What would Sky have called today if they covered the Conference? Summit Saturday? Second played fourth at Kenilworth Road as Fleetwood travelled to Luton, but having seen the quality of this game, they would have to be something special to deny either of these sides a spot at the top of the table. A match between the third and first placed sides only ended goalless because of Wrexham’s superb defensive organisation on the one hand and a couple of remarkable saves by Mike Ingham at the other. As an atmosphere of mutual appreciation blossomed, from the mass back-slapping on the pitch at the final whistle to the warm applause from York’s fans when it was announced that over six hundred fans had travelled from North Wales to support their team, it was hard not to hope that these two sides would maintain this form and claim the two promotion spots.
Both sides lined up 4-3-3, and unlike last Saturday, when Gary Mills’ midfield three matched up Wrexham’s with Patrick McLaughlin pushed forward onto Wrexham’s defensive midfielder, this time both sides played with a holding man sitting in front of the back four to encourage the full backs to overlap. One set did, the others simply were offered no scope to do so,
Wrexham started very quickly, penning York back for the first three minutes in an intense spell of pressure in which their pressing discomforted York in their own half, but once the home side broke that spell the pattern was established for the half. Ludicrous as it might sound, the best way to describe the home side’s philosophy (although obviously not the quality of their personnel) would be to compare it to Barcelona’s. They fielded three midfielders who were very comfortable on the ball and looked to work it along the floor wherever possible, and were happy to pass with terrific patience when Wrexham’s midfield sat deep, passing to each other under pressure with an implicit trust that their team mates would not panic and lose the ball.
This led to some extremely lengthy spells of possession, and the fact that, again following the Guardiola model, they pressed ferociously in Wrexham’s half, meant they swiftly got the ball back when an attack broke down. It would be massively revealing to watch the DVD of the game again and count how many times Wrexham managed to actually string two passes together in the fifteen minutes which followed their opening burst of pressure. Time and again, forced deep by York’s passing, their defenders and midfielders would intercept a pass but, with all possible options cut off or immediately under extreme presssure, they would constantly thrash a wild clearance into the York half, and the pressure would build up again.
And yet, despite this virtually total lack of possession, they actually defended pretty comfortably. The only notable chance York created in this period, and indeed in the whole first half, was a thrashed shot from a tight angle by Jon Challinor which went well over. Wrexham reacted to York’s pressure by retreating into a well-grooved defensive shape, and try as they might York simply couldn’t get close to troubling Joslain Mayebi. The trio of midfielders sat in front of the back four and blocked the channels forcing York to strive in vain to get in behind them. Despite the pace of Ashley Chambers and Jason Walker they simply weren’t able to turn Wrexham’s defenders, although an injury to one of their attacking players ironically opened up a promising avenue for them.
Ashley Chambers had looked York’s most likely source of a penetrative burst through Wrexham’s rearguard. His raw pace and ability to beat his man made him a genuine threat, but in Curtis Obeng he found himself running up against a player blessed with similar speed and therefore his runs tended to start from deep in his own half as he was then able to work up a head of speed accelerating past Wrexham’s midfielders: when York tried to play him in behind Obeng he was unable to win a straight race.
However, an early injury to Matty Blair on the other flank offered him an opportunity to make a greater impact. Blair, more of an inverted wide midfielder than a pacy winger, had been completely subdued by Neil Ashton, the main threat down that flank coming from the adventurous overlapping of Challinor. However, Blair’s injury necessitated a reshuffle, with Adriano Moke coming on as a left winger and Chambers switching to the right.
Moke would fail to make on impression on Obeng – he is carving out a reputation as an impact substitute, but this was too early in the piece for him to sustain a threat. However, Chambers was now able to unleash his pace on Ashton and began to look ominous, accelerating past the full back who, despite the wily range of defensive tricks up his sleeve, had no real answer when Chambers used his pace to burst past him. However, Wrexham survived with the central defenders rock solid and typically Ashton adapted, beginning to force Chambers inside, making him run into the crowd on the edge of the area.
Despite monopolising possession, York were only really threatening when they got the ball forward early, before Wrexham could close the gaps between the lines and sit deep. They moved the ball around patiently and often manipulated it intelligently, judging with skill when to work it into the hole between midfield and defence. Yet Wrexham worked industriously to close that hole swiftly; Walker was still able to pop into it craftily when service was early, and constantly looked to glance blind balls on the forty-five degree angle to look for runners behind Wrexham’s defence, but his team mates never managed to get close enough to him on the break to capitalise.
Ironically, despite being under the cosh and rarely able to break, Wrexham actually carved out better chances in the first half, and only a remarkable close range parry by Mike Ingham prevented Jamie Tolley from opening the scoring in the 17th minute, eerily just one minute later than he scored the opener in this match last season. In fact, there were plenty of uncanny parallels between the two games: last season Wrexham had clung onto that lead through a similarly magnificent rearguard action, with Mark Creighton making a fine debut alongside a magnificent Marvin Andrews.
The second half was the same, but different. York’s modus operandi remained the same, and Wrexham continued to rely on their superb organisation when they didn’t have the ball. Yet Andy Morrell revealed afterwards that he’d asked his team to get into York’s faces more, and they responded with a more proactive performance. Although York inevitably created more chances in the second period than they did in the first-having worked Wrexham’s defence and midfield so hard for the opening forty-five minutes it was inevitable that they’d find a little more space to operate in after the break-they did not enjoy the same monopoly of possession and once more Wrexham created the better opportunities. Indeed, apart from another brilliant save from Ingham, this time to deny Morrell who admitted afterwards that he ought to have given the keeper no chance, Wrexham also carved out three good opportunities in injury time alone.
There were a few factors in Wrexham’s improvement. Certainly they pressed better, and Adrian Cieslewicz sporadically offered an effective bridge between defence and attack, accelerating swiftly out of his own half. Mathias Pogba also deserved credit; throughout the game he worked terrifically hard, occupying the York centre backs and holding the ball up well; many of Wrexham’s moments of promise involved him making the ball stick before teeing up a team mate. The introduction of Danny Wright for Morrell also helped; the player-manager had been a peripheral figure, but Wright’s strength and direct running posed a problem for York’s defenders. With Wrexham’s midfielders continuing to show a terrific amount of energy and tactical discipline, they started to look like a very coherent unit.
Having said that, York continued to have more possession and probe intelligently. Challinor’s overlapping runs down the right became increasingly regular and grew in menace; he forced Mayebi into the only difficult save he had to make in the match when he cut into the box and held onto the ball calmly under pressure before choosing the right moment to release a shot which the keeper sprung to his right to catch. With Cielsewicz having switched to the left flank quite early in the first half, Challinor increasingly found space down that flank; with Chambers drifting inside and creating space outside him, the full back was able to get forward in the knowledge that, although the young Pole’s pace would enable him to keep up with him, his defensive capability was little more than nominal.
It’s noticeable that Morrell has regularly used Cieslewicz on the “wrong” flank, although rarely from the start. I’m struggling to recall Dean Saunders ever doing this since Cieslweicz’s very early games in his first season at The Racecourse, and he seems comfortable with the change. Mind you, he’s also getting his first extended run in the starting eleven, and he doesn’t have the hypercritical Saunders commenting on his every move; is it a coincidence that youngsters like Cieslewicz, Pogba, Obeng and Johnny Hunt, freed from Saunders’ often very public judgement and given their heads by Morrell, who must have watched them in training and felt they would flourish if shown some trust, are all enjoying probably the best spells of their nascent careers?
Wrexham finished the game strongly, although a couple of nervous moments in the last five minutes from Mayebi might have been costly. The interesting introduction of Lee Fowler for Tolley contributed to the strong finish; Tolley had played well in midfield, not only in his role when Wrexham were defending, but by typically breaking forward, often beyond the strikers, to threaten at the other end. He was unfortunate to be withdrawn, but Fowler’s quality on the ball had an immediate impact-within a minute he’d forced Ingham into a save with a good shot after some typically neat footwork on the the edge of the box-and by offering Wrexham composure on the ball in the opposing half, he led to an improvement in the quality of service to the strikers.
His intervention wasn’t enough to break the deadlock though, and perhaps that was only fair. What looked like a particularly sincere and enthusiastic exchange of pleasantries between the two sides at the final whistle told you everything you needed to know about this game; both sides knew they’d come up against genuinely high quality opposition and there was a real sense of mutual respect both on the pitch and in the stands. It was only right and proper; this was certainly the highest quality game of football I’ve seen since Wrexham dropped down to The Conference.