Tactically this was a fascinating game, played out partly on the chalkboard before the match as Woking looked to turn their scouting information into a practical gameplan.
In theory their thinking was sound, but they were denied by the quality of their opposition. Wrexham did certain things very well, specifically those which were necessary to counteract Woking’s approach and impose themselves on the match.
Woking’s coach Steve Thompson saw Wrexham’s pre-season friendly with Coventry, and the fruits of his scouting mission were clear for all to see. Having varied between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 all pre-season, Woking deviated from those shapes and played a 4-2-3-1 which was clearly a bold attempt to counteract how Wrexham operate.
By playing that shape, Woking were committing four players high up the pitch, which might seem a rather counter-intuitive way to shut down a difficult away match. However, it made perfect sense: as I mentioned in the match preview, Wrexham rely on their full backs to provide width, so rather than drop in a couple of wide midfielders to contain them, Woking tried to pin them back with two advanced wide men.
They enjoyed some success with this tactic: Gavin McCallum stuck to Declan Walker well and the young right back wasn’t able to get up the line as often as he’d have liked, although on the other flank Neil Ashton was more at liberty to join the attack.
Perhaps this was why McCallum switched flanks in the second half, and equally why Walker was able to get forwards a little more in the second half, especially in the latter stages when the visitors were taking risks and were inevitably becoming more fatigued.
Lining up like that wasn’t just a defensive measure though. Woking fielded a broken side, with six players essentially detailed to defend and four staying up the pitch to pose a threat at the other end.
Skipper Dean Keates got the second goal, but the role he played in earning Wrexham’s victory went much further than that. He played a crucial role in counteracting the attacking danger posed by Woking’s 4-2-3-1 as well.
Kevin Betsy, an experienced striker capable of causing problems, was put in the hole by Hill and often drifted into promising positions, but Keates showed excellent discipline when Wrexham didn’t have the ball, filling that hole and constantly denying Betsy space.
Despite Betsy constantly staying in close contact with his striker, he only managed to threaten once, when his stinging first half shot was pushed over by Joslain Mayebi, and it was no coincidence that this effort came about because for once he’d bought himself half a yard’s headstart over Keates.
Wrexham posed a constant threat going forwards, partly because of the movement between Johnny Hunt and Brett Ormerod which I pointed out in a recent blog, and partly because of the pace of Rob Ogleby.
As I’d said before, Ormerod’s movement creates possibilities for other players, and Hunt nearly capitalised when he broke clear into the box and was denied only by a last ditch tackle from Joe McNerney.
However, that was an isolated moment of success for McNerney. As the right-sided centre back he was bewildered by the crafty movement of a much more experienced player, and gaps often appeared in his patch as a result. His keeper berated him after the concession of Ogleby’s goal, and he was constantly caught out of position as he was torn between tracking Ormerod and passing him on to someone else. As a result Ogleby, who encouragingly marries clever movement to genuine pace, was often able to get a head start on him and, with Brett Johnson hardly the fastest centre back, he was able to get behind the Woking back four.
Wrexham capitalised on this with a number of balls over the top for him to chase, and he twice went one-on-one with the keeper, only to drill one into the side netting and then be denied by a fine tackle as he rounded the keeper.
Woking would profit from similar tactics in the last half hour. While, as I outlined above, their tactics were sound, their personnel wasn’t. Loick Pires, playing through the middle, was a back-to-goal target man, and he didn’t do badly but he was hardly going to win such an encounter with Mark Creighton.
His replacement with Bradley Bubb, a nippy central striker, gave a cutting edge to their attack. Within four minutes of coming on he’d scored, having already glanced a headed chance just wide moments after his introduction. He then had another glorious chance, denied only by a fine save from Joslain Mayebi.
Bubb’s pace offered Woking the option to play the sort of balls over the top which Wrexham had used so successfully in feeding Ogleby, and in doing so he offered the sort of confrontation Wrexham’s centre backs didn’t want. Creighton might be formidable in a physical battle, but he’s less happy when the ball’s played in behind him, and Chris Westwood is slow on the turn, making him very vulnerable to the ball played in behind him.
Bubb’s impact offered an illustration of the issue which might decide Wrexham’s prospects for the season. Nat Knight-Percival complemented Creighton perfectly, sweeping round the back for anything which got past the behemoth. Westwood has nowhere near the same amount of pace and Wrexham must either defend a little deeper to compensate for this or see if Martin Riley can offer more mobility at the back.
However, this issue wasn’t decisive in this match. As the watching Macclesfield boss Steve King suggested, Wrexham had sufficient character when confronted with a Woking fightback to knuckle down and regain control of the match. That resolve will be invaluable this season, but finding a solution to this central defensive conundrum would be handy too!