It seems odd to say it, but looking at Gateshead’s side is almost like seeing how this season could have been for Wrexham. After all, they started the season with the same number of players from Gary Mills’ 2015-16 squad as we did!
I’ll get repetitive stain injury soon from going on about the damage Mills did to us this season, but it’s fair to ask how Dean Keates would have handled last Summer’s comings and goings if he’d been appointed at the end of last season. I know that wasn’t going to happen, but it’s an intriguing thought.
It hasn’t taken long for Keates to impress on us that he’s a better judge of a player than his predecessor. Admittedly, some of the Summer’s acquisitions were silly enough to make anyone look like a wise judge in comparison, but still, Keates’ methodical approach to picking the right man has been impressive.
Manny Smith returns to a guaranteed warm welcome tomorrow, and surely Keates wouldn’t have shown the door to him. Very few, in their right mind, would! Smith’s contribution to his first season with us, under Kevin Wilkin, was outstanding. He hit remarkable heights of consistency, never mind durability.
The following season, under Mills, was less happy. However, Smith wasn’t to blame for this. He is extremely good as a centre back in the middle of a back four: Mills must have at least started the season aware of this, as he picked Smith in his best position for the first eight games of the season. Yet then he switched him to right back. Where do I start saying how inexplicable this decision was?
The defence had been looking okay: we’d conceded nine goals in those eight games, but three were in the opening day catastrophe at Bromley, in which Smith was just about the only member of the back four who wasn’t culpable. There was no need to make a sudden, root and branch reform of the defensive unit, but with hindsight this was one of the early signs that Mills was fond of ripping things up and starting again with staggering frequency. We were in fourth place when he decided to switch things around, pushing Smith to right back. We won two of our next nine.
It was bewildering to see Smith shoved out to full back when he was clearly the best central defender we had. Furthermore, he’s not one of these adaptable centre backs equally happy playing wide. Pushing forwards wasn’t his thing, and being left exposed on the flank wasn’t something he was comfortable with either. During his spell at right back he was clearly a square peg in a round hole.
Eventually Mills relented, but that didn’t mean building a defence around putting his best defender in his best position. Instead, Mills went for a back three, which again left Smith looking uncomfortable on the right of the trio. Without a full back outside him. Smith was a quality player struggling to adapt to a position which didn’t suit him once more.
The stats speak for themselves. When Smith played as a centre back in a back four we conceded a goal every 86.25 minutes last season. When he played at right back that figure deteriorated spectacularly to a goal every 63 minutes, and when he was a central defender in a back three we did even worse, letting in a goal every hour! To put that into perspective, this season we’ve conceded every 75.3 minutes!
Yet remarkably, Mills selected him as often out of position as he did in the right spot: he started 23 games in the middle of a back four and 23 somewhere else!
I think these figures show what a missed opportunity last season was. We finished it in eighth place, but how many points did we squander by not doing the obvious thing and making the most of the players we had? What a shame Smith didn’t get a chance to play at The Racecourse under a manager who sees things with clarity.
This is 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.