Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Ian Baraclough Making the Right Noises

I already like the sound of Ian Baraclough. While he dropped a few clichés, stock answers and blind optimism into his first interview as Motherwell manager, Baraclough spoke well about his preferred style of football, his thirst for developing youth, his previous successes and his desire to see that optimism spread throughout the club.

The former Sligo Rovers manager was unveiled around the same time the club announced some encouraging developments regarding the financial future of the club. A debt-free Motherwell on a sound financial footing and owned by the supporters – or, at least, on the road to community ownership – gives Baraclough every opportunity for his ambitions to be realised.

Sitting in the stands on Saturday, the new manager was treated to a match that perfectly displayed the strengths and weaknesses of the current playing side.

With the hosts trailing 1-0 following a poor first half, Lionel Ainsworth came off the bench to make an impact for the second week in-a-row, setting up John Sutton to score from close range, before his strike partner Henrik Ojamaa outpaced and cleverly ran across Ross County defender Steven Saunders before drilling the ball low into the net.

These goals turned the game on its head, however, it was another common aspect of the Fir Park side’s season that will be of concern to the new manager. With Motherwell defending in numbers late in the game, Tony Dingwall appeared unmarked in the box to slam the ball past Dan Twardzik for the equaliser. While there was no one slip or poor clearance that led to the goal, no fewer than eight Motherwell defenders are in the box at the time and not one of them gets within around ten yards of Dingwall.

Baraclough’s introduction to management was a short and unsuccessful spell at Scunthorpe United, initially taking over as caretaker but he was given the job full-time after some impressive results. Less than five months later he was relieved of his duties with the club in the relegation zone.

Around a year later he was appointed manager of Sligo Rovers where he admitted how tough it would be to further the progress of his predecessor Paul Cook. During his first interview as Motherwell manager – which you can see in full here - Baraclough made similar comments about following Stuart McCall.

“I am delighted and find myself in a privileged position. I’ve done some research into the history of the club and I know how well the football club has done, certainly over recent years,” he said. “It will be a hard task to take over from Stuart but one I’m very excited to take up.”

Despite the perceived enormity of the task, Baraclough went on to secure the League of Ireland Premier Division for Sligo, their first for 35 years, before leading the side to victory the FAI Cup and to their first ever triumph in the Setanta Sport Cup – a cross-border competition contested by clubs from both nations on the island.

While nobody in Scottish football will believe the 41-year-old’s claim that he can repeat that success at Motherwell, you have to at least admire the positivity coming from the man and  his comments make more sense given his more recent explanation.

Believing you are inferior to the competition is no way to prepare yourself, be it for a one-off match, a cup run or for an entire domestic season. His priority for now, though, is to improve the current players, add some of his own in January and steer the club clear of the relegation and play-off places.

Baraclough built a reputation for being shrewd in the transfer market at Sligo after losing his top players to financially superior opposition while working on a tight budget, something he must also become accustomed to at Motherwell. He claims his range of contacts within the game are “vast” and will need to exercise these effectively if he is to implement his preferred style of play successfully.

“I want players to be comfortable with the ball,” he told MFC TV. “I don’t want us to give up possession easily. I think the more possession you have of the football, the more chance you have of winning games.”

As well as his willingness to dominate possession, the new Motherwell manager is known for being tactically flexible, tailoring his strategy to nullify the strengths of and exploit the weaknesses of the opposition, which is something smaller clubs often require from their manager.

His preferred formation at Sligo was 4-4-2 in a league dominated by 4-2-3-1, a formation also popular in the Scottish Premiership at the moment . It should also be noted that McCall used the 4-4-2 effectively during his time at Motherwell. Though often dubbed ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘dead’, the 4-4-2 is alive and well and not just in the sense of two banks of four with a strike partnership. In fact, the 4-4-2 – as with any other formation - has many variations depending on who is positioned where and continues to be used throughout football, even if less so at the very top level of the game.

Whatever the formation and style of play, Baraclough will be required to strengthen the current Motherwell squad if he is to be nearly as successful as he is aiming to be. Defence must be a priority. They've lost 27 goals in 16 league matches this season. And it is not only the amount of goals, but the way in which they have conceded them, which has been the main issue for Motherwell.

Mark O’Brien, on loan from Derby County, is young and needs someone to guide him through matches. Stephen McManus, who is older and is club-captain, is expected to take on this role yet plays like someone who himself needs talked through games.

Cover, if not strengthening, at full-back is also required. Craig Reid and Steven Hammell are both currently injured and attempts to have Fraser Kerr and Zaine Francis-Angol deputise have been unsuccessful.

Further forward Motherwell possess some good attacking talent but may need to strengthen in the centre of the park if they are to play the possession game that Baraclough professes. Paul Lawson has failed to hit the heights expected of him and Keith Lasley is grinding slowly towards the end of his career.

Finally, if the new boss cannot turn John Sutton back into the twenty-goal striker he was last season, then the striking options will also need strengthening. Lee Erwin is raw and has shown much potential, but it would perhaps be too much to ask him to become the focal point of the attack of a struggling side.

In the short-term, the new Motherwell manager must improve the current squad by adding players and improving the ones already there. In the longer-term, he will be expected to challenge for European places, make some progress in the cup competitions and promote youth. There's no point in sounding like the right man if you're not going to back it up with substance.

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