Darren Ferguson has done outstanding work at Peterborough United in the past, but keeping the current playing squad in the League One play-off places would rank among his greatest achievements.
It’s a dangerous policy changing managers mid-season. Twelve months ago Steve Evans inherited a Posh side that were never going to suit his methods and there’s a good chance it’s deja vu all over again, as genius comedy creation Del Boy Trotter would say.
Ferguson loves a midfield diamond. He always has. He’s used it in his first two matches in his latest incarnation as Posh boss against limited opponents and it’s yielded one point. Evans managed to win his first two games in charge before it all inevitably went pear-shaped, but then he had Jack Marriott to bail him out.
Midfield diamonds work well when classy players like Grant McCann are at the base spraying passes around, when athletic footballers like Tommy Rowe and George Boyd are on form, when busy, speedy strikers like Craig Mackail-Smith and Aaron Mclean are harrassing defenders, when visionary pass-masters like Lee Tomlin are happy and playing well and when full-backs like Mark Little, capable of charging from end of the pitch to the other for 90 minutes, are on site.
The football is not likely to flow in this system with the current squad, not without extensive coaching over the sort of time period Ferguson isn’t able to enjoy if a top six spot is the aim this season. Alex Woodyard, Jason Naismith, Joe Ward, Callum Cooke and even Ivan Toney all have strengths, but they are not natural fits for Ferguson’s preferred formation, something he’d started to accept after 45 frustrating minutes against Plymouth at the ABAX Stadium yesterday (February 2).
Posh kept the ball pretty well for the opening 10 minutes, but once Plymouth matched them up their form deteriorated. The visitors carried little threat either so once Toney’s early free kick had been well saved, Tomlin’s volley had been tipped over the bar and Siriki Dembele had gone round the goalkeeper without scoring (the shooting angle was very acute) the game drifted listlessy to half-time,
“It was quite boring actually,” Ferguson stated. “We weren’t playing as I’d hoped so I was going to make two changes and switch formations as I felt we could hurt them.”
He never got the chance to execute his masterplan thanks to Tomlin’s retreat into his miserable past. The volatile playmaker is 30 now, but still acting up. He collected a red card in two of his last three Posh appearances in 2014 and now he has another in his seventh appearance of this spell after needlessly becoming involved in a spat between Toney and Plymouth defender Ryan Edwards just two minutes after he’d picked up a yellow card.
Tomlin wasn’t helped by the ridiculous fall of powerful defender Edwards after appearing to try and act as a peacemaker, but Posh suffered from over-reactions in front of a rookie referee against Plymouth last season so sympathy must be tempered.
But this official, the horribly inconsistent Peter Wright, had no option to brandish a second yellow card even if he had ignored the constant fouling of Siriki Dembele by visiting players before the break. He even allowed Plymouth skipper Gary Sawyer to boot the ball 40 yards after conceding a free kick without further sanction.
Despite being down to 10 men Ferguson still switched to a wing-back formation for the second-half, but the back three and the midfielders played so deep and Toney was so isolated up top Plymouth were guaranteed possession.
After a hectic start to the half, Plymouth quickly ran out of ideas against some strong defending, but they managed to win the game three minutes from time thanks to a great curling strike from Ruben Lemeiras.
Maybe introducing Marcus Maddison and forcing Plymouth back more often would have worked? Joe Ward occasionally showed what problems speed and accurate crossing could cause to lowly opposition, but his breaks were fleeting despite excellent commitment from the likes of Cooke and Woodyard.
Maddison will presumably get his chance in the massive match at Doncaster next Saturday (February 9) as Tomlin will be suspended.
Whether or not that he plays at the tip of a midfield diamond will be of particular interest.
Posh: Conor O’Malley, Jason Naismith, Daniel Lafferty (sub Matt Godden, 90 + 2 mins), Ben White, Rhys Bennett, Alex Woodyard, Callum Cooke (sub Kyle Dempsey, 76 mins), Joe Ward, Lee Tomlin, Ivan Toney, Siriki Dembele (sub Louis Reed, 46 mins).
Unused substitutes: Marcus Maddison, Matt Stevens, Aaron Chapman, Josh Knight
Plymouth: Kyle Letheren, Ashley Smith-Brown (sub Joe Riley, 66 mins), Ryan Edwards, Niall Canavan, Gary Sawyer, David Fox, Antoni Sarcevic, Ruben Lamieras (sub, Yann Songo’o, 89 mins), Ryan Taylor (sub Luke Jephcott, 76 mins), Freddie Ladapo.
Unused substitutes: Matt Macey, Lloyd Jones, Scott Wootton, Oscar Threlkeld.
Goals: Plymouth - Lemeiras (87 mins).
Red card: Posh - Tomlin (two cautions, foul and unsportsmanlike conduct).
Plymouth - Smith-Brown (foul), Canavan (foul).
Referee: Peter Wright 5
Attendance: 6,543 (593 Plymouth).