Nigel Clough clearly hadn’t seen the McClaren approaching in his rear view mirror. In the modern game, however, awareness is everything.
“That’s the way we’ve played away from home this season and we just couldn’t create the goal. We’re going to try and keep playing like that,” was the former Derby County manager’s response and declaration following press compliments about the quality of football played in his last match in charge – last Saturday’s derby day defeat against Nottingham Forest.
There was not a hint of anxiety hidden in the 47-year old’s final press conference utterances; no sign of suspicion that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to build on encouraging signs of a developing team. Faces in modern football, however, change quickly.
Instead, it was Clough’s successor, new Rams’ head coach, Steve McClaren, who watched Derby share eight goals with Ipswich at Pride Park on Tuesday night.
It was understandable why in his last performance in front of the press Clough still wore a largely positive front. For much of the East Midlands derby it was the visitors’ who had controlled the momentum of the game.
The intelligent movement and combination in their build-up play coupled with their willingness to try and pick their way through the hosts’ backline using short, incisive passing revealed the roots of a developing playing philosophy, one shaped around a number of promising young players.
Under Clough, the Rams’ often used a single central striker as a target to secure the ball in the final third, with a swarm of small and technically able players eagerly joining the attack from wide and withdrawn central areas. McClaren, should relish getting on to the training ground to find a way of maximising the attacking talents of midfield raiders Will Hughes, Craig Bryson and Jamie Ward.
An interchangeable and dynamic group of creative midfield attackers is currently vogue - one made fashionable by the posse of diminutive ball players supporting Chelsea’s attack and the attacking design of Arsenal’s new-look forward unit.
The Gunners illustrate an interesting trend. It is unknown as to whether or not Arsene Wenger desired an additional central striker to accompany his much-lauded purchase of Mesut Ozil. However, the integral roaming role afforded to the German glider, Aaron Ramsey’s upsurge in goals and the freedom given to Jack Wilshere reveal the Arsenal manager’s belief that in the modern game the route through compact defences begins deep, and a rich source of goals can be plundered as a result of late, undetected forward runs.
The role of the central attacker is increasingly becoming a foil: a roaming decoy whose movement intends to open up avenues into which willing midfielders can surge. Often these incisive midfield darts are destined for the space beyond the frontman, frequently rewarding late runs with promising goalscoring positions. It may not be long before midfielders look down from the top of the goalscoring charts.
Chris Martin and Connor Sammon have both occupied the decoy role for the Rams’ this season allowing the likes of Hughes, Ward and Bryson to progress beyond. Against Forest, Bryson – prised from Kilmarnock in 2011 – made repeated late surges from starting positions between Forest’s midfield and defence and looked the visitors’ most promising source of an equaliser.
Aside from the timing and awareness necessary to make forward runs from withdrawn positions, physical endurance and psychological perseverance are just as necessary. The skill of the late run comes in anticipating the next pass of an unfolding attacking move and taking a gamble on an accurate threaded pass.
It can be a thankless task and on Saturday Bryson’s tireless surges in attempt to join together Derby’s clever attacking combinations were left unrewarded. However, the Scot remained undeterred, and although too late for his former manager, reward followed. Bryson grabbed a brace to help save Derby’s blushes after trailing 4-1 to Ipswich at half-time.
Nigel Clough will never know if the beginnings of his attacking methods will ever flourish into any kind of resemblance of the red swirl of late attacking midfield runs on show at the Emirates but his replacement could do worse than to build on the signs of progressive attacking ideas.
Peter Glynn is the Editorial Manager at St. George's Park and editor of The Boot Room, The FA's Coaching Magazine.
Peter is a journalist and has been with The Football Association for six years and holds the UEFA B Licence and The FA Youth Awards 1 and 2.
The Future Game Tactics Column takes a weekly look at the evolution of the modern game, linking to practices from The FA's Future Game philosophy and providing advice and tips for grassroots coaches.