Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
How ironic that, after all the Summer recruitment, it turned out that a player who was already on our books was the final part of the jigsaw.
Pre-season was fascinating as Gary Mills manipulated his squad, trying players in different positions until he could find a shape that felt right. In fact, the process overlapped with the serious business of the season’s start, as I’d suggested it always has done at Mills’ previous clubs. But 141 minutes into the campaign, the key man arrived and we hit on a system which will surely be the basis for our campaign.
That was when Robbie Evans came off the bench against Torquay.
We’ve known for a long time that Evans has the potential to be something special at this club. Andy Morrell certainly recognised the same thing when he gave him the captain’s armband at a remarkably young age. Since then Evans has lacked a manager to show the same faith in his ability, though, and the signs were that Mills would be no more keen than Kevin Wilkin to give him his head.
During pre-season Evans struggled to get a start in a settled team, and didn’t even make the bench at Bromley amidst whispers that he might be deemed surplus to requirements.
How wrong that theory proved to be.
When he made his first appearance under Mills in the next match we saw the manager’s plans coalesce. Up until that point we’d played a 4-3-3 at Bromley but the balance wasn’t right, and then switched to a 4-2-3-1 against Torquay which allowed us to monopolise possession but didn’t help us create chances or protect us from the counter-attack.
Evans’ arrival brought a new balance to the team. His energy helped us to press when we lost the ball, so we were less vulnerable to the breakaway, and his running created space in the centre of the pitch. Just watch him off the ball: he keeps making darting little runs into the channel which drags men with him and creates space for Adriano Moke to drive into with the ball. When teams park the bus – and believe me, there will be plenty of sides who arrive at The Racecourse and pull the handbrake tight this season – such movement is crucial to disrupt their shape.
Connor Jennings’ goal against Torquay showed what Evans can do. A little run off the ball dragged a man away from the skipper and bought him enough time to drill home from the edge of the box.
He has maintained his excellent form – we made him man of the match against Welling for his tireless, selfless work in the Wrexham Player commentary. That match also marked one of those little moments which carry more significance than is apparent at first. By the end of the match, only one of the midfield starting trio was still on the pitch. It was Evans. Last season he started ten matches, but wasn’t on the pitch at the end of half of them. To go from a man who is seen as the fall guy when an alteration is required to the last man standing was a tacit recognition by Mills of Evans’ contribution to the side.
There are still areas for Evans to improve upon. For a player so adept at breaking into attacking positions, he ought to score more often. Three goals and four assists from 63 appearances is a statistic he’ll want to improve upon, even if 27 of those matches were started on the bench.
Also, he has succumbed to niggling injuries, and needs to overcome that problem. Last season he missed twelve games through injury and a suspension. We need him on the pitch as much as possible this season.