Wrexham’s record breaking season ended cruelly on Bank Holiday Monday, and the main focus has understandably been on the terrific heart shown by the players. However, the match also answered a tactical key question I’ve posed recently: whether Andy Morrell and Billy Barr have a Plan B when things go wrong. The evidence of the Luton game is that they most certainly do, and it’s pretty drastic and bold. Indeed, against all logic the “In case of emergency, break glass” solution they came up with nearly rescued a near-impossible position.
There was innovation in both starting line-ups, as Luton boss Paul Buckle cleverly responded to Morrell’s alterations to his side. Wrexham opted to start with Glen Little, which seriously alters the way they set themselves up in midfield. All season they’ve played a fairly rigid 4-3-3, but Little simply doesn’t fit into that pattern as his strength is an ability to read play and drift into positions of threat, while his weakness is his inability to track back effectively. The usual Wrexham template demands the exact opposite qualities its players.
As a result Morrell had to consider the issue of where to play him. The obvious choice, wide in the front three, simply didn’t work. Little’s desire to roam led to a lop-sided look which often cost the team its width as he drifted inside. Also, it meant the full back behind him would be exposed as he didn’t track back to double up, often because he was in a completely different part of the pitch when possession was lost.
The solution was to play him as a creative midfielder, but his lack of utility when the ball was lost meant a rearrangement of the midfield three. Instead of playing three central midfielders with a holding man in the middle, Wrexham had to compensate for Little’s attacking role by essentially fielding two narrower holding midfielders behind him, creating a triangle.
The formation gave Little a platform from which he could create, and he was central to Wrexham’s best work. He cleverly spotted that there was room to exploit on the left flank – a calculated gamble Buckle took which I’ll expand upon in a moment, and drifted there constantly rather than stick in the middle, where Luton’s massed ranks of defenders massively restricted the space he could operate in.
Of course, there are compromises to be made when altering a system, and Jay Harris seemed quite subdued in his withdrawn role, influencing the game a great deal more when Morrell and Barr’s great tactical gamble occurred in the second half, allowing him scope to go for broke.
The other issue created by the change of midfield shape was a loss of width, and Buckle exploited this cleverly. Aware of the need to keep defensive discipline and maintain shape deep behind the ball to withstand the onslaught, his midfield played on the toes of his back four, an approach Wrexham have employed effectively in the past this season, most memorably at York,Brentford and Brighton.
However, he made one subtle alteration which paid dividends. While left-sided midfielder Robbie Willmott, who had raided to devastating effect in the first leg, kept excellent discipline in front of his left back, Buckle recognising the narrowness of Wrexham’s midfield and gave Stuart Fleetwood, usually a striker, scope to stay higher up the pitch in a sort of half-and-half position when Wrexham had the ball.
It was undoubtedly a gamble, as Fleetwood was not able to offer his right back much cover, a fact Little sniffed out quickly, and when he did track back he was essentially ornamental: Little nearly scored when a skimming twenty-five yard was tipped over the bar, but he was allowed such space as a result of a piece of monumental ball-watching by Fleetwood, who was nominally picking him up but soon became absorbed in what was going on in the box and let him drift away from him; and Neil Ashton delivered a couple of telling crosses into the box once he had realised that if he was left one-on-one with Fleetwood there would be no resistance and he could brush pass him into a threatening position.
However, Wrexham didn’t capitalise on this and the gamble paid off because Fleetwood became a very important outlet. Taking up this unusual position, ahead of the rest of the midfield on the right and eschewing the sort of defensive duties they were carrying out, but not going fully forward, he was always an available out ball as Wrexham poured past him looking for a breakthrough. With Wrexham’s central midfield narrow, he had plenty of space to roam into on the wing and exploited it well, becoming the wellspring for a number of counter-attacks.
This tactic only developed as the half went on though, and until the unneccessary concession of the penalty which led to Luton’s opener, Wrexham’s game plan was working perfectly. It felt like the sort of performance Wrexham had consistently put in at home before they became jaded in the run-in; incessant pressure, initially caused by long balls but maintained because the midfield could progress higher up the pitch as the opposition retreated, winning the ball in progressively more advanced positions and maintaining pressure on a deep opposition defence and midfield. It was all rather reminiscent, in fact, of the 2-0 win over Luton earlier in the year.
No real chances were created in the first twenty minutes; just a couple of scrambles in the goalmouth, but that was okay. After all, this was often the pattern throughout the season, but eventually the opposition would be ground down and chances would come. However, the concession of Pilkington’s penalty changed the dynamic: buoyed by a three goal lead Luton gained the confidence to venture out a little more and use Fleetwood more effectively to take the game to Wrexham, while the home side retreated into a depression as confidence waned and reality kicked in. Luton therefore earned a respite for the final twenty minutes of the half; with hindsight, Wrexham’s failure to get straight back onto the job after letting that goal in might have been decisive as they dominated the other seventy minutes of what would end up being a very close-run thing.
The second half saw Wrexham persist with the same personnel and approach, quite understandably: if they could regain the momentum they had built up in the first half, there was a very real chance that they would make the breakthrough. It didn’t happen though, so Barr, surely following a pre-conceived agreement with Morrell, who warmed up for much of the break, went bravely for a drastic Plan B with just ten minutes of the half gone.
It was remarkable really, and a recognition of the extremity of the situation Wrexham faced: they deployed the sort of tactics you usually see a side try when they are a goal down with a couple of minutes left.
A double substitution appeared to be like-for-like at first, but Wrexham also threw Mark Creighton up front as a target man, and lined up with what was essentially a 3-1-2-4 formation. Creighton and Morrell played through the middle, Speight stayed high up on the left, while Cieslewicz played in a slightly more withdrawn position on the right because his strength lies in receiving the ball in deeper positions and accelerating at defenders. At the back, Danny Alfei and Ashton tucked in either side of Nat Knight-Percival, with Jay Harris sitting in front of them, essentially carrying out the Sergio Busquets role and protecting the back four while dropping alongside them when necessary.
There’s a reason sides don’t try to line up like this until the closing moments of a match: it’s suicidal! Furthermore, it’s a perfectly acceptable shock tactic, but in general the opposition will sort themselves out and cope with it, and once the sting has been drawn, they strike on the break. Massive credit is therefore due to Wrexham for what happened next: the management team had clearly prepared the side well, as the effort was sustained; and the players somehow made the tactic work for thirty-five minutes plus seven and a half of added time. Incredibly, it very nearly worked!
Of course, such an extreme approach led to imbalances. Wrexham actually surrendered quite a lot of their width; Ashton in particular is effective bombing forward, and he was now penned back into the back three. Wrexham found themselves having to go more directly through the centre, and although Creighton is a particularly effective disruptive influence on defences, he isn’t particularly equipped for winning the straight thump up the middle or holding onto such deliveries. However, when Wrexham could establish a grip on possession high up in Luton’s half, they were able to maintain terrific pressure on their box, because Creighton is terrific at winning diagonals into the area. Once Wrexham’s midfielders, from higher up the pitch, were able to deliver something for Creighton to attack in the box, it was very difficult for Luton to clear their lines.
This was illustrated neatly around the time of the Wrexham equaliser, as they created four good chances in as many minutes, and they also built up a good head of steam in the lead-up to their second goal.
However, they never really managed to establish such a bridgehead a third time, and although they had over twenty minutes to get the crucial third goal, they didn’t really threaten again.
This was partly down to more smart work from Buckle. He threw Greg Taylor, a tall full-back, on for Fleetwood, whose value as an outlet was now void as Wrexham went for broke. Taylor immediately offered more physical presence when Luton were defending their box, and his ability to break forwards led to their one good chance to snatch a decisive breakaway goal, denied by a good Mayebi save. A second substitution was to have an even more important effect on the game.
The tactical deployment of Craig McAllister, for the second game in a row, was a clever move by Buckle. In the first leg he was brought on as a response to Wrexham’s increased domination of possession in the second half, providing a target man who was able to make the ball stick up the other end, relieving the pressure on Luton’s defence and offering them a chance to move their midfield higher up the pitch.
At The Racecourse he was used in a less orthodox manner, in a deeper position, behind the lone striker Grey. Buckle had recognised the need to put a player in the hole as a link to Grey and to occupy Harris, and initially used Adam Watkins in that role. However, he failed to offer anything in terms of supply for Grey or the ability to hold up the ball, and his resolve was missed in midfield, so he dropped back and McAllister went into the role.
His job was to an extent similar to what he’d been asked to do in the first match, holding the ball up in the Wrexham half, but that turned out to be only a small part of what he actually ended up doing. He found himself tracking Harris, often deep into his own half, and offered a very effective outlet for Luton when the ball was half-cleared from their area as he could hold the ball up in midfield and often used his considerable size advantage over Harris to win the ball and send it further from the danger zone.
This might have formed some of Billy Barr’s logic when he threw Jamie Tolley on for Harris late on; to offer a bigger physical challenge for McAllister in this match-up. More of his thinking was surely to throw on someone who might just get on the end of things in the area though, as Wrexham went for broke and often even abandoned the screen in front of the back three.
McAllister’s value was massive; after their second goal one would probably have considered Wrexham at least evens to continue their forward momentum and get that crucial third goal. Yet they never really
fully got the momentum going again, and that was mostly due to the fact that the visitors played the last ten minutes very well.
They broke play up, partly through some pretty blatant time-wasting (how ironic that Paul Buckle, no doubt inspired by seeing Joslain Mayebi’s antics, claimed before the first leg that Wrexham were time-wasters, although to be fair to him one could hardly blame his players for looking to run the clock down when they were allowed to by a weak referee.)
Luton were also very effective in how they denied Wrexham the opportunity to build up momentum in the closing ten minutes. They closed down well in midfield and did not panic when they won possession. There’s often a temptation in their situation to hoof the ball anywhere and earn a brief respite, but Luton were intelligent enough to pass the ball more sensibly and relieve the pressure for longer. They were helped in this endeavour by the availability of McAllister, and also of the excellent front-running of first Andre Grey, whose diagonal runs always meant he was available for a pass, and then Amari Morgan-Smith, who was similarly adept at taking the game to Wrexham with his availability and running down the channels.
So Wrexham, for the second season in a row, perished to Luton in the semi-final of the play-offs, having surrendered a decisive advantage in the first half of the first leg and then failed in an heroic rescue bid. There’s no doubting their heart, and they could point to the fact that they had the better of three-quarters of the tie as evidence they were hard done by. But they lost control of matters in the one quarter when they didn’t have an element of command, something Luton never did. Although Wrexham had seventy-five per cent of the tie, Luton created better chances and defended more effectively when under pressure. Buckle’s side were able to offer more quality in the areas where it mattered, and his clever reactions to what Wrexham threw at his side played a big part in achieving that.