You have to fear for Stockport County and Dietmar Hamann after seeing this performance.
Admittedly, Wrexham showed why they’re top of the table with their best performance of the season, and if they’d scored six or seven The Hatters would have been in no position to complain. However, County certainly played a major role in their own downfall.
Admittedly, Wrexham prepared well for them, and executed their game plan to perfection, but coming up against well drilled opposition isn’t a rarity in football, and Stockport’s response was utterly inadequate. They failed to defend set pieces, they failed to keep the ball and they failed to inject any energy, variety or character into their performance. To put their performance into context, Bath and Alfreton both looked much more coherent in defeat to Wrexham this season. Stockport have problems.
The fact that they’ve been unbeaten away from home has masked the reality until their rude awakening at The Racecourse, but a cursory glance at their two televised fixtures this season would tell anyone what to expect from them, and why they shouldn’t trouble the top end of the table this season.
Like many sides relegated from the Football League they’re struggling to adapt, caught out by the surprising quality in the Conference which is created by the bottle-neck of two-up, two-down.
They play a bog standard 4-4-2, the one variation being John Miles playing on the right but looking to drift inside and make play rather than head down the line. Miles can pass the ball and is key to County’s approach, but it was plain at Cambridge last week that he lacks tactical discipline, leaving his right back exposed. This was immediately exploited by Wrexham: admittedly it was easy to get round the back on both sides of Stockport’s back four (and would become increasingly easy as the game wore on to simply stroll through the middle of it!) but Edwards found himself exposed to the clever early runs of Andy Morrell, who was the source of much of Wrexham’s good work in the first half. Morrell clearly realised this and switched Adrian Cieslewicz over to the left to give him a run at the exposed full back.
Of course, the way Wrexham naturally line up is likely to expose a lop-sided midfield in a 4-4-2. While opponents can outnumber Wrexham’s full backs if they get control of midfield, as the wide strikers in Wrexham’s formation aren’t expected to track back too rigorously, by the same token, a failure of the wide midfielder to cover his full back is fatal if the Welsh side get a grip on the middle of the pitch, as the three strikers push onto the back four. Wrexham certainly got a grip on the midfield from the opening whistle. Stockport kicked off, and within five seconds had lost the ball to Jay Harris in a pattern which would grow to be emblematic of the game, as can be seen in the graphic below.
Plainly Morrell had done his homework, and in doing so spectacularly out-manoeuvred Dietmar Hamann. The German is looking to introduce an admirable commitment to playing football on the floor to his team, and he’s paying the price for his high-minded principles. As plenty of coaches dropping into the Conference have found before him, it’s difficult to play purely this way in the fifth division-just ask Dean Saunders, who took the best part of two years to decide that he’d have to mix it up to make an impact. Morrell, quite simply, let his midfield dogs of war loose on County and let them tear them apart.
Absolutely central to this approach was Jay Harris. Morrell spoke after the game of the difficult selections he’d had to make, and Joe Clarke certainly had grounds for complaint after being left out as he’d enjoyed two good games at Gateshead and Hayes.
However, the decision to replace him with Harris was the right one, and enabled Morrell’s game plan to work. Clarke looks better suited to away games, where the team might sit more in midfield, than home matches where the game is taken to the opponents. Harris, on the other hand, led by example, constantly snapping into tackles and refusing to let Stockport’s midfield settle, aided by the energy of Pogba, Cieslewicz and Tolley. The amount of time Wrexham won the ball in Stockport’s half was striking (four times in the first ninety seconds alone), and offered the foundation upon which victory was built. County followed their manager’s orders and tried to pass the ball around, but Hamann’s ideas require players of a higher quality to work; you have to really dig around to attract that type of midfielder to the Conference! his players, hassled, harried and hurried, squandered the ball constantly, unable to maintain their composure as Wrexham got in their faces.
Furthermore, Stockport’s defence were spectacularly incapable of defending set pieces. Credit to Wrexham – Jamie Tolley and Dean Keates consistently put the ball into the right areas. However, County were remarkably inept at dealing with this, and defenders got the flick-on for both of Wrexham’s first two goals, inadvertantly helping the ball on to the scorers. Throw in the fact that Mark Creighton had two headers cleared off the line and hit the bar with another, quite apart from the other set pieces that were won by Wrexham but led to nothing, and you’ve got quite a problem in the heart of the visitors’ defence.
I’ll have to address the elephant in the room here: Chris Blackburn notoriously gave the reason that he wanted to play as a centre back when he walked out on Wrexham at the start of the season. After this match, Dean Saunders’ refusal to bow down to his wishes looks like the shrewdest call he ever made! That’s not only because the converted winger he replaces him with, Nat Knight-Percival, was outstanding, as he has been all season: Blackburn hasn’t been playing at centre back since his move, but having been dropped recently he was given a chance to play in his favoured position against his old team, and failed dismally.
Of course Blackburn caught the eye last season as a defensive midfielder, and also did a decent job at full back on occasion. However, he did start the campaign in the middle of the defence, and looked particularly vulnerable as Wrexham shipped a lot of goals. He simply looked to lack all the basic attributes you’d want in a centre back: an almost tentative air when attacking the ball allowed target men to bully him, and cost a goal in a grim performance as Wrexham lost 3-0 at Forest Green; a lack of pace was a problem when players ran at him or the ball was played in behind him; and he lacked the physical attributes to dominate in the air. As I’ve posted on youtube, these problems were apparent in this match. Mathias Pogba ticked all the necessary boxes required to trouble him; Blackburn couldn’t get distance on his headers even when he did win it in the air, and as the game wore on Pogba and then Speight consistently ran past him as he got squared up, and he was never going to see them again!
Admittedly Wrexham did lose some intensity between the third and four goals, allowing Stockport a great deal more possession, but they barely threatened more than they did in a barren first half. Hamann replaced Miles at half time with a more direct option in the youthful Whitehead, and that did stretch play a little more, while a later switch to 4-2-3-1 led to their most productive spell of the game as they exploited their extra man in midfield, and actually managed a shot from inside the box!
It was all over by then thought, and after the fourth goal went in Wrexham ought to have scored more, revitalised by the introduction of Speight and Danny Wright up front, both of whom must have been watching from the bench jealously, desperate to get the chance to feast on Stockport’s back four. It was a painful lesson for Dietmar Hamann, who must hope his board feel it’s worth giving him a chance to learn from it.