The Back Three

When Sam Ricketts took over Shrewsbury Town the team were playing a 4-4-2 diamond; the formation had success against weaker sides under Danny Coyne but Salop struggled under Ricketts. With only seven points from the first nine games, in three of which the Town conceded three goals, a change was definitely required. The January transfer window gave the manager the chance to change things up: reinforcing his defence, switching to a back three and utilising the strength of his squad. This move helped Ricketts achieve his aim of securing League One status.


Before discussing tactics and players, it is only fair to note that the team was not well prepared for the 2018/19 season under the leadership of John Askey. Piecing together comments from Danny Coyne, Sam Ricketts and Anthony Grant, pre-season was a disaster. If Askey worked on a formation he disregarded it completely as the season progressed. The squad was alarmingly unfit compared to other teams in the division and this could not be corrected during the season. As a consequence this limited how much Ricketts could push the players in training, and effected the implementation of his ideas. In addition this meant the manager had to rotate the first eleven frequently to give his players time to recover, especially when Shrewsbury played two games in a week.


The 2018/19 squad was strong in central midfield, with Docherty, Edwards, Grant, Laurent, Norburn, Vincelot and the long forgotten Doug Loft. Town had limited options in wide positions, with Whalley the outstanding candidate and Gillead who failed to shine under the leadership of Askey. It was interesting that Ricketts decided against reinforcing the flanks but focussed on forwards, defenders and goalkeepers in the January transfer window. Ricketts also inherited two solid right wing backs in Bolton and Sears, and plenty of central defenders in Beckles, Waterfall, Kennedy, and Sadler, plus Bolton who is more than capable of playing in this position. But Ricketts was missing one key element, pace.


Ricketts was faced with a tough decision choosing between Sadler and Waterfall. Given their lack of pace, very few Shrews fans were keen to see both players start. Ricketts decided to drop Sadler after Bristol Rovers away and he never started another league game. The decision to choose Waterfall over Sadler was a brave one given Sadler’s popularity among Shrewsbury Town fans, and it appears among the squad too, with Beckles one of several players keen to share his admiration for Sadler at the end of season awards evening. There is certainly no love lost between Sadler and Ricketts, the former explaining his frustration with a lack of minutes in his Walsall post-match interview. Why did Ricketts choose Waterfall over Sadler? Perhaps Ricketts saw that Waterfall, younger and still with two years left on his contract, was the better player and more likely to play a part long term. Waterfall’s ability to head the ball, and in both boxes, must have contributed to Ricketts’ final decision. Given that Waterfall scored six goals, it could be said that the manager made the right choice, however fans of Sadler highlight that his leadership and organisational abilities were perhaps missing in his absence.


Whether Sadler or Waterfall, Ricketts’ decision to play three at the back, with a slow central defender, had to be compensated. The signing of Ro-Shaun Williams from Manchester United added considerable pace to the back line. Williams was a superb signing and after his introduction at Bristol Rovers he was a guaranteed name on the team sheet. With Williams playing right of the back three, the remaining left sided position was filled in the main by Beckles, with Bolton deputising in his absence.


The defeat to Luton in February seemed to finalise the decision to change the formation; a back three added solidity to the team, making Town a more defensive outfit. A good run of form followed the change and in fact, Shrewsbury did not lose by more than a one goal margin for the remainder of the season. It is also worth considering that around this time Whalley returned from injury and Shrewsbury were knocked out of the FA Cup, giving more time on the training ground.


In front of the back three Ricketts deployed several different setups. The first tactic was to play Docherty and Whalley supporting a central striker, similar to Conte’s league winning team, in a 3-4-3 formation. However this didn’t last long, as Ricketts moved Whalley to play as a right wing-back in a 3-5-2, with what appeared to be the instruction to stick high and wide, pinning the opposition full-back in his half and offering Town a focus point on the right. This tactic had some limited success, but Ricketts seemed to come to the conclusion that Whalley was the best attacking threat in his squad. Whalley was to play the remainder of the season up front supporting a classic number nine in Campbell or Okenabirhie.


The change to 3-5-2 meant the team had an additional midfielder and were less likely to be overrun in central areas. Ricketts settled on a midfield three of Docherty, Grant and Norburn in what appeared to be two distinct approaches. One was to play Grant as a deep lying midfielder behind Docherty and Norburn. Secondly playing Docherty, Grant and Norburn as a flat three. This was particularly successful away at Barnsley when Shrewsbury allowed the hosts to dominate possession but not the game. All three midfielders had a positive impact in attack but were competent at shielding the defence. Docherty was more effective in the 3-5-2, the deeper position enabling him to be involved in the transition of play, driving the ball forward by dribbling and playing through-balls to runners in front of him. He is also adept at finding space between the defence and midfield, safe in the knowledge Norburn and Grant were behind him.


The signing of Golbourne gave Shrewsbury a strong option at left wing-back. The partnership of Haynes and Gillead was a major weakness during Askey’s reign and must have played a major part in Coyne and Ramsey’s decision to stick with the diamond. Golbourne was not particularly effective in the attacking final third but was strong in defence. Bolton on the right flank was equally solid if not more effective going forward. This meant that Shrewsbury ended up being a defensive and limited team, albeit one that was hard to beat. Up front the team was not prolific (1.08 goals per game under Ricketts) and relied on individual excellence. Campbell was a revelation, a superb signing and his goals were unquestionably key to survival.


Given the strengths and weaknesses of the squad, the limited amount of time on the training ground and the lack of fitness, the move to a back three was a wise one. Ricketts was able to achieve safety in League One based on defensive resilience. If Shrewsbury are to progress next season with three at the back, Ricketts needs to build a team capable of scoring more goals. Three central defenders might be viewed as a defensive formation, but it can be very successful, as demonstrated in the Championship this season. Ricketts now has the opportunity to build his own team, and implement his own philosophy.