Despite the turmoil off the pitch, Chester have fielded a settled side over the last four games. They made two outfield changes for last Tuesday’s home defeat to Dover, and before then the only change they’d made across the previous three games was Matty Waters replacing Craig Mahon on the right flank.
Their side underwent an upheaval four games ago, after losing to a Woking side which had to play over half an hour with ten men. Some of those changes were enforced as a number of players left the club: Kingsley James left for a loan spell at Barrow; Reece Hall-Johnson’s loan spell ended and, despite wanting to hold onto him, Chester had to let him go back to Grimsby; Shepherd Murombedzi signed for Brackley; Tom Shaw, who started the season as assistant manager, moved to Tamworth; fringe player Wade Joyce was released and on loan goalkeeper Sam Hornby was recalled early from his loan last week, so either Andrew Firth, on loan from Liverpool, will play, having made his debut in senior football last Tuesday, or Will Jääskeläinen, on loan from Crewe, will play in the second senior match of his career, the first being a 5-0 defeat in the FA Cup last November to Stevenage Borough while on loan at Nantwich.
Chester have shown a greater reliance on youth this season, partly because of their financial problems, with Waters, James Jones and Tom Crawford all getting opportunities.
With one win and two draws from their last ten games, Chester’s off-field problems have clearly had an effect on the pitch. It’s been 11 games since they kept a clean sheet, in a 1-0 win at Ebbsfleet last January, and since that match they’ve lost their last four away games.
Chester have conceded the third highest number of goals in the division, and are second-lowest scorers. Having said that, one in seven of their overall total came in a three game spell which ended last Saturday, as they scored five times in those matches, so they appear to be more dangerous going forward than earlier in the season.
They were leading at Dagenham and Redbridge with five minutes left two games ago, a game they went on to lose 3-2: if they’d held on they’d have earned six points from nine, which would have taken them to within three points of safety. However, since then they suffered a 2-0 home reverse to Dover.
Last Tuesday’s match against Dover was probably not the most useful guide to how Chester will line up. Faced with the unique challenge of counteracting Dover’s man-to-man system, Marcus Bignot made changes, both to his starting eleven and through second half substitutions, which he seems unlikely to replicate in the derby.
He changed from his usual 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, introducing Harry White as a striker alongside Jordan Archer. This offered a second aerial target, but Chester tended not to be drawn into hitting long balls to the strikers, referring to try to pass through midfield. However, they were smothered by Dover’s smothering approach, and went behind twenty minutes into the second half.
Bignot’s response was bold, replacing his left back with striker Ross Hannah and switching to a three at the back system which saw Hannah playing behind the front two and Dom Vose in a midfield two, albeit partly protected by wing-backs who played high up the pitch and looked to tick in. It was a remarkably open system, and a brave attempt to take the game to Dover tactically, but within two minutes of the change Dover got behind the left wing-back to force an own goal from Ryan Astles.
As a late gamble, Bignot made an even braver alteration when he replaced centre back Andy Halls with a wide player, Craig Mahon, and switched to a shape which was roughly a 4-3-3 but was designed to take risks and hope that Dover’s man-marking wouldn’t create overloads. Matty Waters and Mahon were the full backs, but pushed up the pitch, leaving the centre backs isolated. It’s impossible to think Chester could start with either of those second half formations on Sunday.
Normally, Chester play a 4-2-3-1, with the left-sided attacking player more advanced than his counterpart on the right. This will be no surprise to Wrexham fans, as the left-sided player is Dom Vose, whose attacking potential is as clear as ever.
As we all know, Vose is a potent threat cutting inside from the left flank. He likes to use the left back’s overlapping run as a decoy to pull cover away from him so he can cut inside and try a shot with his right foot. However, as he consistently showed during his time at Wrexham, he can use his left foot too, and will mix things up, sometimes going round the outside of the full back.
Vose was often criticised while at Wrexham for a lack of work rate when the opposition had the ball. At Dagenham he would tuck inside to pick up Dagenham’s extra man in midfield, but would be quick to look to join attacks when Chester regained possession, meaning he could be caught up the pitch when they lost the ball. With Vose tucking in to cover the middle of the pitch, the overlap was open for the Dagenham right back, and a switch of play made it easy to overload Myles Anderson, the Chester left back.
Vose can offer a useful out ball to start a counter-attack, as was shown in an incident during the Chester match where he stayed up the pitch in a lot of space while his side defended. However, this was reliant on the responsibility of Ross Hannah, who dropped back to cover for Vose, to avoid being caught a man short in defence.
Chester can mix things up, and often look to pass the ball through midfield. However, their target man, Jordan Archer, is perfectly capable of winning the ball in the air when they play it forwards, and often looks to hold centre backs off and use his chest. Playing off him, the experienced Ross Hannah is good at timing his runs off the target man.
When Vose tucks in to become an extra man in midfield while Chester are in possession, Hannah is able to push up, filling the gap Vose has created on the left and making Chester’s shape look more like a 4-3-3.
Tom Crawford, the left-sided of the double pivot, is a hard-working central midfielder who does a lot of work in front of his back four and is quite tidy with the ball at his feet. The other central midfielder, Gary Roberts, is a little more likely to push higher up the pitch. However, neither central midfielder seems to have been instructed to sit in front of the back four, and Dagenham created a chance when the midfielders Crawford and Roberts picked up dropped deep. Both Chester midfielders followed them up the pitch, creating space in front of the back four which created a shooting opportunity.
The full backs are not particularly keen to get forward: Andy Halls lacks the pace to commit himself too high up the pitch, while Myles Anderson is often conservative in his positioning as he needs to be prepared to cover for Vose. However, Anderson will overlap to provide a decoy for Vose when he cuts inside, taking a defender away from him.
At the back Chester have an aggressive pair of centre backs, but there’s a lack of pace in the centre of defence, particularly in the case of Ryan Astles.
This makes them reluctant to push their defensive line too high up the pitch, meaning the pitch can become stretched and it can be difficult for them to press efficiently. It will be interesting to see whether, in the intense atmosphere of a derby, they will be drawn into pressing higher up the pitch, dragging the back line up the pitch.
In terms of depth up front, James Akintunde and Harry White can augment Archer and Hannah. Before the Dover game, both had been restricted to late appearances off the bench in recent games. Akintunde offers greater pace than Hannah and Archer, and has been regularly used in as a late replacement for the last 10-15 minutes.
Debutant goalkeeper Andrew Firth made his senior debut last Tuesday, and could do nothing to prevent either of Dover’s goals. He also had to contend with the excellent set piece delivery of Mitch Brundle, who dropped a series of corners on the edge of a crowded six yard box. One of those corners delivered the first goal, and although Firth couldn’t have been expected to come for it, he tended not to look to attack Brundle’s corners, leaving them for his centre backs.
Gary Roberts tends to be Chester’s set piece taker, taking corners from either side and free kicks. Against Dover, with a lot of height in the side, he had plenty of targets and varied his delivery. Vose will offer for the short corner, and at Dagenham took a quick surprise corner himself. Roberts, Vose and Hannah all tried shots from free kicks on Tuesday.
Astles is a threat from set pieces, his sheer bulk meaning it is difficult to beat him in the air, even when delivery is poor or straight. He also goes forward to offer himself as a near post target for throws, especially from Andy Halls, who can get decent distance.