Takeaways: How Hartlepool United's box midfield worked against York City and John Askey's Linford Christie comparison
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Askey and his side have had plenty of soul searching to do in recent weeks with Hartlepool struggling for form, but they were able to enjoy an excellent afternoon at the LNER Community Stadium as they got back to winning ways with a 3-1 success.
Jake Hastie opened the scoring on his first start of the season before Tom Crawford added a second with Nicky Featherstone securing the points early in the second half, although there was still time for a little frustration as Pools surrendered their clean sheet in the final minute of stoppage time when Tyler Cordner headed in from a corner.
And here The Mail looks at some of the key takeaways from Hartlepool’s away day victory:
Hartlepool United’s box midfield and how it paid off for John Askey
Askey has had a difficult time of being able to field a consistent team for Hartlepool this season, whether that be personnel or in terms of shape.
Against Ebbsfleet, Askey exhibited his biggest adjustment of the season yet when revamping his side with four changes as well as starting with a back four. Unfortunately, it didn’t work as Pools were blunt in their 2-2 draw.
It meant they headed to York still searching for form and Askey still searching for that winning formula. And while he was boosted by the returns of Callum Cooke and Kieran Wallace in midfield, he was hit with a number of defensive injuries.
But having analysed what he had available to him, and assessed York when attending their FA Cup replay with Chester in the week, Askey devised the perfect game plan for Hartlepool.
That game plan emerged in the form of a box midfield with Wallace, Featherstone, Crawford and Cooke. The set-up has been given more publicity in recent seasons, none more so than with Pep Guardiola and Manchester City who have seen John Stones move into a holding midfield role alongside Rodri to allow their more advanced thinking central midfielder players to operate further up the field.
City have also used the system by being flexible in tasking one of their full-backs to move into the second holding midfield role with the likes of Kyle Walker or previously Joao Cancelo.
For Askey and Hartlepool, however, they operated with two traditional holding midfielders in the form of Wallace and Featherstone in front of three centre-backs of Zak Johnson, Emmanuel Onariase and Joe Mattock with Crawford and Cooke ahead of them in No.8 or No.10 roles in and out of possession.
Immediately you would suspect with those four players starting it meant Pools would be without width, but with Hastie and Brody Paterson starting as wing-backs or wide midfielders, again in and out of possession, there was a nice balance to the side – Emmanuel Dieseruvwe then operating as the lone forward.
As a result, Hartlepool’s midfield dominated proceedings. They were able to overload York routinely both in central and wide areas, Cooke a particular driving force behind that when contributing all three assists to his team.
In Wallace and Featherstone, Askey had two players comfortable with receiving possession in tight spaces in front of the defence who were able to cycle possession either forward into Crawford or Cooke or wide into Paterson and Hastie to immediately take out the first line of York’s press.
Hastie’s pace up against Paddy McLaughlin allowed Hartlepool to have a solid outlet on the right as demonstrated with the first goal where Featherstone was able to quickly move possession in field to Cooke under pressure who, in turn, clipped a clever ball into the channel for the Scotsman to run in behind and score.
The protection offered by Wallace and Featherstone, with one able to cover over towards the right when Hastie did advance, given his more natural attacking instincts, allowed Cooke to almost be given a free licence in front of them which reaped its rewards.
Cooke often drifted over towards the left, ahead of Paterson, which is where both his second and third assists of the game came from, with Pools, again, able to overload York when moving through midfield.
Dieseruvwe’s role was also key, particularly in the first half, as he almost acted as a bounce board for Cooke and Crawford in the final third and was able to draw multiple defenders away, such as for Crawford’s goal.
Everything knitted together seamlessly for Askey, something which hasn’t been the case despite his efforts in recent weeks. And while it’s only one game, it certainly provides a blueprint for some potential success, particularly away from home.
“I think it will be adaptable against teams who play certain ways,” Askey said of his system.
“I’d come to watch York the other night and I thought that was the best way to go and it worked. Playing against the opposition we played against we knew we could get on the ball and play and especially with this pitch.
“Our hands were tied a little bit as well with personnel, we only had three centre-halves, we managed to get Kieran back, Hastie was playing at right wing-back but it probably suited what they had playing at left wing-back so it all fell into place. We controlled it. Hopefully we can say the same thing again next week.
“But we can’t get too carried away. That’s one performance against a certain type of team. Whether we can play the same on a different pitch then we’ll have to see.”
Captain Featherstone and Cooke the architect
You can do all the homework you like in terms of systems and game plans but every now and then you need your big players to stand up and put in a performance and Askey certainly got that from Cooke.
The midfielder was starting his first game in over two months and appeared keen to make up for lost time with a remarkable display when laying on three assists; the first a clever, forward thinking pass, the second drawing defenders in before teeing up Crawford and the third a decisive counter-attack.
Askey likened the former Middlesbrough man’s cameo against Ebbsfleet to Zinedine Zidane but this was more fitting.
“I think it was Zinedine Zidane and for the third goal Nicky Featherstone was like Linford Christie. I think that was because Cookey was treading water at that time and it made Nicky look fast,” Askey joked after the game.
“But for Nicky to go from one end of the pitch to the other like that, and his finish was great. But his all round performance was like a captain’s performance and I’m really pleased for him.
“They’re good players aren’t they?” he added of the duo.
“Nicky has been a really good player and Cookey still has his career ahead of him really. They’ve both got quality and we need that.”
Paterson and Hastie taking their chance
It goes without saying it’s been a difficult spell at Hartlepool for the two Scotsmen, but in recent weeks under Askey we are seeing the kind of attitude and commitment which could see them turn their Pools careers around.
Paterson has been afforded more opportunities than Hastie this season but when tasked to fill in for skipper David Ferguson at York he delivered a performance which will do his chances of more game time little harm.
Hastie, on the other hand, was brought in from the cold against Ebbsfleet and marked his appearance with a goal – his reward was a first start in almost a year since the 5-0 defeat to Stockport County.
And the former Rangers man delivered again with an excellent finish to open the scoring, his third goal in just 153 minutes of game time this season, as he tormented McLaughlin throughout the afternoon before being substituted with his name serenaded by supporters.
There will need to be similar performances from both Paterson and Hastie if they are to become the players Pools hoped they were signing last summer, but when called upon they both delivered, which, as Askey has suggested, is all that can be asked of them.