Much has already been said about the transformation of Notts County under Kevin Nolan, as Saturday’s game vs Luton Town testified. For fans the familiar anxiety is still there, but it’s source is a possible promotion rather than the perennial relegation scrap.
Saturday’s game vs Luton may have lacked significance in terms of league position, with Luton determined to celebrate their promotion and Notts already secure in the playoffs, but the shape of the side showed a subtle shift from Notts’ early season selections.
One of the first signings through the Meadow Lane door this season was Terry Hawkridge, a more traditional winger you’d struggle to find, closely followed by Lewis Alessandra - the experienced striker-come-winger. Neither were selected on Saturday, with Hawkridge not even making the bench.
Notts still took the field with four midfielders, as 442 remains the most common Notts shape after some brief experimentation with 451. But both Grant and Virtue, the widest of the four, played narrowly. Neither are traditional wingers by trade and are not expected to operate as such. Neither possess outrageous pace either and only Grant looks confident in beating a man.
Instead, they tuck inside and wait for either Jones or Tootle to provide the width and pace from deep. Notts’ best chances to break the deadlock on Saturday came from these outlets, and better quality from Jones in the final third might have seen them achieve it.
Notts’ growing reliance on their fullbacks is possibly reflected in Matt Tootle’s nomination as fans’ Player of the Year, richly deserved for his lung-bursting runs to support attacks. Notts can list some impressive names who have occupied the right back slot in previous seasons, Steve Finnan and Shaun Derry being just two, but there haven’t been many who have been considered instrumental enough to be awarded as highly as Tootle has, and Notts’ shift in tactical shape might have something to do with it.
Significantly, Luton Town deployed a similar system on Saturday and left the distinct impression of being the best side to visit Meadow Lane this season in League 2. Dan Potts found acres of space and caused countless problems down the left, while Alan McCormack slotted in as an auxiliary centre-half to cover any possible counters.
The loss of the traditional winger may not sit easily with some of the Notts faithful who grew up on a diet devastating wing-play, but having fullbacks put in crosses increases the number of targets in and around the box - and ultimately its goals that win games. With targets like Stead and Ameobi to hit in the box and either Husin or Noble waiting outside for the ball to break - goals are likely to happen.
Whether Notts’ wingless shape is enough to secure them promotion this time around, it’s reassuring that Notts are moving ever closer to a defining and successful system that they can build on next season - whichever division that may be in.