Tactical Report: 26th November 2011 Braintree Town 0 Wrexham 0 Blue Square Bet Premier

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This was a game which laid bare both Wrexham’s strengths and the area they need to address if they are to consolidate their challenge for the title. Very hard to break down, they have to make sure they strike the correct balance between defensive shape and creative flair.

To focus on the positives, the record-breaking seventh consecutive league clean sheet was never really in doubt. Okay, in the second half Marks hit a shot just over from the edge of the box, and from similar range Reason drew a good save from Mayebi, but essentially the record always looked likely to be attained; every team allows the odd chance during a game, and the distance from which both efforts were struck tells you how well Wrexham defended their area.

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That’s no mean feat; Braintree have had no problems hitting the target this season; indeed, this is the first clean sheet kept against them since the opening day of the season! They break swiftly and are a big team that ask questions from set pieces, with their two target men a difficult duo to handle. However, Wrexham’s record-breaking defence dealt with them well; Knight-Percival had a couple of problems with the sheer bulk of Marks and Wright, but Ashton and Creighton were on hand to help out, with the “Beast” magnificent in the air despite being up against such physical adversaries.

So no problems at the back, and I don’t want to overplay the idea that there were problems further up the pitch. This was an away game against a side in the top ten, and Wrexham certainly applied a lot more pressure than the home team and had many more efforts on goal worthy of a mention.

However, the reason they failed to turn those factors into three points are the issues which represent the main obstacle between them and the title, and if they’re not careful, they’ll find themselves losing more points to well-organised sides.

This match fitted in well with the pattern established all this week. Against Lincoln last Saturday and Cambridge last Tuesday, Wrexham dominated possession and stifled their opponents, rarely looking in danger of conceding. However, without an incisive creative midfielder, or a striker capable of creating something out of nothing, they had to rely on a more attritional approach to secure victory. They didn’t make all that many clear-cut chances, but camped in the opposing half and eventually the sheer weight of pressure made the opposition buckle. And of course, with that solid back four behind them, once they got the opening goal it was always going to be difficult for  the other side to get back into the match.

This game could easily have gone that way, and dramatically so. Mathias Pogba nearly scored in the opening thirty seconds with an opportunistic effort, and Creighton was unlucky not to hit the net from the resulting corner. But those chances didn’t go in, and Braintree were able to settle into their gameplan without the imperative to chase an equaliser.

That gameplan was well conceived and well executed. First and foremost, they pressed with terrific energy in midfield. Wrexham’s trio of Jay Harris, Joe Clarke and Jamie Tolley therefore had no time to settle on the ball and pass it around, and responded by starting to resort to long balls up to the distant strikers rather than keeping the ball and working their way up the pitch.

This played into the hands of a big Braintree side, for whom Bailey-Dennis was outstanding as he dominated Danny Wright in the air. Pogba had some joy against the left back Aswad Thomas when long diagonals were aimed at him, but in general these weren’t long passes aimed at giving the strikers something to feed off, but hopeful punts which hung in the air, giving the centre backs plenty of time to set themselves underneath them. Also, too many of these hopeful balls were launched towards Morrell, no mug in the air but unlikely to get much change out of this sort of defender in the air.

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The other element of Braintree’s plan in the centre of the field was to outnumber Wrexham’s midfield. They managed this by asking the wide midfielders, Reason and Yiadom to tuck in when they lost the ball. This was achieved at the cost of a loss of width, but it further stifled Wrexham’s midfield, who found themselves hitting forward balls from deep positions. As a result Tolley, whose strength is his ability to get into the opposing box in support of the strikers, rarely managed to get into those sort of positions; there was simply too much ground for him to make up.

The obvious solution to this problem was on the bench. As I blogged before the game, Wrexham are probably a little too reliant on Lee Fowler for creativity, and with him absent again from the starting line-up there was always a danger that a well-disciplined defence could hold them at bay. That was what they ran up against in Braintree, a team looking to bounce back from conceding five at home last weekend by focusing on keeping things tight at the back.

Often in the first half, as Braintree midfielders swarmed around their Wrexham counterparts, forcing them to release the ball early, the game looked made for Fowler to come on, back his ability to hold onto the ball, and draw opponents to him before slipping the ball past them and taking them out of the game. But by the time he came on there really was little scope for him to impose his style on the game. By then Wrexham’s midfield, pushed further back by an increasingly ambitious Braintree who were starting to threaten more on the break, were a long way from an option ahead of them; Fowler would often get the ball on the edge of his area and find that the only options ahead of him were in the far distance on the half way line!

The loss of Pogba through injury at the start of the half had hardly helped, as Jake Speight struggled to make an impact, and the logical introduction of Adrian Cieslewicz also bore no fruit. The excellent set piece delivery of Neil Ashton looked to be the best hope of a breakthrough, although a rather erratic referee negated that threat by eagerly blowing for fouls on defenders which were very difficult to spot from the stand!

However, there was some late hope when Thomas was finally sent off, having been indulged to a very generous extent by the referee.He certainly ought to have gone ten minutes after the break, having picked up a yellow in the first half, for a blatant handball on the edge of the box as Obeng burst past him, and if Braintree had been down to ten men so soon they surely would have struggled to survive if what happened after his eventual 85th minute dismissal was anything to go by.

Braintree switched to a 4-4-1, with poor Yiadom, who had looked impressively liberated in a brief spell up front following some second half substitutions, pulled back into midfield. Wrexham piled on the pressure, with Obeng looking threatening as he virtually played as a winger. Braintree boss Alan Devonshire had responded to the red card by pulling the big centre back Bailey-Dennis across to left back, but it was immediately apparent that this was a mistake as Obeng tore past him regularly, on one occasion digging out on fine cross which set Danny Wright up for a close range header which McDonald brilliantly repelled.

A goal wouldn’t have obscured the main issue to arise from this week though; Wrexham certainly have serious promotion credentials, but they need to be able to cut free and express themselves to turn those credentials into something more solid. The defence is still strong, but the balance between attack and defence is still a work in progress. Over the last couple of seasons, goalless draws were fairly rare, but this was the fourth of the campaign, and that’s no coincidence.

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