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Martin Ling ponders strike partner for Rene Howe after Torquay United's Southend disaster

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 24, 2012

By David Thomas

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Nobody watching Torquay United at Plainmoor last Saturday can have missed a point that went beyond the Gulls losing 4-1 to Southend United.

It was that Southend, under ex-Plymouth Argyle boss Paul Sturrock, "did a number" on United's centre-forward and leading scorer Rene Howe.

It was hardly Howe's fault.

Playing as a lone targetman as usual, he had two centre-backs behind him – Howe has often been able to handle that irritation – but Sturrock also posted midfielder Tamiko Mkandawire just in front of his back-four, tasked with cutting off the supply-line to Howe's educated feet.

It's not exactly rocket-science. Teams at even the highest levels adopt similar tactics to try and isolate particularly talented centre-forwards.

The "defensive midfielder" has become one of the most valued players in the modern game. United themselves have one, in Damon Lathrope.

Faced with overcoming the problem last season, they often came out on top because other players – midfielders Lee Mansell (13 goals), Danny Stevens (ten), left-back Kevin Nicholson (six), all spiced up by the mischievous skills of Eunan O'Kane (five) – made the most of the spaces and opportunities available because Howe was drawing so much attention elsewhere.

That has not happened to nearly as good effect this season.

United manager Martin Ling was quick to admit this week: "At the moment there's too many managers saying 'If we stop Howe, we stop Torquay'.

"Southend did it.

"If teams come and do that to us, we have got to have another plan up our sleeve. Players at this level should be able to adapt."

If Howe's team-mates cannot do the job by dint of their ability and/or athleticism, what Ling is talking about, of course, is a change of formation.

United went a long way last season on a 4-1-4-1 system, which became 4-3-3 when they were going forward at their best.

But the option of giving Howe a proper strike partner, in a formation that would be bound to look more like 4-4-2, is now occupying Ling's mind more and more.

There's always a danger of trying to reinvent the wheel in these matters, and football matches are ultimately won by players doing the right things at the right time better than their opponents.

However, formations can help along the way.

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