The Nine-Point Plan for Keith Curle at Oldham

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 08 March 2021, 19:36

Harry Kewell has been dismissed as Oldham boss this week after a 0-0 draw with Southend left them 17th in League Two.

Kewell has not been entirely without fault this season, but most Latics fans would rather see change in the boardroom than in the dugout, with owner Abdallah Lemsagam under pressure from natives.

It’s fair to say that things might get heated once fans do return, so can Keith Curle thrive in these circumstances?

EFL pundit Gab Sutton looks at how he can get Oldham back on an upward trajectory.

1. Manage upstairs

Curle has previously had an element of control over the transfer dealings of the clubs he manages.

The 57-year-old would be naïve to expect to call all the shots at Boundary Park, where Abdallah’s brother Mohamed is Sporting Director and at a club that has been criticised previously for an international recruitment policy.

That has not been a complete failure – Christopher Missilou and Dylan Bahamboula have proved categorical successes – but lots of other signings from abroad have not worked out.

Curle will need to liaise with the hierarchy to bring in some players who he is likely to have more prior knowledge of, whilst being willing to compromise in certain areas.

2. Strengthen the spine

One thing Curle will be keen to do is impress upon the board the importance of strengthening the spine.

It was patently obvious to most in January that Oldham were crying out for three things:

A goalkeeper who can dominate his penalty area, a centre-back who can do likewise and a strong, experienced midfielder who can bring battling qualities whilst also being able to look after the ball under pressure.

None of those areas were addressed and while it would be understandable if this was down to financial constraints, the club should have less sympathy given that the funds were there to bring in four new players.

Technical wide man Nicky Adams, former Yeovil striker Marcus Barnes, composed midfielder Marcel Hilßner and Azerbaijani playmaker Serhat Tasdemir added to positions that were already strong.

Curle will know where Northampton are short: he must ensure the board does too.

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Oldham have appointed Keith Curle until the end of the season

3. Defend better, not more

Oldham’s 32 matches this season have seen a whopping 105 goals scored at either end, more than any other team in League Two.

It may be tempting to assume that the Latics have the division’s worst defensive record due to the expansive style Kewell encouraged, but that is not necessarily the case.

It may be true that the former Liverpool winger picked attack-minded players – he used Adams, a winger/wing-back by trade who is openly unenthusiastic about defending, at right-back, for example – but it is not as if Oldham have been constantly picked off on the break.

For most of the goals they have conceded, they have had enough players back, in theory, to deal with the opposition attacks: mid-January’s 3-2 home defeat to Mansfield being a case in point.

The problem with their defending is not so much the quantity, but the quality, which comes down to the three spinal voids.

Sido Jombati has struggled since joining from Wycombe, yet Harry Clarke, Carl Piergianni and Kyle Jameson are not bad centre-backs individually – they are merely not dominant and are therefore unsuited to playing simultaneously.

Oldham’s defence would improve immeasurably were they to pair one of those three alongside an experienced, aerial specialist who can organise those around him. Wouldn’t it be great if they had someone like that already in the squad? #FreeWheatz

4. Wanna play 3-4-2-1?

Curle is renowned for favouring the 3-5-2 formation: so much so, Carlisle fans re-invented a Peter Andre song dedicated to their boss during his time at Brunton Park.

“Woah, Mysterious Curle, I wanna play 3-4-2-1” might not be quite as catchy, but that particular variation of the wing-back system will suit Oldham’s squad more.

The Lancashire club do not have one consistent central midfielder, let alone three of them: the physical Brice Ntambwe, box-to-box Ben Garrity and controller Alfie McCalmont plus Hilßner and Callum Whelan have struggled to deliver a run of strong performances.

Similarly – and perhaps surprisingly for the joint-second top goalscorers in League Two - Oldham do not have a reliable, out-and-out striker.

Bobby Grant – a 30-year-old winger on loan from Wrexham – has generally led the line as a false nine, with Conor McAleny favoured out wide.

In terms of other options, since Danny Rowe left for Bradford in January, Zach Dearnley has been injured for long periods, while the likes of Harry Vaughan and Junior Luamba are highly-rated but still very much in the development phase.

A 3-5-2 would likely exacerbate the limitations in Oldham’s squad, whereas a 3-4-2-1 would help them play to the strengths of Dylan Bahamboula and Davis Keillor-Dunn, who are neither central midfielders nor out-and-out strikers.

5. Keep Dylan jammin’

One Dylan that Oldham possess is right-back Fage, who must add at least one of crossing accuracy or defensive nous to his strong work rate and searing pace.

The other, though, is certainly League Two’s most entertaining player - and arguably it’s best.

Strong, skilful, deceptive and capable of moments of brilliance, Bahamboula represents a rare example of how Mohamed Lemsagam and co. can find gems.

The France-born forward was strong enough in 2015 to represent his birth nation at U20 level which, given the world-class teenage talent Le Bleus have in their ranks, is some compliment.

His career has since not quite gone as hoped – and let’s be realistic: he wouldn’t be in OL1 if everything had gone swimmingly – but Kewell’s has coaxed out of the 25-year-old more than a few echoes of the talent that made him such an exciting teen prospect.

Bahamboula has a year’s option at the end of his existing contract, which expires this summer, though his long-term future is in doubt.

What Oldham must do – at least between now and the summer - is ensure Bahamboula sees a lot of the ball around the edge of the penalty box, likewise Davis Keillor-Dunn.

6. Feed Keillor-Dunn

The Wrexham recruit did not sign to much fanfare and proved a slow-burner, to the extent that he might initially have been placed into a similar category to George Blackwood as someone who had not quite cut it.

In December, though, Keillor-Dunn scored against Bradford and enjoyed a man-of-the-match display in the 4-2 win at Newport, which kicked his Latics career into life.

Since then, the 23-year-old has thrived in the number 10 role, sometimes playing short, neat through balls to play a teammate through, other times using intelligent movement to find a goalscoring position himself.

Curle needs to ensure Bahamboula and Keillor-Dunn have quality possession in good areas: do that and his side will create chances.

7. Adapt to the squad

Curle defended criticism of his direct style of play at Northampton by saying: “It’s finding a way to win”.

The Bristolian was justified in the sense that he took the Cobblers far away from League Two danger in 2018-19, led them up in 2019-20 and kept them in with a chance of staying up this year, despite the departure of all key players.

While there has been a need for a certain amount of conservatism at Northampton this season due to their resources, it would be a stretch to say that Curle’s style represents him “finding” a way to win – he has always favoured route one football by design, rather than circumstances.

Curle’s Northampton played long ball football before they signed target men in Harry Smith and Vadaine Oliver, plus his Carlisle outfit played direct even in 2016-17, when they could outspend most in the division due to revenue from cup runs the previous season.

The risk Oldham have made in appointing Curle – despite his favourable track record - is that he may insist on route one football from the outset, then ask for players who fit into his style.

The Latics do not have a natural target man and, until they add one in the summer, there is the possibility of them looking imbalanced.

Either Curle will be forced into coaching football on the deck, which history suggests may not come naturally to him, or the team will be pumping balls up to 5’11 Grant or 5’10 McAleny. Neither sound a hugely exciting proposition.

8. Get the best out of Adams

Defendants of Curle’s style would point to his relationship with Nicky Adams.

The former Leicester winger has thrived in his career under progressive tacticians like Chris Wilder and Ryan Lowe, so it’s surprising that he will be playing under Curle for the third time in his career, after signing for the Bristolian at Carlisle and Northampton.

The pair, clearly, were close enough for Adams to spray his manager with champagne after Northampton won the League Two Play-Off Final last season, shouting “gwarn Curley Wurly!”

Deploying the 34-year-old at right-back or left-back may be too much of a risk for Curle’s liking but, having inspired Bury and the Cobblers to promotion as a wing-back at this level in the previous two seasons, it shows he can thrive with the insurance of a third centre-back behind him.

Adams might not have the pace to cut it at a higher level – though the Boltonian arguably merited more opportunities in League One than he has had – but he thinks a split-second ahead of almost everyone else at this level.

That makes Adams ideal for link-up play in the opposing half and creating space for Bahamboula and Keillor-Dunn to thrive in advanced areas.

The Welshman is also extremely versatile, which means he can play right wing-back to incorporate Andrea Badan on the left or left wing-back to allow Fage on the other side.

9. Connect with supporters

The Oldham job brings with it plenty of political challenges.

On the one hand, the manager cannot vilify the very people he works for: Curle must at least do his bit towards establishing a healthy working relationship with the Lemsagams – whether they uphold their side of the bargain is up to them.

At the same time, he must understand and respect the discontent among supporters, many of whom have justifiably protested against the current regime under “Push The Boundary”.

While Carlisle boss, Curle once travelled to the capital to meet the CUSC London Branch and engage with fans, which was at most a caring gesture and at least a shrewd PR move.

Sentiment, alone, will not win Oldham fans over – Curle needs results – but equally, long-suffering Latics lovers do not have the same reasons to get behind the club as they did in previous eras due to Lemsagam’s governance.

Wins are the bottom line and some will not be satisfied until there is a change of ownership, but Curle must play his part in giving Latics fans reasons to like their club again – as well as love it.

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