Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Fantastic (or not…) Mr Fox

Danny Fox is a player that has divided Burnley fans ever since his arrival from Scottish giants Celtic during the 2009/10 January transfer window.  Having been awarded a place in the 2009 Championship Team of the Year and coming with a reported £1.8m price tag supporters expected big things from the Scottish international left back but the player has struggled to win over the Turf Moor crowd; BMGH looks at the criticism of Danny Fox and decides once and for all, just how fantastic (or not) Mr Fox is.

“He’s always out of position”

One of the most common criticisms of Danny Fox is that he is often caught ‘out of position’, or in other words, high up the pitch when the opposition breaks.  Whilst it’s true that Fox is clearly suited to and relishes playing a more attacking role in the side but there have been tactical frailties in the team’s shape during his time at the club that have exposed this as a weakness.

Fox has regularly played behind an inverted winger, usually Eagles or a wide positioned striker in Blake, Nugent or Rodriguez – all of whom naturally prefer to come inside both with and without the ball (even when Ross Wallace has been deployed on that side, the winger has drifted inside rather than looking to beat the full back). This is a common modern trend and combined with the predominance of 4-5-1/4-3-3s, it has dramatically changed the role of the full back.  Previously a full back’s primary job was to keep the opposition winger quiet but now, often left with no direct opponent and no winger to support the role has become much more attacking in its own right. The movement of the player in front of him demands that Fox overlap to attack the space that the attacker has opened up (see diagram below).

If he does this, he is either able to deliver a ball into the box or the defence is stretched. If he doesn’t, then the side is left lacking width and it is easy for the opposition to crowd out the attack by defending narrowly.

However, it’s obvious that this overlapping leaves space down the left flank for a quick counter if Burnley lose possession and as Jose Mourinho points out, it is of vital importance how the team is set up to defend these moments:

Transitions have become crucial. When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position. Similarly when we lose the ball we must react immediately. In training I sometimes practice keeping a minimum of five players behind the ball, so that when we lose it we can still keep a good defensive shape. The players must learn to read the game – when to press and when to return to their defensive positions. Everybody says that set plays win most games, but I think it is more about transitions

Under Brian Laws Burnley consistently failed to manage these transitions from a defensive point of view. During Owen Coyle’s time as manager the team shape contained three key safeguards to prevent the left back becoming over exposed in these situations; firstly, Graham Alexander anchored in the middle and looked to plug any gaps left by the attack; secondly, Stephen Jordan was naturally more defensive than Fox and instead of attacking the space opened up down the channel the side looked to quickly switch the ball to the opposite flank through Blake or McCann in a bid to stretch the opposition defence that way; and thirdly, in the promotion season Michael Duff or Rhys Williams (neither natural full backs) played at right back producing an asymmetrical system where the right back often stayed in a deeper position when the team attacked with the ball down the left meaning that they could shuffle across as a back 3 with the 2 central defenders to cover any spaces as a unit if the opposition broke.

For the majority of the Premier League campaign under Laws Burnley fielded a 4-4-2 removing the protective anchorman (it’s true that Fulham successfully played with inverted wingers in a 4-4-2 during the same season under Roy Hodgson but the midfield pair remained much more positionally disciplined in the Fulham system) and with Mears often attacking down the right, the centre backs were brutally exposed to counter attacks. Back in the Championship the side also lacked Blake and Kevin McDonald’s ability to quickly switch the ball to the right meaning it become even more crucial for Fox to play high up the pitch to give the side width.

In short, for this count the blame lies with Laws for failing to set up his team cohesively so that defensive pressure points were protected.  Good players can quickly be made to look a shadow of their real selves in a poorly thought out system, for proof of that see the vast majority of England matches. It’s worth noting that Fox’s form has improved recently under new manager Eddie Howe who favours a much more aggressive pressing game that smothers any possible counter attacks before they happen (although there are doubts about whether this tactic can work against better Premier League opposition following Burnley’s recent 5-1 FA Cup defeat to West Ham where the high defensive line necessary for such an approach was broken on a number of decisive occasions).

“He defends too narrowly”

Another criticism often citied when discussing Danny Fox is that he defends too narrowly. Incredibly, I’ve often heard the game v Manchester United at Old Trafford used as evidence for this, a game played before the defender had even signed for the club but I’ll generously assume that these people are mixing up their left back vitriol (Stephen Jordan was also regularly criticised in a claret and blue shirt , with much revisionism taking place since he left the club) and assume that they mean the game v Arsenal at the Emirates; a match where Fox defended in much the same way against Theo Walcott as Stephen Jordan had done against Antonio Valencia in the Manchester United game.

In this game Burnley looked to defend deep and narrow; this is the standard way teams play at the Emirates as Arsenal are sublime at scything through sides on the counter attack and have a tendency to try to overplay their short passing through the  centre of the pitch (see diagram below).

By narrowing the play however you inevitably leave spaces for the opposition to exploit wide and with Nasri drifting in from the left this task was largely left to Theo Walcott on the right of the gunner’s front three.  Walcott had been having a poor season and had been completely marked out of the game by Stephen Jordan in the corresponding fixture at Turf Moor earlier in the season (shown by the Guardian chalkboards below).

In the game at Turf Moor (left) Walcott did not manage to play a single successful ball into the box and was withdrawn from the game after just 64 minutes by Arsene Wenger. At the Emirates however (right), Walcott managed to successfully get the ball into the box on a number of occasions and scored his goal by driving in from Fox’s side. However, it’s far too simple to claim that the difference in these two encounters was merely the presence of Stephen Jordan.

At Turf Moor, with home advantage and the added confidence of having beaten Arsenal in the League Cup Quarter Final the previous season – Owen Coyle took a very different and more positive approach to facing the North London outfit.  In that game Burnley looked to (to borrow a well worn phrase from the man himself) go ‘toe to toe’ with Arsenal by pressing them high up the pitch, looking to mark tightly and tackle strongly.  Penned into his own half and denied space in which to use his blistering pace Walcott was nullified. This tactic worked excellently and Burnley were only denied a famous win by an incorrectly judged offside flag on Steven Fletcher. 

That is not to say that Laws is to blame for Fox’s performance; the circumstances were vastly different and the likely result of Burnley going ‘toe to toe’ at the Emirates would have been a mauling similar to that inflicted on Blackpool at the same ground this season.  Fox must take some of the blame for being too slow to react to Walcott’s position and allowing so many crosses into the box but we are talking about a player in Walcott who has terrified Barcelona and some of Europe’s top sides so we shouldn’t be too harsh.  Laws does however, take some blame for using the same defensive strategy in other matches against lesser opposition where Burnley could have afforded to take more of the initiative.  In the Championship Fox has been accused less of marking too narrowly but once fans have an opinion of a player it’s difficult to alter and anything other than perfect positioning from Fox is quickly criticised.

“He’s prone to rash challenges”

This one is difficult to defend. Fox is Burnley’s most booked player in the 2010/11 season with a total of 8 yellow cards and has been criticised by opposition managers for rash and dangerous tackles in games this season against Preston North End, Norwich and most recently Watford.  The player does unfortunately seem to have a nasty side and most of those challenges were unnecessary and delivered with aggressive force. Hopefully this is something Eddie Howe will look at with the player.

“All Laws signings are useless”

Slightly tongue in cheek but there is some value in the argument that many fans want Fox to be useless to validate their prejudices against the former manager.  Laws wasn’t a success at Burnley but that’s not to say that he was some kind of counter-Midas; Laws being a poor manager does not automatically make Fox a poor player.  Owen Coyle’s time at Burnley proved what a set of players can achieve under different management with much of the promotion squad being Steve Cotterill signings.

The truth is Danny Fox, although not quite fantastic IS, nevertheless, a good player – certainly at Championship level. He’s reasonably quick, comfortable on the ball, retains possession well, has an excellent delivery of both a moving and stationary ball and he is strong in the challenge. Like most players at this level though he does have weaknesses in that he enjoys going forward, can lose concentration and can be prone to diving in recklessly.

What Fox needs is a talented manager to get the best out of him and going off recent performances he seems to have now got that. I expect him to prove the doubters wrong.

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