Left-back dilemma, striking options and a potential new formation - Harrogate Town talking points
After watching Harrogate Town net an 85th-minute equaliser to earn themselves a 1-1 draw at home to Crawley, Harrogate Advertiser sports editor Rhys Howell looks at some of the talking points from Saturday's game.
The left-back dilemma.
The left-back position has been an area of concern for around two-and-a-half years.
Ben Parker more or less made the slot his own during Town's 2017/18 National League North promotion campaign, but since he departed the club not long after the start of the following season, Simon Weaver has been unable to find the ideal replacement.
Leeds United-loanee Liam Kitching was initially deployed there with some success, though he is a centre-half by trade. Jack Senior came in on loan and did okay, before George Smith was signed on a permanent deal for the 2019/20 campaign, but never really set the world alight.
In-between, Warren Burrell has been asked to fill in on the left-hand-side of the Harrogate back-four and has done a decent job, particularly during the second half of last season when the club embarked on a superb run which ultimately ended up earning them promotion to the EFL.
Burrell has performed solidly once again this term. He's athletic, quick, strong, good in the tackle, decent in the air and very tidy in possession - because he's played in midfield for the majority of his footballing career.
He is, however, right-footed, and thus, while he's comfortable at right-back, centre-half or in the middle of midfield, he isn't a natural at left-back.
Saturday's clash with Crawley highlighted the problem that comes with deploying a right-footer on the left as, with Tom Walker offering almost nothing in front of him, Burrell's tendency to come inside onto his stronger foot meant that Town had no width down that side of the pitch.
As a result, there was no outlet on the left and visiting right-back Archie Davies enjoyed a very comfortable opening 45.
A tactical change meant that the Harrogate left carried more of a threat in the second period with Jack Muldoon and Brendan Kiernan using their pace to good effect, and things improved further when Dan Jones was introduced as a 76th-minute substitute.
One of the Sulphurites' greatest strengths is the fine partnership that Ryan Fallowfield and George Thomson have build down the right and what they could do with is something similar on the opposite flank.
For that to happen, natural left-footers are probably required, and in Jones, Town have one of those. In addition to setting up Muldoon's late equaliser with one of his trademark long throw-ins, the on-loan Salford City defender's impact from the bench was very positive.
His display against Bolton Wanderers on his first start for the club aside, he has impressed, and it would be interesting to see him given a run in the side.
The chances of this occurring depend on Weaver's willingness to re-deploy Burrell, someone who the Harrogate chief rightly holds Burrell in high regard.
He is one of his longest-serving players, someone who doesn't have bad games and who has never let his manager down.
That said, Burrell is extremely versatile and could be utilised elsewhere. Some of his best games in recent seasons have come when he's played as a holding midfielder, a position I personally feel brings out the very best in him.
Jack Muldoon is currently Town’s top-scorer and has been in both of his previous seasons with the club. In addition to the fact that he is the Sulphurites’ most likely source of a goal, he is also one of the hardest workers in the team.
Thus, at the moment, he is a shoe-in for a starting place up top. The question is, who should partner him?
Kiernan was given the nod on Saturday, and although that pairing boasts plenty of pace and movement in the shape of two players who can take on defenders and also run in behind, it didn’t really work against Crawley.
This was partly due to the way the opposition set up, but largely because Town resorted to playing too many long balls in the first half - particularly after falling behind.
Muldoon and Kiernan aren’t suited to direct football. They are not really equipped to compete in the air with big centre-halves. Ideally, both men need someone to play off.
When Aaron Martin came on at half-time he provided a greater physical presence and a focal point for the Harrogate attack.
The fact that he won the header from Dan Jones’ throw-in which led to the hosts’ equaliser is a big plus for him, and he is surely favourite to start alongside Muldoon at Leyton Orient this weekend.
Martin has been in and out of the starting XI so far this term, but at the moment he appears the best option to lead the line.
A new formation?
The formation that Town used in the second half against Crawley was certainly different to their usual 4-4-2 set-up.
It looked like a version of a 4-3-3 with Martin at the tip of the spear, then Muldoon and Kiernan either side, while Josh Falkingham and Lloyd Kerry held the midfield with Thomson operating in a pocket just right of centre.
It certainly worked on this occasion and must surely have given Weaver something to think about.
It’s important that a team has a plan B, and one that is tried and tested to some extent.
The beauty of the 4-3-3 was that it allowed Town to go direct and from back to front quickly as they chased the game and actually be able to compete in the air, while at the same time enabling them to keep Muldoon and Kiernan on the field and in areas where they were better suited to effect proceedings.
It would be a surprise to see Weaver deviate too far away from 4-4-2 anytime soon given how well his favoured system has worked for him in recent years. But, whichever formation he employs, Saturday surely demonstrated that either Martin, Jon Stead or Mark Beck need to be on the field to lead the line.
When you consider how much joy Town had from set-pieces and Jones’ long throws, the argument in favour of Town utilising one the aforementioned three strikers in their starting line-up only grows stronger.
Town are at their best when they keep the ball on the deck and pass it quickly, however they still need that option to be able to mix it up on occasion.
Filling Will Smith's shoes.
Will Smith has been arguably the star of Town’s season so far with a string of consistently excellent performances at centre-half.
The news that he will be out until the New Year with a hamstring problem was a real blow for Harrogate, however Jake Lawlor’s display against Crawley was fairly encouraging.
It will inevitably take a bit of time for him and Connor Hall to develop an understanding, but the 29-year-old seems to tick all the boxes.
He’s decent in the air, appears to read the game pretty well and also composed in possession.
While nobody will be getting too carried away on the basis of one League Two outing, Lawlor hasn’t done too much wrong in any of his Cup appearances either, so perhaps Smith’s absence will not be felt quite as keenly as was initially feared.