The best laid plans of mice and men and all that! Dean Saunders, in a sticky situation, played his hand pretty cleverly in this match, but was let down by that most frustrating managerial variable: players. That’s not to knock the team, which looked rusty after an incomplete pre-season but competed ferociously. However, individual errors meant that while Saunders got his tactics right, he didn’t get the reward of a win.
The lack of preparation was always going to be an issue against a very youthful, energetic Cambridge side whose oldest outfield player was 25 and playing his first game at this level. With Chris Westwood struggling for fitness and Chris Blackburn pulling out on the morning of the game, the wisdom of playing Nat Knight-Percival as a centre back in pre-season was rewarded, and the makeshift defender’s man of the match award was a no-brainer after a committed performance.
Saunders stuck to his familiar 4-3-3, but it was clear from the start that, although the players are used to that system, they were struggling to settle into their familiar groove. Lee Fowler’s superlative friendly performances had fans desperate to see him in meaningful action, but he surprisingly gave an anonymous performance in the deeper midfield role, his passing not quite right although he did work hard to break opposing moves up-ironically he did the Blackburn part of the defensive midfielder role quite well, but not the Fowler part!
Elsewhere, the formation was surprisingly stretched by Cambridge’s bog standard 4-4-2. Throughout last season the two Wrexham full backs had been untroubled by the intrinsic danger of putting these two formations together, namely that the two wide men on the other side would get a clear run at them. On this occasion, ,however, their travails against the wide midfielders would be a constant problem until Dean Saunders was forced to change his formation.
The problem was apparent as early as the second minute on the left side, when Ashley Carew beat Ashton and pulled the ball back to Adam Marriott, who lashed the ball wildly over the bar when he ought to have done better. Early service to Carew was United’s regular way of changing play into the attacking phase, and no matter which method of delivery they chose, it was effective. Long diagonals in the air offered the big winger the chance to dominate Ashton, although Wrexham were helped by an obliging linesman who regularly rewarded Ashton’s cuteness as he tried to draw fouls in the knowledge that he had no chance of winning the aerial battle.
Ashton was troubled when Carew ran at him as well though; as Wrexham’s wide strikers pushed up the pitch in Saunders’ favoured manner, there was acres of space to exploit in front of the full backs and Carew was quick to isolate that and run at Ashton eagerly. On the other flank, after a slower start, Dunk began to trouble Obeng in a similar manner.
At the other end, Wrexham threatened too. As Saunders suggested after the game, although Cambridge had more of the ball and looked more coherent, Wrexham actually carried more threat once the ball got into the attacking third, and actually felt the more likely scorers. Andy Morrell was typically energetic and intelligent, and he found in Jake Speight and Danny Wright two players who, encouragingly, seem to share those attributes.
Wright got short shrift from the referee, but despite a lack of protection in aerial challenges, troubled the defence, while Speight was a bundle of energy, simultaneously exciting and frustrating as he combined an ability to beat a man and run with a direct purpose with a reluctance to bring other players into play once he’d a scent of goal in his nostrils. Having said that, it’s a characteristic he shares with the likes of Gary Bennett, who never knowingly passed when there was a chance he’d score himself, so maybe that’s a positive in a striker!
Wrexham’s service to this trio wasn’t the best though, as the midfield three was surprisingly outnumbered and subdued. The wide men would tuck in for Cambridge when they didn’t have the ball and space became congested, forcing Wrexham into an increasing amount of long balls as Fowler struggled to impose himself. Too often Wrexham attacked on the break, too rarely were they able to get the midfield trio in touch with the strikers, offering an opportunity for interplay, although admirably Jamie Tolley still managed to make a few of his trademark runs beyond the forwards into the box.
Still, Wrexham took the lead from a set piece and, with more reliance on the heroism of their centre backs than they would have liked, they held it until the break.
The second half started with Cambridge increasing their grip on midfield and putting Wrexham under increasing pressure. There was a sense that a goal was imminent, and Saunders had to act, so switched to 4-4-2, with Morrell dropping back to the right side of midfield and Tolley shifting over to the left. The plan worked; Cambridge’s grip on the game weakened and not only did the game become more even, but Wrexham actually created more chances than the visitors in this period.
With Morrell lacking match fitness – he didn’t get a chance to complete ninety minutes in pre-season – Saunders threw Adrian Cieslewicz on to replace him, and although the young winger is clearly less useful tracking back, his pace offered a useful outlet in the latter stages; he went on one excellent burst to not only relieve pressure but create a chance at the other end and really ought to have sewn up the points when he missed a great chance in the 88th minute. With Mathias Pogba on up front as well, there was increased energy up front too, but it was clear that the side was flagging in the closing stages as that lack of a full pre-season started to tell. Still, Cambridge weren’t making chances and it looked like Wrexham would hold out to claim a valuable win until the system collapsed catastrophically, the two banks of four dissolving as a series of errors led to its breakdown.
It was a shame for a Wrexham side which deserved to hold out for a win as a reward for their heart despite not being fully match-sharp. It was harsh on Saunders, who had made a series of good calls but been undone at the end as his side perhaps made mistakes as a result of tiredness. Perhaps he could have selected a more defensive bench rather than select three attacking players and a goalkeeper; the one defensive player, Steve Tomassen, was used to replace Obeng, and perhaps could have been utilised better to add energy to a flagging midfield, but that’s to split hairs. Ultimately, Saunders played this game out cleverly, but no manager can totally control the decisions his players make once he’s sent them out on the pitch.
3Wikipedia: Year 3 was a common year starting on Monday or Tuesday of the Julian calendar and a common year starting on Monday of the Proleptic Julian calendar. →