The pathway to professional management often involves a professional playing career. However, experience does not guarantee success at management. Consequently, the steps former pros should take to succeed in management is still debated in mainstream media. Previously, it was the norm for ex-pros to jump straight into senior management. Today, ex-pros learn the ropes in academies before senior management.
James McPake’s playing career includes international experience (N.I.), three seasons in the EFL and over 10 competing in the Scottish Leagues. In 2018, McPake retired and joined the academy set up at Dundee FC. After a poor run of games at senior level in 18/19, McPake was appointed caretaker manager. He was appointed manager a few weeks later in May 2019. By this stage, relegation was confirmed. Therefore, McPake’s position meant he had to lift morale, rebuild his squad and push for promotion in the Championship.
In a season that never was, Dundee FC finished 3rd. Initially, Dundee struggled for results, failing to pick up wins in November and January. Nevertheless, McPake adapted his tactics and recruited well in January. From February, Dundee went unbeaten in six games. The ‘Dark Blue’ looked destined for a playoff position.
McPake hasn’t settled on a specific structure this year. Moreover, his squad has endured several injuries throughout the season. As a result, their tactics have been tweaked game by game. This is a tactical analysis of Dundee’s recent change to a 3-5-2 formation and McPake’s style within it.
McPake’s decision to go to 3-5-2 has reduced the amount of expected goals conceded and goals scored. For this reason, should they score, they’re more likely to defend the lead and get the result.
The 3-5-2 formation adapts to the phase of play. For instance, when Dundee is out of possession the wing-backs drop and it becomes a 5-3-2. Alternatively, when the ‘Dark Blue’ reach the final third, a midfielder joins the attacking unit and the wing-backs support the midfielders. Thus, it becomes a 3-4-3. During their build up play, it takes the 3-5-2 shape with the forwards and midfield overloading the side the ball is being played down.
Their approach in transition depends on the location of the event. Therefore, we will discuss how they transition in both halves.
Above, possession is lost in the middle third. With that in mind, the forward unit stays high and presses the ball carrier. They split the opposition centre-backs, forcing them to play forward or wide. Consequently, this prevents the opposition from playing backwards. Dundee’s midfield unit will tightly defend the centre space and the passing lanes closest to the ball. As a result, their opponents will often play over the middle of the midfield unit.
In the picture above, the backline anticipates the long ball. Therefore, they drop to the 18-yard line. This prevents their opponents playing in behind and allows the centre-backs to defend the space in front of them.
The actions mentioned above enable the wing-backs (circled) time to recover from their attacking positions. The wing-backs will press immediately if the ball is in their channel. If it’s on the far side they will drop into the defensive line. Here they’re responsible for nullifying back post threats.
The second scenario involves the play being lost behind Dundee’s strikers. In this example, the forward unit doesn’t attempt to drop behind the ball. Instead, they remain high on the centre-backs and deny back passes. Patiently, the strikers wait to see if the counter-press is successful. If Dundee fail to recover the ball, Andrew Nelson and Kane Hemmings will drop back behind the ball. If Dundee succeed they provide an option to play forward too.
The midfield three lead the counter-press. The man closest to the ball will engage immediately. The other two will tuck tightly either side. This movement is shown above. As a result, their opponents are forced to play wide. Waiting for the trigger are the wing-backs. They anticipate play because of the press. As soon as the opponents try to play wide, Dundee’s wing-backs utilise their pace and intercept. The defensive three will drop 10 yards from the halfway line in case the midfield press fails. This doesn’t prevent play in behind but it does give them a better positional advantage if the opponent was to attempt it.
Out of possession
As we touched on, Dundee without the ball adjust their defensive principles depending on the ball’s location. However, their aggressive nature is a constant.
Above, see how Dundee defend in their half. Nelson (white circle), blocks the backward central passing lanes. Hemmings (white circle) drops deeper and presses the back line. The right wing-back, Christie Elliott, joins the defensive unit. Moreover, he sees the switch coming. When it lands, his responsibility is to press and delay. This allows Dundee to get across and in position. Circled dark blue in midfield, McPake employs three centre midfielders with a wealth of experience. Ex-Rangers player Graham Dorrans and ex-Celtic player Paul McGowan combine with a central defensive midfielder in Shaun Byrne. The three will defend their respective zones. Two men cover the centre and one marks the half-space. Byrne defends the higher midfielder, whilst Dorrans or McGowan (depending on which side) covers the middle with Nelson. The back three sit on the 18-yard line remaining tight and centred.
Soon we will discuss Dundee’s dominant ability to maintain possession. This style allows them to defend high up the pitch. Above, note the narrowness of the back five. Their shape encourages teams to play around them. The midfield defend as a triangle. By doing so, they have an advantage in winning second balls and springing fast counter presses. Alternatively, the disadvantage is the space they travel off the ball. To accommodate, we see the wing-back come forward and support the midfielders. The wing-backs close the wide players down when the ball is on their side. When they take the lead in the game, they’ll start to drop deeper quicker and allow the other units to win the ball whilst they defend any balls that make it into the box.
Dundee love to press and that’s reflected in the statistic above. This statistic records the amount of defensive actions (tackles, fouls, challenge and interception) made per pass. We analysed how they counter-press in middle; now we’ll examine how they press a goal kick.
Dundee’s forwards provide enough space for the opponents’ centre-back to receive a pass. As the pass is played, the forward closest to the ball will close the centre-back down. The forwards arched run, supported with the wing-back stepping forward forces the centre-back to play it back inside.
This is when Dundee spring their press. Above, Byrne charges from midfield. He prevents the central ground pass into midfield. Hemmings, the right-sided forward, remains in possession. To his right and out of picture is Elliott. The pair deny passing opportunities down the right side. Therefore, the opposing centre-back decides to play over the press. However, Declan McDaid, Dundee’s left wing-back is waiting for this pass. As it happens, he charges forward and wins possession.
Set Pieces against
At corners, Dundee like to man-mark with two players covering the front and back post. This strategy means the opponents are tightly marked and, in theory, a free head doesn’t exist. Moreover, players are held accountable for losing an aerial duel. The weakness of this strategy, and one that’s been exploited occasionally, with the Dundee United game springing to mind, is the susceptibility to being moved.
Above Dundee United predict McPake’s approach. United cleverly block the marker of the intended goal scorer with runs in front. On the trigger the goal scorer sprints into the space vacated by his teammates whilst they block the marker.
Dundee’s reaction in this phase is two-fold. Again it depends on the context. However, if we break it down into two halves it becomes a little clearer. Ideally, they want to control play. Therefore, they aim to maintain possession and pass around the initial press that most teams in the league employ.
Above, Byrne recovers the ball in a tight space. Instead of relieving pressure, he flicks the ball over his head and distributes play to the outlet, Cammy Kerr.
The picture above shows the advantage of Byrne’s composed quality. The opposition drop men back and Dundee find themselves with options to play forward or back. The back three form a diamond with the holding midfielder. Kerr decides to play back and Dundee progressively build play up.
The second strategy commonly employed, as Dundee transition into attack, is the direct combination play. With two forwards present in the formation and McGowan’s vision they will try to play one touch to break through defences.
Above, Dundee’s staggered structure allows them to combine with intricate one touch passing. Having won the ball high up, they remain narrow. They lift the tempo and look to quickly move through their opponents.
This analysis will break Dundee’s possession phase into two parts. Firstly, McPake’s build-up in possession and secondly, how they create opportunities in the final third.
McPake has changed the spine of the team in order to achieve this possession dominance. Robertson and Dorrans’ technical ability helps them achieve this.
Play is distributed into either centre-backs from Conor Hazard. Dorrans or Robertson will come short to collect and link up with another centre-back. This allows them to create an overload in their third. As a result, they can progress possession into the middle third. From here, Dorrans or Robertson will dictate the tempo and start the attacking patterns. If the opponents defend narrowly, the outside centre-backs are able to play passes into the wing-backs instead.
The analysis above shows how Dundee’s attacking entries are spread almost evenly across the three vertical zones. Dorrans leads the league in most passes into the final third per 90. Dundee is second in the league at offensive duels and crosses. These statistics provide an insight into Dundee’s quality.
In the final third, Dundee has options centrally and out wide. Primarily, Dundee will use their wing-backs as outlets and focus play through the middle. McPake’s patterns focus on Dorrans and McGowan breaking the lines. Above, notice Dundee’s staggered midfield. This vertical based possession creates angles to combine and break lines.
When they attack down the flanks, Dundee possesses pace, flair and a crossing threat. If the opposition stays narrow then Dundee utilise the wing-backs. The middle provide an option inside and the backline can support the backward pass. Circled above, Hemmings waits at the back post for the delivery. Nelson will look to pounce on the loose ball.
With all of their possession and intent to create across the pitch you’d assume Dundee score frequently. You’d be wrong. Dundee do not get enough men in the box. Is this a managerial instruction or are the players too exhausted from their intense pressing approach? It’s too early to make a judgement on that.
McPake’s inherited a team that was low in morale, numbers and quality. To date, he’s recruited well with initial signings, including Dorrans, Byrne and Hemmings. And most recently, the additions of Christophe Berra from Hearts and Hazard from Celtic have been crucial in Dundee’s latest run of form. McPake should also be credited with Fin Robertson’s arrival to senior football.
His footballing philosophy is still, very much so, in its infancy. McPake has employed three different formations and still looks unsure of his best 11. What we do know is that his sides seek possession, and it includes skilful wingers, a creative number 10, an eight, a six, physical forwards and ball-playing defenders.
Despite the external problems, infrastructure of pitches and the recent pandemic, McPake has done enough to secure Dundee a third-placed finish and instil hope of promotion next season.
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