Posh are flying and are now well and truly back in the automatic promotion picture. While the first half last night turned into a disappointingly, and frustratingly, poor affair following a bright opening 15 minutes, the second half was as dominant and professional a performance as many were expecting.

After Southend nearly took a surprise lead with a 20 yard strike which crashed against the inside of the post and mystifyingly failed to cross the line Posh were ruthless. Two high quality passes and an expert Siriki Dembele finish set them on their way before they ruthlessly exploited the extra space on the pitch made available once Southend were forced to show a touch more adventure.

Intriguingly though, the game has left Darren Ferguson with two selection dilemmas ahead of Saturday’s trip the Fleetwood. The first, and most pressing issue, is how to reshuffle the pack given Ivan Toney’s enforced absence through suspension. Does he bring in one of his backup number 9s or have a rethink in terms of formation and tactical approach? We will look at options below.

The second is who starts in the back three. Fergie has four players, in Nathan Thompson, Mark Beevers, Niall Mason and Rhys Bennett, who can all make strong claims to start in one of the three available centre back slots on Saturday. While the obvious choice is to bring Thompson back in after his one game ban, I think this might be overly harsh on Bennett without giving due consideration to what he brings to the side and some other alternative solutions. I will cover this issue in a follow up article later in the week.

*There is also a debate over whether Knight or Brown should start in midfield however having covered that in a previous article (here) for this site I won’t revisit that ground

Ivan Toney – The Player Posh could Least Afford to Lose

Just why is Toney’s absence potentially so damaging to Posh? Simply put, there is no player in the Posh squad, nor any other squad in League One, who can do what he does. He is the best player in the division, having one of the greatest individual seasons in the league’s history.

It is not just his goals that set him apart, his 23 goals are eight more than any other League One player has managed this season, but his all round game. No other player in the league can come close to his combination of pace, technical ability, link up play, physicality and goal scoring threat.

Now the claims I’ve made are pretty big but they are not without statistical support. Toney’s average of 4.1 shots per 90 minutes is better than any other striker in League One who has played 10 or more games. Toney is tied 12th among the League’s strikers for aerial duels won per 90, however of the players ahead of him, only five better his aerial duel success rate than his 50%. Toney’s 1.6 key passes per 90 ranks him 3rd amongst the divisions forwards while his record of four assists is bettered only by Kayden Jackson’s five.

Defensively Toney’s numbers are equally impressive. His 0.9 successful tackles per game places him 6th among the league’s strikers while no striker has made more interceptions than Toney’s 10 (per 90 he ranks 5th). Finally, Toney’s 1.9 clearances per game ranks him 2nd in the league.

Toney is the linchpin of Posh’s attack, their link man, biggest goal threat, key to their first line of defence and a vital part of their defensive setup from corners. His presence will be sorely missed.

Now, I have seen the argument that Posh won their only league game this season that Toney missed, 1-0 at home to Burton, who coincidentally will be the opposition in the second of Toney’s current two game ban.  And that, given that fact, Posh should not be concerned by his absence.

Now whilst it is true Posh won that game it would be an oversimplification of what happened that day to say Posh won then so will be fine now. Going forwards it was one of Posh’s worst performances of the season. Mo Eisa (then a regular starter) partnered Ricky-Jade Jones up front. Posh, playing a diamond formation, tried to use Jones as they do Toney, knocking direct balls into him and expecting him to win aerial balls and link play.

That, as I’m sure you already know, is not Jones’ natural game or strength and the resulting 90 minutes were not pretty to watch. Jones won just two of his 10 aerial duels and none of his six ground duels as Posh struggled to build a platform in Burton’s half. Jones struggled badly throughout and was subbed off after 59 minutes.

Posh’s struggles in attack very much reflected Jones’. They registered just three shots in the opposition box all game (they average 7.4 per game this season and 8.4 at home) and no shots inside the six yard box. Just 24% of the game was played in Burton’s half while Posh managed just nine touches inside the Burton box. Posh’s xG that day was just 0.6, their third worst of the season behind the 4-0 thrashing at Rotherham and 1-0 away defeat to Oxford.

In the end it took a 91st minute Joe Ward wonder goal to rather fortuitously secure Posh all three points.

With no direct replacement Posh will need to at the least change their attacking plan (so much of what they currently do goes directly through Toney) or formation if they are to avoid committing the same mistakes. Posh will not be able to build off direct balls into an imposing target man so instead have to either play through midfield, exploit spaces between the lines/wide or play in behind and utilise the pace in attack. So what options does Fergie have at his disposal?

Change of Shape

I have seen the idea mooted that Posh change shape to cope with Toney’s absence. Now, for this to be best course of action it must be because Fergie feels that his forward options are not up to the task of replacing Toney and he would therefore be better served fielding one player up front.

The most obvious solutions would be a switch to 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. I am however going to dismiss these as effective solutions for two reasons:

  1. The execution of either would be most successful with Dembele in a wide position, which, given the fact he will be leading the line in such a shape is not possible.
  2. Posh have been far better defensively in a back three. They have looked more secure and a wing back formation better suits Posh’s centre backs and full backs. Any potential gains felt higher up the pitch would be negated by the impact on Posh’s defensive structure.

No, if Ferguson is to switch shape he’s going to have to get creative. I therefore propose a highly unorthodox and experimental 3-4-2-1 as one possible solution, with Knight coming into the side at central midfield and Brown moving forward into an advanced playmaker role.

For me the case in favour of this setup is a compelling one. It gets Knight back in the side, a player whose tenacity, energy and ‘bite’ in midfield may be important on Saturday. Moreover, a front three of Szmodics, Brown and Dembele brings versatility, creativity and dynamism to Posh’s attack. Brown excelled as an advanced playmaker at Forest Green Rovers and it is a role that would suit his talents well.

Finally, with Posh lacking Toney as an out ball they will likely need to be able regularly play through midfield, something they haven’t been great at aside from in transition. Getting an extra midfielder on the pitch would create more opportunities to do so and more options between Fleetwood’s midfield and defensive lines to play into.

The potential downside? It’s untried and untested. Although sides such as Man City (think first leg of Carabao Cup semi final) and Barcelona have successfully experimented playing without a recognised out and out number nine the ploy would not be risk free and could fail horribly with Posh becoming bogged down in midfield (although both Dembele and Szmodics would offer a threat in behind). Added to that is the fact that if it does fail Fergie would likely cop a lot more criticism than if Posh were to lose with Eisa or Jones up front.

Personally I’d love to see it. However, I think it is highly unlikely we will see such a system in action on Saturday.

Straight Swap – Eisa or Jones?

The most likely solution to my mind is that Posh will bring in Eisa or Jones to play alongside Dembele in a 3-5-2. Both players are at their best running in behind so the onus will be on Dembele to drop between the lines and link play with his dribbling and passing, something he is very adept at.

Let’s start with the case for Eisa. First, he is a clinical finisher. I would, until recently, have said that he is the best finisher at the club by a stretch, but on recent evidence Dembele would run him close in that regard. Eisa also has 13 league goals to his name this season and sits tied 4th in the leagues top goal-scorer chart. On paper the choice should be simple, however there are reasons why he was previously dropped.

The obvious is that he has now failed to score in any of his nice most recent appearances (seven starts). His contribution to Posh’s build up play is poor while his defensive contribution, whilst not as bad as some portray, is dwarfed by comparisons to harder working teammates. This therefore may open up an opportunity for Jones to stake a claim.

The case for Jones? Most obviously pace, pace and more pace. I’m not sure Posh have ever had a quicker player in my 20+ years watching them and his threat in behind or running at defenders is there for all to see. Moreover, he’s is an impressive finisher whose composure in front of goal is incredible for a player so young and inexperienced. Whilst his link play isn’t a standout attribute I would rank it above that of Eisa’s while his speed in the press and work-rate is a big defensive weapon for Posh and a possible source of attacking transitions.

The downsides? Jones’ decision making in the final third has not always been as good as it could be. He has looked much better coming off the bench than starting when his pace becomes even more of a weapon against tired legs and with the game stretched, although there are definitely mitigating circumstances for his poor performances against both Burton (how Posh utilised him) and away to Rotheram (Posh were woeful). With Jones in the side there might also be a temptation to repeat the mistakes made against Burton and use Jones as a like-for-like Toney replacement.

Conclusion

If I were Posh boss I’d experiment with a 3-4-2-1 shape with Brown and Szmodics floating behind Dembele, but also seeing Dembele dropping deeper and Szmodics replacing him as the highest man on occasion. Fleetwood are good in possession and have some technical midfielders and in Toney’s absence I would prioritise being able to playing through midfield in possession and wining the midfield battle.

I however acknowledge that such a solution is unlikely. Every game between now and the end of the season is hugely important. Posh, to my mind, find themselves in an incredibly tight five way battle for automatic promotion. For Fergie the risks of experimenting with a new tactical setup may far out way the rewards.

I think then it comes down to a near 50/50 toss-up between Jones and Eisa. Having come on as a late substitute Tuesday night it appears that Eisa may be in prime position to start, however whoever doesn’t get the nod to start will likely make an appearance off the bench.