Upon his move to Shrewsbury Town in December 2018, Sam Ricketts was given a clear objective by the board – keep them in the division. Inheriting a bloated and substandard squad from predecessor John Askey, Ricketts set about trying to make his mark and introduce new ideas whilst also facing the brutal demands of a League One campaign over Christmas in addition to an FA Cup run.
With tweaking in the January transfer window, Ricketts managed to assemble a group of players who ultimately – by hook or by crook – succeeded in his initial target and kept the club in the division. Now, with a full pre-season to really stamp his authority on the squad, the manager is looking to assemble a side capable of thriving in the division as opposed to merely surviving.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at the desired style of play that Ricketts is hoping to implement as a result of his philosophy, and the tactics he wishes to utilise throughout the forthcoming season.
The system put in place by the Welshman ahead of this campaign is a 3-5-2, used heavily at the back end of the previous season as a means of balancing a porous defence.
To provide some background as to why he opted for this shape, to put it simply it was as a result of a backline devoid of pace. Luke Waterfall and Mat Sadler were the favoured pairing upon Ricketts’ initial arrival at the club, however it soon became apparent that the duo were simply not able to play alongside one another due to their deficiencies when the ball was played in behind them and they were turned – and so the 3-5-2 was born in order to provide cover for whichever of the two were selected.
Sadler was the fall guy, making away for Omar Beckles – a younger, bigger, more athletic figure – whilst new boy Ro-Shaun Williams took his place on the right side of the central back three. Despite some hiccups along the way, this was the formula most often used by the manager as he battled for survival.
In midfield, Anthony Grant was the defensive cover alongside the energetic, box-to-box Ollie Norburn, with Rangers loanee Greg Docherty often the one tasked with driving forward and supporting the strikers. Again, though, these were the only real options presented to Ricketts – and so he has set about changing the roles of the central players slightly throughout the course of the off-season.
Attack from defence
Whilst the aforementioned trio served their purpose for their task at the time, with time to reconstruct personnel Ricketts has aimed to build a side more comfortable in building from deep and has therefore looked to recruit defenders capable of doing so. Ethan Ebanks-Landell has arrived from Wolverhampton Wanderers, whilst Aaron Pierre has joined from Northampton Town – and alongside Williams, they are expected to make up the back three on the opening day of the season.
As mentioned, the reticence of the defenders last year was clear to see, and their either lack of confidence or lack of ability on the ball hampered Ricketts’ men when looking to start attacks. As can be seen below, Beckles receives the ball with no pressure on him whatsoever. He has four colleagues around him and not one opposition player within 20 yards.
He should receive the ball and look to step out of defence, as not only are there no opposing strikers nearby who could dispossess him, but there is also more than adequate cover also. If he was to take control of the ball and look to drive forward then not only would it advance his team up the pitch, but it would allow left wing-back Scott Golbourne to advance his position also in order to become an orthodox winger of sorts during this passage of play. In turn, this would create an overload in Shrewsbury’s favour and increase their chances of keeping the ball and creating a chance at goal.
Contrast this with the following example when Williams is in possession.
Having received the ball, his first thought is to step out with the ball and either feed a teammate or continue his run himself, even with opponents nearby – the polar opposite to Beckles’ intention.
Being left-footed, Pierre will likely be the player to start in the left-sided central defensive role come the start of the season. He is a much more comfortable player in possession than Beckles, as is illustrated in the below graphic.
Here he has advanced 20 yards already and continues to move forward another ten, eventually playing a neat reverse pass for his striker to run onto. Continuing this trait will be encouraged by Ricketts, as it will overload areas both out wide or centrally – depending on which space he looks to step into – and also allow the right wing-back to give genuine width.
The final piece of the defensive jigsaw is Ebanks-Landell, a player who is extremely accustomed to operating within such a system.
He had a season on loan at Sheffield United – they who have revolutionised the overlapping central defenders tactic – during the 2016/17 season, and so knows inside-out the qualities and requirements when playing in this way.
He often lined up on the right side whilst with the Blades, and so, therefore, became used to getting forward and overloading out wide in tandem with his wing-back. The below two images are instances when he was given license to break forward, and give a taster of the skill set he will bring to Ricketts when using this formation.
To have a player with the prior knowledge and expertise of operating within such a system – and an extremely successful one at that – will be vital to Ricketts. Whilst others may take time to adapt to the unique requirements placed upon them, Ebanks-Landell’s ability to perform in such a way will be crucial to any success they may achieve.
Unlocking the potential of Okenabirhie
Having stepped up from the National League with Dagenham and Redbridge last summer, striker Fejiri Okenabirhie enjoyed a very good first year in the third tier. Bagging 16 goals and seven assists – including five in as many games between November and December – the 23-year-old became a key part of the Shrews’ attacking armoury. Ricketts will desperate to give the Londoner everything he needs in order to maximise his undoubted ability, playing to his strengths: pace, clinical finishing and a knack of being in the right place at the right time.
He is clearly pointing to where he wants the ball played to, having cleverly positioned himself between the two central defenders in order to make a blindside run off the back of the left of the two. Greg Docherty recognises this movement, plays the ball through and Okenabirhie duly slots home. This is the perfect example of all of his qualities rolled into one.
Knowing his strengths running in behind, teams may, therefore, look to create a lot of congestion centrally to prevent any balls being played through, or sit deeper in order to close the space behind them – which is where another one of Ricketts’ summer additions will be brought into play.
Battle-hardened striker Steve Morison has arrived on a season-long loan deal from Millwall, and his nous, physicality and skill at bringing his strike partner into play will be priceless for Okenabirhie – and fellow attacking recruit Daniel Udoh, taken from neighbours AFC Telford United in the National League North – to learn off.
Morison formed a lethal partnership with Lee Gregory whilst at The Den, with Gregory’s pace and movement dovetailing perfectly with Morison’s aerial prowess and neat combination play. The 36-year-old is outstanding at holding up the ball, bullying defenders and feeding those around him, and when combined with his expert footballing brain he, on paper, makes for the ideal companion for Okenabirhie up front.
The two formed an intuitive relationship with one another due to the sheer amount of time they spent on the pitch, whether that be in training or on a matchday, benefitting from their respective strengths and weaknesses to become one of the most potent pairs in the league and fire Millwall to promotion – Ricketts will be desperate to produce a similar connection here.
Mercurial attacker Shaun Whalley is approaching his fifth season in Shropshire and has been a massive part of their successes along the way. With express pace, superb ball control and great trickery, the winger is a defenders’ nightmare due to his sheer energy and will to run at them.
However, as this system does not incorporate out-and-out wingers, he will have to adapt to a position centrally. He has spoken previously of how he enjoys this role, giving him license to roam wherever the ball should in order to cause havoc, and credits former manager Mickey Mellon for giving him the knowledge of how to be a success in this position.
Although a winger by trade, he has frequently operated as a central attacker – especially last season – and so it is not a role alien to him. The one danger is that he can become caught in too much traffic and therefore unable to do what he does best – beat people.
On his day he is one of the best forwards in the division, as was the case in the shock 2017/18 season – when Salop lost out in the Play-Off final having defied the odds all year – as he registered 12 goals and 15 assists. He may be ageing, but is seemingly like a fine wine – he just gets better with age. His ability on the ball is unparalleled within the Town squad – and so the pressure is on both he and his manager to ensure he is not wasted.
Having had a full pre-season at the club, Ricketts will be desperate to ensure his tactics are finely honed ahead of the opener against Portsmouth on 3 August. This by no means ensures it will be perfect, but he will be eager to see all they have worked on in the past six weeks come to fruition. As our analysis has explained, there is no doubt that he now has the personnel at his disposal to match his desired system – it is now just a matter of whether they can deliver.
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