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.
When you think of the possession-based style Gary Mills favours it’s easy to see why a player like Dom Vose appeals to him. But his system of play can’t operate if he packs the side full of such playmakers. That’s why, despite not obviously fitting into such a philosophy, Wes York might turn out to be a key figure in Wrexham’s season.
The style of play Mills favours has always required attacking width to stretch play and create space for players in central or deeper positions. Think of Pep Guardiola’s great sides: at Barcelona he had Messi, Sanchez and Pedro; at Bayern he boasts Robben and Ribery. The father of tiki-taka, Marcelo Bielsa, might have been more willing to take risks with possession, but his extraordinary Athletic Bilbao side was built around early switches to the flanks to create overloads, the interplay of Susaeta and Iraola on the right and Aurtenetxe and Muniain on the left being as crucial as any part of the side.
York has great natural attributes, particularly his pace, but is a force of nature. Last season he influenced matches intuitively rather than carefully reading the game. This time round, he already is looking a more rounded player: his assist for Javan Vidal’s goal is proof of that.
One might think this means he wouldn’t have fitted into what is, by definition, a prescriptive style of play. When a team is committed to a precise pattern of play it usually required rigidity and discipline, even if the expression of those qualities can appear quite fluent.
However, a glance at lower division sides which have looked to adapt to a possession-based style of play suggests that the opposite is true. You’d think such a sophisticated approach requires a high quality playing staff. Guardiola can push the boundaries of the game because he has always had a range of tactically flexible and technically gifted players at his disposal. You’d think that if you try to replicate the style of such sides with inferior players their inferior ball retention and game intelligence will lead to catastrophe.
Certainly Dean Saunders saw things that way in the early days of his time at Wrexham when he bemoaned the ability of Conference footballers to respond to his Premier League coaching methods.
Perhaps Saunders was grabbing hold of the wrong end of the stick though. Rather than clear out a squad because they can’t execute his plan, a coach can work on the players to bring about an improvement. Certainly the way Swansea rose up the leagues playing a continental-style passing game was an eye-opener; the fluency of York and Gateshead under Mills was jaw-dropping. Here were fifth tier players – part-timers in Gateshead’s case – playing with a sophistication many top sides struggle to grasp.
So good coaching leads to players reaching new heights. Mills, by the look of his CV, is certainly a good coach, and York looks to me like a talent benefitting from a wise guiding hand to knock off a couple of rough edges and help him to capitalise fully on his ability. Is this the start of a beautiful relationship?