The Long Ball Tactic

What Kind of Manager is Nigel Adkins?

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on September 12, 2010

The saga of Nigel Adkins’ departure from Scunthorpe to Southampton this week has had as many twists and turns (and been just as unnecessarily drawn out) as an Eastenders plotline, but just what sort of manager are the south coast club getting?

When Adkins took over from Brian Laws in November 2006 many Scunthorpe fans were surprised by the bluster and freshness exuded  by the ex-physio. In contrast to the normally dour Laws, Adkins seemed to overflow with a cheery demeanour and positive attitude. He dealt often in clichés and slightly ambiguous psychobabble – “the lads have to go out there and express themselves” was an oft-repeated phrase throughout his tenure. Whilst this was the subject of a good bit of humour at his expense an affection soon grew for Adkins due to the good results he continued to provide. His CV is an impressive one and, no doubt, the reason Southampton wanted him. Even measured against the league title and playoff win, his most impressive achievement so far may well be last year’s feat of keeping a low-spending team of players mainly gleamed from the lower ranks of the football league and non-league, with an average gate of around 5000, in the Championship.

The tag of “ex-physio” is a myth that has grown around Adkins as his managerial success continued, most famously in the Iron fan’s chant “who needs Mourinho, we’ve got our physio”. In truth, Adkins is much more than an ex-physiotherapist who tried his hand at football management. He holds a diploma in sports psychology, a degree in business and finance and UEFA coaching badges. Before joining Scunthorpe as physio he was manager of Welsh side Bangor City, who he led to two League of Wales titles in 1994 and 1995 and managed them in the qualifying stages of the Champion’s League. His rise through football management has been impressive, rarely suffering major setbacks, and whilst joining Southampton is, in practical terms, a step down a division he has sadly always been destined to manage teams with bigger ambitions than Scunthorpe United.

As far as tactics are concerned, if Saints fans expect a new, revolutionary way of football then they may be disappointed. Adkins’ teams have, by and large, been built around a 4-4-2 system, typically using two wide players. In the 2006/07 season that saw Scunthorpe win League One Adkins made great use of Billy Sharp’s instinctive fervour for goalscoring by using creative players such as Ian Morris, Matt Sparrow and Kevan Hurst to feed him the ball, alongside the pacey wingplay of the rather underrated Cleveland Taylor. Sharp’s strike partnership with Andy Keogh, broken up in January 2007 with Keogh’s sale to Wolves, was, however, the key to success – proving to be an explosive and exciting double act. Keogh would sit deeper than Sharp, allowing the striker to play off him, which in turn freed Keogh to do a lot of running and be the creative engine in the partnership. Fortunately for the Iron a ready-made replacement for Keogh was found in Jermaine Beckford, who partnered Sharp for the rest of the year after arriving on loan from Leeds.

The ugly side of Adkins’ tactics showed itself at Scunthorpe’s lowest ebb in their first Championship season. After a strong start, the team were pulled into a relegation battle – one that they would ultimately lose – in the second half of the season and both team and manager looked, at times, unsuited to the division. With a handful of games to go Scunthorpe played particularly unattractive football, mainly built around long aerial balls to either Ben May or ill-advised new signing Geoff Horsfield. One of the most lacklustre, luddite performances I have ever seen from Scunthorpe came in a 1-0 away defeat to Leicester in March 2008, which featured both Horsfield and the woefully inept May playing  up front. The Iron spent the game hammering long balls to the two targetmen who failed to create much of anything, whilst 37-year old assistant manager Ian Baraclough toiled as a less than convincing makeshift left-back. In Adkins’ defence, this was mainly brought about by an injury to key striker Martin Paterson and as the season drew to a close Paul Hayes was restored to the starting lineup, bringing a far less aerial style of football.

The last two seasons, though, have seen Adkins switch to a more fluid, passing style which has yielded fantastic results. A deeper squad was perhaps the key to staving off relegation last year, able to adapt to the injuries that saw Gary Hooper sidelined at various points, but the Iron were also a pacey team who could produce devastating counter attacks and defend well.

With the loss of Hooper, alongside Paul Hayes and Grant McCann this season Adkins has, again, assembled a team almost from scratch. The start of the year saw a different system being used by Scunthorpe, employing a diamond formation in the midfield, with Jonathan Forte and Gary Thompson linking up up front. This system would usually see either Thompson or Forte drift out wide as a kind of winger when attacking, whilst the ‘tip of the diamond’ Chris Dagnall would push on up front. With the injury to Gary Thompson, Adkins has been forced to change yet again, switching to what looks like a 4-4-1-1 with Dagnall playing behind Forte. One other key facet of Adkins’ tactics recently has been to have a holding midfielder sit in front of the back four, allowing the other midfielders to play slightly higher up the pitch. This seems to signal a change from the more traditional 4-4-2 – the team that started in yesterday’s 2-0 defeat to Bristol City is listed by Football Lineups as a 4-1-3-2. All this perhaps goes to show that, given the changing dynamic of the Scunthorpe team over the last few years, with big names leaving each close-season, one striking characteristic of Adkins tactics and managerial style is his ability to adapt.

If Adkins and his assistant Andy Crosby do join Southampton – and it seems, despite the drawn out negotiations between chairmen over compensation, that it will happen – then Adkins will be dropped into a very different football club with a different set of expectations.  Whilst Adkins dramatically overachieved at Scunthorpe, given the club’s size and finances, the minimum expectation this year will be to be promoted from League One. Instead of dealing with a young squad of players who he can mould and instill his own philosophy into, he will be working with a squad of more experienced players that have been assembled at a high cost for the division they are in.

The key to Adkins’ success will perhaps not be his tactical game – he has already demonstrated he can play the sort of football required to get out of the division – but, rather, getting the team behind him. He can be eccentric in interviews, not quite Holloway-esque, but his positivity is often cringeworthy. Most recently, in a press conference this week, he characterised his positive outlook on life by saying “I wake up in the morning, open the curtains and say ‘hello world, what a great day to be alive!'”. He has also developed the worrying characteristic of referring to himself in the third person – “it is an honour for Nigel Adkins to be linked with the Southampton job”, etc. His references to “soccer” rather than football have also been known to rile fans. When you are winning, these traits can be endearing; when you are losing they can be infuriating. If the Southampton players and fans buy into the Adkins philosophy then I have no doubt they will achieve a lot this year. If he fails to get the respect of the players then I fear he may suffer the first setback of his sterling managerial career.

Despite the ignominious end to his stay at Scunthorpe, Iron fans have a lot to thank Adkins for. Personally, memories of the Adkins era will stay with me forever, particularly the ridiculously dramatic playoff campaign of 2009 – a lifetime’s worth of late goals, comebacks and penalty drama stuffed into two weeks. Southampton fans should embrace their new manager and remember, despite the pseudo-psychological patter and third person pronouns, that he is a talented young manager who, above all, should be given time.


One Response

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  1. Simon said, on September 14, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Enjoyable read, great stuff. I never realised Adkins had managed before being a physio at Scunthorpe and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

    Interesting move and I think you’re right, if he doesn’t get the players behind him it could be a very short career for him on the south coast.

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