You can get too fixated by the other side, and although, to be fair, there was a gulf in quality between the two sets of players in this match, You rather suspected that Alfreton boss Nicky Law’s attempts to smother the opposition merely inhibited and confused his own team by the end.
Oddly, during the August Bank Holiday weekend last season Wrexham experienced an uncannily similar situation: an away game to a newly-promoted side in which the opposing manager set his team up based on his scouting of Wrexham, and in doing so left them wide open for exploitation. On that occasion Bath’s Adie Britton had fielded a lop-sided formation and been picked off; this time Law appeared to have taken a good long look atthe Tamworth game and decided on a rigid plan of action, only for Wrexham to show enough versatility to find a different way to punish him. Once more, the flexibility of Saunders’ side continues to be encouraging.
For a notion of how Law tried to mould his side around frustrating Wrexham, take a look at the line-ups to the left, but don’t take them as gospel; Law constantly switched his formation around to try to combat Wrexham’s movement, and ultimately tied his players in knots. However, I’ve tried to express in the caption the fact that he sent his players out with the instruction to go man-for-man with Wrexham, an approach which was seriously compromised by the excellent movement of the visiting front three, the mobility of Lee Fowler and the adventurousness of the full backs. That fluidity pulled his players all over the place and led directly to the second goal at the very least, while the man-for-man approach set up some mismatches which Wrexham players exploited; particularly Jake Speight!
That was certainly how the opening goal came about. Wrexham started forcefully, and from the outset Speight was tormenting Matt Wilson, a cumbersome centre back who just couldn’t cope with Speight’s pace and ability to turn. He scored the first goal by isolating the defender, rolling him, and finishing with aplomb across the keeper. It was a perfect illustration of the dangers of setting your team up as a reaction to your opponents’ strengths rather than look to exploit your own; left without cover, Wilson simply wasn’t equipped to stop Speight on his own.
There were other flaws in the Law masterplan. He had obviously also observed how Wrexham were eventually able to tease Tamworth out from their deep midfield bunker on Tuesday by patiently recirculating the ball at the back, and was therefore determined to keep his midfielders deep when they lost possession, leaving Wrexham to their own devices in their own half.
That determination was there for all to see as Law, an overly-aggressive figure on the touchline, constantly berated his side for breaking out of their shape to press Wrexham in midfield. Indeed, shortly before the second goal he had a running one-sided row with striker Paul Clayton, whom he was asking to track back to the edge of his own area. Perhaps he made his point too forcefully; soon afterwards his midfield slavishly stayed deep, allowing Nat Knight-Percival to saunter unchallenged to the edge of their area before sliding in Speight to get his second.
The move was made possible partly by some clever movement from Andy Morrell (below), but the root cause was an Alfreton side obeying orders and backing off; the basic fact that you can’t allow opponents easy possession, under no pressure, in the attacking third was completely ignored and Alfreton didn’t learn their lesson; Knight-Percival made two more similar runs as the half wore on!
One can’t help wonder if Law confused his side with his instructions; even experienced internationals are sometimes disorientated when they are asked to adapt to a role outside their comfort zone, so asking a young, part-time side to attempt such an extreme approach might have simply befuddled them. Certainly there were points in the game where individuals, like Clayton, didn’t appear sure where they ought to be. That wouldn’t have been helped by the fact that Law tinkered constantly, switching between a back four and a back five as the game progressed. With Adie Hawes, a centre back, playing up front as well, there were often square pegs in round holes for Wrexham to capitalise upon.
The presence of Hawes up front also told a story. Limited in their ambition to matching Wrexham up, Alfreton barely threatened in open play until it was 3-1, but where they did offer some hope to their fans was from set pieces. Technically they weren’t too great, unable to pass consistently under pressure, but they were big, which meant they were able to create periods of pressure once they won attacking free kicks, throw-ins or corners. Hawes personified this approach and to his credit, he gamely attempted to make up for his lack of expertise up front by putting himself about.
Alfreton did capitalise on their set pieces; they won a penalty when Wrexham failed to deal with a free kick into the area, and it’s no coincidence that it was their fourth spot kick already this season. It was hard to cleanly clear the ball once they were able to get bodies up in the box for a set piece, and therefore they were able to put together some spells of pressure; the typical pattern of play in a match involving a long ball team.
However, they still paid a price for setting themselves up to cope with Wrexham rather than backing themselves to cause their opponents problems. With the game surely beyond them at 3-1 they threw Jamie Mullan on as a left winger and suddenly enjoyed a spell of pressure developed through their approach play rather than restarts. Mullen capitalised upon Wrexham’s lack of midfield cover for the full backs to pin Curtis Obeng back, which was quite a victory in itself considering how adventurous both full backs were. Furthermore, his willingness to run at his man meant Town actually had a source of supply for Clayton, who had looked lively but hadn’t received much service. Admittedly, Wrexham still defended solidly and restricted Alfreton to shots from outside the box, but the massive improvement in their play made you wonder if they might have caused more problems by being bolder from the outset.
Having said that, in the final twenty minutes of the game it was still Wrexham that looked the more likely scorers. With Cieslewicz and Pogba on, and Alfreton coming out of their shell and allowing space in their own half, a goal on the break always looked likely and it was something of a surprise that we had to wait so long for it. Indeed, the most worrying aspect of the game for Wrexham was that, again, they had lacked a ruthless streak in front of goal with the notable exception of Speight, Satisfaction at a result which equalled the best away win Wrexham have managed in the Conference has to be slightly tempered by the question of how they didn’t score twice as many.