An all-Welsh play-off final is liable to be decided at least in part on heart and passion. But tactically speaking, there’s a huge issue which is sure to have a major influence on the outcome.
Newport’s switch to three at the back part way through the season was a bold move and an unusual one by Justin Edinburgh. It leaves his side playing with a shape you don’t see all that often these days, especially not in British football.
It’s not an unfamiliar one to Wrexham fans of a certain vintage though, Denis Smith won promotion with Wrexham in 2002-3 with a 3-5-2 formation, and although the emphasis of that side is different to Newport’s – for example it featured wing-backs who played more like wingers while Newport’s wide men could most accurately be described as fairly adventurous full backs – certain truths about the shape are constant.
You need flexible, quick centre backs to make it work as they cover more ground and often have an opportunity to move forwards themselves: for Dennis Lawrence read Ismail Yakubu whose dynamic presence is crucial on the right side of the back three, not to mention his set piece threat.
You also get the benefit of a midfield trio, so Wrexham’s three in midfield won’t enjoy a man’s advantage for once. Remember how Wrexham regularly outmanouvred Grimsby’s midfield to work Jay Harris, as the spare man, into a shooting position? That’ll be a lot harder now.
But if we lose in one area, we must gain in another. The most fruitful area for Wrexham to look to exploit, as is the case whenever you play a side with three at the back, is behind the wing backs. Andy Morrell’s shape is ideal to exploit that area in theory. Playing three men up front ought to mean we’ve wide men already high up the pitch, looking to get in behind Pipe and Sandell. This is an area which will be particularly crucial in the closing stages if Adrian Cieslewicz is asked to reprise his crucial cameo of five weeks ago.
Wrexham’s selection probably takes care of itself: you’d think Morrell would stick to the side which beat Kidderminster, assuming he doesn’t want to take a gamble on Chris Westwood and that the game’s come a week too soon for Danny Wright. The nightmare scenario for him would be that, apart from those absences, Dean Keates fails to rouse himself for one last effort. The skipper’s presence on the Wembley turf is an absolute necessity for Wrexham against a Newport side which certainly won’t shy away from the scrap.
Not that feistiness is their only quality. County recruited heavily and well in the Summer and have a lot of attacking options. Danny Crow and Christian Jolley started in the play-offs and were an effective duo, but Justin Edinburgh must be tempted to pair Jolley with Aaron O’Connor, giving him two mobile strikers with good movement, able to run the channels or pull wide.
Should they stretch Wrexham’s defence laterally, that would open up space for an interesting new addition to their side. Alex Gilbey arrived in South Wales late in March, on loan from Colchester, and looks an astute signing. He’s adept at popping up in advanced positions and will look to dart into the gaps the strikers open up. That will take him into Keates’ part of the pitch: that duel will be crucial, emphasising the importance of the Wrexham captain being fit for the game.
So with Wrexham looking to overload on the flanks and Newport hoping to outnumber their opponents in the centre of the pitch, this looks like a game which might be decided on the tactics board.