Patience is a virtue, as Akil Wright might be about to find out.
It’s not just Wright who is likely to feel frustration at his lack of first team opportunities in 2018. He signed a long term contract five days after the transfer window opened, to widespread satisfaction from the fans. They’d enjoyed the promising thrust of his play as he looked to bring energy and physicality to our misfiring midfield. However, his decision to stay wasn’t met with a chance to stake a claim for a place in the first team. Before converting his loan into a permanent deal he’d appeared in eighteen out of the twenty two games he was available for, fourteen of those times featuring from the start.
He lost his place after an injury in December, but after signing permanently he might have hoped to have got straight back into the side. That wasn’t the case. Despite being injury-free, he started just one of the next fourteen matches, and only four of the nineteen remaining games of the season, included the meaningless final match of the season.
So why were his opportunities limited directly after he’d committed himself to us? Partly he was a victim of the need to inject more creativity into the side after a first half of the season which had seen us struggle to score. We already had a ball winner in Sam Wedgbury, and Marcus Kelly was pulled inside from the flank in the hope that his greater passing range and the scope to put a more attacking option in the wide position Kelly had vacated would make us more threatening. A team which was looking to carve out more chances had no place for a Wedgbury-Wright combination which would be combative but not threatening in the opposing half.
Wright also missed out because he was clearly signed as a work in progress. His energy, strength and acceleration made him an exciting prospect, but elements of his game were still developing. His attributes often saw him surge up the pitch into promising positions, but his ability to pick the final pass at pace having broken through the lines still needed some work.
This was encapsulated in the first half at Eastleigh. Wright dominated the home side’s midfield, constantly driving through them to get into promising positions against a stretched and exposed defence, but struggled to cap those runs with the killer ball.
Wright will have been concerned that he would start this season waiting for an opportunity once more when Sam Ricketts drafted in a couple of experienced midfielders in Luke Young and Luke Summerfield, and looked to rejuvenate Nicky Deverdics. But his performance against Forest Green last Saturday suggested he might be a crucial part of our midfield set-up this season. Asked to play in a holding role, he showed terrific discipline and was our best player against higher division opposition.
Wright was never asked to fulfill that role last season, but looked a natural as he used his acceleration and strength to make a series of interceptions and break up Forest Green’s passing game. It was a revelation, and a sign that in Wright we have a player whose raw promise might be developing swiftly into something more substantial.
Quite apart from Wright’s value in the long term, he might also be a useful card to play on the opening day of the season at Dover. We have a wretched record against Athletic, and in recent years our inability to get to grips with Dover’s smothering man-to-man marking has been the key contributory factor. When we went to Crabble last season we picked a horses-for-courses side, with Mark Carrington wide on the right, Marcus Kelly on the left and Jack Mackreth partnering Scott Boden up front. It didn’t work and we didn’t try anything like it again.
The problem was that the set-up, unsurprisingly, achieved the opposite of what you’d like to do if you were setting up to disrupt a man-for-man system. Ideally, you want to pull players out of position, creating spaces in the opposing half as markers follow their men into areas of the pitch they don’t really want to go into. For the perfect execution of this approach, look back to how Dean Saunders’ side picked Alfreton apart in August 2011.
Our central line-up, with two midfielders on the wings, was static rather than fluid, and neither Carrington nor Kelly was ever going to accelerate or dribble past their man, so Dover were able to settle in their shape when they didn’t have the ball.
Tomorrow we’re likely to play a 4-3-3, and counter-intuitively, using Wright in his new position as a holding midfielder might be the key to achieving the sort of movement which could drag Dover out of shape.
Players like Deverdics and Summerfield are likely to embrace the opportunity to drift around and drag their markers out of position, and while Wright’s newly disciplined approach is what impressed most last Saturday, if he is able to harness his ability to break through the lines judiciously he could be a crucial weapon going forward. When man-to-man marking sides are pulled out of shape and spaces appear in their half, you need players in deeper positions to burst forward into those unattended areas. Ofyen the spare man is a centre back, and at Alfreton we were fortunate to have Nat Knight-Percival in that position, a player whose entire previous career had been spent in attacking positions who was therefore confident carrying the ball forward. Wright could fulfil that role: admittedly he’ll be man-marked too, but he has an explosive burst that allows him to get beyond his marker and run into the space beyond.
Of course, what I’m suggesting goes against my enthusiasm for his new-found tactical discipline. But if he’s able to choose his moments wisely and break forwards without leaving us exposed, he’ll have shown a new level of maturity and development once more. He might even be able to get into positions to show the improvements he’s made to his final ball.
Maybe it’s the rough diamond’s time to shine.