The obvious point to make before considering Dover’s approach is that they are tactically very fluid. When we played them on the second Saturday of the season I suggested that they would play with a back four, but they switched seamlessly to three at the back, and there’s a strong possibility they will do the same thing at The Racecourse.
The key to that flexibility is Giancarlo Gallifuoco, an Australian defender who is both strong and mobile. Therefore, he is equally comfortable in the centre of midfield and can switch smoothly between the two positions. When playing at the back he offers good cover for Connor Essam and Immanuel Parry, who are physical, imposing centre backs
Dover’s fluidity extends beyond their formation though. When the situation dictates, they will mark man-to-man, and they have consistently adopted that approach against Wrexham. Kinnear spoke very respectfully of Wrexham’s squad after his side had won 1-0 at The Crabble, and clearly sees us as opponents to be stifled in the first instance. He has enjoyed success in that regard against us with his man-to-man approach as his well-drilled side reduces space and smothers our midfield: Dover have kept clean sheets in three of their last four games against Wrexham, and will be hard to break down.
The switch between a back four and three at the back is often dictated by the starting shape of the opposition as Athletic look to have an extra man at the back: up against a 4-3-3, Dover will go like-for-like, whereas against a 4-4-2 they are likely to go to three at the back.
Of course, the other side of the coin when man-marking is that players can be dragged out of position, leaving space for the opposition to exploit. It isn’t just Dover’s midfield that goes man-for-man: their full backs will follow their men around the pitch, and there were occasions in their last couple of matches where Dover left gaps which could be exploited on the overlap when the full backs followed the wide players into narrow positions.
In their last league game, Dover fielded eight of the team which beat Wrexham in that early season match, and that stability is crucial to Chris Kinnear as he looks to mould a squad which is able to apply his fluid tactical approach. A settled squad allows his players to be comfortable with the level of flexibility which he demands, and become familiar with the demands of the roles he assigns them.
Dover look to play with a direct intensity in the opposing half. In possession, their wide men will look to play high up the pitch, stretching the opposition’s defensive shape. Athletic will look to play early balls towards them, and will not necessarily take care with those passes: by playing the ball early and creating duels deep in the opposing half, they are able to force themselves higher up the pitch to compete for the second balls.
Their early goal against Hartlepool in their last league game illustrated this: Mitch Pinnock, the left-sided attacking player, put a quick throw into the box, sparking a passage of play where the ball was constantly thrown back in early, keeping the defenders busy and forcing them to respond to the next ball in before they had regained their shape, until Pinnock himself cut in from the flank and scored. Perhaps the goalkeeper should have dealt with it better, but the constant, high-tempo barrage of balls into the box had ground the Hartlepool defence down.
Pinnock is a target for early diagonals, and looks to deliver early balls into the box. Despite being left-footed, he likes to drive inside the full back and although his left-footed crosses from narrow positions can appear awkward, they can be effective.
Part of this is due to the central striker, Ryan Bird. A strong target man, he is not particularly dominant with long balls played through the middle, but is good at attacking crosses from higher up the pitch. This is not only true when the ball is in the air – he attacks the near post when the ball is wide and can threaten from driven crosses.
Dover’s full backs are big, quick and athletic. On the right, Ejiro Okosieme is built like a centre back, while on the left Femi Ilesanmi breaks forwards effectively. However, they will follow their men to other parts of the pitch, and in Dover’s last away game, Bromley had some success on the left, getting a series of late crosses into dangerous areas as the full back followed his man and other players found themselves defending the flank.
Dover’s system makes demands of the central midfielders, who have to show good discipline and stamina in sticking to their men. Mitch Brundle is a diligent worker who is a threat on set pieces and also has a long throw which is often used to target Bird at the near post. Nortei Nortey enjoys the simplicity of his role in this system and covers a lot of ground tracking his man.