This was a magnificent performance by Wrexham, in which they were able to show off all the attributes which make them serious title contenders in the Conference.
In a match which split into three clear parts, they played some of the best football they’ve managed all season in a first half which they totally dominated through their massive superiority in midfield and energy when they didn’t have the ball.
Then, in the opening quarter of an hour of the second half, as Brentford struggled to bed down some necessary tactical changes, Wrexham were not merely in control, but rampant, tearing down the flanks and looking like they would score whenever they got forward.
However, the third phase of the game, its final half hour, saw Brentford finally sort themselves out and take control of midfield themselves. Still, this merely led to Wrexham retreating to their favoured defensive shape, like Muhammad Ali looking to rope-a-dope, and defend their area. It’s something they do well, as the goals against column in the league table suggests, and the fact that Brentford, for all their pressure and control of the flanks, barely mustered a decent effort from inside the box, told you everything. Joslain Mayebi, notwithstanding a crazy moment in the last minute, was impressive as he plucked crosses out of the air and made a couple of tips round his post from free kicks and long range shots, but didn’t really have to make any particularly difficult saves.
Despite being just two points off the play-offs, Brentford have a poor home record and struggle to score goals. You could certainly see why in an insipid first half showing as they were harried by an eager Wrexham side which made the most of its extra man in the centre of midfield. Jay Harris and Jamie Tolley played with a ferocious intensity when Wrexham didn;t have the ball, and as a result that wasn’t ever the case for too long. Brentford struggled to retain the ball under pressure, drawing increasing anger from their fans with their wayward passing, and the earlier in a move they lost possession, the deeper their midfield ended up as they failed to get a toehold in the middle of the pitch. As a result, loose second balls always seemed to drop to the scurrying Wrexham midfielders while their Brentford counterparts were permanently on the back foot.
With such good work in front of him, Lee Fowler was afforded space to create, and he took full advantage of it. The first half was Fowler at his best as he strode confidently around, spraying passes about and bursting forward with menace. He was also able to release a number of early balls down the right for Adrian Cieslewicz, whose pace and direct approach was unsettling Craig Woodman. Wrexham were particularly threatening down that side, particularly when Curtis Obeng ventured forwards as well, and with the midfield under their control, the right back rarely needed a second invitation! Admittedly, the goal came from a moment of inspiration, but it was no more than Wrexham deserved. On numerous occasions they had got into dangerous positions in and around the edge of the box, and were often denied only because Cieslewicz or Obeng, cutting inside, would run into congestion.
Brentford needed to improve drastically in the second half, and Uwe Rosler knew it. He reacted by making two substitutions at half time and switching to a 4-3-3. The sight of a side which is two points off the play-offs two divisions above Wrexham switching their formation at half time to go like-for-like and try to nullify them was probably the most eloquent compliment possible to their performance.
Anyway, it didn’t work, at least not for a good fifteen minutes. The opening quarter of an hour were the most one-sided of the match as Wrexham constantly broke at speed down the flanks, particularly the right, taking advantage of Brentford’s narrow midfield. The ball really started to stick up front for the ever willing Danny Wright, and Wrexham really ought to have added a second which probably would have put the tie beyond their opponents’ reach.
However, they didn’t, and slowly Rosler’s new formation bedded down. Douglas began to settle things down, holding in midfield, and Oyeleke, brought on after the break, brought energy on the right side of the midfield three.
For the first fifteen minutes of e half, the wide strikers McGinn and Saunders had been dragged deep, essentially turning the 4-3-3 into a 4-5-1. Now they started to come into their own, especially when Brentford started hitting early diagonals out to McGinn on the right, giving him a clear run at Ashton.
Although Ashton was typically dogged in defence, Logan started to show some adventure at last on the overlap, and the triangle he, McGinn and Oyeleke created left Ashton outnumbered.
This led to a chicken and egg situation. Whether the early switch was being played because it was easier for right-footed central midfielders to open their bodies up and sweep the ball in that direction, or simply because Speight wasn’t able to offer adequate cover defensively for Ashton, making it the most profitable route for Brentford to exploit, is a moot point. However, while the cause might not be clear, the effect was obvious; Wrexham had a defensive problem for the first time in the game, as Brentford finally found a way to get at them.
Speight had worked extremely hard, both going forward and back, but he hadn’t managed to offer any real threat in attack, and defensively his value is limited. As he appeared to tire, he also began to lose the ball much too readily when it was played up to him, sometimes because he wanted to spin-turn past Logan rather than merely hold it up. As a result the ball was starting to come back at Wrexham far too easily, and it was clear that a change had to be made.
At such junctures at the start of the season, it was Dean Saunders’ default reaction to switch to 4-4-2. However, Billy Barr has shown a reluctance to do this, and he and Morrell’s reaction was interesting. You might have thought he’d throw the player-manager on, either to play as a wide midfielder or as a like-for-like switch positionally, but with a player more capable of tracking back on the pitch. Instead, Mathias Pogba was introduced on the left of the front three, a bold move which paid off to some extent. Pogba certainly held the ball up better, and offered an outlet in the air as he is comfortably bigger than Logan.
Wrexham were also troubled by the movement of Sam Saunders. Before the game the wide man had the reputation of being Brentford’s danger man, and he began to live up to his billing in the second half. In the opening forty-five minutes he started off on the right but was soon drifting inside to find space. After about fifteen minutes he swapped flanks with Weston, probably because the latter was totally ineffective and Rosler had to try something to breathe life into his side when they went forward. It didn’t work, as Weston continued to be peripheral while Saunders flitted promisingly without really producing anything.
After being forced to track back from a wide left position for the first fifteen minutes of the second half, Saunders started to click, and was an important figure in Brentford’s renaissance. Allowed essentially a free role from a starting position on the left, he wandered inside into the hole, even popping up a couple of times on the right to link up with McGinn. He caused Wrexham problems as defenders tracked him and then realised he was dragged them into areas of the pitch where they didn’t want to be.
A potentially dangerous examle of this came late on, when he had switched flanks with McGinn. From an advanced position high up on the right, picked up tightly by Ashton, he floated back centrally and deep. Ashton followed him at first, then realised that there was acres of space in the left back position and was forced to retreat, allowing Saunders a massive amount of room in the hole.
Wrexham retreated into their tight defensive shape, developed by months of drilling by Dean Saunders, Morrell and Barr. With the three midfielders deep, plugging the channels between the back four, they surrendered the middle of the pitch, but their solidity and shape meant Brentford, for all their possession and endeavour, couldn’t break them down.
Rosler even switched to an attacking, desperate version of a 3-5-2 – almost a 3-3-4 with McGinn and Saunders very attacking “wing-backs”. Wrexham still dealt with them comfortably though, and in four minutes of injury time they held the ball well in the Brentford half, Wright and Pogba buying some well earned breathing space for the defenders.
With hindsight it was a pretty comfortable clean sheet. The wonderful thing, from a Wrexham perspective, was that the side lived up to the cliche: if you hadn’t known beforehand you’d have thought they were the side two divisions higher than their opponents!