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McKenna's Marvellous Hybrid Formation
Written by DanLyles on Saturday, 23rd Jul 2022 10:30

“I don’t speak to players a lot about 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 and think it’s about them understanding their roles and responsibilities on the pitch, as well as the spaces we want to attack and where to defend.”

I initially mistook Kieran McKenna's elusive comments, back in December, for a lack of a clear philosophy. How wrong was I?

When I hear or read people debating whether they have just seen Ipswich playing in a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-2-1 formation, I quite often think they are all correct. It's not an optical illusion. McKenna has set up his Ipswich side to seamlessly transition between both formations during games.

Turning the cog

The differences between the two formations are far more subtle than I, and I'm sure many others, had realised.

In both formations our goalkeeper, two central midfielders and lone striker are constants. The seven players almost encircling Dominic Ball and Sam Morsy are the variables. They rotate their positions in unison, almost like a cog, by a certain number of degrees or metres. Back and forth, clockwise and anti-clockwise, depending on the formation.


This gives McKenna a huge amount of in-game tactical flexibility. He can tailor his formation to counter or exploit an opponent’s perceived threats or weaknesses. For example, he might simply prefer to match up the opposition tactically, backing our players to win their individual duels. McKenna might implement a high press on a back three man-for-man with his two dual 10s flanking a lone striker. Then press a back four with a 4-2-3-1.

The opponents left-back might not venture forward, encouraging Wes Burns to play as an orthodox right winger. Conversely, they could play as an attacking left-back or wing-back. Burns may wish to engage them deeper as a fellow wing-back, defending diligently, before 'standing up' his counterpart and bursting into the space vacated behind them.

A flexible formation can be extremely confusing for both opposition coaches and players. But it obviously necessitates advanced coaching from the proponent, who requires intelligent and adaptable personnel. This complicates the recruitment process and can be more problematic lower down the football pyramid.

Janoi Donacien, for example, must be equally comfortable as a right back in a back four and a right sided centre back in a three-man defence. Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson have very specific roles as a sweeper and a left-sided centre back in a three-man defence, but then must swiftly form a partnership at the centre of a four when required.

New signing Marcus Harness has been identified as a technically gifted and versatile player, who can play as a number 10, a right winger or as an inside-left and inverted attacker. He could potentially fill in for Burns as a wing-back if he goes to the World Cup too.

Like in December, McKenna would not be drawn on specific systems but does loosely refer to duplicate roles, keeping the hybrid system under his hat: “We’ve spoken to Marcus about his role. Obviously, we don’t want to give too much away because the season’s coming up, but we’ve got a couple of base roles for him that we see him being very, very productive in.”


I had previously championed attacking left wing-backs Conor Grant (currently of Plymouth Argyle) and Nicky Cadden (now Barnsley) as solutions to address the balance of the side. I was thinking of a Wes Burns equivalent on the left to make us less predictable, lop-sided and easy to shut down. No longer would teams simply nullify Burns and then nullify Ipswich.

In hindsight, this showed a complete lack of understanding of McKenna's tactical intricacies. Grant and Cadden are attacking midfielders or wingers with, as far as I am aware, limited defensive inclination or ability. They do not want to spend substantial game time as a left-back in a hybrid system.

Adaptable supporting act

Greg Leigh, and potentially Leif Davis, have been targeted because their profiles satisfy both the left-back and left wing-back roles. Being comfortable adapting as the cog rotates or swings between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-2-1. These two, I am led to believe, can defend and have the physical prowess and technical ability to support the attack.

However, the notion of Leigh, Davis or even another, having to be the left-sided Burns and yielding similar goals and assists is unrealistic. We cannot expect somebody playing as a full-back/wing-back to match the attacking output of Burns, who is simultaneously playing as a more advanced wing-back/winger.

Ideally, they will provide the defensive stability of Dominic Thompson as a full-back. But when playing as a wing-back, rather than repeatedly cut the ball inside or backwards, I hope their instinct is to overlap or underlap, then deliver a telling cross, produce a through ball or even shoot.

Leigh managed a very respectable two goals and five assists (in all competitions) in a relegation-threatened Morecambe side last season and will probably expect these numbers to increase in a more dominant and attack-minded team.

Still, I would argue, given their defensive responsibilities in this hybrid system, our new left-sided specialist should be perceived as a supporting act to Harness and our glut of attacking, rotatable talent. Much in the same way as Donacien provides a platform for Burns to play a starring role, albeit with a slightly different dynamic, on the right.

Starring roles

In both his roles, I envisage Harness (and Tyreece John-Jules) primarily playing as an inside-left, operating in the half spaces, and cutting in on to his stronger right foot. He may rotate with the other dual 10 at times but I think it best that Harness (12 goals and seven assists) and Burns (13 goals and seven assists) occupy different sides of the pitch. This should make us a more balanced and less predictable attacking force, armed with a ball carrier and line breaker, who yields impressive numbers on either side.

Excitingly, we now have three attackers (including Conor Chaplin with 11 goals and three assists) behind a lone striker, who all got into double figures for goals (whilst also chipping in with assists) in their last campaign. There are other candidates to emulate them too, notably John-Jules and Kayden Jackson.

To conclude

This coming season, Ipswich could potentially offer a threat from their left to match that on their right. But it won't always be symmetrical nor as simplistic as finding the left wing-back to emulate our Welsh wizard on the opposite flank.

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PortmanTerrorist added 11:00 - Jul 23
Great piece and I guess we shall soon see how right this is. One comment re a "left-sided Burns" in that I do not see why things cannot be replicated on the left. Of course this means the attacking thrust will be shared down both wings, which means that perhaps neither Burns or 'left-Burns' will deliver the numbers Burns did last year unless we show promotion form. Moreover, we noticed teams getting wise to us/Burns and that shutting him down, shut us down at times last season. We must have the left option and that is KMK is quite correctly focused on addressing that.

Dennyx4 added 11:00 - Jul 23
Good read, really liked the diagram, with the moving positions, helped to bring to life the point within the blog.

ElephantintheRoom added 20:27 - Jul 23
Hmm. I think you are overegging it. How Town play depends on how the opposition are playing and whether they score.

At least you didn’t mention clean sheets before I got bored and stopped reading

dusth added 21:04 - Jul 23
Elephant, I enjoy your depressing posts but you are wrong -ish. Town may play the way the opposition choose to play but it wouldn't be wise. If things aren't working then what this interesting post suggests - there is flexibility. It was clear today at Millwall after a fairly even but mediocre first half that when Burns was more or less nullified more than half our attacks came up the left in the second half and we dominated a side that finished 26 places above us.


DanLyles added 09:54 - Jul 24
@ElephantintheRoom, you're a funny old boy! :)

Thanks to everybody else for your feedback. I'm really looking forward to the season ahead. The Millwall friendly defeat/thrashing last year warned us that we were a group of strangers who would needed time to build relationships and pattern of plays. It hopefully shows how far we have come as a side, that we were unlucky not to beat them towards the end yesterday. That's quite a swing in 12 months.

The finishers or bomb squad, to steal some rugby terms, could be massive for us. Tiring League One defenders will not relish the prospect of facing the pace of Jackson and Edwards, nor the guile of TJJ and Aluko, with 20-30 minutes to go. I think it could also keep the squad happy, giving them more game time.

My biggest concern for the season ahead is how referees deal with time wasting, which was farcical at times last season.

Walk_the_Wark added 14:31 - Jul 24
This is rubbish, sorry.

OliveR16 added 15:09 - Jul 24
Walk_the_Wark - and how have you worked out that sophisticated and constructive observation?

terryf added 01:49 - Jul 25
Elephant are you Mick McCarthy in disguise?

Can well remember Dear Old Mick saying how he used to mirror other Teams which was often very frustrating particularly playing at Home against inferior opposition.

Bobby Robson's philosophy was let the opposition worry about us and clearly McKenna thinks the same and is concentrating on bringing in players to fit his philosophy too.

Sorting out the left-hand side is key to our success and stop Teams such as Cambridge nullifying our attacks down the right.

As Marcus Harnus remarked, his Team Mates at Portsmouth hated playing against our system and Karl Robinson at Oxford said pretty much the same.

A very good blog Dan.

Fat_Boy_Tim added 13:32 - Jul 25
Elephant- be better if you didn’t read the first but either.

Portman terrorist- I think that misses the point. If you look at the pitch map, Burns and Leigh don’t play the same role on each side unless you turn the cog the other way but that would give you Burns and Edmundson playing as full backs. The only reason we can do this is because we have Donacien who is a superb center half and full back.

Walk_the_Wark added 16:46 - Jul 25
Olive, by watching every game McKenna has been in charge….

peaky69 added 01:04 - Jul 26
I rather think this is just the start of it.
The addition of Dominic Ball an example that allows one of the defenders to push forward and Ball replace them. I lost count of the number of times teams defended very deep and wide against us leaving gaps for central defenders to wander into.
Good post though.

DanLyles added 09:18 - Jul 26
@peaky 69, I totally agree. I know some people wince at the very thought of us playing out from the back, but as you allude to, this is definitely advantageous to more technically gifted sides (so us in League One).

Based on McKenna's post-match comments from Saturday, this isn't going to change either. "We've improved our build-up structures a lot over the course of the time we've been here. But we can't take that for granted. We need to keep working and improving that."

I remember a poster on here referring to covalent bonds, or partnerships across the pitch (CB's, CM, left side, right side, strikers). Now I see McKenna and modern coaches almost constructing molecular structures, or patterns of play.

I'm not saying we have the ability to play like Ajax, nor am I comparing McKenna to Erik ten Hag. But this short video (especially from 1:40) really stuck in my mind about variation in build-up play. We don't necessarily use these exact structures, but I think it's the level of detail that McKenna and co strive for.


Pessimist added 20:54 - Jul 27
A very well-written piece which deserves applause for its thoughtfulness and intelligent understanding of the Mckenna style.

oldblue added 10:27 - Jul 28
Great post from someone who understands modern football philosophy..and doesn't x³moan when we pass back to keep the ball rather than kick in long or cross it into the mixer..and give it to the opposition ...thats why you don't need 2 up top..KmK expects even demands that other players create and score goals ..especially when facing massed defence when the striker (s) is surrounded by defenders. Well said.

Walk_the_Wark added 23:27 - Jul 30
Watched the gain on Sat as always. 4-2-3-1 if you have to insist on a ‘formation’. No ‘cogs’. Point proved….

DanLyles added 09:13 - Jul 31
@Walk_the_Wark, I'm beginning to think that you could be on the wind up. As saying this is rubbish, that you go to games and pointing out that we played 4-2-3-1, does not constitute a counter argument.

More fool me for trying to explain this further :) But you have completely missed the underlying point of the blog. I am not insisting on a formation, I am advocating that our players are capable of occupying numerous positions and that by moving or rotating a few meters, we can potentially alter the formation. But essentially we are fluid, depending upon the circumstances.

I was sat in the Sir Bobby Robson upper, where you can get a great overview of the pitch, and agree that for a large percentage of the game we were playing 4-2-3-1, as you state. However, Phil@TWTD and the EADT both reported that we were playing with wing-backs. Not 4-2-3-1 as we both perceived it. Against Southend on Tuesday, they reported different formations on the same game. So clearly, it's not as simple as you suggest.

Yesterday I noticed a change around the hour mark when Leigh replaced Davis. Poor Leif had very much being playing diagonally across the pitch from Burns, as a left-back and a right winger respectively. However, we became more cavalier in our approach. Leigh was bombing forward down the left flank and was almost in line with Burns at times (they looked like wing-backs), as we stretched the play. Aluko and TJJ were playing centrally as dual 10's in support of pace merchant Jackson.

The days of us being wedded to a rigid formation like under McCarthy and Cook are gone. I'm not reinventing the wheel here (nor the cog). It is widely accepted that modern football teams have numerous ways of playing and can adapt during a game.

Walk_the_Wark added 09:27 - Jul 31
I think you are missing the point my friend…. As the manager says it’s not about formations or ‘cogs’. I understand you are excited about the new season. Enjoy the football. I’m out
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