It was Bevis Mugabi’s winner that stole the headlines. Jake Carroll, taking over corner kick duty with Liam Polworth suspended, swung in a corner from the left. The Ugandan leapt into the air (75 centimetres high, to be precise) and placed a perfectly executed header into the net. It was, as the club have joyfully pointed out, a goal befitting of Cristiano Ronaldo. It sealed a massive three points for the Steelmen, and their first win since Halloween.
Surprisingly, that won’t be what pleased manager Graham Alexander the most. Instead, Motherwell’s equaliser (perhaps a scrappy effort at first glance) summed up the positive changes the Englishman has made since taking over early last month.
Alexander has made a number of changes at Fir Park already, but his decision to immediately switch to a 4-3-3 formation has been the most vindicated. Motherwell have rarely taken to the field with an abundance of attacking talent on show this season, so it’s been refreshing to see them do so over the past few weeks.
In Stephen Robinson’s final four games at the helm, he set his side up in a 3-5-2 that, more often than not, moulded into a 5-3-2. The football was flat, disjointed and defensive. There is nothing wrong with conservative football if there is a plan to create fast turnovers and counter attack at pace. Unfortunately, Robinson couldn’t find a way to do that.
With Liam Polworth being the only natural creator in the midfield three, the forwards became isolated. Tony Watt was paired with either Callum Lang or Devante Cole, and whichever pair were selected became increasingly frustrated. They had no real support from the midfield, and a lack of width presented even more of a problem.
In each of these four games, Robinson’s wing backs were Stephen O’Donnell and Liam Grimshaw. Both are hard working, sturdy defensively and possess good engines – but they are no elite providers in the final third. If wing backs are unable to provide strong overlapping runs and a consistent final product, then a team’s play will become agonisingly one-dimensional. They will be forced to play through the middle, which is considerably easier to defend against.
Motherwell were toothless in attack, and they weren’t even making up for it with the kind of sturdy defending you’d expect from a back five. There was a single clean sheet against Aberdeen during these four games, but they conceded late to Dundee United, collapsed late on at Ibrox and shipped two at home to Kilmarnock – the result that ended up being the final straw for Robinsn. He couldn’t find a way to link his defence and attack.
Enter Alexander, who immediately scrapped the back five (Keith Lasley, to his credit, attempted this against Hamilton Accies during his sole game in charge, but was woefully exposed). A 4-3-3 has been implemented ever since, and the use of three strikers has improved Motherwell’s play abundantly.
This brings us back to that equaliser at Ross County, which exemplifies all that can be good when utilising three attackers. Stephen O’Donnell, now back in his preferred full back role, plays a good pass into the channel for Christopher Long, who has been restored to the side now that an extra spot has opened up.
Long rushes onto the pass and cuts back into the Ross County penalty area, where Tony Watt is waiting. The 27-year-old fires a low shot at goal, forcing a save from Ross Laidlaw. The goalkeeper spills the effort, allowing Devante Cole to pounce and fire home the rebound. Motherwell equalise, and all three of Alexander’s strikers were involved.
The advantages of having more strikers on the park cannot be underestimated. There are, of course, limitations; shoving ten strikers onto the pitch wouldn’t work for obvious reasons. Some teams might not have the personnel at their disposal to field three forwards, and others’ style of play revolves around a single striker. At the moment, however, three strikers look to be exactly what Motherwell have needed.
They no longer have nine players parked behind the ball, ready to launch hopeless long balls to a pair of strikers who aren’t categorised as target man material. Since the change, Cole has been doing his best to occupy the opposition centre backs. The wide forwards (normally Watt and one of either Long or Sherwin Seedorf) distract the full backs and prevent them pushing forward without a second thought.
This immediately gives the midfield more time on the ball. On top of that, they have three options ahead of them; a front two need to operate closer together, which can make them easier to mark. With opposition defenders forced to spread across the pitch, there are more gaps to exploit. A number of Motherwell’s recent goals have demonstrated this.
When Cole gave his side the lead against Rangers in their recent 1-1 draw, the benefits shone through. Tony Watt gave the ball to Polworth, took it back off him and fired a low ball across the face of goal. At the time of his cutback, Cole was hurtling into the six-yard box to convert, while Seedorf loitered on the penalty spot in case of a reverse ball. Allan Campbell arrowed in on the back post, making a strong run from midfield safe in the knowledge that Polworth and Robbie Crawford were on hand to snuff out any Rangers counter attack. There were three players for Watt to aim at, and the increase in attacking numbers brought a goal.
The switch to a front three hasn’t just helped tactically, though; it seems to have worked wonders on the players’ confidence. Watt, in particular, has been a revelation – his work ethic has been astounding all season and he has been a standout player for Motherwell, but recent matches have seen his end product sky rocket. He grabbed assists in both the Rangers and St Mirren draws, and it was his parried shot that led to Cole’s tap in at Ross County.
Cole has scored in three of Alexander’s first four matches, having only scored once in the league beforehand. There will be time for further improvement, and if Motherwell’s third striker can replicate this kind of form, relegation worries could turn into a distant memory.
Whether those hopes become a reality will be decided over the Lanarkshire side’s next five games. They host Dundee United, who they can leapfrog in the table with a victory and success in their games in hand. A trip to Kilmarnock could see them jump above their rivals, before fixtures with Hamilton and St Johnstone could see them push further clear of the drop-zone. A meeting with struggling Celtic is sandwiched in between.
Motherwell are by no means safe yet, and have a long way to go this season. However, Graham Alexander’s switch to a 4-3-3 has them playing with both restored confidence and ability; it could be the key to a surge up the table in the coming months.