Many claim ‘loyalty’ no longer exists in football. With the millions of pounds circulating each day, ‘money talks’. We as fans or employees must accept that. However, that isn’t to say it no longer exists.
One of the remaining loyal subjects of the game is former Manchester City player, Tommy Wright. Signing as manager for St Johnstone back in 2013, he’s had his fair share of ups and downs. Despite the downs, he’s met the club’s demands and defied expectations. Unfortunately, after seven years, Wright has decided to leave St Johnstone, yearning for and earning a break from the pressure cooker that is professional football.
For the readers unaware of Wright’s career, he’s a bit of a big deal at McDiarmid Park. In his first competitive game, Wright lead St Johnstone to a 1–0 victory against Rosenborg BK in Norway. This was the Club’s first away win in Europe in over 40 years! He has won the Scottish Cup, a first for the club, and qualified four times for the Europa League qualifiers. However, the previous two seasons have seen the Club struggle to finish higher than seventh in the Scottish Premier League.
St Johnstone started the season poorly and looked like they hadn’t kicked on from the previous season. Regardless, Wright was adamant results were because of individual errors but performances were improving. They did. Since November, St Johnstone has lost only twice. The team currently sit seventh in the league, three points from fifth with a game in hand.
An advocate of adaptability, Wright’s shape is determined by his opposition and squad availability. He’s credited his players’ tactical flexibility throughout the year.
Above are the two most common formations Wright employs at St Johnstone. When they play in a 3-5-2, the Perth men go long, prioritising a secure defence and a stacked midfield capable of winning second balls. Most recently, he used a 4-4-2 formation, as shown above. Wright switches shape and tactics when they’re looking for goals. He’ll utilise his wide players, encouraging them to combine and attack further forward.
Below is a critical tactical analysis of Tommy Wright’s St Johnstone during the 19/20 season.
Transition to Defence
Wright’s team attempts to recover the ball in the middle and defensive third. Currently, they sit second in the league with the most recoveries made per 90. How? Shortly after losing possession in the middle third, Wright’s team will immediately press to win it back. However, if they lose possession in their attacking third, they will drop back into shape.
Above, the Saints lose an aerial duel in the middle of the park. The Perth men react by cutting off their opponents’ options to play backwards or sidewards. St Johnstone’s defenders then anticipate a forward pass and attempt to step in front to intercept. This strategy requires great concentration and cohesion amongst the back four. If one defender is slow to react, he will be at fault for keeping the opposition forwards onside.
Out of Possession
Defensively, both formations employ a similar approach. Having failed to win possession in the middle third, St Johnstone will drop off and defend their box. The previous statistic analysis tells us that the Saints average 41.84 recoveries per 90 in their defensive third. So what does that tell us? Well, two things. Firstly, they’re confident to sit back and defend the space in front of goal. Secondly, they tend to be out of possession more often than not.
Is it effective? St Johnstone conceded 46 goals this season despite only being expected to concede 37. This means Wright’s tactics out of possession in the final third are effective but aren’t being sufficiently executed by the players. Had the Perth men prevented the ‘soft’ goals from going in, they would have considerably fewer goals conceded.
We’ve mentioned their shape and how they compare to the other clubs in the league, now let’s see the players in action.
Above, St Johnstone drop deep into their final third. Using their 3-5-2 formation, they form a tight compact rectangle of six players around the box. This gives them a massive advantage should the ball enter this zone. The right wing-back, Drey Wright, is responsible for pressurising the ball. Moreover, he shows the opponent down the line to force the cross. As a result, the ball is fired into an area packed with St Johnstone players.
Another element important to Wright’s philosophy is the compactness. Their unit as a whole is extremely narrow. This encourages the opposition to play around them. Consequently, with their third centre-back present, they are well equipped to defend these scenarios. Furthermore, their midfielders are extremely tight to the defensive line. This gives St Johnstone an advantage in winning the second ball in and around these areas. However, it does permit the opposition to switch the angle of attack quite easily, as the opposition midfielders have more time on the ball.
Above, note how it can go wrong for Wright. When they go to 4-4-2, they lose their compactness as well as their overload at the back. Rangers win the ball on the left side of, their defensive third. James Tavernier receives a pass from an in-field position and spots the Saints right-back, Anthony Ralston, slowly tracking back. He whips one to the back post for Florian Kamberi to score. This 4-4-2 approach encourages Wright’s team to go forward leaving the Saints prone to counter attacks.
Transition to Attack
During this phase of the game, Wright instructs his players to get the ball forward and out wide as quickly as possible. As a result, St Johnstone is extremely ambitious in possession with an average of 124 losses per 90. That’s the second-highest in the league.
The pragmatists may see this as wasteful but Tommy Wright takes the numbered approach. OK, you’ll lose possession more often, but you’ll also create more chances.
In the scenario above, St Johnstone win the second ball on the edge of their opponents’ box. The right-sided midfielder, David Wotherspoon, plays a pass right to Wright. Looking to attack as fast as possible, Ali McCann (circled), the left-sided midfielder, and Scott Tanser, left wing-back, dart into the box.
The opposition denies the immediate cross. However, Jason Kerr, the right-sided centre-back, also joins the attacking opportunity. His positioning allows the Perth men to pass a ball into the box from a slightly deeper position. Note how St Johnstone’s players understand where the ball is going. Their focus is to overload the box and create space for a pass.
Additionally, the Saints’ players outside of the box aren’t looking to receive. Instead, they are proactively preparing for the second phase. For example, if the opposition wins the header, clearing the danger, St Johnstone’s men will be the first to pounce on the loose ball.
We’ve established Wright’s direct philosophy in the attacking transition. This is also the case in possession. To support this statement, they made 132 forward passes per 90 and maintained possession for an average of 11 seconds.
His build-up play is a mixture of short and long passes, depending on Wright’s perceived strengths on a game-to-game basis. He instructs his players to play wide and hurt teams with crosses, as shown above, and below.
The clip above highlights Wright’s style of play in attack. Firstly, the strikers stay high. This provides the midfield three with time to receive and distribute play out wide. The circled midfielder, McCann, collects the ball from the right. Instead of playing into the huge space in front of him, his first thought is to switch the angle of attack.
As the left-sided centre-back receives the pass from McCann, he instantly plays directly into the former EFL player, Stevie May. The central players sprint for the box whilst May plays the left wing-back in behind. The cross comes in and St Johnstone score. This example highlights the direct fast-paced tempo of Wright’s philosophy.
It’s important to note the lack of goals scored by St Johnstone this year. The tally stands at 27, second from bottom in the league. However, they were expected to score more, at 32.86. Had they achieved their expectation, they would have been ranked seventh in the SPFL.
After an abysmal start to his seventh campaign at the club, Tommy Wright kept spirits high and managed to steady the ship in November.
Throughout his time at St Johnstone, he’s built sides that are hard to breakdown. He favours forcing opponents wide. Subsequently, he likes to recruit physical players at the back and upfront, fast and tricky players out wide and relentless workers in midfield.
Recently, we’ve seen his side reduce the number of long balls, instead, playing out wide, penetrating defences by crossing.
With Wright stepping down, St Johnstone will do well to find a replacement for the ‘greatest ever manager of the club’. For their sake, I hope they find someone who can continue his legacy. The next step for Wright? Who knows. Does he want a break or is there more to it than that, given Michael O’Neil’s recent resignation from the Northern Ireland job? What we do know is that his style of play will take him places. This is a game of results, not headlines.