Sunday, 21 November 2010

Greg Abbott Mid-Term Report (Part 1)

Here we are again, welcoming an old, familiar friend. Last week’s hard fought and well deserved defeat of a high calibre Southampton scrubbed out by a scrappy undoing at basement club Walsall. With a run of fixtures against sides in the bottom half of the table it had been hoped that this would be a period for the Cumbrians to consolidate their impressive start – some hope. There was a crushing inevitability to this defeat in a week where manager Greg Abbott was rewarded with a 2 year contract extension as reward for this year’s improved performance. By all accounts Carlisle were as abject against the Saddlers as they were inspired versus the Saints but Abbott deserves credit for moving on from some of last year’s more regular mistakes. There are some things he really needs to learn though. By way of constructive evaluation I’ve picked out three of each. For ease of digestion I’ve split them into three parts. Here’s the first:



All too often last year the Blues set up in a one-dimensional 4-5-1 formation designed to harness their strength in central midfield and dearth of quality up front, overly reliant on scampering winger Matt Robson as the only outlet ball. This worked with the ox like figure of Vincent Pericard as the fulcrum for joining attacks but his departure in the January window highlighted a dearth of options. All too often the midfield clogging duo of Taiwo and Thirlwell set out their stall to nick an away point and all too often we lost one-nil due to a defensive unit prone to lapses of concentration or stupidity.

At the time Abbott argued that, like Chelsea and Arsenal, his side played 4-5-1 in defence and 4-3-3 in attack. This was patently untrue. An old-fashioned winger, Robson’s instinct was to hug the touchline, while ball playing right sided winger Kevan Hurst possessed neither the pace, nor the finishing ability, to be classed as a forward. Fans constant calls for 4-4-2 were eventually heeded late on as Jason Price and Gary Madine formed a strong partnership but dropping a midfield battler always gave an uneasy feeling about exposing the defence.

This season has saw Abbott start with a 4-4-2 diamond formation designed to accommodate the game reading abilities of Paul Thirlwell at the base and the guile of Francois Zoko at the tip. The formation was largely to thank for the Blues unbeaten start to the season with the deep lying Zoko wreaking havoc with unfamiliar League 1 defences and a resurgent Thirlwell (often a target of fan abuse due to his perceived closeness to Abbott) offering a shield to a fledgling defensive unit.

Teams soon began to match the formation like for like to lessen Carlisle’s comfort on the ball and a number of goalless ties led a move to a traditional 4-4-2 with Robson, restored on the left, the creator of several goals. After a long term injury to Sean McDaid led to Robson’s use as an emergency left-back Abbott played to his squad’s strength, using the forward looking Zoko, Mike Grella and Ben Marshall in wide roles to complement regular front pair of Madine and Curran. This formation has proved much more malleable, with the wider forwards dropping in to a support central a central pair of Taiwo and James Berrett in defence but pushing on to make a flying 4-2-4 in attack.

Throughout this period Curran has remained an enigma. His ability to stretch defences and strong hold up play let down by his tendency to panic with the goal at his mercy – he was first punted to the wing before being fully dropped in favour of the tricksy Marshall. This latest formation is not unlike the 4-2-3-1 which was prevalent at the World Cup, with Zoko, Marshall and Grella all tasked with tracking back to stop counters but all flooding forward to support leading scorer Madine in attack. It seems to be working, as all three have scored in recent weeks.

Where last year’s stiff 4-4-2 and redoubtable 4-5-1 were set up in flat banks, it’s perhaps most pleasing to see this year’s team swiftly move and adapt shape according to the flow of the game. This is thanks in part to an improvement in the quality of players available, from the Man United loanee James Chester at centre half through to the mercurial Zoko via the technically gifted midfield ball player James Berrett. But Abbott should take credit for drilling this flexibility into his charges as it is key to success in modern football.

If anything, Abbott seems to be thinking far more carefully about his team choices and making decisions to suit the situation of a game and opposition. This can be seen in his improved substitutions (more of that later) but is exemplified by a decision to play the right footed centre back Chester at left back against Southampton rather than young Arsenal loanee Thomas Cruise. Cruise struggled against Crewe and Abbott had rightly identified teen flyer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as Southampton’s dangerman. It paid off, with Chester winning plaudits for his performance, and Abbott even more for his pitching of the seeming mismatch.

Last season tactics became an easy and appealing stick with which to beat Greg Abbott and whilst it is going too far to say he’s cracked it (Berrett still goes missing too often, we still play long ball too often as default and a tendency to be caught on he break) but it seems reading ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ over the summer was a good start.


Half Time/Minutes 45-60

Oh to be a fly on the wall in a Carlisle United half time dressing room. Not a single fan knows what happens. So often last season the first 15 minutes of the second half were Carlisle’s worst, with game changing and game killing opposition goals aplenty and few in reply. It led to fair questions about what exactly Greg Abbott was saying to his side in the rest period and why it wasn’t working as well as those of his opposite number.

This season the corner seemed to have been turned after we went eight games this season without conceding in the first fifteen minutes of the second half but recently the habit has returned. Early second half goals for Charlton and Southampton were followed by a second Walsall free kick goal in the 53rd minute at the Bescot on Saturday. These lapses of concentration after a Lucozade and a talking to are swiftly becoming a trope which must be put to seed if the Blues are to maintain their tilt at a top six position.

It surely cannot be that Abbott fails to motivate the team at half time – one of life’s talkers it may be that he overloads the side with information or that the team are under-prepared and so in need of their half-time recuperation that they leave their concentration in the dressing room. Either way, Abbott need to find a way to consign them to history before managers start to use them as a motivational technique.


  1. Great stuff! Glenn Roeder's half-time team talks used to have a similar effect at Newcastle. Never understood how they could be so consistently awful in the first 10-15 minutes of the second half.

    Sadly, neither did he.

  2. John,

    This is such intelligent and insightful comment, The club could do with taking you on at some capacity. You must be getting to a few games. Greg does seem to use substitutions very well this season, whereas last season he drove me mad with the John Ward last 10 minutes nonsense. I'm going to have to talk some more.

  3. JCH

    Thanks for your kind comments - perhaps I've missed my calling? I've gotten to only a couple of games being down in London but have followed them all avidly and gleaned plenty. The substitutions thing will follow in a later post - in short, thank God he's stopped his 60th min like for likes.

  4. Re Rochdale game last night. At start of the Season playing the diamond & with wingers on the bench, we seemed to have a fund of options. Last night I thought everything we have is out there, & we have no options to change things about. Robson forced to play left back when we needed width, neither Marshall, nor Hurst when he came on, seemed to get very wide. No one picking up bits and pieces from long balls to Madine. Zoko caused all kinds of trouble but nothing to show after our goal. Rochdale much more effective getting wide & to the dead ball line. A settled left back is a basic requirement now.

    Ho Hum, here we go again.