This season, Town have been playing with a 3-5-2 formation; the same one that Hull City used to great effect (if not aesthetically) last season. The new system has been fairly effective in the beginning part of the campaign. Despite starting with difficult games against QPR and Nottingham Forest, the only real disappointment has been a defeat at Barnsley.
My impression is that 3-5-2 has been used because it is difficult to break through in the middle and affords less mobile centre-backs a little more coverage from wide areas. If it were being deployed successfully, we should see teams finding it tough to get past Town’s defence, and either going wide with the ball or taking their attempts (successful or otherwise) from further away than they would against other formations.
It does seem to suggest a perceived lack of invention in the Terriers’ side going forward which is perhaps evidenced in the direction attacks have come. One of the advantages of 3-5-2 is the wing-backs, which allow an extra body not just in defence, but also in attack. It does seem that Mark Robins’ team are learning a range of ways to go forward, because crossing isn’t the only way.
The hypothesis bears out with the attacks Town have made being far more commonly out wide than centrally, as you can see on the graph below (LA = Left-sided attacks, and so on)
The same is true of attacks their opposition have made at them. The team who conquered that area of the game best was QPR who favoured the flanks, but managed 27% of attacks through the middle – indicative of a team who have a range of quality options, as their W5 D2 L0 record goes to further prove. Most of the other teams, whether playing 4-4-2, or 3-5-2 themselves, have seen Town’s crowded middle area force them out wide more often than not.
Another interesting feature of that graph is how heavily Barnsley favoured attacks down their left hand side, with the pace and skill of Reuben Noble-Lazarus leading the charge, ahead of a particularly advanced left wing-back in Tom Kennedy (a player I’ve long been a fan of) and with David Perkins and Chris O’Grady, perhaps as a result of having Noble-Lazarus as a convenient outball, also leaning towards the left – only Jim O’Brien stayed on the right, and he was generally far deeper during that game.
Noble-Lazarus’ position meant that one of Town’s centre-backs was pulled wide to cover him, on this occasion it was Peter Clarke, which in turn allowed the Tykes more space in the middle. Had Barnsley been a little more effective at switching or varying their attacks, they might have had a field day – particularly considering that if it came down to a foot-race between Noble-Lazarus and Clarke, there would only be one winner.
The reasons for the tendency to go wide (not just Barnsley, but all Town’s opponents) are fairly simple – as space is at a premium in the middle of the field amongst with three central midfielders, more is available out wide; thus teams end up playing to wingers and looking to get the ball (ideally) behind the slower moving centre-backs, but more often than not see it repelled aerially.
Alternatively, teams can play in front of those centre-backs. It is a fairly well-known paradox of football that, although long-range goals look more spectacular than short range, the taking of a long-range shot generally means the breakdown of an attack or a lack of other ideas.
Commentators know it, because we often hear talk of ‘resorting to shots from distance’ when teams are struggling, yet they’re as excited as anybody when the net bulges. On Tuesday evening, Joel Lynch scored a goal from distance for Huddersfield Town that put them two goals to the good in a game they won 2-1 against Charlton.
Certainly, that theory works the other way – here’s the comparison of Out of Area shots taken by the Terriers in each game, with the two opponents who used a 3-5-2 formation against them highlighted – that’s a fairly damning statistic, though indicates also how difficult it was for Town to break down a (still as yet) unbeaten QPR side.
The graph showing the reverse of that isn’t quite so pronounced but, except for the two teams expected to challenge (which I find a little strange that they’re there, but maybe they were settling down at the start of the season and shooting from range as runs/concepts weren’t quite fully formed) it is, again, the two teams who played 3-5-2 who shot from range more often.
As the season develops, it will be interesting to see if Mark Robins sticks with 3-5-2 and if his team improve at playing the formation. Certainly, it seems they could benefit from a little more creativity in the middle of the attack (maybe Jon Stead could provide something) but it is certainly being effective in stalling the Terriers’ opposition.
Nottingham Forest obviously caught Town cold in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which was adapted immediately (for a cup game first, as it happens) and, though the 3-5-2 was at first thought to be an emergency, it does appear to be taking root. I’m a little surprised that two other teams have played Huddersfield in the same set-up so far, but so long as it does what it is doing, Town look like they’ll be fine this season.
The game against Doncaster was an interesting one; although the Vikings dominated possession and ended up playing more than 100 passes more than Town, it ended 0-0. Doncaster’s attack was wide (equally left and right – 40%) but they only put 12 crosses in, fewer than any other opponents so far.
With that concerted effort of individual skills, they managed to create 19 shots from open play of which fourteen came from the space between the edge of the penalty area and six yard box – none of which, of course were converted. That game saw Mark Robins change things a little, with Town ending up looking a little more like 4-4-2, but it seemed more necessity than design.
On Saturday, Huddersfield travel to a Blackburn Rovers side who lined up with a 4-5-1 formation against Burnley last weekend. That would pose a new test to Mark Robins’ system, as both teams would be based on that width in midfield; it will be interesting to see whether that favours the one-man attack of Jordan Rhodes (whose aerial ability is not lacking, but isn’t his finest suit) or whether he struggles to win a battle against Lynch, Clarke et al.
If Rhodes can be restricted to shots from distance, I’d give Town a decent chance; he might be clinical from within the box, but I don’t recall a lot of long-range strikes from the baby-faced hitman. That said, if we’re look at wide players, I did notice Chris Taylor sitting on Blackburn’s bench last weekend; a winger who has tormented Huddersfield before, during his Oldham days.
The optimist in me thinks 2-2, the realist thinks 2-1. I’d take a point.