I haven’t done a tactical report on a Wrexham game this season, but this seems like an appropriate point to start. While some fine individual performances clearly played a major role in how the Southport game panned out, the big decisions made on the bench were massively influential. Andy Morrell and his coaching staff have suffered unfounded allegations of tactical naiveté lately, but they made a number of big calls in this match, and they all worked well.
The initial, obvious point to make is the decision to throw Dean Keates back into the starting eleven so soon. Clearly it was a gamble, not least because Morrell had said he didn’t want to rush him back too soon. However, it was apparent immediately just how important Keates is to the side: the whole balance and approach was different with him back at the heart of the team orchestrating affairs.
Keates’ return accommodated a reversion to the 4-3-3 formation that the players know well, but introducing a play-maker into the deep-lying role at the centre of the midfield three rather than a holding player like Joe Clarke or a box-to-box scurrier, which is probably how you’d quantify Rob Evans at this early stage in his development. Keates’ first attempt at an ambitious pass was well off the mark, but rather than be evidence of a lack of match sharpness it turned out to be a mere sighter. Soon he was pinging balls around with a crispness that has been notably absent from much of Wrexham’s passing this season, regularly switching play accurately to both left and right and nailing a couple of incisive first-time forward passes.
He was helped in this respect by the excellent movement of Joe Anyinsah and Brett Ormerod ahead of him. In fact, there was clearly more interchanging of positions amongst the front three than we’ve previously seen all season, with Andy Bishop occasionally asked to swap roles and work the flanks.
Anyinsah is looking like a shrewd acquisition, his love of backing into defenders making him a useful weapon when Wrexham try to make the ball stick up front, while Ormerod’s movement and threat were constant: what a shame that he’s not able to consistently play at that level of intensity, but there’s no doubting that even as his legs grow older, his heart and brain remain valuable weapons in Wrexham’s armoury.
It’s funny how getting one crucial part of the jigsaw right makes other parts fall into place. Suddenly players who have lacked consistency this season looked in top form: Joe Clarke in particular was driving forwards as of old. Southport were being pressed with energy and had terrible difficulty keeping hold of possession for more then two consecutive passes: their loan striker was completely starved of possession.
With such a monopoly on both territory and possession, Wrexham could afford to commit their full backs forwards, and both Neil Ashton and Mark Carrington made regular forays into the opposing half. Carrington’s link-up play was good, while Ashton typically tended to have end product to his forward bursts, delivering his usual quota of good balls into the area.
With Jay Harris looking impressive once more, only one thing was missing: a goal. Wrexham’s lack of an obvious goalscorer, and the failure so far of Andy Bishop to address that issue, is a major cause of concern and it seemed to be illustrated plainly in a first half which might have yielded a hatful. It was the sort of half which might have been opened up even further by an early goal as one felt that would have been the prelude to a thrashing.
However, the closest either side came to a goal before the break came, remarkably, at the other end. Despite failing to manage any sort of foothold in Wrexham’s half in the preceding forty-two minute, Southport suddenly came on strong in the closing moments of the half, pinning Wrexham’s midfield back and therefore getting to the second balls for the first time in the match. If Brice Irie-Bi’s shot hadn’t been touched onto the post by the excellent Andy Coughlin then half time in the Wrexham changing room would have been a familiarly depressing affair.
The start of the second half was when the tactical chess really kicked off. Southport made a decisive and effective move from the off, making a double substitution and changing their shape from the putative 4-3-2-1 which failed them in the first half, dissolving into essentially a 4-5-1 with their midfield deep and unable to offer any real threat.
Wisely, they shifted to a 4-2-3-1, throwing on two wingers in Paul Rutherford and Osayamen Osawe who immediately had the desired effect. They pinned back Ashton and Carrington, and in doing so winged Wrexham’s attacking balance, throwing their whole shape out of kilter. Now Wrexham lacked width, lacked numbers in the middle of the pitch and lost control of the game. For a ten minute spell Southport were on top and created a couple of opportunities to snatch the initiative and the lead.
Wrexham’s response was partly forced onto them, but the bench did an excellent job of turning a necessity into a virtue. Leon Clowes had to go off, yet another centre back going down injured as Morrell’s catalogue of misfortune continued, and Johnny Hunt was the only feasible replacement, with Neil Ashton shuffling across to centre back.
The problem was that Hunt was the only substitute who wasn’t either a striker or a goalkeeper, and Morrell needed to keep him back to replace Keates once he ran out of steam. Once the skipper had to go off, Wrexham would have a serious problem, which would probably have to be solved by switching to 4-4-2 whether the game suited it or not.
But more of that later: the important thing was that the enforced change was turned into a positive. Perhaps the bench had been cooking this up anyway in response to Southport’s strong start, but while the formation remained intrinsically the same, the focus changed and Wrexham’s approach became different. The holding midfielder started dropping deeper, splitting the centre backs and giving Hunt and Carrington scope to push forwards, with Hunt taking full advantage and taking up almost permanent residence high up in Southport’s half. Here was the Plan B which some fans feel isn’t resorted to.
In making the switch, Wrexham regained control of the situation immediately: Southport’s threatening wide men suddenly had the tables turned on them and were penned back themselves as Wrexham’s extra cover at the back gave them the confidence to push the full backs forward. The visitors would not regain a grip again, their remaining substitution being a like-for-like swap up front.
Wrexham’s bench still had to think on its feet though, as Harris picked up a toe injury which was clearly hampering him. With that lack of options on the bench limited Morrell’s hand the solution was to post him as the deep-lying midfielder, where he could conserve his energy, reduce the danger of a challenge for a 50-50 in the midfield melee aggravating his problem, and get through the ninety.
Another bonus for Morrell came when he made his second substitution: while some fo the crowd were dissenting the withdrawal of the excellent Ormerod (to be fair, the pattern this season suggests Morrell wants to protect him by not forcing him through too many full game and his replacement was no comment on his performance), Keates came across to confirm that he felt he could see out the game. This allowed Morrell to freshen up the forward line further with a second attacking change, and to maintain the shape which had allowed his side to take a grip on the second half.
Admittedly, the excellence of Andy Coughlin in making that fine triple save, followed soon afterwards by Anyinsah’s well taken goal, were the events which determined the outcome. However, the circumstances which shaped the game emanated from Wrexham’s coaching staff.
Wrexham (4-3-3): Coughlin; Carrington, Artell, Clowes (Hunt 55), Ashton; Harris, Keates, Clarke; Anyinsah, Bishop (Ogleby 84), Ormerod (Bailey-Jones 77). Subs not used: Mayebi, Cieslewicz.
Southpor (4-3-2-1): Hurst; Challoner, George, Smith, Fitzpatrick; Chalmers (Rutherford 46), Brown, Milligan; Ledsham, Irie-Bi (Osawe 46); Tames (Hattersley 70). Subs not used: Stevenson, Willis.