The semi-final victory over Torquay might feel like the key point in our season, but if you really want to see where things turned round, have a look at the goalless draw we played out with The Gulls a month ago. Since that match, everything has changed for the better.
That was a moribund match. We played with a stodgy midfield diamond which made us hard to break down but lacking flair going forward. It was only once we abandoned it late on that we threatened, and indeed ought to have snatched a win. Since then we’ve abandoned the diamond and found a much better formation to suit our current squad snugly. Consequently we’ve suddenly looked like a coherent, purposeful side.
The ironic thing is that it’s been by reverting to a 4-3-3 which Kevin Wilkin suggested he was uncomfortable with last season that we’ve rediscovered our form. Plus ça change!
The 4-3-3 we’ve shifted to has been highly effective. It features two elements which set it apart from the similar system which brought Wrexham terrific success under Dean Saunders and Andy Morrell.
Firstly, the central three are set up with more depth. We play with a holding midfielder and two men ether side higher up the pitch, whereas the Saunders/Morrell model was flatter. This shape suits the players we have: Dean Keates and Kyle Storer are adept at holding, protecting the back four and using the ball intelligently, while the likes of Robbie Evans, Joe Clarke, Jay Harris and Mark Carrington have the legs to press in front of them.
Want evidence of how effective the reassinged roles are? Have you noticed how regularly the holding midfielder is our best player, or at least among the outstanding performers? That was certainly true of both games last week.
An interesting feature of the system is the rotation of the midfield trio. I’m not sure that it’s totally pre-conceived: injuries, the need to use Keates judiciously and the unavailability of Storer for FA Trophy matches – meaning he has to spend every other Saturday either shopping with his wife or watching his beloved Arsenal – may well have made chopping and changing a necessity. However, the mass influx of central midfielders into an already flooded part of the squad during January suggests there might be a deliberate policy in play.
What’s fascinating is how easily the players have adapted to rotation. Large scale changes in personnel have not led to a diminution in effectiveness. In fact, quite the reverse: there’s a freshness to the midfield while the players clearly understand their assigned roles. When we don’t have the ball, the opposition struggle to find space, smothered by energetic pressing from the players in advance of the deep-lying pivot.
The one time this shape hasn’t particularly worked was last Tuesday against Forest Green Rovers, but there were extenuating circumstances. Firstly, it was a massively rotated line-up: only three of the outfield players who started that game also started at Torquay, and the whole midfield was different.
The injury Mark Carrington picked up which necessitated his substitution at the break, plus a testing debut for Sam Finley, meant Kevin Wilkin wisely jettisoned the shape at the break and switched to a 4-4-2 which opened the game up more and led to us becoming more threatening. However, it also led to us becoming more vulnerable, and it was only a string of good stops by Andy Coughlin which ultimately earned a point.
In this sense the way the game went harked back to the last time our 4-3-3, then in the early stages of development, failed us. That was at Gateshead when a bold half time switch opened the game up and, with a full strength eleven on the pitch, allowed us to claw our way back into the tie.
The second interesting feature of the formation concerns the forward line. Kevin Wilkin told me at the start of January that he was keen to add left-sided width to the side and stretch opposing defences.
Whether Kieron Morris was what he had in mind would be an interesting question to find out the answer to: he certainly plays on the left, but the way we deploy him and Connor Jennings in our new shape is not quite the wingerfest we might have anticipated.
Both wide men actually start five yards in from the touchline, tucking in behind the sole striker and looking to offer him support in a similar way to Liverpool’s recent much-lauded set-up, where Coutinho and Adam Lallana tucked in behind Raheem Sterling.
Sometimes the effect can be a slightly congested feel around the edge of the area when we attack, but it can also pay spectacular dividends. The win at Torquay is the clearest example of this, as Morris got close to Moult in the second half, heading a good close range chence wide before scoring twice, all from good service from the lone striker.
However, the benefits of this approach might have turned the tie in our favour in the first leg. After Morris had been replaced by Wes York, Jennings switched to the left and twice cut inside onto his stronger foot to fashion good shooting opportunities on the edge of the box. He will have been disappointed that he didn’t catch hold of either chance properly, but the threat was clear: thankfully Torquay failed to pay heed to the warning at Plainmoor.
The emphasis of that front three is different to what Saunders and Morrell constructed. The focus is clearly on the central striker to provide the goals: we’ve played the formation six times so far this season; Louis Moult was the central striker on four of those occasions and scored four times in those games. (The fact that in the other two games Andy Bishop didn’t hit the net illustrates what we saw last season and earlier in this one – Bishop is better suited to a 4-4-2)
The Saunders/Morrell set-up didn’t rely on the central striker. In fact the two most prolific seasons enjoyed by Wrexham strikers in the Conference were achieved by players who attacked from the wide positions of a 4-3-3: Jake Speight and Danny Wright.
Getting the wide men to come closer to the central striker might address this issue and offer a wider spread of scorers: Morris’ goals were the first scored by Wrexham wide men in a 4-3-3 this season.
With the back four looking well protected by this system, we have a foundation to build on. Hopefully the midfield rotation will help us to remain fresh and suddenly our squad looks deep: my stab at a first choice line-up could field a bench of Blaine Hudson, Wes York, Andy Bishop and two from our phalanx of midfielders if the whole squad was fit. Hopefully that’s a factor that will help us cope with the fixture congestion to come and allow us to finish the season with a late run up the table.