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Bowen's Brand New Box

The first game of pre-season is done, and wasn't it an interesting one? Mark Bowen previewed a brand new 3-6-1, with more central midfielders than anybody could have dreamt of. As theorized we played a back-three and wing-backs. The midfield, however, had that unexpected additional body, meaning that Joao played as a lone striker.

The 3-6-1. Swift and Laurent are allowed to go forward but are usually content with being behind the play.

Consistency is a much sought after commodity in football, so I suppose it can be classed as a positive that there's only a single new recruit in the squad. Laurent's role as one of the deeper midfielders was slightly surprising, because everything from his stint at Shrewsbury implied that he's a similar, but more offensive player than Rinomhota. Swift takes the majority of the ball, so he's not expected to be the main playmaker, but he was comfortable in possession and picks the right pass when needed. Plus his pressing, and positional play were encouraging.

Swift drops back into defence to pick up the ball. One of the most important things to notice is that at this point the formation is almost identical to the 4-1-4-1 played last season, but with the ability to progress the ball and legitimate width.

Morrison played in the centre of defensive trio. When he was in possession McIntyre and Moore would go wide, effectively becoming full-backs, and one of Swift and Laurent would drop into the LCB position. The new captain (a topic for another day) didn't often carry the ball and was put under little pressure by Gillingham, who allowed easy passes out to the other centre backs, or into defensive midfield. On the one occasion those options were cut off his poor passing did put pressure onto the team and that could be exploited by stronger sides.

As the ball progressed McIntyre and Moore looked to overlap if the opportunity arose, drawing a few comparisons to Sheffield United - which are more than valid. It's an intelligent way of adding width to a squad without wingers.

One common pattern of play - shifting the ball out to the right, then looking for the run of the far side attacking midfielder.

Obviously, most of the playmaking came through Swift. Picking up the ball deep he'd either look for a line-breaking pass or go wider to stretch play. Often that would come in the form of a ball out to the right wing-back. From there the left attacking midfielder could make a run in behind and hope the ball could be played over the top - which happened more often with Araruna on the field - or Yiadom could make his traditional runs with the ball down the right-wing. Due to this switch in play almost always being available, the majority of our attacks came down the right flank - and that also meant that Olise often seemed to be slightly deeper than his counterpart on the left as he got involved slightly more with build-up.

Rinomhota and Olise making runs into the box, allowing Joao to be the cut-back. Pretty good example of our offensive shape - something like a 3-2-5/2-3-5 depending on if a centre back is gallivanting up field.

The system relies on Rinomhota and Olise to get beyond Joao to provide extra goalscoring threat. That is, at least in part, why they're playing on the opposite sides to their strong feet, á la narrow inside forwards. Neither player is used to having to provide goals, and it remains to be seen whether they're suited to doing so. They also need to offer a pass to Swift and Laurent when the defensive midfielders are in possession, and you'll see them rotating into space between the lines to help progress the ball.

Joao's movement is still a useful tool, although there's not as much of a reliance on him as when playing the 4-2-3-1 at points last season. He's not expected to hold the ball up as much now they're not looking to go straight into the striker, but his height allows an out ball up to him when the situation requires it. His interplay with the midfield is the real asset, it's easy to forget just how deep he drops at times. Baldock, Puscas, and even McNulty have all shown they also have that ability when there's bodies around them but none of them are close to the starting XI until Joao's inevitable injury - or we move to a two-striker system.

Even with substitutions, the formation stayed largely consistent. Only Meite altered the positioning - playing wider on the right in place of one of the CDMs. Baldock and McNulty slotted straight into attacking midfield and offered more of an offensive instinct than Rinomhota or Olise. Given that the majority of the problems highlighted last year were to do with the forwards being isolated, it's difficult to see how that could happen with this tactic.

THE BOX which forces opposition wide, where the wing-backs are waiting to press.

Defensively, too, we looked a changed side, although we didn't get to see it much. Pressing the ball much higher up the pitch and not just retreating into a low block. We're obviously incredibly strong through the middle, where we have THE BOX, but it remains to be seen whether better teams will find ways to take advantage of the space that leaves elsewhere. Richards and Yiadom are asked to do a lot and could be exposed. Even then, with the wider starting positions of the outside centre backs, and the two CDMs able to cover the middle, we should hopefully be solid enough. After the final round of substitutions, Morrison changed his role slightly to step out of defence, rather than covering, to keep THE BOX in midfield. 

Let's be honest, Gillingham barely troubled; they're a League One side who have barely played since March, in a game with no stakes. Whether we'll line up in the same way versus better opposition remains to be seen, but we should have our answer on Friday. Or alternatively, we could 'fire' Bowen, replace the manager last minute, and start the rebuild all over again. This is going to be a wild season.

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