Fleetwood Town indulge in six midfielders

He has transformed the limp spirit which existed before he arrived. He has bolstered the broken wall that was Fleetwood’s defence. He has made them believe. But it is rare for this Fleetwood side to score more than one goal a game. And that is the concern mid-October before the hard winter months set in.

Scott Brown, former Hoops skipper and hero to half of Glasgow – capable, mouthy, snappy, full of bravado and wind-up tactics as a player – arrived at Highbury in May 2022. His journey is the usual post-trophy haul metamorphosis into manager or head coach; less glamour, but more respect – not as much adrenaline, but a team ready to embody his better characteristics.

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In front of the camera, pre-season, Brown was not what one imagined. He appeared mild, reasonable, diffident and charming even – the loose tie, though, perhaps the one bit of evidence that warfare is never far away.

Fight, this Fleetwood side has mostly given him – nothing too flash or gutsy or flamboyant, but a change, a huge change, from the vulnerable specimens that trod the turf in 2021/22. Won 3, Drawn 7, Lost 3 this time out; the second best defence in the division, but also the second weakest attack.

The signings of Jay Lynch, Shaun Rooney and Josh Earl explain the former; Lynch, the wonder keeper from Rochdale (enough said); Rooney, the 6’ 3” right back from St Johnstone, big on attitude and grit, and of great impetus to the team; Earl, the 6’ 4” Southport kid (signed from Preston), who looks as if he’s just stepped out of The Great Gatsby – slick, composed, not afraid to surge forward.

Despite Rooney warming the hearts of the fans and Lynch just being Lynch, it is actually Earl’s transition that is the more remarkable. Signing his first professional deal with Preston in April 2017, Earl was pretty much loaned out, on and off, for the next five years – injured some of the time, but barely playing 20 matches a season. To look at him, however, is to gaze upon a natural centre half. And when he doesn’t play – as against Barnsley on 1st October – Fleetwood seem slightly anaemic.

Brown has done what was needed – fix the bedraggled back five. But beyond that and not ignoring the panache, confidence, swagger and possession football of recent weeks, it is difficult to imagine maintaining such an upturn without a recognised striker.

The Barnsley defeat was Fleetwood (without Earl) meeting a more experienced side – fresh from relegation out of the Championship. The away win against Burton Albion (4th October) was solid coming in the wake of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s departure and an unpredictable team. The draw against sleeping giants, Portsmouth (8th October), was respectable in adversity. But this inability to bust the back of the net will begin to tell.

Saturday (15th October) against Shrewsbury Town, Josh Vela’s disgruntled old employer (fans ready to carry him off and burn him at the stake), Brown opted for a 4-6-0 formation. Strictly speaking it was a 4-2-3-1, but with three wingers (Paddy Lane, Carlos Mendes Gomes and Callum Morton) utilised in midfield and upfront.

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Reading the team sheet was to dream of players bursting forward from midfield, ahead of Lewis Warrington and Vela who marshal the back two lines. It was also to worry about the lack of a big man up top. Ellis Harrison, Promise Omochere and Admiral Muskwe have all been there; respectively now departed (to Port Vale, 11th August), fractured eye socket, and absent from today’s squad.

How Brown deals with this mammoth problem will ultimately dictate how his first season as a head coach goes. His own combative style as a player has clearly permeated the club, but there are blind spots.

It would be misleading to look at the stats today and think that Fleetwood deserved the points – a draw maybe due to the energy levels second half. But tactically and ideas-wise it was pretty inept. Six midfielders do not compensate for a natural cutting edge.

Credit to Drew Baker who stepped in for Toto Nsiala at centre half. He was energetic, comfortable on the ball and keen to unsettle the opposition by roving forward. Likewise, Earl at the side of him – steady, polished and at times doing the job we expect of Danny Andrew, screeching down the left flank.

Warrington and Vela, in front of the back four, are clearly good on the ball – and water carriers such as these are never noticed or given their due, people say. But can we afford two ‘Didier Deschamps’ when things aren’t going well? Isn’t that a luxury?

The real problem today was the 3-1 bit of the formation (Harvey Macadam, Lane, Gomes, and Morton up top). The latter three are wingers. Simple. They thrive on it; Paddy cutting in on the right with his notoriously dangerous left foot; Morton, the shin pad rebel, the inverse of this – loving the left; Gomes, probably the most versatile, and the player who should have been pushed up front when it became clear that Cheyenne Dunkley was outmuscling Morton again and again.

But then Lane took the fall in the 57th minute when Brown finally decided to use a real striker in the form of Joe Garner. And the one exciting player Fleetwood have (Cian Hayes) was left to rot on the bench until pretty much full time – just like in the last home game.

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Brown’s reluctance to use Hayes or even bother inviting him to away days is symptomatic of the Uwe Rösler era when Nick Haughton got short shrift. Hayes is only 19, still makes mistakes, and arguably needs dopier players around him to distract the opposition, but Christ, when he’s jinxing around in the box it’s a joy to behold.

So Fleetwood remain a bunch of bank robbers, but with no one to crack the safe. Gomes is the getaway driver, Rooney the slightly menacing bloke telling everyone to hit the floor, Warrington the brains, but we’ve forgotten our blow torch guy.

Brown said after Saturday’s game:

The lads didn’t turn up in the first half. There was no pressure on the ball…Somebody must set the tone, whether it’s a tackle, a through ball or just something…We needed to have more bodies in the box…The lads have to understand that when we show them stuff, they have to do it.

The problem is when you don’t have a spoon for the jelly, or a blow torch for the safe, or a gifted front two able to pick the lock, then the opposition see that and bide their time. Fleetwood need a bruising attacker, and alongside him, Cian Hayes or Ged Garner.

Good strikers like GG don’t become bad overnight. Perhaps SB needs to watch the Fleetwood vs. Ipswich game (Tuesday, 16th March 2021) to understand how good this lad is, how when used in the right way (find him a Kyle Vassell-like foil) he shines like the bloody sun. And let’s not forget that it was Ged’s sweet foot which beat Wayne Rooney’s single-season haul many years ago.

I’m not one to pretend I know better than SB, but I did grow up with Eric Cantona, Tony Yeboah, Rio Ferdinand, Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister in my eye line. I do recognise a graceful touch when I see one.

Too many fine, fine players have needlessly departed FTFC already – Ash Hunter, Nick Haughton, Stefan Scougall; silky individuals who brought 100 years’ worth of joy in a single moment. Let’s not bugger it up again by ignoring the original talent of Cian Hayes and Ged Garner.

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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