It’s counter-intuitive to think it, but is it possible that losing our twenty-goal strike combination might actually help us today?
My heart says I’m being stupid. Andy Bishop and Louis Moult account for 43% of our goals this season, so losing them would surely compromise our chances of puling off something remarkable this afternoon. But my brain tells me that we can’t go into this sort of game as we would a run of the mill match. Our altered priorities might actually be better suited by an enforced reshuffle.
I’ve got an over-arching theory when I consider cup ties. I reckon they all come down to how efficient teams are in the penalty areas, a consideration which inevitably favours the better team. Numerous times I’ve seen Wrexham play a higher division side and feel that on balance of play we didn’t look any worse than them – indeed , often we’ve looked better. Only the quality at the sharp end let us down.
It’s a difficult argument to make to people who haven’t seen it for themselves: I get short shrift when I explain that our 5-2 defeat to Alex Ferguson’s great Manchester United side in their pomp was a much closer game than it appeared; that we utterly outplayed Harry Redknapp’s West Ham United both home and away before finally beating them in the last minute of the replay; or that we might even have got something from a 5-0 defeat to Everton which was memorable for an astounding goalkeeping display by Neville Southall the year we finished bottom of the Fourth Division.
But the difference in all those games was penalty area quality. Southall and Peter Schmeichel were brilliant, but were probably allowed to be because our strikers weren’t quite Premier League class – their strikers were, so every lapse we made at the back was liable to be punished. The West Ham game might have been a win, but it took three hours for our superiority to finally tell because we didn’t take our chances. We might have experienced a more stunning 1984 than even George Orwell imagined if Kevin Rogers had followed up our unbelievable victory over Porto by taking an easy chance at the Stadio Olimpico in the next round! (I’m confident that if he was alive today Orwell would consider that to be the most singularly crass sentiment ever expressed in writing, although I’d qualify that by saying that if he was alive today he’s also have access to the “work” of Katie Hopkins.)
My point is that we’re unlikely to have the quality to trouble Stoke’s defence, no matter what eleven Mark Hughes puts out. Therefore, our best option might be to keep it tight and hope for something to fall our way: a set piece, a freak gust of wind, a replay. I’d take any of them. If neither Bishop nor Moult are fit, I assume we’d play Connor Jennings and Wes York up front. I’ve already suggested that York’s pace might be allowed the room to flourish today, and Jennings’ shift up top might help our shape.
I assume we’d start with Johnny Hunt and Mark Carrington as our two wide midfielders, two players who are capable of playing at full back and would work hard when possession is lost to ensure we keep our shape. Jennings’ movement from the flank has pleased me this season, but it might not be what we’d want against a different class of opposition, capable of breaking quickly into the spaces he’d leave on the flank. Neil Ashton likes bombing on outside Jennings when he drifts infield; I assume overlapping won’t be a priority for him today.
If we want solidity in the face of the flood, I reckon a midfield of Carrington, Harris, Evans and Hunt offers our best shot. It might be a strange kind of logic that suggests losing two of our best players might not hurt us, but then it takes a strange kind of logic to believe we’ll get anything out of this afternoon.