When I headed into this job I went in with the mind set of making sure that we were prepared for life in League 2 and started to decide what changes I would make when the inevitable happened and we were relegated. More fool me really; our final league position shows that I should have had a lot more faith in the players as they have pulled off a minor miracle.
When I joined we were rooted to the bottom of the league, and despite me not knowing anything about Notts County (apart from the Sven-Goran Eriksson saga), I knew that the club was severely underachieving for its stature in the game. The club simply had had an awful start to the season and just didn’t seem to be able to change their fortunes under their previous manager. It is going to be very difficult to explain how I did it but it is sometimes a question I get asked...just how did you manage to do that? Therefore, I will try to explain as best as possible.
The club were leaking goal after goal and it has meant we have ended on a negative goal difference of minus 17. However, I felt that part of this was due to the chopping and changing of the back four, which meant that the players didn’t have time to gel with each other and form an understanding as they were out of the team before they knew it. My first task was to settle on a reliable, experienced and good back four to be in front of my number one choice goalkeeper, Jak Alnwick. I did try out a few variations in personnel but eventually settled on a back four that I felt would plug the goals. The only way that I was going to change that back four was due to fatigue or if we changed to our 5-4-1 formation, where I would simply add one player to the preferred first choice back four in the 4-4-2 formation. This resulted in us conceding 14 goals in 14 games, which to say we had a defensive with shattered morale, I think that is pretty good going.
Keep the Opposition Thinking!
I may have said above that I preferred to stick with the same back four or back five in order to preserve an understanding when out on the pitch, but I also did like to change what formation I used. This caused a few issues at first, mainly my own making, as I wasn’t sure which one to choose. The 4-4-2 formation allowed for us to control the ball and attack the opposition but left us prone to the counter attack, which did happen on a few too many occasions. Whereas, the 5-4-1 formation did stop us conceding but meant we hardly ever had the ball (as a result of taking on the counter attacking mentality) and got very few shots on target. However, with Grant Holt putting in an end of season surge to become our player of the season winner, I knew that one of these 3 or 4 shots we had in a game, that one of them would be converted and give us the win. Swapping between these two formations really did work and it is an approach I would recommend others to use.
Rely on Experience!
I was pleasantly surprised when I joined the club to see Grant Holt, Damien Duff and Jak Alnwick in the ranks. Despite Jak being only 22 years old, he brought experience from the game time he had been given at his current club, Newcastle United. He has fantastic ability ratings, well above the ones other keeper’s posses in our league. With the solid back four in him, in some games he rarely had anything to do but we knew we could rely on him if the opposition broke through.
Grant Holt is an old fashioned English centre forward who likes to put himself out a bit and is not afraid to get his head on the ball; this is something he did with ease and regularly in games. He is not blessed with pace in the real world, never mind in-game. However, due to us allowing the opposition to attack and us trying to break on the counter, it meant that Grant did not have too many defenders to try and beat before getting a shot on goal. His finishing, despite only being ranked as 12, is pretty decent with him scoring 17 goals over the course of the season. I am sure that if he hadn’t been injured for the last few games that it would have been more.
I have always been disappointed with Damien Duff’s career and think that his time at Chelsea stalled his potential. However, it was a blessing when he returned from injury in-game and added a bit of pace to the wings. I would have been playing the 4-4-2 formation; with a focus on attacking via the wings a lot less if Duff had not been at the club. He is a player that is getting on (aged 37) but I feel that he brings a lot of experience to the club, hence me extending his contract for one more season. He won’t be a regular starter but he can definitely be relied upon when it comes to the ends of matches and us needing to push on for a winner.
Overall I am very pleased with my time so far at Notts County and I feel that prior rushed decisions (leaving Grimsby Town) have now been justified. I will be looking to make several changes to the playing and coaching staff but nothing too drastic that the club returns to the old ways of the beginning of this current season. The club is not blessed with money, and this is a situation I am not accustom to so I am sure it will be another learning curve, just like the last few months of this season were...