Tactics came to the fore in this match, with the crowd’s reaction to Dean Saunders’ approach sparking post-match debate on Red Passion.
The manager was quick to lay bare his approach after the match as well, and to be honest the dissent over what was seen as negative passing is baffling: Wrexham stuck to his gameplan and as a result earned an emphatic win over awkward opponents.
In many ways how Wrexham approached this match showed just how far they’ve evolved under Saunders. Go back to the season before last and he was presiding over a team which lacked creativity and was unable to penetrate organised, deep defences.
Last season that problem was generally resolved, although at times the team were slaves to the long ball to a surprising extent.
Now, Saunders has fashioned a side which is able to mix things up most effectively in order to break down teams that park the bus, and it was their patience which had the opposite effect on sections of the crowd.
It would be doing Tamworth a disservice to claim they came purely for a clean sheet. They were tough opponents, who look more than capable of getting results against promotion chasing sides. They were big, athletic and quick, and carried a genuine threat on the break, particularly when Daniel Bradley was able to get forward and join his strikers.
However, they had a very rigid approach when they didn’t have the ball. Their midfield sat deep, with withdrawn striker Kyle Patterson the only player left in a huge gap between them and the lone striker Iyesden Christie.
This posed a serious challenge to Wrexham. How would they penetrate the two tight banks of four which defended the edge of the area. It was a conundrum which consistently undid that side of two years ago, whose midfield pair of Andy Fleming and Christian Smith lacked the passing ability to pick such a rearguard apart. However, this side has evolved considerably since then.
The problem was addressed last season, with a completely revamped midfield able to break sides down. They’ve now moved on to another level though, and the catalyst seems to have been the arrival of Lee Fowler. In terms of ability, Fowler simply shouldn’t be anywhere near the Conference; his ability to pick a pass and composure on the ball are several levels higher than you’d expect to see in this league. From his very first Wrexham appearance at Salisbury he looked to drop between the two centre backs and play as a quarterback, making play from deep.He was plainly lacking fitness then though, and the main effect this tactic had was to slow Wrexham’s approach play down. Subsequently, when Saunders used him last season in league matches it tended to be ahead of the midfield anchor, Chris Blackburn, trying to play through balls from higher up the pitch.
However, Saunders clearly saw a promising project in trying to utilise Fowler in a play-making role, and as his fitness improved he was able to drop deep and spark moves in a more creative fashion. The final game of the regulation season, at Luton, when Saunders fielded a reserve side, saw him play superbly from deep, at least until Joslain Mayebi flattened him!
Fowler’s pre-season form established him as first choice in the role ahead of Blackburn, and as a result Wrexham now have an extra string to their bow when trying to break sides down. Fowler will drop deep between the centre backs to pick the ball up and start the move. This offers up two problems to a side wishing to sit deep. Firstly, the insurance of a third man joining the centre backs releases both full backs, who are able to push up the flanks knowing that if the ball is lost Wrexham have players back. This occupies opposing players and breaks up the formation’s lines, offering fluidity to Wrexham’s shape.
Secondly, Tamworth have to decide whether they’re going to come out to play. As Fowler happily passes the ball around at the back, he naturally draws the opposing midfield forward, creating a larger gap between them and their back four. When the gap is large enough, Wrexham can then get the ball forward, either by Fowler feeding an incisive pass to a player in the hole or by playing the long ball. The longer route is much more effective when the back four is exposed like this, something which was noticeable in this match; even if Danny Wright or Andy Morrell didn’t win their headers, Wrexham’s midfield was consistently first to the second ball in attacking half because the Tamworth midfield had been dragged up the pitch, so they were able to maintain pressure and get easy possession in the attacking phase of play.
As a result of this, and the fact that Wrexham’s defence was very solid again, although Tamworth applied quite a lot of pressure in the second half, they created a lot less than the home side did.
Of course,goals change both games and tactics, and Wrexham were gifted the lead through a ludicrous own goal. It was inevitable that Tamworth would eventually have to change their approach having gone behind, but they were looking dangerous on the break, so Marcus Law persisted with the approach until half time and essentially stuck to the formula for the first fifteen minutes of the second half.
Then he switched things around – surprisingly, after Tamworth’s best spell of sustained pressure in the match – changing to a 4-2-3-1 with the two central midfielders deployed higher up the pitch than they were in the first half. The outcome wasn’t what he’d hoped; they struggled to apply the same sort of pressure and helped Saunders out; he’s brought Cieslewicz on and at first seemed to be converting to a 4-4-2 to combat Tamworth’s good spell as he did against Cambridge, but their changes allowed him to stick to the 4-3-3 and pick them off by utilising the space in front of their back four.
Admittedly, it took another error to lead to the second goal which killed Tamworth off, but after the substitutions Wrexham held them at arm’s length comfortably. Saunders’ patient passing might have frustrated some sections of the crowd, but it opened up difficult opponents who will be a difficult proposition throughout the season. As the goalless draw with a Tamworth side massively inferior to the current team two seasons ago showed, not so long ago Wrexham wouldn’t have been able to do this.