JUST three days after playing Shelboune in Dublin; Cork City will return to the capital to take on Bohemians at Dalymount Park, with Colin Healy’s team desperate for points in their bid to get out of the relegations scrap at the bottom of the table.
This is a totally different situation to last year, when they steamrolled to the First Division title and wrapped it up with two games left. City played with a sense of freedom that scored 63 goals and conceded just 22 over 32 games.
Out of the group of players that went up, the only major departure was goalkeeper David Harrington, who signed for Fleetwood Town. Jimmy Corcoran took his place, and everything else has remained the same.
Now those players are getting dragged into a relegation fight and there seems to be a frantic search to find something that works as City look to discover a formation that suits the pace of this division.
Their preferred formation was 3-5-2 and that got torn apart on the opening night of the season by a Bohemians team sent out to target the space in behind the wingbacks.
They turned that into a 4-2-3-1 and managed to cause some problems, and they nearly got a draw with the final kick of the game. Those are two of the three systems that Healy uses, with the third being a 4-3-3.
All of these abide by pretty much the same principle with the only major difference being the position of wingers, who can be pulled back to play in midfield, and wing-backs getting turned into full backs.
City did the opposite of this at UCD as they started the game with a flat back four in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Keating acting as the lone striker and Cian Murphy pushed wide as a right attacking midfielder.
He operated on the wings with Joe O'Brien Whitmarsh through the centre and Aaron Bolger told to recycle play in midfield.
The onus to attack meant that Cian Coleman was left by himself to control the traffic and UCD targeted the centre as a result.
They put every attack through the middle of the pitch, as they had a numerical advantage over City committing Bolger and O’Brien Whitmarsh into attack.
Mark Dignam delivered the sucker punch as he picked off the ball in midfield and he set up a free Ciaran Behan to score the only goal of the game.
City had to respond and UCD, playing with five in the back, pulled everyone into their own half. This forced Healy to go to a 3-5-2 formation midway through the first half and it played into The College’s hands as Keating was left isolated, and the full-backs couldn’t create any overlaps given the UCD shape.
Healy seemed to accept this wasn’t working as Coleman was put back into defence for the 3-1 loss to Derry City at Turner’s Cross. Matt Healy was back from a hip injury, and he made up a midfield three with Bolger and Healy.
There’s an inherent level of understanding in that trio as they came together last year during the run to the First Division title. Their on-the-pitch chemistry is a product of familiarity, and it was a big factor in City’s success in 2022.
Saying all of this, maybe the issues aren’t with the formations but the designated roles.
If players know what they are doing exactly in a specific system, they will play with a mutual level of trust. This has worked for City at the past, look at the late winners that were scored last season against Cobh Ramblers and Athlone Town.
But football thrives on innovation and tinkering with tactics and systems as the pressure increases.
This happens at all levels of the game, just look at Liverpool going from their traditional 4-3-3 to 4-2-2 at the start of the 2022-23 season when they needed to find form.
City did experiment with a 4-2-4 during the second half of a 3-1 loss to Derry City, and the intent of that formation created space in midfield for a counterattack that Colm Whelan finished off at the St Anne’s End.
A lot of this is dependent on the opposition, but they need to know exactly what works for them and what doesn’t.
As City look to figure themselves out, they will go to Dalymount Park knowing that they have caused the Gypsies problems in the past with the way that they play football.