Against Altrincham there was a failure to respond to the unusual circumstances of the match. This is, to an extent, understandable of course. We know how to react to every day problems but an unexpected crisis will throw you: that’s why I know what to do when the fuse blows in my front room but I tend to freeze when I’m attacked by a brown bear.
The Wrexham bench seemed to have a brown bear moment against Altrincham. The criticism levelled at them has to be tempered by a crucial fact: before that match went crazy we’d been on easy street. If Louis Moult hadn’t been dismissed-a decision which was summarily overturned on appeal it should be added- then we’d have won by more than the two goal lead we were enjoying at that point. So moderate any criticism of the second half by remembering that the team Kevin Wilkin and Gary Mills sent out had emphatically done its job in the first.
What I liked so much about the first half of that match was the way we worked our way into a command of the situation. A perusal of Altrincham’s recent games would have revealed a side whose high-energy pressing puts real pressure on the opposing midfield. For the opening ten minutes it worked a treat and Wrexham failed to get any rhythm going in the centre of the pitch. However, we slowly began to realise we needed to show patience in possession and work the ball around, stretching Altrincham’s press and tiring them out as they chased the ball.
The problem a high midfield press poses is you need to be confident of your technique and ability to retain the ball when someone’s in your face; the beauty of facing such an approach is that if you can move the ball around you’ll work holes in the smothering fabric being spread over the middle of the pitch, and once you can feed the ball through those holes you’ll cut a lot of opponents out of the game. Altrincham’s midfield worked admirably hard, but once they were bypassed, a feat made easier when Scott Leather was sent off, their defence was exposed and the game was over. Or should have been.
When the game switched to ten-a-side Wrexham still had control. Indeed, even after Andy Bishop’s dismissal we held the lead for a further twenty minutes, at first appearing to retain a certain command of our destiny. However, as those twenty minutes progressed things happened which led to an inexorable slide towards disaster.
I suspect the turning point was an attack we mounted with about twenty minutes left. It was a promising break as we’d again outmanoeuvred the midfield press, but when we lost the ball we were left with too many men committed up the pitch. Altrincham didn’t capitalise but it seemed to be enough for the bench to decide to avoid the risk of a repetition by shutting up shop. We retreated back into our shells, lining up in a 4-4-0 which asked no questions of Altrincham except how they might break us down. At least our midfield four didn’t drift too deep, but with no outlet the game became an attack against defence exercise.
Being down to nine men obviously necessitates the adoption of a cautious approach as there’s so much space on the pitch, but frankly, it felt like Wrexham had forgotten that Altrincham were down to ten men. They only had a one man advantage and we didn’t need to be so supine in response to their numerical superiority; after all, they’d responded to going down to ten men by leaving two men up front to occupy our defenders.
By way of contrast, our forward line was non-existent, a fact graphically illustrated with ten minutes left when Peter Cavanagh, the holding midfielder, dropped between his centre backs to allow the full backs to go forwards. There was a reaction from the right-sided centre back Gianluca Havern, who clearly recognised that there was no need for three men to be back there marking nobody- with Wrexham sitting back the full backs had licence to go forwards anyway. This was the point where Havern started overlapping from the heart of his defence: there was nothing Wrexham were doing to stop him!
The odd thing was that Wrexham didn’t adapt their approach when the goals started going in- not even noticeably when they were behind. In fact, the most obvious reaction suggested there was some consternation on the pitch about their inability to address the situation. A couple of times late on Manny Smith went charging forwards in open play, our stopper becoming briefly an isolated figure up front. It looked for all the world like a player confused by our inability to push forwards who was taking matters into his own hands.
The anger at the end of the game wasn’t wholly justified-anyone who went to Braintree the weekend before would vouch that the performance in Essex was indescribably worse than what had happened against Altrincham. But still, a difficult situation hadn’t been helped by our attempt to cover up and weather the storm.
By way of contrast the Aldershot game played out as the Altrincham game would have done if Moult hadn’t been banished by a referee in a panic. We started slowly but, like a boxer weighing up his opponent, grew into the game and took control. With eleven men staying on the pitch, this time we emphatically retained that control.
The point at which the sizing up process ended and our domination began was an clear-minded tactical switch by Wilkin. The determining characteristic of the match was Aldershot’s stubborn insistence on holding a very high line. At first it was working: we were struggling to deal with the compressed spaces in midfield and resorting to hopeful long balls over the top which were of poor quality. Furthermore, in general our furthest man forward was Andy Bishop, and racing in behind the last defender simply isn’t his game.
Wilkin spotted this and delivered the coup de grace which decided the match. Connor Jennings, who was diligently dropping off in support of Bishop, was switched to the flanks and Wes York put in the middle with clear instructions to get onto the shoulder of the last defender and run in behind him at every opportunity. Before long he found himself one on one with the keeper and although he missed, the tactic led to the opening goal two minutes later without York even touching the ball. Neil Ashton’s assist for Mark Carrington was only possible because Wrexham were looking to feed York in behind a high line-indeed York was the intended target of Ashton’s pass, but Carrington’s excellent instinct to follow a ball that was played into a dangerous area was rewarded.
To me it was bizarre that Aldershot persisted with such a high line once York started tearing in behind them, especially as Wrexham had a second area of the pitch where they were able to deliver passes into the inviting, yawning gap behind the centre backs.
Obviously, the higher you can get up the pitch, the more likely that your killer pass will be accurate: not only were Wrexham able to work balls over the top of the Aldershot back four, but they were able to get round the side of it and measure passes in behind. This was down to the miserable afternoon endured by Nabi Diallo, a right-footed stand-in at left back who quite simply had a dreadful time of it.
Not only was he incapable of keeping control of his patch, but the 4-3-3 formation Aldershot deployed meant he lacked cover in front of him. Therefore he was not only getting beaten by Carrington, who emphatically fits into the wide midfielder category rather than being a player who looks to beat his man, but also there was nothing to stop James Pearson from bombing past on the outside into crossing positions. Until now Pearson has looked to me like a defensive full back, reluctant to over-commit: against Diallo he turned into Cafu!
With such structural flaws it was surprising The Shots got to the break with just one goal against them: it was no shock to see them take action at the break though. Their switch to 4-4-2 was an admission that they had problems; the failure to address the high line at the same time was an omission which meant the benefits of cover on the flanks and the shifting of Diallo to right midfield to get him as far away from the site of his personal disaster were squandered.
With three minutes of change, Wrexham were ahead and the pattern of penetration was maintained. Twenty minutes after the break the Aldershot bench switched back to 4-3-3, waving a tactical white flag at the same time in acceptance of the fact that they were getting out manoeuvred. And within a minute of that reversion, Wrexham capitalised upon their regained ability to exploit spare men on the flanks to get round the side of their defence again! Andy Scott must have felt like he was chasing his tail!