I considered starting this article with what has become colloquially known as a ‘humblebrag’. This is the dictionary definition:
An ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.
However, I’m not nearly modest enough, so I’ll just come out and say it: I was pretty much spot on.
In July 2017, before a Teutonic ball had been kicked in anger, I wrote an article for MFW looking at how Daniel Farke’s previously preferred formation of 4-1-4-1 could work. It’s here.
The information was based on my own research of how other teams and managers had successfully installed such a system It got some positive feedback at the time and a lot of people commented that they were hoping to see the brand of football I’d described [Sorry folks, said positive comments at the end of Andy’s piece were lost in the transition from old MFW to new MFW – Ed].
While some of the principles I mention prevailed, the 4-1-4-1 itself lasted as long as it took for Farke to realise that Harrison Reed couldn’t shield a centre-back pairing of Russell Martin and Marcel Franke all by his lonesome in the Championship. The switch to 4-2-3-1 followed and, barring the odd formational dalliance, has remained ever since.
In truth, I’d forgotten about the article, until my nine-year-old, taking a rare break from Fortnite, was reading some of the old man’s back catalogue of disappointing nonsense that he’s recently discovered. He pointed out how much of what I was describing then is basically what City are producing now.
Giving it a brisk re-read, I entered what can only be described as ‘smug mode’. The high press, the patient build-up, and the quick transitions were principle expectations of mine that now form some of the central tenets of Farkeball.
However, it begs the question… if a half-wit like me could see where we needed to go, why did it take our heroic Herr more than a year to implement it?
The most obvious answer is that having a plan is one thing, but implementing it is quite another. And for Farke to adapt his vision to the alien culture of the Championship with all the attendant good and bad points was not a simple case of turning up with a tactics board and telling the players where they should play.
Farke had to adapt his own beliefs. The 4-1-4-1 had to be changed to accommodate a second holding midfielder. Last season it was with the, mostly, defensive axis of Alex Tettey and Tom Trybull. This season they have become an either/or option with either Mario Vrancic, Mo Leitner or most recently Kenny McLean acting as the other ‘hinge’, providing a vital link between the midfield anchor and the attacking midfielders.
This evolution is a large part of our successful development. 4-1-4-1 was far too attacking. 4-2-3-1 with TetBull™ too defensive. But 4-2-3-1 with Vrancic or Leitner roaming, taking the ball off the defence to launch play, and then joining in the attacking carousel at the other end is the culmination of this evolution.
Farke’s use of full-backs this season has been slightly different to how I envisioned two years ago but, to be fair, the emergence of Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis, with their pace, technical ability and stamina, is not something that any of us saw coming, and credit Farke for the way he has seamlessly integrated them into the master plan.
They offer the attacking width in a way that wouldn’t have been possible two years ago, until the passing style had been perfected, and the central defenders confident they could cope with their young full-backs marauding forward at will. Ivo Pinto and James Husband were not capable of this and Franke and Martin could not have coped if they’d tried. It takes the confidence borne out of winning games to be this brave.
One thing I did expect, which was absent last season, was the press. I fully believed we would press opponents high, hunt in packs, and try to create turnovers in the opposition’s half. The reason I don’t believe we did that last season was that we didn’t have the players to do it.
James Maddison, for all his talents, is not great at closing down. Ditto Josh Murphy, Alex Pritchard and Nelson Oliviera. And as hard as it was to see some of them leave, Farke’s replacements have been spectacularly successful at fitting the stylistic model that has brought about results that the Maddisons and Murphys couldn’t.
Farke had to play with the cards he was dealt with when he arrived – and tried to start implementing his ideas while using the talents available to him – but last season was as much to do with gradually clearing out talented players that didn’t fit the plan, while still giving them the chance to highlight their talents and maximise outgoing transfer fees.
The rejuvenated Marco Stiepermann (see Will’s piece from earlier in the week), the tenacious Onel Hernandez, and the imperious Emi Buendia are the players that fit the plan. So many chances this season have come from their continual harassment of the opposition in the very areas they don’t want to give the ball away. Todd Cantwell equally fits this bill when he comes on and is happy to scrap for the ball.
Again, a youngster finds it easier to adapt his game to the manager’s plan than a more seasoned player.
And with the striker, while Nelson Oliveira and Cameron Jerome couldn’t meet the brief for a false nine with great movement and link-up play that I foresaw Farke wanting to use, a year’s wait and an inspired free transfer for a little-known Celtic reject finally delivered the man.
While I can pretend I saw it all coming from a bit of guesswork I did two years ago, the way that Stuart Webber and Farke have moulded this squad into what it has become and applied tactics which have delighted the senses is inspiring. And the best part is that neither man sees the current state of affairs as being anywhere close to the top of the mountain.
The plans extend much further. Even at my most Nostradamus, I can’t see the vision that these guys can. I’m just delighted that I’ll be along for the ride to see it.
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