Analysis: Hartlepool United’s tactics under the microscope

Hartlepool United boss Craig Harrison, right, and assistant manager Paul Jenkins share their thoughts with one another at Maidenhead Uniteds York Road stadium on Saturday.
Hartlepool United boss Craig Harrison, right, and assistant manager Paul Jenkins share their thoughts with one another at Maidenhead Uniteds York Road stadium on Saturday.

There has been plenty of change at Hartlepool United over the summer months, and it hasn’t stopped into the new season.

While the changes over the close season mainly concerned both on and off field personnel, it’s now Pools’ formations which are taking a tinkering.

Craig Harrison has used five different systems in the opening three matches of the National League season having started the campaign with a 4-2-3-1 shape.

That formation was abandoned midway through the game against Dover with Harrison switching to a traditional 4-4-2.

A diamond midfield was utilised at Macclesfield before another change, this time back to a 4-4-2 in a move which saw Pools earn a point.

But that seemingly successful shape was then thrown out again at Maidenhead as Harrison opted to play three at the back in a 3-5-2 system.

Pools then ended the game in a 4-3-3 as they sought an equaliser meaning no one formation has lasted a full 90 minutes this season.

Pools skipper Carl Magnay admitted it was frustrating to have to change shape mid-game, but insisted the need to change has been down to the team’s failure to deliver.

“It’s very frustrating to have to change formations in games – it’s about the manager learning about his players and what the best way is to go about it,” he said following the defeat to Maidenhead.

“He and Jenks (Paul Jenkins, Assistant Manager) have done great and the information we get has been spot on. It’s up to us as players to deliver it better.

“We also have to recognise that a plan might not work and we have to change it. It starts with being the aggressor and getting at teams early.

“We have a good squad, with confidence in each other. We have to get it right soon and we all recognize that.

Now three games in, Pools are still winless and have fallen behind in all three games. Yet despite this difficult start to the campaign there have definitely been glimpses of promise.

The question for Harrison and his backroom staff is which of these five systems will turn that promise into results. SportsMail cast our eye over the systems to give our view on which will suit Pools best:

4-2-3-1: Hartlepool started the season with a shape that represented their strength in the forward areas. Padraig Amond played as a lone striker supported by Lewis Hawkins, Jack Munns and Ryan Donaldson while Connor Newton and Michael Woods offered further help from midfield.

But the system didn’t seem to work for Pools, with Amond struggling as a lone striker and Harrison’s side struggling to create. There was also a lack of defensive cover, leaving both Magnay and Liam Donnelly vulnerable. And it was down the flanks that Dover flourished as the unprotected Donnelly was torn apart by Jamie Allen, who netted the only goal of the game.

Pools undoubtedly have the players to fit into this system but the key consideration would have to be whether the players in the wide areas are willing to contribute to the defensive element of the game.

4-4-2: The most traditional formation in football has come back into fashion in recent years and certainly seems a strong contender for Pools. Harrison has utilised this shape in all three games so far but has yet to start a game with it, instead using it as a last ditch play in an attempt to get back into games.

A 4-4-2 offers Pools some defensive stability plenty of cover in the wide areas. With two up front it eliminates any risk of a lone striker being left isolated. Indeed, Amond and Cassidy seemed to be building up a partnership when this formation was used in the second half of the 1-1 draw at Macclesfield.

It’s this shape which seems to have worked best for Pools so far this campaign and you wonder whether Harrison will be tempted to deploy it from the start against Chester.

4-1-2-1-2: A twist on 4-4-2, Pools started with a wide diamond midfield at Macclesfield, but failed to adapt to the shape.

It could be argued that Newton playing in a more defensive midfield role was something of a waste given his ability to create chances, but the ex-Newcastle man performed well in adapting to the new system. Another positive came in Jack Munns whose creativity suits the more advanced midfield role, while Amond and Cassidy seemed to bring the best out of each other.

3-5-2: It wasn’t just the Pools faithful surprised when they started with three at the back at Maidenhead. Even the Magpies’ manager Alan Devonshire, said he couldn’t understand the decision. And it was eventually a decision which didn’t pay off.

Magnay, Louis Laing and Scott Harrison are three experienced defenders who should have coped better with this change in formation.

The system lasted only 45 minutes as Pools found themselves trailing. Harrison may well persevere with the shape but his players will have to put in a better showing if this is to be considered a long-term solution.

4-3-3: Only briefly seen this season, Pools switched to a three-pronged attack line late on at Maidenhead as they chased a way back into the game when 2-0 down. With Amond and Cassidy supported by Devante Rodney it seemed, in theory at least, to give Pools plenty of attacking power.

And it seemed to be working, at least temporarily as Rodney played a part in winning the penalty that saw Pools handed a lifeline.

In reality, Harrison is only likely to opt for three up front as part of a gung-go strategy when chasing a game.

At this point is seems as if there’s more questions than answers for Harrison and his coaching staff who will have to decide which formation is likely to see them pick up maximum points against Chester and in the long-run.

A 4-4-2 seems to have worked well for Pools when needed this year, but Harrison may yet persevere with a more untested formation and trust in his players to adapt.