This was a fascinating match tactically (hence my urge to do a tactical report!) as Gainsborough caused problems by asking a question Wrexham haven’t had to answer for a long time: what do you do against a midfield diamond?
Trinity manager Steve Housham’s inital intention wasn’t to play that way though. However, his starting formation, a 4-3-3, malfunctioned badly as Wrexham overwhelmed his side in the opening twenty five minutes, and he responded astutely.
Andy Morrell will hope his side don’t come to rue the opening period of the match. Wrexham started well, and gradually took complete command of the game, getting an opening goal after 19 minutes and then squandering a number of easy chances to double their lead before Trinity’s 26th minute equaliser. It was so one-sided in that seven minute period that you sensed a second goal might cause Gainsborough to cave in completely, opening the door for Wrexham to make the second leg a formality. However, goals change games and the equaliser, coupled with Housham’s smart tactical moves, changed the tie completely. Indeed, the visitors might even have gone in ahead at the break as they showed what they were made of.
So what exactly happened in that opening period? Wrexham controlled possession and worked an edgy Trinity defence which wasn’t helped by goalkeeper Jan Budtz’s indecisive work both in the air and off the ground. Wrexham’s front three posed them all sort of problems: Brett Ormerod’s movement allowed him to find plenty of room in the hole, which he exploited to create the opening goal, while the unexpected decision to start Danny Wright on the left allowed him to attack Dominic Roma, the shortest of the back four.
As Wrexham controlled the middle of the pitch, Trinity’s wide players over-compensated, dropping very deep to support their full backs. The result was that sometimes they almost lined up as a back six, with Hawkridge and Yates covering the forward runs of Neil Ashton and Declan Walker. As a consequence, Gainsborough were far too passive in possession, and what else could they be? After all, with six players penned back and defending deep, and Darryn Stamp an isolated figure up front, their three midfielders had massive areas of the pitch to cover and there was no way they could press effectively.
Housham responded by swtiching to a midfield diamond which immediately shifted the balance of the game. Immediately, Wrexham’s full backs found it was much more difficult to get forward as they had to ensure their centre backs weren’t left exposed against Trinity’s two strikers.
The key to the tactical switch’s success was an effervescent performance from Gainsborough’s outstanding player, Terry Hawkridge. The creative midfielder had started out on the left and continued to drift over there and trouble Walker, who was unable to offer as effective a defensive presence as Steven Wright, the player he replaced.
However, his starting postion was in the hole, where he often offered an extra man on the break and also occupied Dean Keates, asking the same question of him that Trinity’s strikers asked of the Wrexham full backs: when was it safe to venture forward?
By switching formation, Gainsborough became more proactive, pushed higher up the pitch and as a result were able to keep Wrexham at arm’s length. Furthermore, Stamp was now not so isolated and became a genuine threat. A much of the problem he posed was down to his prodigious aerial abilty. The big target man dominated Chris Westwood and tended to get the better of Martin Riley as well. As Trinity began to get better possession higher up the pitch they started to deliver crosses from higher up the flanks: their goal came from such a situation and Stamp ought to have got at least one more as a result of his commanding presence.
Perhaps Wrexham were fortunate: when Stamp pulled to the left he was able to exploit the lack of strength in the air of Walker and Westwood, but Hawkridge’s supply of quality crosses was coming from that side of the pitch: there was little coming from the right for him to attack when he pulled away to the left.
The move to a diamond also helped Trinity’s back four: Michael Leary did a sound job as a holding midfielder, and he now had more scope to watch Ormerod when he dropped deep. He was helped in this by the fact that for a second consecutive game the striker, who is coming back from injury, faded as the game wore on.
As a result of the changes, the sides emerged for the second half with the tie very much up in the air, but Morrell and Billy Barr would make changes which would wrest the initiative back in Wrexham’s favour.
Firstly, they addressed the issue of Gainsborough’s midfield changes by changing the shape of their trio in that part of the pitch. Joe Clarke, who hadn’t made the same impact as he has done in recent weeks, was pulled back alongside Keates to offer a platform which allowed the full backs to push on again. Clarke has recently been combining impressively from his left-sided position in centre midfield with Johnny Hunt on the left of attack and Ashton on the overlap, but didn’t show many signs of such form in the first half. Perhaps Hunt being absent was a greater loss than one might have thought: he might lack threat in front of goal but he offers good width and movement, helping the shape of attacks down the left, and has a good cross on him to boot.
Pulling Clarke deeper, and interestingly to the right of the midfield duo, saw him begin to influence the game again, driving forwards and linking well with Keates. It also had the effect of tilting the balance in the middle of the pitch back in Wrexham’s direction, and they dominated the second half.
That didn’t mean they had a cutting edge though. As the pressure grew, no doubt another goal would have gone in at some point: Wrexham have become adept over the last couple of seasons at wearing opposition down even when they’re not at their most creative. However, they added an extra, decisive facet to their attacking game by introducing Adrian Cieslewicz on the right.
Bringing Cieslewicz on at some point is a no-brainer, of course. In fact, it felt really weird to see him stay on the bench at Hereford last Tuesday! It seemed more obvious than ever in this match though, as Trinity’s full backs looked vulnerable. This was partly what had led to the six at the back shape which had to be altered, and Housham’s diamond didn’t offer them the cover they were given in the opening twenty five minutes. Cieslewicz provided a cutting edge with his pace, and every time he set off on a run there was a genuine threat.
By now Gainsborough, unable to respond to Wrexham’s changes and regain control of possession, were looking ragged. In withdrawing Stamp for an extra midfielder they showed they were more than happy to settle for a 2-1 defeat, and as Alex Taylor suggested in the Wrexham Player commentary, Morrell brought himself on to wear down the defence, leading to their eventual capitulation in a frantiic last ten minutes which saw Wrexham constantly create chances. Ashton’s injury time goal came as a consequence of that constant attrition, and had as dramatic an effect on the balance of the tie as Housham’s switch to a diamond had. The problem for Gainsborough’s manager was that his diamond wasn’t effective forever. Yes, I really went there. I’m so sorry.