When Stirling Albion first returned to competitive action on March 20th, I was in attendance as they grinded out a 1-0 win over Brechin City – a club who were, and remain, bottom of League Two. Naturally, the result mattered most in a first full game since December 26th.
However, I noted that the 3-5-2 utilised by manager Kevin Rutkiewicz didn’t really work. Since that day, it seems clear the Binos boss has come to the same conclusion. Last night’s 1-0 victory over local rivals Stenhousemuir seen Stirling implement a 4-4-2 setup, and it paid off magnificently. They may have won by the same scoreline they did against Brechin, but the performance itself was much improved.
Before delving deeper into the tactical reasons behind the win, Stirling’s attitude should be applauded. Every single player in the side worked their socks off, every blade of grass at the Forthbank Stadium was covered, with Stenhousemuir players barely given a second to breathe. When the away side did manage to beat Stirling’s press, they made sure to get back in numbers and limited their opponents to very few clear chances. A 4-4-2 can require excessive leg work, and Rutkiewicz’s men were happy to provide that.
Both the mental and tactical sides to the system were epitomised by Kurtis Roberts in the middle of the park. Playing a central midfield duo is a rarer sight nowadays, with the vast majority of sides preferring to set up with at least three bodies in the middle of the park.
Roberts made sure the lack of an extra man wasn’t costly, and embodied the kinds of qualities that make Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante such a force; he was snapping at the heels of opponents, winning the ball back consistently and driving his team forward. It was fitting when he carried the ball into the Stenhousemuir penalty area and assisted Jack Leitch for the winner.
Stirling’s tactical approach wasn’t immensely dissimilar to that used in the Brechin win, where the aim was clearly to get the ball to the forward pairing of Andy Ryan and Declan Byrne as quickly as possible. In the earlier game, however, it didn’t pay off; the two became isolated, with a lack of quality out wide until Kieran Moore entered the fray.
Moore was afforded a start this time around on the right of Rutkiewicz’s midfield four, and this helped the front pairing massively. He offered a quality option out wide, regularly receiving long diagonal passes and progressing the ball through to the strikers.
The home side were still trying to get the ball forwards to Ryan and Byrne as quickly as possible against Stenhousemuir. At times, their final balls were either forced or poorly executed, frequently running through to Paddy Martin. For the most part, however, it worked. Stirling were able to push up quickly, getting the ball away from their own goal and putting their opposition’s defence under pressure. The pace of Ryan and Byrne was deadly, with the former in particular putting in a performance that means he’s sure to be creeping into Chris Kane and Jack Bryon’s nightmares for weeks to come.
Ryan was brilliant. He won flick ons, drove at opposition defenders, earned free kicks and created chances. He’ll have been disappointed not to get on the scoresheet himself, but he can be more than pleased with his showing. His efforts are key to making this 4-4-2 system tick, and he made sure Stenhousemuir’s back line never had a second to breathe – ably assisted by Byrne.
David Wilson kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. While Roberts bustled around and made a nuisance of himself, Wilson mostly remained central to dictate play from deep. His passing repertoire is vast and he showcased this last night, spraying balls wide and retaining possession well. When his side lost the ball, he shielded his defenders well; a number of his strong tackles could be heard reverberating around a stadium sorely lacking fans. Once again, he summed up what is important to this formation – being tidy on the ball and aggressive off it.
In short, Stirling’s players were excellent last night as individuals. As a collective, they were even better.
Ryan and Byrne pressed excellently from the front, blocking off passing lanes and constantly forcing Stenhousemuir defenders out wide (as Kyle Banner’s shouts of “show him the line!” dictated). The midfield four shifted across the park together, staying compact and preventing line breaking passes from their opposite numbers.
In defence, Banner marshalled his teammates well. They won nearly everything in the air, and were resolute when faced with a bombardment of crosses in the final twenty minutes. Goalkeeper Cammy Binnie was rarely over-worked, but did pull off a remarkable save from Botti Biabi’s cross-come-shot.
The Binos pushed up as a unit, tracked back as a team and stayed compact at all times. Those are the basics to making a 4-4-2 system work, and they excelled in every regard. The scoreline could have been more comfortable, but once again a clean sheet helped in securing the three points.
Rutkiewicz’s 4-4-2 system looks to be getting the best out of every player on the park, and if that can continue then Stirling have a real chance of finishing second in the table. Next up is a crunch match against league leaders Queen’s Park; if the Binos can end the Glasgow side’s unbeaten run they’d move to within four points of the summit. If they manage that, you never know – and if their 4-4-2 works as well as it did last night, they’ll be confident of an upset.