ARE WE LEARNING TO LIVE WITHOUT ALAN JUDGE?
Firstly, I should confess that the title of this is slightly misleading - i'm actually looking at the system we've played in the last two games as a whole, including half an hour in which Judge was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch before going off injured at Brunton Park. However, I do believe that Keith Curle has subtlely altered the system for the two games to make it less Judge-centric, it's just a happy coincidence that it was done for the first time we've been without the Irishman this season, and it's certainly been achieved with some success - a painfully easy stroll past a pitiful Carlisle side and a hard fought win against a useful Coventry.
This is the side that played the majority of the opening game at Crewe (Labadie came on for Tom Williams early on, leading to a bit of a reshuffle). It mirrored the system that Curle used for the majority of his time last season - focusing on Alan Judge finding space in behind the opposition midfield. However, a slight loss in form from Judge and the fact that he may not stay for all that much longer has led to some necessary rethinking - which saw Curle change the basic outline for the games against Carlisle and Coventry, which i'll look at in a second. For what it's worth, the 4-2-3-1 system worked reasonably well against Crewe, Judge finding space away from their four man midfield and both Julian Kelly and Alan Sheehan causing problems coming forward past the inverted wingers. However, one problem that I think we have seen, particularly at home, has been an inability to move the ball from the defence into the midfield quickly and sharply enough, something which has been alleviated by the switch in formation.
On the face of it, the two formations seem similar, but there are crucial differences in the way the midfield, in particular, is constructed. The subtle backwards shift of the entire midfield has left the spare man in between our own defence and midfield, rather than the opposition's, a role in which André Boucaud should thrive. This was evident at the Ricoh Arena, where he touched the ball far more than any player and was the start of almost all Notts' incisive attacking moves, either playing a simple ball into the two more advanced midfielders or a more ambitious one out wide. Being a spare man against a 4-4-2 also showed it's benefits in his goal, with Coventry's two central midfielders both pre-occupied with the forward bursts of Neal Bishop and Jeff Hughes. Having Boucaud in that position also helps with playing the ball out - for me, a frustrating feature of our season had been the inability of the centre backs to pass the ball forward, having to go square or back and eventually play it long. Against Coventry, the Sky Blues were only willing to commit two players to press the ball, allowing a simple pass into the unmarked Boucaud and immediate forward impotus.
You will also notice the importance of Jordan Stewart to this system, which may explain him now seemingly being favoured over Alan Sheehan. Stewart is far quicker than the Irishman and more comfortable getting beyond Francois Zoko ahead of him, providing the width that is lost when Francois Zoko comes inside to link with Yoann Arquin. With Boucaud under instruction to stay back and Neal Bishop having the work rate to cover the spaces left, it leaves Notts with an extra attacking option and the width that had been lacking in the home games against Stevenage and Tranmere. There are negatives - the majority of chances created by Coventry on Saturday came on the counter and were as a result of the space left in behind Stewart when he joined the attack. John Fleck, in particular, found lots of space in this area in the first half.
The final effect of the new shape is in the advanced areas of midfield, where Jeff Hughes and Beal Bishop have both been freed up to get into the box more by the deep-lying nature of André Boucaud's role. This was shown by both scoring goals against Carlisle and both missing excellent chances to add to those goals against Coventry. Jeff Hughes, in particular, has been far more influential from the centre in this system than from out wide earlier in the season. The dilemma of how to fit Judge back into the side remains - but he was imperious playing with a free role from the left against Carlisle, the space created by Jordan Stewart's overlapping runs leading to the first two goals. I imagine that, with Francois Zoko having hugely impressed since his return to the side, it may be Jamal Campbell-Ryce that makes way, with the impending return of Julian Kelly to the side giving Notts the option of mirroring the left side of this system on the right and giving Judge the option to drift inside safe in the knowledge that Kelly will be providing the width outside of him. The only problem I see with this is that it may adversely affect Hughes' ability to get forward into the spaces Judge will now be occupying. There is also, of course, the issue of the fact that the new ideas are as of yet unproven at home - the signs from the road are good, however.