It’s difficult to anticipate exactly how Hartlepool will line up as they have not enjoyed a great deal of stability in their team selection in recent weeks.
As you might expect from a team struggling to find form, they have been busily shuffling personnel and formations in recent games. Craig Harrison’s favoured basic shapes are 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, and he has varied between them, often asking players to fulfil a variety of roles, within them as he has looked for a winning formula.
At Dagenham in their last match they started out with a 4-3-3, their wide men dropping back into a 4-5-1 when they lost the ball, and although they stuck to the shape after a half time substitution, three players switched positions as he looked to shuffle his pack. Their previous two games, against Gateshead, saw them use a 4-2-3-1, but again players were used in a variety of positions as Harrison tried to make the shape work.
The best example of Harrison’s alterations is Liam Donnelly, who played as a left-sided centre back in the first Gateshead game, at right back against the same opposition six days later, and as a holding midfielder at Dagenham.
Donnelly did well in the last position, covering well and using the ball sensibly, looking to anchor a side which tried to get forwards through the flanks with Jonathan Franks consistently their most threatening player. However, when they drop back into a 4-5-1 it can be difficult for Franks to get high enough up the pitch to do damage.
When United regain the ball, the onus is placed on Jake Cassidy, a strong target man who wins quite a lot of his aerial challenges, or at least creates loose balls, but with the wide men having dropped deep Hartlepool often fail to get players close enough to him to run onto the second ball.
They try to remedy in the 4-3-3 by Cassidy pulling wide when they regain possession so they can hit diagonals at him.
They are more able to get close to him in their 4-2-3-1, which often start with Franks playing behind Cassidy, although he will usually exchange positions with the wide players, Devante Rodney and Rhys Oates.
United’s passing was often ragged at Dagenham, going astray when put under pressure. Their best passer of the ball is Nicky Deverdics, a player with a good passing range who always wants to get the ball down at his feet and look for forward passes. However, he is deployed at left back, so there were occasions when a lack of support meant pressing Deverdics made it possible to win the ball from Hartlepool high up the pitch. His defensive responsibilities mean it is difficult for him to get into positions where he can play a killer pass. Deverdics isn’t the quickest full back, so doesn’t overlap naturally, and therefore tends to try to prompt from deep positions.
A large percentage of Hartlepool’s chances come from Deverdics’ set piece delivery. He is able to deliver dangerously from corners and can put good shape on the ball from deep free kicks.
However, set pieces also account for a lot of chances at the other end. At Dagenham they conceded seven headers on goal in their area from set pieces and crosses in the opening half hour alone.
There was also a vulnerability down the attacking side’s left channel as Dagenham’s pacy strikers looked to get behind young Sunderland loanee Michael Ledger.
At the opening whistle Hartlepool pressed ferociously deep into Dagenham’s half, but this was not a sign of things to come. From that point onwards, rather than press high up the pitch, they stepped off, allowing Dagenham to pass to the half way line, and then hoping that their defensive shape would make it difficult for them to play their way through them. This was a change from earlier in the season when they would drop into a 4-1-4-1 when they lost the ball, the holding midfielder allowing the energetic Michael Woods and Lewis Hawkins to press much more energetically in the centre of midfield. There wasn’t the same pressure on the ball against Dagenham – Hawkins played the first half on the wing – with the less mobile Keith Watson partnering Woods.
The different approach wasn’t effective: they failed to get close to their men so it was too easy for Dagenham to get twenty yards into Hartlepool’s half on the flanks, from where they were able to put balls into the box and exploit the visitors’ vulnerability to crosses.
Their approach was also picked apart in an early incident which will have been alarming for the Hartlepool bench and illustrated their vulnerability when they didn't have the ball: a straight ball from the back wasn’t dealt with as Deverdics’ starting position was too wide to cover a run inside him, and the runner from midfield wasn't picked up, leading to a shot on goal which Dagenham didn’t have to work particularly hard to create.