl and scampers around with grace and polish. He could indeed keep Toto Nsiala out of the team.

But back to the question of left back and striker. Sometimes it works utilising a right-footed player at left back. And perhaps Carl Johnston is that man. Quick and hard, the young Belfast bull has a lot to offer. As for a striker, Fleetwood’s top brass either arrange a search party for Admiral Muskwe and Promise Omochere (and Ged Garner) or employ the energetic and proven poacher Dan Batty as a stopgap.

Despite Fleetwood lying in 17th, just two points from their last four games, I am hopeful. One match has the habit of reconfiguring one’s brain. One substitution of highlighting possibilities. And one day Cian Hayes will play in his true position of centre forward hassling and harrying defenders as only he can. He was never meant to be the fall guy in this story.

The Author

Jeff Weston

Author of Wagenknecht (ALL MEN crack up at 40) and Pitchside, Ringside and Down in the Table Tennis Dens.

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