Why Tranmere’s Win Over Chelmsford City in 2017 Could Be a Glimpse into the Tactical Future
With Tranmere’s League Two season set to commence on July 30th with a home game against Stevenage, the club have seemingly decided to change its style of play and use a 5-3-2 formation as seen in the Pre-season friendly against Huddersfield Town. Rovers fan Chris Watson took a look at previous changes in formation.
To a lot of Tranmere fans the thought of Micky Mellon being described as tactically ingenious is somewhat far-fetched. He is usually viewed as, at worst, stubborn, or, at best, pragmatic depending on your point of view. While last season may have offered up a diet of largely tasteless fare, Mellon’s promise of ‘risky’ football for the coming season could be ambrosia to the Prenton Park faithful. Tranmere’s transfers over the summer have looked to fit into a very different system to that of the previous campaign, with young, dynamic players able to hold a high-line, press, and allow a more progressive, modern style of football to be played. It is this way of playing that could see Mellon come full circle tactically at Tranmere, with the return of the five at the back system that has been used exclusively throughout pre-season.
During Mellon’s first season in charge of Tranmere, in 2016/17, he flitted between a flat 4-4-2 and a midfield diamond in his first few months at the helm. When he lost both of his wingers in quick succession, he opted for something more radical and switched to a 5-3-2. It was this formation that ultimately propelled Tranmere to 95 points and a play-off final at Wembley. And yet, upon reaching the final, Mellon was unable to play this shape due to a lengthy injury list. In actuality, the system was not used at all during the play-offs following Lee Vaughan’s broken leg in the penultimate league fixture of the season. With injuries and necessity seeing the 5 at the back system almost entirely abandoned by Mellon over the following seasons, save for an occasional outing, pragmatism took over. A very traditional 4-4-2 became the norm, which could morph into a 4-2-3-1 as the second striker withdrew into the number 10 role.
Upon his return, Mellon built his team around a watertight defence. The first 7 games of the 2021/22 season saw no more than 1 goal scored, with Tranmere racking up 8 clean sheets in their first 12 league games. While this was seen as a virtue by outsiders, and indeed some insiders, it became clear that it was adversely impacting the side’s ability to score at the other end. Twelve of Tranmere’s 21 league wins were by a single goal, including all 5 victories picked up on the road. Summer 2022 looked to rectify this by recycling an old idea from Mellon’s playbook.
If we rewind back to that 2016/17 season, and a seemingly innocuous FA Trophy replay at Chelmsford City’s Melbourne Stadium, we can see the first time that Mellon dallied with a 5 at the back formation. There were several caveats with this game; it was a largely irrelevant cup game, a slightly rotated XI was used, the opposition were from the division below. Even taking these factors into consideration, it was still a bold move, but the comfortable 4-1 victory, backed up with another resounding 5-1 victory in the same competition against Barrow using the aforementioned shape emboldened Mellon to unleash it in the league.
Last season’s squad lacked the personnel to play in this formation, there being only 3 senior centre backs on the books for one, and players such as Peter Clarke were ill-suited to a high-line. Here, then, is an example of the necessity by which Mellon felt 4-4-2 was the only suitable formation to play, however January saw the beginning of a shift in thinking and transfer policy.
Having signed Kane Hemmings during the winter transfer window the previous season, it was now about how to provide him with sufficient chances to be the 20 goal striker required of a team with aspirations of promotion. Mellon’s solution was to go back to his radical 5-3-2.
Tranmere fans had seen first-hand how effective this formation could be, not least in the 9-0 evisceration of Solihull, but it was the home defeat to Forest Green Rovers in January 2022 that showed how dominant 5-3-2 could be against a flat 4-4-2. Winning 4-0 was evidence enough, but it was the way in which Forest Green continually cut through or stretched Tranmere’s two banks of four that made the home side look very dated and staid tactically. The memory of this painful defeat would act as a blueprint for the following season.
In James Vaughan, erstwhile striker at Prenton Park and current Sporting Director focussing on recruitment, there is somebody at the club with a vision of how modern football should look, and the type of person that should be playing it. The profile of players being signed by Mellon is significantly younger than in previous years, with the potential to generate profit from future sales another positive to this approach. While foregoing experience may be another aspect of the risk that Mellon has talked about, it should allow for a contemporary, high energy brand of football to replace the caution of last season.
By going full circle, and returning to the halcyon days of early Mellon of 2016/17, or ‘Mellonball’ as the current vernacular would term it, Tranmere could see exciting, front-foot football that contrasts sharply to last season’s offerings. A young squad may take time to fully assimilate the tactical demands placed on it, and to adjust to league football more broadly, but the long-term benefits should outweigh any initial growing pains. As the ever prescient Doc Brown said, ‘We need to go back to the future.’