I’ve been scratching my head this week, and not because of a seasonal infestation, although that reminds me: I really should get a plastic tree next Christmas.
At Stockport we continued a worrying trend of poor first-half performances. I make that five away games in a row that we’ve put in a poor first half and had to try and rectify it after the break.
To be fair, we often have managed to pull things around: the only goal we’ve conceded after the break since mid-October was at Torquay. Playing catch-up is no way to do business over the course of the season though.
To back up my argument, across those seven first halves we’ve not led at the break once, and were behind 4 times. Over the same period our “results” from the second half are 3 wins and 1 defeat!
Oddly, the pattern has been reversed recently at home: against Altrincham and Leamington we were comfortably the better side in the first half, but failed to take advantage and were unrecognisable after the break.
The cumulative half time score over our last 6 games is 1-8. The cumulative second half “score” over our last 10 games is 8-1. This pattern of uneven performances must come to an end.
Dean Keates’ critics think that he sets his side up too defensively at the start of the match. I really don’t think that is the intention, and often his starting lineups have looked very attacking on paper. An obvious example of this was the Altrincham game, when we probably lost control of the game because our midfield was too attack-minded.
However, the critics might be onto something. I don’t think we play the cliched “defensive“ style that Keates has been labelled with. However, I do think we set out initially to control the away games and draw the opposition’s sting.
That’s a perfectly orthodox approach to an away match, and after the fiasco at Wealdstone match it would be understandable to try to avoid getting swamped again.
So perhaps it’s more about the mentality of the team than the set up. Certainly the second-half at Stockport offered us a clear blueprint of how to go forwards, and showed that we could go to the home of one of the strongest sides in the division and dictate terms.
When the 3-5-2 system is used in an attacking manner, the wingbacks are higher up the flanks, stretching the pitch, the defensive line is high, and there’s not much space between the front and the back. That’s what we saw at Edgeley Park in the second half.
In the first half it was the exact opposite. I felt sorry for Kwame Thomas and Jordan Ponticelli, because they received virtually nothing to work on. The link between midfield and attack just wasn’t there, and our wingbacks were penned back by Stockport’s enterprise down the flanks.
Stockport didn’t play exactly the same shape as Wrexham, and a big part of their success in the first half was the ability of the attacking players in their box midfield to find space. It’s galling to reflect that the key man in this regard was Connor Jennings, a player we’d love to have back at The Racecourse.
However they did play with three at the back, and showed in the first half how attacking this formation can be, as we did in the second half.
I can’t help thinking back to our last promotion campaign. Denis Smith bounced back from relegation by adopting a three at the back formation and a particularly attacking approach. It seemed to me that he looked at the quality of the opposition and decided the best way to go about things was simply to dominate them.
The situation is similar. We are in a league which is not particularly intimidating. Torquay are top, and are the best team we’ve played so far, but I don’t think they’re going to run away with it.
The other sides we’ve played which made an impression on me were Sutton and Stockport, but we were positive against the former and battered them, and were on top of Stockport once we adopted a more attacking approach.
Keates hasn’t been overly defensive in the way he sets the side up, but when we play three at the back, our current squad seem to be vulnerable if they’re not on the front foot. We have pace and directness in our squad and would probably benefit from going for the throat from the start.
It’s when this side has been let off the leash that it looks most dangerous, and they need to cast off their inhibitions and be brave from the opening whistle. Let’s get our retaliation in first rather than wait until we’re behind to get on the front foot.