Wrexham finallly came unstuck in their eighth game of the season, and there’s no doubt that their Fowler-centric approach was less effective than it has been in any other game this season, but while the reasons for that are worth analysing, don’t let that, the absence of Mark Creighton or criticism of the referee, blind you from the one basic factor which shaped this game: the presence of Joslain Mayebi in goal.
The reasons behind the selection are well debated elsewhere. However, the fact is that the keeper’s luck ran out in this game; having flattered to deceive in his first two games, a rainy afternoon in Luton found him out. From the sixth minute, when a bizarre misjudgement of a routine catch from a corner nearly gifted Barrow a goal, he was an erratic,unreliable presence in goal. Having your goalkeeper cheered lustily by the opposing fans whenever the ball goes near him is hardly a good sign, after all!
It wasn’t only his goalkeeping which caused problems although the second and third goals could be directly attributed to errors by him and he nearly gave another goal away when he called his centre backs off a high ball only to rush out of his box and miss it completely, racing back and getting to the loose ball first only because the closest striker had to take a diversion to avoid a collision with the onrushing keeper. His distribution was also a real problem, and that had a huge knock-on effect on the rest of the team.
All season Wrexham have used the superior technical qualities of Lee Fowler to build from the back, but his work has been augmented by the comfort on the ball of Nat Knight-Percival, who has played for so long in midfield, and the fact that Chris Maxwell is adept at passing from the back. Mayebi, however, isn’t. When the ball was worked back to him he dallied, either indecisive or adding an element of show-boating to the tactic which was frankly counter-productive. As a consequence Barrow were able to press energetically in a manner no other side has managed to achieve against Wrexham this season, and disrupted the strategy completely.
Perhaps this was aided by the energy of their attacking players (the oldest of their front six was twenty-three), and no doubt a familiarity with Wrexham enabled them to hatch this approach to stifle them, as Dave bayliss seems to spend more time at The Racecourse than Holker Street! (one of his substitutes for this game was signed on loan after seeing him score twice against Wrexham reseves in midweek!) However, Mayebi’s indecision was the key; with the ball stuck at his feet for so long as he faked to pass this way and that, the two strikers Almond and Boyes were able to get very close to him, and he lacked the ability Maxwell possesses to lift the ball accurately over them and release players in space.
The one time the tactic worked led to Wrexham’s goal, as Wrexham managed to draw Barrow onto them and then passed swiftly and accurately into the spaces that resulted between the lines: Fowler lifted the ball to the advanced Ashton and he did likewise to feed Speight, who did the rest with aplomb. For the rest of the game though, Wrexham struggled to pass the ball accurately from the back, hampered by Mayebi, the harrying of Almond and Boyes and the long grass of the pitch, and therefore put in a stuttering performance.
While Wrexham’s problems were key, one shouldn’t make the mistake of underplaying Barrow’s role in their demise though. Despite being able to name only three substitutes, one of whom was a goalkeeper, as a result of a crippling list of injuries, they played with energy and spirit and were good value for the win. Wide players in a 4-4-2 have a chance to exploit Wrexham’s wingers with the midfield playing narrow and offering no great cover to Ashton and Obeng, and Barrow fielded two proper wingers in Mackreth and Rutherford who sought to do just that. Ashton was by far the busier of the two; Mackreth’s pace kept him very busy in the first half although the full back defended manfully, with Jamie Tolley putting in a hard-working shift to double-up whenever he could, but in the second half the wide men switched wings and Rutherford was able to get the better of his immediate opponent,delivering a stream of crosses and getting past him to drive in the shot Mayebi spilled to gift Barrow the third goal.
At the other end Wrexham struggled to get decent service to the strikers as it was being cut off at source, which was a shame because all three offered some threat when they actually had something to work with, especially in the first fifty minutes of the game. Clearly the dismissal of Wright was a key turning point in the game, but in many ways the opening Barrow goal was more crucial as it totally changed the complexion of the game (it appears to stem from Morrell losing Bolland from a set piece, although I’d want to see the replays to confirm that.)
Playing with ten men, Saunders switched to 4-3-2 but the service to the strikers was non-existent as Barrow played with width, retained the ball extremely well and forced Wrexham’s midfield to defend deep and rely on hopeful balls forward to the isolated strikers. The Wrexham manager tried a bold substitution at 3-1 to turn things around, bringing Dean Keates on for Ashton and essentially trying to play with two wing backs in a back four, hoping Keates and Obeng could tear forwards to make up for the numerical inequality higher up the pitch, but it didn’t work; Wrexham couldn’t get hold of the ball and in essence they were orthodox full backs for most of the time.
So the key issue was that, in a clash of disparate formations, Wrexham failed to exploit the gaps in Barrow’s 4-4-2, while their opponents took advantage of the space in theirs. However, the root cause of this problem for Wrexham lay in the one fixed position on the pitch.