- On May 25, 2021
It’s been a brilliant season for Morecambe, with Derek Adams guiding his team to a record finish in League Two.
It is a team that is happy to concede possession, but then makes the absolute most of the ball when with it – creating the most chances in the division.
There have been a view evolutions to get to this point, with a few key matches, which this series of articles will look to explore and (fingers crossed) also explain.
In the beginning
Going into the start of the season and scraping together bits of information from relatively secretive friendlies, it looked like the general plan for Adams’s side was to set up in 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, in a similar way to last season.
A pretty standard back four, a holding midfielder with two more forward minded midfielders alongside him (generally taking it in turns to push forward), two wingers and a centre forward.
This was generally much the set up for the two opening games in the EFL Cup and EFL Trophy against Grimsby and Rochdale, but Cheltenham in the opening League Two game brought a surprise with a 3-5-2 to match up with the opposition.
Adams has mentioned a couple of times how he respects the Robins as one of the better sides in the division – more positivity than he’s shown to any other side – and matching their formation seemed to be his plan to try and get the better of them.
Personally, I’m not a great fan of matching the opposition’s formation like this. It’s something that Jim Bentley also used to do, and I wasn’t keen on it then. It puts our players in a formation that they’re not entirely familiar with against a team (like Cheltenham particularly) that are very comfortable playing in that shape.
For much of the first half, Cheltenham were on top and looked very much the side that had made the play-offs last season, and were favourites for promotion this time around. But the second half saw the Shrimps settle, the Robins take their foot off the proverbial gas and a late comeback ensued.
Oldham in the cup followed with a return to normality, before the 5-0 defeat to Cambridge. It’s hard to learn too much from this game – Cambridge scored three screamers in quick succession, and everybody just lost the plot. Looking back at the goals, there also seems to have been some confusion as to who was actually playing on the right wing.
More tight counter-attacking performances followed in games against Southend and Port Vale. A tip of the hat has to be made to Alex Kenyon here, coming into defensive midfield ahead of Toumani Diagouraga and putting in some good performances.
The shape also looked to be settling, too, with Aaron Wildig and Adam Phillips establishing themselves as the more attacking midfielders, generally rotating who would push up the pitch closer to Cole Stockton, who himself had really started to cement himself as the focal point in attack.
Cooney – Lavelle – Davis – Gibson
Phillips – Wildig
O’Sullivan – Stockton – Mendes-Gomes
Liam McAlinden had earned himself a start against Cambridge after his excellent second half display against Cheltenham in which he really exploited the space down the sides of the Robins’ back three. But generally speaking, this Morecambe team needs a focal point like Stockton to hold the ball up and help facilitate counter attacks.
After those victories against Southend and Port Vale came a more action packed 3-2 victory against Oldham. More goals, but that was probably down to Oldham being Oldham rather than any particular differences from the Shrimps.
That victory put Morecambe at the top of the League Two with minus goal difference, before what was, in hindsight, a hugely impactful 4-0 defeat away at Crawley.
An even first half concluded with a very much in form Kenyon being replaced in defensive midfield by Yann Songo’o, fresh out of having absolutely no pre-season. Long term, Songo’o has been utterly brilliant, but this game probably came too soon.
Combine this with defensive errors, Jake Turner having rusty springs in his knees and Max Watters loudly announcing his arrival in League Two, and you have a second half collapse which (presumably along with the 5-0 defeat against Cambrdige) seems to have shaken Adams’s belief in the current system.
This would prompt a formation change to slightly more conservative and risk averse set up – to be covered in the next piece, before anyone gets too bored of this one!
Despite what was, overall, an extremely positive start to the campaign, there were two heavy defeats in the opening six games. Understandably, this likely gave Derek Adams a bit of cause for concern. His counter to this seemed to be a shift to a more conservative midfield, sacrificing an attacking midfielder or winger.
In the 1-1 draw against Mansfield following the Crawley defeat, Carlos Mendes-Gomes was the one to make way to be replaced by Toumani Diagouraga. The shape became more 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 with Adam Phillips out on the wing.
Cooney – Lavelle – Knight-Percival – Gibson
Phillips – Diagouraga – Songo’o – O’Sullivan
Going forward from this, Mendes-Gomes came back in for John O’Sullivan and generally played in the second striker role, with Aaron Wildig shifting to left wing. Him and Phillips operated as sort of narrow wingers in possession, and helped maintain a solid four across the middle of the park without it.
While you can see the logic here and why Adams decided to make a more conservative change, it prompted arguably the worst run of form and performances of the season for the Shrimps.
With this formation, Morecambe won just once in seven games (1-0 away at Tranmere) and failed to really get firing. On the flip side, they did only lose two of these games, with four draws also coming in this run. A little more solidity – but at a bit of a sacrifice attacking wise.
That’s not to say there weren’t good moments in this formation. For the win against Tranmere, it meant that Rovers generally just passed themselves into a complete stupor against Morecambe’s stubborn shape, and very much restricted service into James Vaughan.
The first half against Exeter was particularly good as well, in part due to Ben Pringle showing some flashes of quality that we had all hoped to see from him. Exeter’s second half display was, for me, one of the best opponent performances we’ve faced this season.
But generally, there was a lack of good attacking play, something that feels a very distant memory now! This can probably be put down to a couple of key things.
First, there is Phillips being put on the wing. While he does have a natural tendency to drift wide at times to find space, having this as his full time position meant he quite frequently fell out of the game and struggled to make the impact he had done with his runs into the box, and would end up doing with his range of passing.
I also think that Phillips may have been shifted to the wing to counter his sometimes erratic passing. He is undoubtedly a big risk and reward player – for every stunning pass that splits open a defence, there are one or two that float out of play or worse, give possession away in a dangerous area.
Phillips’s pass completion is pretty low for a player of his quality. But considering the output he can give in terms of defence unlocking passes, it is 100% worth it. I think Adams eventually came to this conclusion too, but maybe down to the formation or maybe down to caution over Phillips giving away the ball, the midfielder ended up on the wing for these period in the season.
Another thing that stood out to me is that Mendes-Gomes can look a bit restricted when playing down the middle. It feels natural to want to get your most technically gifted and creative forward down the middle to ‘pull the strings’, but I don’t think this really suited Mendes-Gomes particularly well.
Mendes-Gomes appears to suit starting in a wide position, and then having the option to drift inside to pick holes and find space. It’s something he’s become particularly adept at and something which I thought Jobi McAnuff picked up well on Sky Sports, noting his ‘out to in’ runs that have seen him get so many tap-ins.
He is definitely not alone in preferring to play like this. Many forwards (including Kevin Ellison) like to play wide and drift in – they’re harder to follow, and get to face goal instead of receiving the ball with their back to it.
It’s also very much worth pointing at that Cole Stockton was injured for a fair amount of time during this period. Jordan Slew came in and, to be honest, did a relatively good job at fulfilling that role. He provided physicality and aerial threat, along with some selfless movement and hard work. But Stockton is particularly good in the hold up role, and was missed.
Despite a bit of a lack of wins and much action going forward, the team did show a remarkable level of resilience to snatch last minute equalisers against Scunthorpe and Stevenage. This would come to be a bit of a hallmark throughout the rest of the season.