Wrexham v Grimsby Town Tactical Report

The starting line-ups

Even the most one-sided match can contain a moment when the lesser side can snatch the initiative. This was a memorable victory, but one in which either Grimsby’s joint coaches or their team got things badly wrong just when it mattered most. While there can be no question that Wrexham were deserving winners, if The Mariners had held their nerve in the last twenty minutes things could have turned out very differently.

The battle lines were clearly drawn out before the match began. Grimsby’s defence had been rock solid until they got through the semi-finals, since when they’d suffered a nasty collapse in form. However, it would have been a real sign of panic had they discarded the system which served them well for months, so they stuck to the plan and picked a 4-4-2 which, from the outset, was clearly set-up with shape and discipline in mind.

Wrexham, meanwhile, took the bold option. Despite Joe Clarke’s excellent form over the last six months, Andy Morrell opted for Kevin Thornton instead, an interesting indication perhaps of his thinking for the run-in as this was the first time all four first choice midfielders were available to him since Thornton’s breakthrough into the starting eleven.

In selecting Thornton he sent a clear message that he intended to take advantage of the superior playing surface to try and move the ball around swiftly and to feet. It was an approach which, in the opening fifteen minutes, looked to have backfired.

Grimsby started well. Their shape was rigid, and their pressing impressive. Thornton in particular struggled to bring the ball down and pass accurately as space was squeezed superbly by an energetic Town midfield, with Frankie Artus particularly prominent.

The success of Grimsby’s tactic was illustrated by the number of back passes Wrexham were forced into. With Grimsby’s wide men pushing the Wrexham full backs back, the out ball tended to be one of the centre backs, and rather than thump an aimless straight ball forwards they were forced to go back to Maxwell. It was a situation where the goalkeeper’s superior ability to Joslain Mayebi on the floor came in handy, as he tended to eschew the easy option of that long hopeful ball down the middle and often was able to circumvent the Grimsby midfield with an accurate pass to the flanks or pinpoint the aerial mismatch between Danny Wright and Aswad Thomas on the right. That approach offered a profitable avenue to explore in the first half.

After about a quarter of an hour the Grimsby pressing game started to fade. Too early to ascribe to tiredness, this was surely down to a combination of Wrexham starting to settle into a passing rhythm and a key 12th minute incident.

When Craig Disley dived in two-footed on Dean Keates but avoided any sanction it seemed his remarkable stroke of good fortune (he later admitted on Twitter that he was lucky to avoid a red card) might be a key turning point in Grimsby’s favour. Instead, it might have proven to be the opposite: was it a coincidence that, chastened by his lucky escape, he seemed to fade from the game and the intensity of Grimsby’s harrying of Wrexham’s midfield abated at around that point?

But Wrexham should be given a great deal of credit for how they took control at that stage in the match and Keates was playing a pivotal role in this process. The Grimsby forums, impressively candid in their appraisal of the match, were magnanimous in their praise of the Wrexham captain, and rightly so. However, in eagerly agreeing with a suggestion that he must have had a passing accuracy rate of 95% they over-estimated his distribution. Or rather,they misunderstood the purpose of it in the early stages of the game.

Keates gave the ball away fairly regularly in the opening exchanges, but he knew exactly what he was doing. With Wrexham’s midfield pressed deep, something had to be done. Keates obliged with a number of early balls forward for his strikers to contest, and the Grimsby centre backs naturally won most of those duels. But that wasn’t a problem: in playing those passes, Keates facilitated the wearing down process which Wrexham were aiming for -indeed, that was the role Morrell selected himself to do-as the centre backs were gradually softened up by the work they had to put in. Also, and more crucially, Keates was forcing the Town midfield deeper when he played those passes, as they had to contest the second balls which usually resulted. The dynamic in the centre of the pitch has altered irrevocably: instead of hassling Wrexham in their own half, Grimsby’s midfield were playing a lot deeper and allowing Wrexham space to pass in. It was a pattern they would only briefly challenge in the remaining hundred or so minutes of the match.

Another key player in the process of turning the game around was Johnny Hunt.only in at left back because Neil Ashton was injured (although I suspect a berth was waiting for him up front if he’d not been needed at the back) he had an excellent game.

Before kick-off I wondered whether he might have a problem dealing with Joe Colbeck, a swift, intelligent wide midfielder who is Grimsby’s leading assists man this season. In the past he has occasionally found handling a genuinely sharp winger problematic, although he was impressive against Luton last weekend. At Wembley he was untroubled by Colbeck apart from the Grimsby goal, the circumstances of which I’ll get to later, and played a key role in taking the game to Grimsby.

While Stephen Wright was naturally less inclined to bomb forwards in the opening hour, Hunt was a regular outlet as the Grimsby’s midfield started to back off. His forays down the left offered a useful overload as the intelligent movement of Brett Ormerod and Thornton offered him options (and never underestimate Hunt’s movement- his interplay is smart because he reads others’ intentions well and can spot where space will open up. No wonder Morrell and Billy Barr are eager to slot him in somewhere down the left when they can).

Regularly the left flank was where Wrexham’s attacks emanated from, with Hunt driving forwards with increasing regularity. Grimsby suddenly found that it was their outlets which were being strangled: both Artus and Disley are good midfielders, but neither possess the range of passing of Keates or Thornton and their side’s rigid 4-4-2 wasn’t offering them much in terms of vertical movement. With Colbeck pinned back on one flank and Marshall superbly covered by a proactive Stephen Wright on the other, there was simply nowhere for Grimsby to go. Up front, Andy Cook was admirably hard-working, but both Martin Riley and Chris Westwood were in outstanding form and handled him impressively in the air whereas Ross Hannah, the match winner the last time the two sides met, was anonymous.

At least Grimsby’s deep midfield was offering protection to the back four though, and as a result there was very little to report in terms of penalty area action in the first half. Often Wrexham won possession high up in their own half in areas where you’d normally expect a side to be able to break swiftly into space, only to find that that they weren’t able to do so because Grimsby were constantly playing with six men behind the ball.

On paper the main source of danger to Grimsby’s goal came through what might have been a serious oversight in their defensive planning. Wrexham took advantage of their extra man in the centre of midfield superbly as the half wore on. With Hunt pulling players to him and Keates and Thornton not scared of drawing midfielders towards them before releasing the ball, Wrexham regularly used Harris as an extra man in midfield, feeding him into promising shooting positions around the edge of the area. Anyone who has seen Harris play this season would realise that this was a highly dangerous state of affairs, but although he had the best effort of the half when a twenty-yard shot scraped the bar, in general he didn’t quite find his shooting range and pulled his shots off target, to his obvious frustration.

As the second half began, the dam seemed to break and Wrexham’s pressure turned into a succession of chances. Hunt was running riot flown the left, Danny Wright was cutting inside and evading the defenders’ attentions through a combination of strength and swift movement and Brett Ormerod was starting to pop up in pockets of space that Morrell was vacating as he moved laterally.

Grimsby were incredibly lucky to survive the opening ten minutes of the half, and were massively indebted to goalkeeper James McKeown as he began compiling an impressive clip reel of Wembley saves to show his grandchildren.

Grimsby had to respond and did so effectively. They switched to 4-3-3, removing Hannah and introducing Andy Thanoj. The young midfielder immediately improved the balance of the side as he was more able to move the ball around with neat short passing and movement, and the change of shape nullified the overloads Wrexham were exploiting all over the pitch.

All of a sudden, Grimsby were enjoying something approaching parity in the game and began to have some possession in Wrexham’s half, if no great threat (apart from their goal their only attacking moment of note came when Ian Miller headed a corner wide with Maxwell always having it covered).

Crucially, the change of shape also allowed Grimsby to push Colbeck and Marshall further up the pitch on the flanks, giving Cook some much needed support. While in general they didn’t trouble Wrexham’s full backs, at least they occupied and therefore reduced Wrexham’s control of the flanks.

Furthermore, their goal came from this change of approach. With Colbeck higher up the pitch Hunt was drawn into a one-on-one challenge with him, went to ground without winning the ball and allowed Colbeck in behind him. He took advantage of the large amount of space this manoeuvre afforded him to deliver an accurate ball to Cook, and although Maxwell repelled his first shot with a superb save, showing great peripheral vision to squeeze the ball back out into the box rather than follow the orthodox approach of pushing the ball square as Grimsby had two players lurking in that direction, Cook had an easy task to score with his follow-up shot.

What happened next was the missed opportunity I mentioned earlier. Obviously, leading in the final twenty minutes is a winning position, but Town failed to screw their courage to the sticking place and back their ability to continue to meet Wrexham toe-to-toe. In his post-match interview Rob Scott implied this wasn’t what they’d wanted on the bench, so perhaps his players were simply overwhelmed by the close proximity of a glorious Wembley victory and retreated nervously into their shells rather than being ordered to do so. Whatever the reason, the outcome was fatal.

Grimsby’s midfield now sat terrifically deep, as did the back four, conceding an enormous amount of space to Wrexham in their own half. The 4-3-3 formation now became effectively a 4-5-1 and was completely dysfunctional except as a defensive carapace. Cook was left ludicrously isolated up front and the quality of long balls lumped hopefully in his direction was so miserable as defenders with no space or time to measure their pass clouted the ball anywhere that he was rarely able to even challenge for the ball. It was impossible not to feel sorry for him: he ran himself into the ground but even on the rare occasions when he was able to challenge of the ball, there was never any support on its way.

Scott and Paul Hurst did look to address this matter and change formation, going back to 4-4-2 and introducing Richard Brodie, whose cameo would bring utter delight to so many! However, reverting back to the formation Wrexham had grown to dominate in the opening hour of the match was counter-intuitive and the change failed. In pushing Artus to the left Grimsby’s attacking options were merely diminished further: there were more creative options on the bench, but instead the admirably workmanlike Artus occupied the left more as insurance ahead of Thomas than anything else.

Interestingly. Grimsby would fail to do anything about this as the pattern of complete Wrexham domination continued until the penalty shoot-out. Their bench might not have ordered their side to play so deep, but they certainly came up with nothing to alter things apart from this rather formulaic formation change which had no effect.

A bold introduction of a more creative option on the left might have allowed them to relieve some pressure, but as the co-managers clung on to the white-knuckle ride Wrexham were putting them through there was no sign that they’d grasp the nettle and try to take control of the game.

Instead, like an inveterate gambler going further into hock to take yet another desperate punt rather than take a grip of his life, they held grimly onto the long shot that their best hope of victory was their goalkeeper’s genius taking the game to penalties, where they at least has a 50-50 chance. Scared of disturbing an equilibrium which hardly favoured them, remarkably, they failed to use their third substitute on a wet Wembley pitch over the course of two hours despite cramp becoming an issue in extra time.

By way of contrast, Wrexham’s alterations were astute and swung the game further in their favour. Rob Ogleby and particularly Adrian Cieslewicz made massive contributions as their pace and positive running pinned the Town full backs even further back. Sam Hatton, who appears to have gone backwards since his early promise with AFC Wimbledon, was unable to handle Cieslewicz, who cut inside him at will, and Hunt was combining well with him on the overlap, so Colbeck, Grimsby most promising creative player, found his talents wasted as he was forced into constantly doubling up with his full back.

The deep starting position Colbeck was forced into meant Johnny Hunt could camp high in Grimsby’s half and was a regular out ball for Cieslewicz, who often drove the two Grimsby players back and then fed the ball back to Hunt, who had time to measure a cross from an advanced position. Look back at the tape: a lot of Wrexham’s chances in the second half and extra time came from Hunt crosses.

With Danny Wright now shifted to the centre to work the centre backs Morrell had softened up with an hour of typical diligence, Grimsby were entrenched in their box, facing threats from all directions. It was like the arrows darting across Europe at the start of “Dad’s Army” and there was no one to shout “Don’t panic!”

The question now was whether Grimsby could cling on this way and keep a clean sheet. They didn’t fall too far short of managing it, as it took a penalty to break them down, but the spot kick was surely a consequence of their ultra-defensive approach.

Packed deep into their box as Wrexham probed for a weakness, with Hunt and Stephen Wright now camped in their half, the Grimsby defence were inviting trouble on themselves. Shaun Pearson’s challenge on Keates which led to the penalty was followed by a lengthy diatribe towards the referee, but surely Pearson’s reaction was due more to the realisation that he’d made a terrible error.

No matter how many times you run through the replay, it looks like a penalty, and an unnecessary one at that. Keates was running across the box onto his weaker foot and therefore was unlikely to pivot and rip something back into the danger area: a ball out of the box to the flank was his most likely option and Pearson ought to have accepted that rather than dangle a leg invitingly in front of him. Keates was not likely to turn down that invitation!

That such a situation arose was down to Grimsby’s supine approach though: Keates was able to roam unimpeded fifteen yards out by the deepness of the defence he was up against until panic naturally took grip and the injudicious challenge was made: you can understand Pearson desperately wanted to do something about the space opening up in front of him, even if he should have kept his tackle to himself!

After Thornton equalised Wrexham looked a good bet to grab a winner before the ninety minutes ended: only McKeown stood in their way as Grimsby were unable to change the balance of the game. Thornton enjoyed a bright end to the match and it was a surprise to see him withdrawn in the 89th minute for Clarke, but once more the Wrexham bench had read things correctly.

Clarke’s fresh legs added drive to midfield and as Grimsby tentatively tried to venture out of their shell in extra time they were regularly thwarted by Clarke’s ability to win loose balls and drive them back with his direct running. It was a fitting microcosm of Clarke’s progress this season: he’s gone from a fringe player with a six-month contract and little opportunity to show what he can do in the first team to a key player in a trophy win, driving his team forwards at Wembley!

Extra time was essentially a continuation of this pattern. Wrexham continued to live in Grimsby’s half, and McKeown continued his one-man resistance. The only surprise was that a second goal didn’t come, but there was a wonderful inevitability to the penalty shoot-out. Wrexham deserved their victory,not only for their superior ability on the day, but for their superior tactical courage and clarity of thought.

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