It’s not often the outcome of the northwest derby between Derry City and Finn Harps has as much significance as tonight’s result. Were Derry to drop points against their rivals, it would end any faint hopes they have of winning the title. Defeat for Harps would dent their prospects of remaining in the Premier Division.
Harps defy odds every season they remain in the top tier. In truth, with their budget and resources, they shouldn’t be competing in the division. There are many teams in the First Division better equipped. That's why Ollie Horgan and his players deserve so much credit every year they survive. Sitting just outside the automatic relegation place on goal difference, their four-year spell in the top flight is under threat.
Harps are rightfully labelled a long-ball side. It’s no secret that when it comes to style of play, they favour a less attractive approach. It’s hard to argue with when it has been so successful in the past. However, I do feel that when a team takes a more direct approach, it is better to play with two strikers rather than one.
In recent weeks, Eric McWoods has been given the thankless role as Harps' sole striker. It’s clear the Harps players are instructed to use McWoods’ blistering pace by lumping the majority of balls into channels. Although he is a willing and effective runner, asking your only striker to run channels for the majority of the game reduces his threat in the box.
Defenders will be happy to see McWoods making his runs wide. He’s not going to score from the corner flag. Defenders are worried when strikers are making their runs centrally. A second striker will allow McWoods make those channels runs while the spare forward does his work in the centre of the pitch. It’s rare now that sides play with two up front so when they do it causes confusion for opposition defenders.
Playing with two strikers means one can drop in while the other remains high. It causes issues for defenders because they don’t know whether to follow the striker that has dropped deep or remain in their defensive shape. Going more direct means that strikers are competing, at best, for 50/50 balls. A sole striker gets tired, fighting for every ball with two defenders. But it becomes a genuine contest when you have two strikers competing for those 50/50s.
In their last game against Shelbourne, Horgan opted to give McWoods support by playing Jaime Siaj Romero up next to him. They accommodated Romero’s inclusion in the starting 11 by playing three at the back. They were more effective with this formation and I expect them to continue with it tonight.
Harps do have the ability to be a possession-based team. Players like Barry McNamee and Ryan Connolly are more than comfortable with the ball at their feet.
But they do tend to revert to their direct approach and it would be naive of Harps to go toe-to-toe with Derry by trying to play through the thirds of the pitch.
Derry's strength is their central midfield, and it would be a wiser approach for the Donegal side to reduce the amount of time the ball spends in the middle of the pitch.
In the First Division, Cork City could be promoted tonight if results go their way. The Rebel Army need just four points from their remaining three games. Were they to better Galway United’s result tonight then they would be crowned champions and seal promotion back to the top tier.
City haven’t been overly impressive in their style of play this season. Waterford have probably been the side most pleasing on the eye. However, City have been the most consistent team. There have been plenty of games where they have had to grind out results. I don’t see that as an insult to the team, rather a compliment.
I’m more of a traditionalist when it comes to football. What matters most to me is the end result and the style of play is secondary. Yes, City have been difficult to watch at times this season but the players deserve a lot of credit for their desire to win games at all cost.
At a time when players constantly moan about wanting to play a certain type of football, this current City squad have realised that this is a results business. The players will be rewarded for their ‘ugly wins’ when they eventually claim the First Division title. It is just a case now of when that reward comes.