In one of my previous MFW missives, I wrote about City’s rich heritage in the attacking midfielder/no 10 role and how this current squad was desperately lacking just such a player, particularly as Todd Cantwell had so obviously failed to live up to both hype and expectation.
At the same time, many writers and commentators were making the case that Dean Smith simply had to find a way of either playing Josh Sargent and Teemu Pukki together or even (whisper it quietly), dropping the Finn to allow Sargent to play centrally.
The latter opinion had some momentum given the USA international’s surge to the top of the Championship golden boot race earlier in the season.
What I certainly didn’t see as a solution, and indeed didn’t hear from anyone else, was to solve both riddles by playing Josh just behind Teemu, in a slightly more advanced role than a traditional 10.
Admittedly we are only two games into that experiment but as it stands I would suggest it’s one of the most significant tactical personnel tweaks that David Wagner has introduced so far – one that is both surprising and (it appears at the moment) borderline genius.
While all season – and last season come to that – those around me were bemoaning Josh as he cut a forlorn and ineffective figure when pushed wider and deeper, I didn’t hear a single voice advocating moving him into the role he has performed so well in the last two games, particularly against Coventry, where he looked happy and back to something approaching his form of earlier in the season.
What is it about him that made us and, crucially, the previous management team not think of this earlier?
A lot of it comes down to pre-conceptions of what a 10 should look like. We are used to slight, highly mobile figures in the role at City, like Wes Hoolahan, Emi Buendia, James Maddison, and Alex Pritchard. Even more successful sides have contained a 10 with the traditional body shape and skillset to match like Messi, Fernandez, Silva, Grealish, Hazard etc.
Sargent is different and plays the role differently but I was struck while watching from the stands at the CBS Arena by just how much the way he played the role reminded me of another vastly underrated occupier of that pivotal role – Marco Stiepermann.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the abilities of the two players or suggesting that dear old Stiepi was of the same standard, merely that he played the link role to Pukki in a very similar way to how Josh has done it in the last two games.
When the Farke 2018-19 side was flying it was with Stiepi at its fulcrum – 43 Championship games producing 9 goals and many contributions for others.
When he told us that he ‘was born to score goals’ many of us laughed, particularly after his season of trying to prise the worst-left-back-ever-seen award from James Husband, but what Stiepi did really well was to always be available for passes both long and short, play on the half-turn. shift the ball quickly to those around him and dribble over short distances before releasing others.
He was also a royal pain in the backside to the opposition back line and holding midfielders while being more than useful at helping out our own at corners.
I believe he was the best ‘defensive 10’ in the Championship and all of the skills I just listed have applied to the two games Josh has played in that role.
So, while he may not look and feel like the advanced playmaker we have an image of in our minds, he can be really effective in that role and adds a different dimension to our attacking play while, of course, scoring a few himself.
The effect on those around him always added to the value of Stiepi in the team and a further signal of the success of Josh in that role is the renewed sense of Teemu enjoying his football again.
The guy next to me at the Coventry game asked me whether I thought Pukki looked quicker than he had done earlier in the season. I thought it was more a case of the Finn making his usual brilliant runs in behind the defence with far more of an expectation that the ball may actually get there. As a result, there was a much greater sense of purpose and anticipation.
Pukki now looks like he believes that if he makes a run he will get the ball and potentially a chance, not just from Sargent of course, but also from the others around him. He knows too that he has, in Josh, someone he can link with and find in the same postcode… unlike earlier in the season.
It will be fascinating to see how or if Wagner now shuffles his pack to accommodate ChristosTzolis, Marquinhos, Kieran Dowell (who played his best football from off the right rather than at 40 for both Farke and now Wagner), Onel Hernandez, and the returning Jon Rowe but I believe Josh is now inked in for that central supporting role and would be the biggest miss should he be absent for any reason.
Hopefully, we’ll see more evidence of Josh developing into this role in the coming weeks and we can all give the new management team a big pat on the back for seeing something most of us, including Smith and Shakespeare, couldn’t.
Will it be enough to secure a play-off position come the end of the season?
Based on what we’ve seen so far, I believe there is every chance but even if it doesn’t happen, it’s going to be fun watching.