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Tactical Philosophy: Gary Rowett

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Ross Bramble has a look at Gary Rowett’s emergence.


English football seems to be dogged by a number of problems when it comes to producing new talent. On the field, the FA have been committed to enhancing and cultivating younger English talent thanks to the nation’s continued languid showings in major tournaments. Coaches and managers, however, don’t seem to have been too high on the FA’s list of priorities. New, exciting English coaches are something of a premium, and with most top clubs preferring to stick to the tried and true formulas of an Alan Pardew or a Sam Allardyce, the next generation of English managers rarely get the high-level platforms to develop. One name that seems destined for a big part in the near future, however, is Gary Rowett, currently unattached after spells with Burton Albion and Birmingham City. His dismissal from the Blues after their Chinese takeover in 2016 was met with widespread shock and outrage, and with good reason – but who is Gary Rowett, and what has he done to earn his impressive standing?

Tactical Philosophy

It seems the most exciting and vaunted managers in the world today are defined by a strict adherence to a certain formation or play style – a 3-4-3 here, a high-intensity pressing game there. While this approach has certainly been beneficial for managers like Mauricio Pochettino and Markus Weinzierl, Gary Rowett is a brand of manager more defined by his flexibility. Rowett does not have a “preferred” formation – not at this early stage of his career anyway. What Rowett does is much less formulaic, instead analysing his pieces and deciding on the best way to utilise them. The key is masking their weaknesses, but exalting their strengths.

Formation & Tactical Structure

Both of Rowett’s first two clubs – Burton Albion and Birmingham City – had a weaker squad comparative to their league adversaries. Burton’s squad has long since felt as though half of it should be playing one league below, but that has never stopped them achieving success in the football league. Birmingham City, on the other hand, were a club ravaged by Premier League relegation and subsequent financial strife, forced in to selling their best players and reinvesting in cheap or free talent. To that end, Rowett made the decision, at both clubs, to keep things simple. His time at Burton was defined mainly by a sturdy, counter-attacking 4-4-2, as was his early tenure at Birmingham. As time went by with the Blues, however, that shape developed in to a 4-2-3-1, as shown below.

At both clubs, the methods of attacking and defending were kept simple and effective. To start with, Gary Rowett’s Burton and Birmingham sides have been counter-attacking outfits. The vogue managerial strategy in the modern era appears to be more about possession of the ball, maintaining the game and probing for areas of space. Knowing that his players were not capable of such a game, however, Rowett plays to their greater strengths. Simpler formations, simpler structures, simpler roles, and a simpler method of working. A flat 4-4-2 at Burton Albion, with pacey wingers and forward players, allowed the team to defend in a shape together, knowing where their outlets were and hitting teams hard and direct on the break when they win back the ball. It was a more appropriate approach for a squad not gifted enough to try playing expansive, tiki-taka styles, especially in a league where the quality of the opposition – and more appropriately, the quality of the turf – weren’t favourable to such a style anyway.

At Birmingham, the philosophy was much the same, especially during his early days. Before appointing Rowett, the Brummies had endured a torrid season and were rooted in the Championship relegation zone. A game before Rowett’s appointment, the side suffered their worst home defeat in their history, in an 8-0 thrashing at the hands of runaway Championship leaders Bournemouth. With confidence at an all-time low, Rowett didn’t intend on reinventing the wheel. The 4-4-2 was put in place, and the turnaround was almost instantaneous – Birmingham were back to doing the basics, and doing them well, getting stuck in and winning back the support of their frustrated and fatigued fans. The formation and shape, then, is just as simple as the tactic: the team drops deep, remaining compact and solid across the backline, cutting out space and getting stuck in far more than they were in some of their previous outings. Rowett’s belief is that, when the side wins the ball back, space opens naturally – there’s little need for the team to pass and probe and pull opponents around. All they need is a few yards available to feed a pass to one of their pacier wingers of strikers, and off they go.


Regardless of whether the team is playing 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, Rowett’s defensive shape is a simple exercise in filling space and utilising the pace of his attackers. In the case of the 4-4-2, the strongest striker stays furthest up field as a hold-up player should the defence clear long, with the quicker attacker dropping back to launch a counter should they receive the ball short. The wingers re-join the defensive efforts, but need to be ready as outlets down both wings when the team regains the ball. The space these four players are left in/can create in the moment it takes a team to realise their attack has broken down is what Rowett likes to exploit – the “natural space”, if you will. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, it is of course the central attacker who drops back to help out with the defensive duties, while the target man remains up field.

  • In the 6-1 win over Reading, five of Birmingham’s goals came from the three attacking midfielders. In this example, Demarai Gray explodes forward in to the “natural space” after Reading are dispossessed on half way. His pace drags Reading players around and away from their men, creating more space for Gray to power into before he hits the ball from the outside of the area, scoring the second goal of the game. His attacking colleagues offer options ahead and beside him, and Davis, playing the holding role, has fallen to a walking speed to remain in his defensive role.

  • Here we see Birmingham winning back possession around their own penalty area. The side has dropped very deep to defend against a technically gifted Leeds side, covering its weaker players and areas of exploitation. We see the back four stretching out from the full back on the ball, across his penalty area to the penalty spot, covering space and marking opponents. The two holding midfielders have dropped to just out/inside the area, with wingers Cotterill and Gray dropping back almost to full back positions. The only player not in shot is Clayton Donaldson, the hold-up striker. The “natural space” beside the referee is where full-back Paul Caddis plays the ball, as Gray and Cotterill break forward at pace down both wings. The resultant counter attack ultimately ends as a goal for Demarai Gray after some excellent hold-up play by Donaldson.

  • Again, Birmingham have dropped deep to defend against a team more technically gifted in Derby County. The above shot shows the right-back and two central defenders forming the back four, along with an out-of-shot left back. The two central midfielders are covering the space just outside the area, and the three attacking midfielders – Davis, Toral and Maghoma – forming a three in front. Once again, the only man upfield is target man Donaldson. Although this scene ends with a shot from distance by Derby’s Bradley Johnson, should Toral win the ball back in this instance, the “natural space” exists on both wings (with Derby full backs pushed so high up in the attack) and up front with Donaldson.

This is the basis of Rowett’s managerial approach so far in his career. Neither of his two previous employers were a group of gifted technical footballers – the issues facing Gianfranco Zola who replaced Rowett in 2016 highlights the issues Rowett would have faced if he had tried to play expansive possession football. Instead, Rowett taught his side the basics, instilled a fight and spirit in his side which provided the springboard for both motivation and achievement amongst his players.

Rowett’s Psychological Strategy

With his style analysed, it might seem as though Gary Rowett is a little overhyped. After all, his style lacks the nuance of a Unai Emery or the intricacy of a Marcelo Bielsa. But to define Rowett as a dull, simple manager is a grave insult to the changes the man has inspired at both of his previous clubs.

Rowett first stepped in to Burton Albion’s hot seat after the dismissal of Paul Peschisolido. The Canadian was sacked after a three-year stint with the Brewers, with the side failing to win a game in fourteen attempts. Rowett’s impact was extremely swift – despite a rocky period as interim coach, losing five of his ten games (including a 7-1 defeat to Bristol Rovers), Rowett’s time with Burton saw them stave off relegation and ultimately soar up the League Two standings. The team were beaten 1-0 in the League Two play-off final during his first full season in charge, and he headed to Birmingham with the Brewers sat in third place the following campaign. Rowett was replaced at Burton by Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink, who took the club up that season, and then to the top of League One the following year. After his departure for QPR, former boss Nigel Clough re-joined the club, and took Burton up to the Championship for the first time in their history. It was Gary Rowett’s work that built the platform for all of this subsequent success.

The appreciation of psychology is what gives Gary Rowett an extra edge over other up and coming English coaches. He forced his Burton side to stay behind and watch Fleetwood celebrate their promotion to League One in the play-off final, so that his players could “feel the hurt. We now have two choices,” he said, “sit and sulk or use it positively.” And use it positively they did.

When Rowett joined Birmingham City, the club was at what seemed an all-time low. Lee Clark had been dismissed with the club in real relegation troubles, and the 8-0 drubbing by Bournemouth was the club’s heaviest ever defeat. The side had barely survived relegation the previous season, too, and Rowett’s job seemed a poison chalice. Rowett, on the other hand, saw the defeat as a chance to wipe the slate clean. In a special interview with then-pundit Ian Holloway, Rowett recounted his first day at Birmingham; having been fitted for club suits, he and his new staff hosted a team meeting. One of Rowett’s coaches, Mark Sale, who Rowett quipped “doesn’t particularly fit a suit at the best of times”, entered the meeting to complain about the measurements of his new garments, with the sleeves only reaching down as far as his elbows and his trousers only as low as his knees. The ill-fitting suit gag relaxed the players, Rowett explained, reminding them that football was to be enjoyed – something that had been clearly forgotten by Birmingham fans and players alike the last few seasons. It seems a small incident from the outside, but it boosted morale, changed the attitude of the players and helped instil a sense of unity and fun previously missing amongst the squad.

Rowett reinstalled a friendly atmosphere, cultivating a team ethic that ultimately saw the side climb out of the relegation zone and finish 10th in Rowett’s debut campaign. The Blues became a stable mid-table outfit thereafter, always a threat to any side and a dark horse for the play-off places. Before his dismissal, Birmingham were in 7th position in the Championship table, and who knows where they may have ended had the new Chinese ownership not pulled their support for him. While his approach may seem simplistic to the more puritanical or idealistic football fans, it would be a tremendous insult to undermine Rowett’s acumen and insight purely because his sides don’t pass their way through teams like Pep’s Barca. His teams are hard workers, pacey and direct, sturdy and rigid, with their own identity that makes fans connect and believe in a way Burton fans didn’t under Peschisolido, and Birmingham fans didn’t under Clark.

Three Career-Defining Games

Burton 0-1 Fleetwood – As mentioned previously, Gary Rowett’s introduction at Burton Albion saw him keep the Brewers up in his first campaign, and then take them to a Wembley play-off final the season after. Although his side ultimately saw themselves beaten by a 75th minute free kick from Antoni Sarcevic, the game highlighted how far the team had come in such a short space of time. Rowett’s insistence the players stay behind to watch Fleetwood’s promotion party was an inspired decision, too, which helped inspire the club’s rise in to League One the following season.

Birmingham 61 Reading – With five of the six goals scored by three Birmingham attacking midfielders, two scored from set pieces and three from quick counter attacks, this fixture showcased the virtues of Rowett’s aggressive counter attacking style. The result would have been unthinkable under Lee Clark, and the Rowett effect was rarely shown in more stark detail than it was in this fixture.

QPR 41 Birmingham – You may consider it cheating to include a game that Rowett wasn’t in in charge for in this section, but hear me out. After Rowett’s sacking and the appointment of Gianfranco Zola, Birmingham City switched to a possession based 4-2-3-1 system. The tactical change left the team completely exposed in a number of areas, and Zola’s philosophy did nothing to help some of the older and weaker members of his first team. Never more were these weaknesses more keenly exposed than the 4-1 hammering by Queen’s Park Rangers. The result highlighted what a job Rowett had done with the same Birmingham side. Under Zola, the club managed only two wins in his first fifteen games, which was the worst start for a Birmingham manager since 1889. The side had lost its identity, and the fans were losing their faith again – an incredible contrast to two months prior under Rowett.

Three Key Players Developed

John Mousinho – Commanding centre-back/holding midfielder John Mousinho had failed to find a club to call home for a number of years before he joined Burton in 2014. His spells rarely exceeded two seasons at his previous employers, but Rowett’s search for a rugged leader led Mousinho to Burton Albion. Since joining the club, Mousinho has played nearly 80 games for the side, adding steel and grit to the team in their League Two and One campaigns especially. Rowett thought so highly of the player he almost took him to Birmingham, but, knowing Mousinho’s importance to the Brewers, told the Burton chairman he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Demarai Gray – Most fans of the Premier League know all about Demarai Gray at this point, but when Gary Rowett joined Birmingham in 2014, he was still a burgeoning talent. In Rowett’s break-neck counter attacking side, though, Gray came into his own. The system allowed the winger the freedom to attack his opponents and take them on with direct running and excellent close control. His performances attracted the interest of Championship rivals Bournemouth at the time, but he was eventually sold on to Leicester for an almost unbelievably cheap £1.5m transfer fee.

Jon Toral – Arsenal fans see a litany of young talent enter their youth academy, leave on loans and never return for first team football at the Emirates. One of the most recent loan success stories is Jon Toral, who much like Demarai Gray, came into his own under Rowett’s high intensity counter attacking style. Toral scored the club’s goal of the season against Ipswich Town –  the best of his eight goals for the side during his 34 game run. He also won both the Players’ and Supporters’ Player of the Year awards for the 2015-16 season, before going on loan to Granada on another loan deal. The youngster has failed to find the same success in Spain or Scotland (with Rangers) as he did with Birmingham, where he was uninhibited in Rowett’s pacey system.

Read all the other articles from this series here

Ross Bramble
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