I suggested yesterday that 4-4-2 wasn’t working for Wrexham. To illustrate the point, let’s have a look at how a 4-4-2 can function effectively and consider why it’s not happening for us.
Brian Flynn’s promotion team of 1992-3 was a straight 4-4-2 side and it illustrated the balance required to make the system work. Comparing it to our current side suggests to me that we simply don’t have the players to make that formation work. Andy Morrell was criticised for sticking to 4-3-3 through thick and thin (which isn’t strictly speaking true – he dallied with 4-4-2 for two games this season but rejected it after the defeat at Hereford and had always tinkered with the balance of his midfield three anyway) but his squad was suited to that formation and little else. He wasn’t stuck in the mud; he was playing the hand he had.
Flynn’s side had certain types of players which are absent in the current squad. The obvious difference is to be found on the flanks. As I suggested yesterday, Mark Carrington and Johnny Hunt aren’t the sort of wide men who’ll beat their full backs, whereas Flynn’s side offered such penetration on both flanks. Jonathan Cross was only a youngster, but he was quick, direct and liked to take a man on – at least until he came across Stuart Pearce in the League Cup the following season! On the other flank, Karl Connolly was quite simply creating the legend. They both packed a goal threat too, and both would end up playing up front, but were diligent and would track back when the ball was lost.
Of course Hunt and Carrington offer that quality, but if we look for a player in the squad who can offer such defensive cover but also pack a punch going forwards, you’ll struggle. Joe Anyinsah and Brett Ormerod could certainly provide a threat, but whether they’d offer a great deal of support in their own half is dubious, while Elliot Durrell remains an unknown quantity. The fact that Rob Ogleby has had a couple of stints wide on the left illustrates our lack of square pegs out wide.
There are issues up front too. Flynn’s side had a real strike partnership, of course, although a breakdown of what they achieved that season goes against the accepted wisdom of that side. Gary Bennett is remembered as the great goalscorer: a record of 109 goals in 159 starts in his first spell for Wrexham does tend to create that sort of reputation for a player! Watkin is recalled as his faithful assistant, the strong, silent type who took the buffeting and held the ball up superbly, doing the donkey work while Bennett took the glory. But in that first season together it was Watkin who was the leading man: he scored 18 league goals to Bennett’s 16. The dynamic was basically the same as it would be in a higher division though, and the way the duo dove-tailed gave Wrexham both a goal threat and a pairing which ensured the ball stuck up front, relieving pressure on the rest of the side and allowing midfielders to get into attacking positions. Although neither of them were big men, Bennett’s movement and Watkin’s strength meant they could win a variety of different types of service.
In contrast, we’re nowhere near developing a strong partnership up front at the moment. The nearest we have to a target man is Andy Bishop, who would hardly claim that winning aerial duels with centre backs is his strength. Anyinsah can certainly back in and hold the ball up, but keeping him fit is an issue. Also, we don’t really have anyone who we’d rely on for goals up front, and struggle to keep the ball in the attacking third unless the service is spot on.
However, we do have wide strikers who could cut into the box if they’re relieved of some of the responsibility of tracking back in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 (As an aside, I’d be intrigued to see a 4-2-3-1 at The Racecourse, but we’d need someone who is able to play convincingly in the hole. Perhaps Durrell could become that player, or maybe Juan Román Riquelme would fancy a Skrill swansong!)
(Thanks for indulging my love for the best old-fashioned Number 10 around; let’s see if the speculation starts on Twitter – “Wrexham bid for Argentinian international!” We could fund the move by finally allowing Fulham to sign Jos Mayebi!)
In the heart of midfield we’re well stocked at the moment; indeed, that’s another argument to field a 4-3-3 as it would allow us to play Joe Clarke, Jay Harris and Dean Keates in their best positions. If we do go for a 4-4-2 Keates can offer the sort of passing range Gareth Owen and Mike Lake did while we might even have a bit more strength in there through Clarke or Harris’ endeavours. However, like Bennett and Watkin, Owen and Lake formed a strong pairing, Owen admitting that the classy Lake provided a finishing school for a gifted young midfielder, and successful teams are based on such partnerships. The Grimsby match was the first time all three of Barr’s central midfielders have been available since he switched to 4-4-2, and there’s no sign that a first choice duo has emerged which can get a grip of a game yet.
I’ve not mentioned the back four yet, and partly that’s because the requirements are fairly similar in that area of the pitch for both a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2. Okay, the full backs have to offer more attacking thrust in a 4-3-3, but their duties when we lose the ball are essentially the same. Having said that. Flynn’s team had a pair of full backs who were both defensively robust and able to push on in support of the attack.
Hardy in particular was an astute player going forward. He’s remembered, of course, for his long run without a goal, but he was an effective support to Connolly, not only giving him the security of knowing there was a solid fullback behind him but also getting into clever attacking positions, often dragging opponents out of position and creating space for King Karl. In some respects Barr has a similar position with Neil Ashton and Steve Tomassen, two full backs who can defend and push on. Indeed, Ashton offers more thrust than either of Flynn’s options.
The ironic thing, of course is that while Flynn enjoyed his greatest success with this side, the formation he was most closely associated with was the lop-sided 4-3-3 he adopted when Bennett left and, after struggling to replace him directly, he decided to convert Connolly into a striker. The new shape led to a change of style; we kept the ball better and that no doubt helped to establish us as a side which pushed for a play-off place in League One.
It was the one seismic change Flynn made in twelve years at the helm in Wrexham, and in the days before demands for a Plan B became a trend there were few complaints about his tactical consistency despite the fact that his persistence with the shape continued at Swansea, suggesting he had hit upon a shape he liked and was determined to squeeze his available players into it. You couldn’t accuse Barr of such stubbornness, but a lack of options for the 4-4-2 shape he has been trying to make work suggests he’d be wise to go back to the 4-3-3 he inherited.
There are other factors, of course. After the Grimsby game Billy Barr explained that the players had lost confidence and were unable to express themselves on the pitch. Clearly that’s a crucial factor in the current problems, and in my opinion one which could have been averted by keeping hold of Andy Morrell. But there’s no point crying over spilt milk: Barr has inherited a terribly difficult situation and should be applauded for his efforts to turn things round. One might even argue that, in the context of a shell-shocked squad, the results against Hereford and Kidderminster were genuine achievements by the coach, and justified a temporary switch to 4-4-2. A change was as good as a rest, but the impact of the change has now dissipated and, without the players to make the system work, Wrexham must turn away from 4-4-2. You rather suspect the change will happen on Saturday, but not by the hand of Barr.