Last time around I settled on the title of Non-League Newbie, as compared to a lot of people I am still new to all this. That said, were a Premier League reserve goalkeeper to have my record of ten games across three seasons, they’d be positively experienced. I chose it because there are things that may occur to me that probably would not to someone better-versed in these levels of football.
Like most people who have wasted far too much of their life playing Football Manager, I’m quite interested in tactics. I’m not someone who thinks they’re an expert because they’ve read Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, or someone who believes their ability to manipulate an algorithm makes them qualified to manage a football team in real life. However, I do find how the game is played quite fascinating; football seems second only to cricket in terms of the numerous ways you can arrange your players so as either to counter your opponents’ strengths or exploit their weaknesses. When I’ve written in to Football365 about the Gingerbreads, I’ve mentioned the formations and playing styles of both teams because most of the readership won’t know who the players are. However, if you tell people it’s 4-2-3-1 versus 3-5-2 and it becomes easier to picture the scene.
Despite this, there is a perception of non-league football that it is exclusively rudimentary tactics and aggressive shouting. It doesn’t help that people within non-league seem keen on perpetuating this myth. Earlier this season, the Non-League Paper ran an interview with Tim Flowers, manager of Solihull Moors. Aside from other parts of the interview that got me annoyed enough to write in, Flowers discussed his first managerial job, at Stafford Rangers. He’d believed he could turn their fortunes around by installing incredibly basic tactics, mixing up personnel and getting angry when they didn’t start winning. Amazingly, this led to a solitary win from the 11 games the ex-Southampton stopper oversaw, contributing to Stafford’s relegation to the NPL. In doing so, he also unwittingly revealed that it was more likely any sort of employer reference that was far more detrimental to his employment opportunities than, as he had claimed, his nationality.
To give Flowers his due, he also reflected on what an eye-opener his experience at Marston Road was; he has clearly learnt from it given how well Moors have done under his charge, and he’s far from the only one being led astray by popular wisdom. Another nugget that that persists is the importance of having a big target man up front, though this comes with the caveat that many of those making this claim were managers who default to this style of play. Martin Allen used it to justify some of his signings at Chesterfield (not Lee Shaw though), overseeing a succession of draws that was, amusingly, simultaneously the Spireites’ longest undefeated streak and their longest winless run for a number of years. The irony for Allen was that his side’s top scorer, Scott Boden, is not overly tall: like most of last year’s most prolific strikers in the National League, he stands around 5’11; neither tall enough to be classed as giants nor small enough to be considered diminutive.
To someone still new to non-league, it seems that tactical planning can go down one of two paths. When there is limited time to work with players, it makes a lot of sense to keep things simple, ensuring they can master it quickly and put it into practice in a game. The downside is that if a system is easy to learn, sometimes it is easy to stop. The more basic systems also mean putting a lot of faith in players’ individual abilities rather than relying on collective strength. This was certainly in evidence last season, where squad turnover meant a churn of new players needing quick integration.
In contrast, this year most players were recruited early on in preseason, so there has been more time to work on more complex tactics. Through this, a second approach becomes possible, where the general lack of opposition scouting can be exploited to spring a surprise. Whether this is an unconventional system or an otherwise familiar one with a different look, disguising its true form through misdirection, if rehearsed well enough or executed properly, it’s possible to exploit the confusion to maximum effect.
This season to date, Grantham have played in at least four different formations, with several players adapting to multiple roles, even within the same game. Our opener saw FC United of Manchester’s 4-2-3-1 initially met with a 3-5-2, before injury forced a change to 4-4-2. Once the game began to open up, Paul Rawden and Russ Cousins switched their personnel again, to a 3-4-3, switching the attacking approach from one of centre-forward strength to wide player speed, a move that paid dividends against a tiring defence. While we cannot claim to have seen the rebirth of Total Football in Lincolnshire, it was impressive management and a long way from one-dimensional.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that non-league football is not a tactical wasteland is that the Athletic , when covering the FA Cup First Qualifying Round, had Michael Cox spend a week in the company (or contact) of Whitehawk, from the Isthmian League South East Division. As a Kingstonian fan and a tactical expert, Cox was far better placed than most of his colleagues in the media to look beyond popular misconceptions; despite the stellar efforts of clubs and leagues to highlight spectacular play on Twitter, very few clips have caught the public’s imagination to the same extent as former Sutton United goalkeeper-coach Wayne Shaw’s moment of infamy.
On the other hand, Cox seemed proud to be able to prove that non-league is more than “pubs, pies and pints” or “fat blokes playing Route One and kicking lumps out of each other”. If non-league football was truly that one-dimensional, it would not attract hundreds (or even thousands) of people to every game. We’ve certainly seen the benefit of a tactically flexible and aware squad this season, both in our ability to find ways to win, and also to stop many opponents from finding us out. Hopefully both of these trends will continue for a long while.
Until next time.
“Tim Flowers has had to earn his management stripes”, Non-League Paper, 8 August 2019
“Video analysis, Ultras and searching for a goalkeeper: behind the scenes of the FA Cup first qualifying round”, Michael Cox, The Athletic, 8 September 2019 (£)