The Back Three: Dean’s Flexible Friend

It might only be a temporary fix, but Dean Keates has squeezed some crucial points out of our recent fixtures with a change of formation.

Playing three at the back has allowed Keates a level of flexibility when it comes to his attacking approach, and the ten goals we’ve scored in the six games we’ve played with that system suggested we were profiting from that approach. Maybe more impressive is the fact that we won four of those games by a two-goal margin, having previously not won a single league game by more than one goal since April.

The switch initially allowed Keates to field a two-man attack at Eastleigh, with Bobby Grant finally relieved from his thankless task of battering ram and able to drop off and face goal. He’s much happier in that role and was able to find lots of space between the lines as the home defence, frightened of Omari Patrick’s pace, dropped off.

Four days later Keates was cute enough to make a subtle change to a winning team, with devastating results. Solihull Moors was a much more formidable challenge, but in changing to a 3-4-3, Keates negated their game plan.

Solihull like to get the ball forwards early and create relentless pressure on the opposing defence, whipping balls into the box which are difficult to defend and, therefore, are not properly cleared, so their full backs can immediately swing another ball in higher up the pitch. By doing this, they pen their opponents in their penalty area and squeeze the life out of them.

They couldn’t do it at The Racecourse, though. By pushing Patrick through the middle and flanking him with Grant and Paul Rutherford, Keates spread his attacking options across the pitch and asked them to press high in the Solihull half. The result was the visitors’ full backs couldn’t get high up the pitch, or deliver the ball early, because they were under so much pressure.

Consequently, they didn’t turn up in the first half, we turned our domination into a two goal lead, and defended it well after the break, when we reverted back to a 3-5-2 to protect our goal.

The Chorley match saw a third, intriguing iteration of Keates’ attacking options. The return to fitness of JJ Hooper allowed him to field a striker who wants to run in behind the opposing defence and stretch the game. With the Chorley defenders having to drop off to cover his runs, space opened up between the lines which Grant, playing narrow on the left, and Devonte Redmond, similarly positioned on the right, could prompt from.

There were flaws to the system – when Grant attacked down the left we looked rather empty in the box, as Redmond is hardly the sort of attacking option who is going to dominate in the air when crosses are flung into the area.

However, the benefit to Redmond was clear as he enjoyed comfortably his best game in a Wrexham shirt. Relishing the opportunity to drift into half-spaces and play through balls to Hooper, he produced two sublime assists in the opening 11 minutes, and nearly teed the striker up for his hat trick in the second half with a vicious drilled cross.

So, playing this formation has allowed us to open defences up in a variety of ways at home. However, until New Year’s Day, the defensive stability we’ve enjoyed at The Racecourse with a three-man defence hadn’t been replicated on the road, with the exception of the Eastleigh game.

At The Racecourse we’ve only conceded a late Chorley consolation with three at the back, but in away games we’ve folded disappointingly against a series of relegation rivals. The absence of Akil Wright has been a major factor in our vulnerability in away games. Wright was particularly impressive against Solihull, when his work rate was phenomenal. At Eastleigh, both goals came from his aggressive approach when out of possession. Without his endeavour, we’ve struggled on the road since changing formation.

At Chorley, Keates switched things around once again without deviating from his back three. His selection was always going to be a game of poker with Jamie Vermiglio: having sprung a surprise on him a week earlier, would he stick to a system he knew would work or switch things round again? The answer was a front two of Hooper and Patrick, with Grant in the hole, and the outcome was an overdue away win against a relegation rival.

Despite the loss of Shaun Pearson before kick-off, the defence looked solid. We’ve kept three clean sheets in the six league games we’ve played with three at the back, having kept three all season up until the change of shape.

Of course, analysis of Keates’ defensive system might turn out to be academic. This month he might recruit with a completely different style of play in mind. However, the brief uplift in home results which playing three at the back produced could have earned us crucial points as we wait for the overhaul.

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