Their lack of shape, depth and creativity when they had the ball was a huge issue, lending a great deal of weight to a rather worrying conclusion: that they are almost wholly reliant for cohesion in possession on a player on the cusp of retirement who this month started two consecutive games for the first time since November 2010.
The visitors’ lack of ideas when in possession was alarming, and the reasons for it might be traced back to a pattern which has emerged in recent weeks. Performances, with the exception of the Fleetwood game, have become increasingly flat, and the direct passing decreasingly effective. That’s not to say that long passing is ineffective per se – Wrexham have, after all, generally been a direct team this season – but the shape of the side when it sets itself up to play the ball long means the tactic is becoming redundant.
The pattern seemed to be established at Cambridge, where a side which had long since run out of ideas started desperately launching the ball long to a makeshift target man in Mark Creighton. The tactic eventually worked; Creighton caused real problems in the air and eventually Wrexham equalised from the scraps he created. It wasn’t a sustainable approach though, merely a tactic devised out of desperation rather than method. The trouble is, the side seem increasingly likely to fall back onto setting themselves up in a similar way early in games.
This leads to a loss of shape in midfield. The pattern at Mansfield was depressingly consistent: Wrexham would win the ball, and immediately the three strikers and Jay Harris (sometimes Dean Keates too) would race forward in anticipation of the long ball. This left Wrexham with a flat line up front and few midfield options if they wanted to work the ball around in deeper positions. Often Joe Clarke, the least comfortable passer in midfield, would be left in possession with Mansfield pressing him and no simple pass on. The result would be a hurried pass which gave The Stags possession and a chance to break.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of Clarke: he was one of Wrexham’s better performers, but he is plainly at his best when he sticks to what he does best, breaking play up and passing simply to players with a wider range of passing. When he looks to make play, he is wasteful, yet the way Wrexham’s midfield operated constantly put him in a position where he had to try ambitious passes. It might have worked had Lee Fowler or Mansfield’s Adam Murray been in that position, but Clarke does not possess their incisive qualities; his strengths lie elsewhere.
This pattern is nothing new; against Forest Green a similar thing happened, as ironically Wrexham sent on Glen Little, then went more direct, bypassing their playmaker. One can only assume it’s a sign of something I’d like to hope isn’t quite panic, but is certainly the anxiety of a side which is losing its confidence as results and form drift away.
A factor in the evolution of this approach has to be The Racecourse pitch. Lacking confidence in it, Wrexham have progressively gone more direct as the season has worn on and passing at home has become more difficult.
At Field Mill, the lack of cohesion, shape and movement in midfield led to some desperate passing. Constantly Dean Keates, when he got the ball in a deep area, would try long through passes from central positions, the most difficult pass in the game. They all were either intercepted or went straight through to the keeper.
Of course, this isn’t what Andy Morrell and Billy Barr hoped to see. Morrell said afterwards that Mansfield had bullied his team, but he didn’t mean it in a pejorative sense. Instead, he referred to how this was what Wrexham had been doing to other sides: overwhelming them by virtue of constant pressure and scoring when the other side cracked. Cast your minds back and you’ll recall a number of wins this season for Wrexham which weren’t necessarily achieved by outmanoeuvring the opposition, but by grinding them into submission.
Wrexham have been direct this season, particularly since Fowler left, but with a purpose and a plan. Midfielders would push up to pick up the second balls when the ball was played long, keeping the opposition under pressure as the ball was won back high up the pitch. Recently, those midfielders have got further forwards earlier, and if the ball is cleared there’s no-one to pick up the crumbs. In fact, it was striking just how many second balls Mansfield won: this used to be a Wrexham strength.
In other respects, Mansfield were set up very differently from the formation Wrexham deployed when “bullying” opponents. In fact, a better word to describe what they did to Wrexham would be “dominated”. Murray anchored midfield and spread the ball around cleverly, with Stevenson and Howell energetic runners either side of him and the full backs offering regular overlaps because Mansfield had so much secure possession that they could afford to commit themselves.
Up front, Briscoe and the outstanding Meikle offered width, with the latter beating Stephen Wright constantly, and Dyer was a mobile target man, although Nat Knight-Percival just about had the better of a terrific duel with him. Indeed, the efforts of Knight-Percival, and to a lesser extent Mark Creighton, who was caught out on occasion but was typically robust, and Joslain Mayebi, who had a good game apart from one rather obvious exception, meant that the final score flattered Wrexham.
Considering the extent of Mansfield’s domination, it’s hard to believe that Wrexham only succumbed to a set piece and a fluke. However, the nature of that set piece is worthy of examination. Exodus Geohaghan’s long throws are hardly a surprise weapon, but Wrexham were flummoxed by them.
The first goal came about from one of them, as Neil Ashton seemed to get in Creighton’s way; in having to arch over the full back, Creighton was unable to get to Howell in time to halt his near post header. One of Mansfield’s other first half chances also came from a long throw down the line – Wrexham appeared surprisingly underprepared for Geohaghan pinging a throw down the line from the half way line despite the fact he’d taken every throw from that area onwards, and inexplicably left the diminutive Keates to mark targetman Dyer, a fact he would have capitalised upon were it not for a smart parry from Mayebi.
It seemed surprising that Mansfield relied on Geohaghan so often, as his slow amble to the touchline and fastidious drying of the ball with his towel slowed play down considerably in a game they were on top of, but Wrexham’s problems dealing with his projectiles justified their reliance on him.
There were few positives to come from this match but these dead rubbers do offer a chance for Andy Morrell to have a look at some of his squad members, and Rob Ogleby, given his first start for Wrexham, was interesting. It was no real surprise that he was the only one of the front three who was actually allowed to complete the full ninety minutes: mainly, that’s because he’s unlikely to figure as a starter in the play-offs if things go according to plan, so it was more valuable to rest Jake Speight and Danny Wright; but it was also down to him being marginally the most effective of the trio.
His movement was eye-catching: when sides play three strikers high up the pitch, it’s essential that the wide players are able to make diagonal runs behind full back and centre back to get into goal-scoring positions. The pacy Ogleby, on this showing, is much more naturally adept at doing this than any other player at Morrell’s disposal, but the service to the strikers was so poor that there was never any danger that this movement would be capitalised upon. Indeed, there was never any danger that Wrexham would get anything tangible out of this match.