Analysis: A look at how the Cobblers could line-up in 2017/18
Justin Edinburgh will undoubtedly face a few selection quandaries over the course of the forthcoming campaign given the squad he has assembled, but if there is one scenario that all football managers crave, it's being spoilt for choice.
Whilst it may cause some sleepless nights and result in a few disgruntled players, constructing a squad that provides competition for places across every position can only be healthy in the long run; it prevents standards from dropping and guards against players from falling into a comfort zone.
It is a vital ingredient that has been and will always be a hallmark of any successful side, including Northampton Town in 2015/16 when Chris Wilder would regularly tinker with his team, both in terms of personnel and tactically, despite stumbling on a winning formula very early on.
Since then, and following a disappointing first year back in Sky Bet League One, the Cobblers squad has undergone major reconstruction and given a makeover by manager Justin Edinburgh during a frenzied summer of transfer activity, with 12 faces having now made the switch to Sixfields and more set to come.
It’s been a remarkable few months. A busy summer on the transfer front was expected following the disappointing manner in which last season fizzled out, but few anticipated such a high turnover of players.
And it’s not only the quantity of signings that has transformed the mood around Sixtields, it is also the quality Edinburgh has managed to attract, boosted by investment from Chinese company 5USport.
That is no better illustrated than two of his most recent recruits in Matt Crooks and Aaron Pierre, both of whom opted for Sixfields over several rival clubs, while the pace of Billy Waters, the nous of Dean Bowditch and the physicality of Ash Taylor are all valuable attributes that had previously been missing.
The lack of strength in depth became a serious issue last season when the Cobblers were caught out for a poor recruitment strategy the previous summer, with several players discarded from a very early stage.
This time that should not be the case and instead of having such slim-pickings to choose from, one of Edinburgh’s greatest challenges will be to keep all of his players happy.
He has a wealth of options at his disposal in most positions across the park and, with two players competing for each spot – providing a goalkeeper is signed – that’s exactly what is needed over the course of nine long, relentless months in four different competitions.
But signing players is the easy bit, and now he’s brought in the desired quality, Edinburgh’s task is to find the most effective system that will bring the best out of his players.
And given the quality he can select each week, he has the flexibility to play a variety of formation, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to 3-5-2.
How will he go? And how should he go? We explore the options below, and vote for your favourite! (Note: this was written prior to Chris Long’s signing).
Given the wealth of options in midfield, 4-3-3 arguably looks the best bet. It offers balance and versatility and with Powell and Waters playing slightly narrower and protection provided by the three in midfield, the two full-backs would have the freedom to push on.
It could also be argued that midfield, with the likes of John-Joe O’Toole, Matty Taylor, Sam Foley, Yaser Kasim and Matt Crooks all batting it out, is where Town boast the most quality. This system would, in theory, maximise the potential of those players by playing three at once and in any combination.
Whether it was with the diamond or a flat midfield four, 4-4-2 was regularly deployed by both Page and Edinburgh last season, with Marc Richards and Alex Revell invariably partnered together when both were fit. The problem with this, however, was that the Cobblers often became one-dimensional and predictable in games, as well as regularly being outnumbered and overrun in midfield.
The squad’s better balance this time around should guard against that, although the one position of the pitch that still causes slight concern is on the wing where Powell is arguably the only natural winger in the squad, despite both Lobjoit and Waters playing out wide in pre-season.
Nevertheless, 4-4-2 could still be a profitable system for Edinburgh who may go with a holding player in Crooks or Kasim in partnership with a more box-to-box midfielder such as O’Toole or Foley.
One of Northampton’s greatest strengths over the past two seasons, especially during Chris Wilder’s remarkably successful reign, has been the defensive and attacking capabilities of the full-backs. Brendan Moloney and, to a lesser extent, David Buchanan are regularly seen motoring down the wings at Sixfields, and there’s no reason why deputies George Smith and Aaron Phillips can’t do the same - or even someone like Daniel Powell who Edinburgh has earmarked to potentially play that role.
With that in mind, and allied to the lack of natural wingers in the squad, 3-5-2 may well become a very handy system, in fact Edinburgh has already stated this is the formation he intends to go with for now.
A combination of any two or three of O’Toole, Taylor, Foley, Kasim, McWilliams and Crooks will play in midfield, while it would be a battle between Bowditch, Richards, Lobjoit, Waters, Long and Revell for the forward positions.
A popular among Cobblers fans for the part it played in their title triumph two years ago, this is a system that could work well with the current squad. It was a favourite among Chris Wilder who deployed it to maximum effect, although he enjoyed the benefit of having two excellent wide players in Nicky Adams and Ricky Holmes.
As previously noted, Northampton do not quite possess the same quality in this squad, which therefore weakens the argument for 4-2-3-1 but, if more emphasis is placed on the full-backs, it could still be an viable option.
Strength in depth
It’s also worth noting how deep this Cobblers squad is with almost every position covered by two players. For example, pictured at the bottom of this page are two potential teams made up of entirely different players that Edinburgh could field, assuming a new goalkeeper is signed before next week’s opener at Shrewsbury Town.