So, what went wrong?
This was certainly a stark defeat, if only because its nature was startling. For the opening quarter of the game, Wrexham’s game plan worked a treat, then a salvo of three goals turned everything on its head and the second half saw Gary Mills’ team dominate possession without looking penetrative. So how did this state of affairs come to pass?
First and foremost is the fact that Mills’ concoction is not quite ready to be taken out of the oven yet. As I suggested on the morning of the game, there are elements of his gameplan which have come together, while others are showing promise, but we’re still some way from being what Mills would want us to be. It takes time to bed in such an extreme possession-based approach, and what we saw on Saturday is a consequence of that. The opening twenty two minutes were a better reflection of the Mills model than anything I saw in pre-season, but there are still shortcomings, and they were spectacularly apparent for the rest of the game.
Racecourse legend Waynne Phillips suggested in the press box after the final whistle that the problem lies with the standard of players at Conference level: it’s hard for fifth division players to sustain such a technical style of play for a whole match.
I’d agree with him up to a point, and it’s certainly alluring to point at the three goals conceded, each of which came about through individual errors, and suggest that they came about through a lack of concentration and technique. Yet Mills fashioned sides which could keep their focus and play this way very effectively at York and Gateshead and he certainly didn’t have the scope to bring in technical players on the latter club’s budget. I’d suggest that it was the need to continue bedding in the system which led to those errors more than a fundamental flaw in the philosophy.
Indeed, for the opening period Wrexham certainly looked like they could play the way Mills had hoped. The system was fluid and possession was protected carefully. Dominic Vose, using his position on the left of the attack as a nominal starting point, drifted deep and narrow, finding pockets of space with regularity, especially in the hole behind the striker. Connor Jennings, initially playing to the left of the midfield three, and James Gray would constantly make darting runs into the space Vose vacated and Bromley were asked awkward questions as they tried to avoid their defence being stretched fatally out of shape.
Furthermore, Sean Newton was highly progressive – certainly more than Mason Watkins-Clark on the other side, and regularly drove past Vose into crossing positions. Indeed, although the caught the eye with his progressive approach, one might argue that he ought to have delivered more dangerous balls into the box considering the regularity with which he got into dangerous areas.
In midfield Adriano Moke, a surprising selection in the centre of the three, was eager and looked to carry the ball forward and inject tempo into attacks, although the fact that he is neither a ball winner nor a player with a wide range of passing made him look more suited to a role working in one of the positions either side of a deep-lying playmaker.
Jennings offered similar qualities and worked tirelessly and tenaciously, while Wes York replicated his pre-season habit of looking very bright early on, pining the Bromley left back Joe Anderson back and causing him some anxiety. Unfortunately, he also maintained his pre-season habit of fading as the game wore on.
He got the opening goal though, an uncanny replication of one of his goals on the opening day of the season at Dartford last season as he made an excellent run across the box to the near post, losing his man and meeting an excellent, incisive ball in from Vose with a deft touch.
There was an air of inevitability about the goal, although it has to be said that for all the attractive passing Wrexham exhibited, clear chances were few and far between. Still, when the goal went in defeat seemed to be a highly unlikely prospect. Wrexham looked a class or two above their hosts, and surely their control of possession would make it difficult for Bromley to claw their way back into the game. The game plan from here was simple: indeed, the possession-based game ought to be a highly effective approach once you’ve taken a lead. All you do is anaesthetise your opponents, protecting your lead by keeping the ball in their half, and wait for their patience to break or tiredness to creep in and capitalise on their inevitable errors.
Instead, the errors came at the other end.
Before looking at them, it’s perhaps worth considering an unexpected parallel between this approach and that of Andy Morrell in the second half of that phenomenal 98-point season. Something Morrell did very well, which he hasn’t enjoyed any praise for, was the way he pragmatically changed the way we played to adapt to our changing circumstances. We’d begun the season playing a similar game to the one Mills hopes to introduce, with Lee Fowler a deep-lying quarterback, splitting the central defenders and building patiently. However, the loss of Fowler at Christmas and the horrible deterioration in the Racecourse pitch meant a short-passing game was no longer the best way to go about things, so Morrell changed to a more direct approach, using himself or Danny Wright as a battering ram to rough up and tire out the opposing defence. This led to a series of games in which we didn’t look terrifically creative, but still won because we wore the opposition down and were able to score goals late on. Fifteen of our last twenty four goals that season were scored after the break: four of our nine first half goals were scored in the five minutes before the break. That’s 80% of our goals scored in the last 55% of the game. Attritional football indeed.
We’re looking to replicate that approach in outcome if not style this season: teams might repel us early on, but gradually they’ll be ground down by their lack of the ball and the constant strain of defending against us and trying to cover the gaps our movement creates. The problem is, that approach is reliant on us not giving anything away at the other end. Morrell’s side set a club record for least goals conceded in a league season. On Saturday, we were horribly incapable of keeping it tight at the back.
The opening goal was in some ways the most orthodox, and therefore the most forgiveable. Mills complained afterwards that the free kick on the flank was cheaply conceded and of course, he had a point. However, Manny Smith’s clumsy barge wasn’t in the top drawer of impetuous challenges, and it was in how we failed to deal with an uninspired long ball into the box from wide in midfield that the problem lay. The ball carried further across the crowd at the edge of the area than it ought to have done, and when the bulk of Alex Wall led to both he and Blaine Hudson falling near the ball, Smith found the easy path to safety blocked by their bodies. His hesitation was understandable but fatal and centre back Sean Francis showed impressive alertness and technique to slam the ball home.
The second goal came soon afterwards and was down to a combination of poor technique and sloppiness. It’s tempting to lay the blame for Mason Watkins-Clark’s loss on the ball on the half way line on the desire to pass the ball around at the back. However, it would be more pertinent to point out that the youngster hesitated too long in receiving the ball, inviting pressure on himself, and in such a position ought to have made the decision to release it with more alacrity. As it was he dallied, took a poor touch and was dispossessed.
Still, we ought to have got away with it: the ball into the area of slightly overhit and Hudson ought to have dealt with it, but was guilty of hesitation, possibly because he wasn’t aware of the close proximity of Wall. He certainly was when the striker lunged in to poke home.
Understandably, Wrexham did not respond well to this double blow. They needed to get into the changing room and have Mills press the reset button as their faith in the possession game seemed to waver. Instead, rocking in the path of a buoyant Bromley, they conceded a goal which had its genesis in poor decision-making.
As I alluded to earlier, in a central role Moke is always liable to carry the ball to a team mate rather than pass it to him over any distance. On this occasion he was played into trouble by Watkins-Clark and did well to extricate himself with a sharp turn. He was on the half way line and we had a lot of players committed forwards, including Smith who had stayed up in support of an attack for a surprising length of time. Apparently experiencing a burst of adrenaline after his skilful piece of play, Moke burst forwards into the congested heart of the Bromley midfield, carrying it to the edge of their box where he ran out of steam and into trouble.
Ali Fuseini, the impressive Bromley holding midfielder, took the ball off him and immediately showed what he ought to have done, surging through the centre and then playing the ball at the correct time rather than over-egg the pudding, to set up a three-on-three break. It’s a situation sides practice for regularly and Bromley were clinical in their execution of the opportunity, but although media reports have rightly praised their clinical finishing in comparison to Wrexham’s, there was another, more tactical factor at play for this goal.
In the early stages Bromley had pressed deep into Wrexham’s half in search of the ball, leaving what would have been fatal gaps at the back. Indeed, as early as the second minute they were fortunate to survive as Wrexham passed their way around the press and got into the inviting gaps which had appeared behind the home defence. York was unable to beat the keeper from a tight angle, and Bromley clearly reassessed their approach.
From then on they didn’t pursue Wrexham into their own half, opting instead to keep their shape in the own half and allow Wrexham to pass the ball around in front of them. However, they were bold enough to start pressing soon after the ball had passed the halfway line, and to allow their attacking quartet to remain in that advanced position. This meant that when Moke lost the ball, and with Smith stranded, the three-on-three break was on.
The goal would not have come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching the pre-season friendlies. An alarming constant in those games was how open Wrexham have been to the counter-attack once the ball is lost. They would get plenty of players into attacking positions as a consequence of their short-passing, the long periods of possession and deep-lying defensive block adopted by the other side inviting us to camp in the opposing half, and then be wide open when we lost the ball, even if the turnover took place deep in the opposing half.
The Stoke match was the most spectacular illustration of this, of course, but one ought not to worry too deeply when a Premier League side is able to punish you clinically on the break. However, the situation occurred too often to be attributed to a gulf in quality between the two sides: this issue of shape is no doubt something Mills is working on diligently.
Wrexham emerged from the break with Joel Logan on for the unhappy Watkins-Clark and Javan Vidal, whose struggle to tame the ball when it was played into him as he made a series of runs to the edge of the box had led to a frustrating first half, back at right back.
Logan would impress, offering pace and directness down the left, and he clearly had the beating of Emmanuel Udoji, who had impressed in the first period with no direct winger to deal with as Vose drifted deep. Vose himself was now playing in the midfield three and continued to probe, going close with a fine 25 yard strike which, in terms of second half efforts, was bettered only by a late, clean strike from Logan which was acrobatically saved.
However, Vose appeared to tire as the game wore on and found it difficult to create an opening as the game settled into a turgid pattern with Wrexham passing without pace or tempo and Bromley maintaining excellent shape to deter progressive passing.
It was disappointing to see Vose go off, but perhaps understandable as Wrexham began to go more direct in the hope of breaking Bromley down. That change of approach occurred in phases, as first Jamal Fyfield was introduced as a holding midfielder in place of Gray, who had struggle to obtain service in the box. Fyfield, like Logan, impressed. His forthright play won the ball on a number of occasions and he injected a little more pace into Wrexham’s passing with his more vertical use of the ball. The 4-2-3-1 adopted on his arrival might have profited from Vose sitting deeper alongside him, but instead he featured in the hole and struggled to make an impact, while Moke in the deeper midfield role was notable to make play from deep.
As a consequence, and as Jennings, now up front, was suffering from the same lack of service which had frustrated Gray, Mills made another radical change, switching to 4-4-2 with Kayden Jackson and York up front and Jennings and Logan on the flanks.
The passing now became much more direct, indeed perhaps too direct as straight balls often carried straight through to the keeper. Both strikers lacked the physical strength to trouble the centre backs, especially the outstanding Rob Swaine, but the change of shape did cause problems for Bromley as Wrexham created overloads on the right through Vidal’s adventurous running – he and Jennings were able to combine to get behind the defence with surprising ease – while Logan continued to stretch the defence on the other flank.
However, it was too little too late. At half time ex-Charlton keeper Nicky Johns, who was doing the PA statistics and was a neutral observer, told me how massively impressed he was with Wrexham. Indeed, he was on the horns of a dilemma – he had to submit half time ratings for each player and was struggling with the fact that he wanted to award five out of ten to half a side which was leading 3-1! His admiration for Wrexham’s style and quality on the ball was manifest, but there are serious lessons to be learned from a game in which we can look so clearly superior yet emerge badly beaten. Until the slack errors which led to Bromley’s goals are eradicated, there will be a lot of work to be done at Collier’s Park to bed in the Mills project.