Despite their nine-game unbeaten run coming to an end on Tuesday, Hartlepool United look a team transformed under Matthew Bates this season.
Here our writer Liam Kennedy takes a look at the SIX key tactical tweaks, off field developments, signings and appointments that have turned Pools from relegation battlers to a force at the right end of the fifth tier table.
SYSTEM, THREE AT THE BACK & FOOTBALL INTELLIGENCE
The switch was a controversial one, but it has worked perfectly.
Three at the back takes a certain type of player to play the system. A player with intelligence, mobility and one happy to, at times, work out of their comfort zone. Pools’ defenders have proven they have all of those attributes in abundance.
Further forward, the midfield have dovetailed perfectly with Liam Noble and Nicky Featherstone working perfectly in tandem, with whoever slots in alongside them.
That balance may not quite be right in the final third just yet, but it must be remembered that Pools, the system, the squad and the manager are still a work in progress.
WIDTH - THE REMOVAL OF WINGERS
Last season, because of the players at their disposal, Pools were stuck in their ways.
They often played with their strikers as the main width. This is gone under Bates.
There are no square pegs in round holes. Gone are the days of Devante Rodney and Rhys Oates on the flanks, replaced by the likes of Ryan Donaldson and Mark Kitching, who both add strength to the side in their own individual way.
Fans have been calling for wingers, and complaining that is what Pools lack. I simply do not see it.
Kitching adds height and a good engine. He may not have produced in the final third but he has been a target at the back post in attack, and someone for Scott Loach to hit, as well as doing his defensive work with little fuss.
Donaldson is a proper winger who goes at players, as well as being smart enough to learn his trade on the job as a defender.
Pools don’t lack width, all they probably lack is a focal point in attack.
INSTILLING BELIEF & CONFIDENCE - THE MATTHEW BATES EFFECT
Bates has transformed this club in a footballing sense.
Confidence has flooded back, there is a degree of organisation and a thoroughness in preparation. The players are thriving under their manager.
And so far he’s managed to squeeze every ounce of quality out of the squad, who are basically fighting for promotion against clubs like Leyton Orient, Wrexham and Salford, who have thrown a hell of a lot more cash at it than Pools have.
COACHING METHODS - KEY APPOINTMENTS IN KEY POSITIONS
With Bates being inexperienced he had to bring in someone he knows and trusts alongside him, as well as someone with a relevant, working knowledge of the game in the North East. He couldn’t have picked better than former Sunderland academy chief Ged McNamee.
To complement that Ross Turnbull has come to the club have had a career which saw him play Premier League football with Middlesbrough and Chelsea, win a Champions League medal as well as spend time a Leeds United. His CV commands respect.
The work he has done with Loach has been second to none, unlocking that potential Fabio Capello saw when he called him up to an England squad as a kid at Watford.
One major change has been the switch from longer training sessions to much shorter, more intense work. You can tell the likes of Bates, Turnbull & McNamee have worked at top clubs in the not too distant past. They are passing that knowledge on to their players daily.
SHREWD MOVES IN THE TRANSFER MARKET
It’s clear to see now that a number of Pools players signed in the summer could, and should, be operating at a much higher level.
How Bates, and director of football Craig Hignett, managed to get Liam Noble in the summer is anyone’s guess. He is a class act on the field and a real character off it - the type of player Pools have been crying out for for years.
Luke Williams’ injuries have arrested his start to life at Pools, but when he gets on the park he’s head and shoulders above this level.
Peter Kioso and Niko Muir have also far exceeded expectations and that’s without really mentioning Andrew Davies, who, despite a three-goal defeat, was man of the match at Salford on Tuesday.