At last, five weeks into his return to The Racecourse, Dean Keates has had a week to work with his players. Our remarkable accumulation of midweek fixtures, due in part to our participation in that Scottish thing, with the unexpected addition of needing two bites of the cherry to see off Chesterfield, has meant Keates and Andy Davies haven’t had a free week to work with their players until now.
Considering that, the improvement they’ve achieved with the squad is pleasing. Our shape looks much better when we haven’t got the ball, and as a consequence the goals against column is starting to improve. Under Keates we’ve already kept as many clean sheets this season as we did under Bryan Hughes and Brian Flynn, in exactly half as many games, and we’ve also matched their total number of wins.
Conceding at a rate of under one goal a match (7 have gone past us in 8 matches) is almost twice as good as our rate of concession before Keates arrived, when we let in 25 goals in 16 games.
The most striking improvement in the side has been the distances between players. Since we switched to a 4-3-3 at Torquay, we’ve looked a lot more compact when we haven’t had the ball. The replacement of Adam Barton with Luke Young has been instrumental in this.
Barton is an orthodox defensive midfielder, sitting in front of the defence looking to break things up. Young, as the deepest of the midfield three, clearly has a defensive responsibility, but his natural athleticism means he pushes the midfield trio into the opposing half, pressing aggressively. This has been supported by our back four pushing up a little more. We’re playing higher up the pitch and keeping sides at arm’s length.
This was particularly apparent in the opening hour at Torquay. I’m reluctant to describe our 1-0 defeat as a miscarriage of justice, because our failure to take a series of easy chances was why we failed to earn anything from a game we’d dominated. However, the only goal of the game came completely out of the blue: when we failed to pen Torquay in their own half, we defended the penalty area well and genuinely didn’t look like we’d concede. Admittedly, we conceded chances after then, but that was because we were taking risks in search for an equalizer.
Against Bromley our improvement received its reward. The work rate and organisation was outstanding, and as a result we emerged with a deserved win over the side which was top of the table. It was reminiscent of the win over Forest Green Rovers in Keates’ first spell in charge, as we executed a game plan to perfection to defeat the league’s top team.
There are plenty of issues still to be addressed, of course. We’re still in the relegation zone, and can’t afford to be too optimistic until we’re well clear of danger. Adding attacking power would go a long way towards achieving that: only once in our last 76 league matches has a Wrexham player scored twice, when Ben Tollitt got both goals at Borehamwood in February.
Keates is building from the back, though, and the increased stability that has brought us, despite lacking time to work with the players in training, is genuinely encouraging.