It will be interesting to see what approach Tranmere take tomorrow, after two games on the road. Their recent away games have perhaps not been the best guide to what to expect at Prenton Park. In Home games, Rovers have played a high tempo game, getting service forwards early to a target man and looking to win the ball back swiftly after a turnover. They are particularly aggressive in the tackle, led by Jay Harris who is, of course, not only well-suited to fighting for possession, but also mobile and able to hunt for the ball high up the pitch.
In their last two away matches, they have had more control of possession, and played at a lower tempo. The return to home advantage, and the fact that they failed to score in either of those games, will most likely see a return to a more in-your-face approach tomorrow.
A key change in approach at Ebbsfleet last Saturday was the omission of target man Andy Cook. Anyone who has watched Cook throughout his career will know how strong he is in the air, and anyone saw Wrexham’s game at Tranmere last season would be aware of how he can completely dominate a centre back who is not on top of his game.
In that match, Gary Mills’ last as Wrexham manager, he made the ill-fated decision to play Kai Edwards at centre back against a team containing a target man as physical as Cook. It didn’t take long for Cook to identify Edwards as a potential weak link and pull onto him whenever a long ball forward was set up. Edwards scrapped gamely, but was physically ill-equipped to cope with Cook’s size and aerial ability, and was bullied throughout the match. Edwards was never selected at centre back for Wrexham again.
In the Maidenhead match a week last Tuesday, it seemed odd that, considering the prodigious ability of Cook in the air, the direct ball to him was used sparingly. Early on, Tranmere had success from restarts by playing long balls onto Cook’s head, with both Connor Jennings and James Norwood running beyond him onto flick-ons. This tended to draw a centre back out with Cook and force the full backs to tuck in to cover, creating a lot of loose balls to contest outside the penalty area.
However, as the half wore on Jennings was withdrawn slightly and tended not to make those runs beyond Cook, so the tactic diminished in effectiveness. Furthermore, the goalkeeper consistently looked for other aerial targets, usually Norwood, who was decent in the air but nowhere near as effective as Cook, and often took the ball out of the area to clear off the floor. While Cook is comfortable bringing the ball down with his feet or chest when it arrives with a flatter trajectory, it seemed odd to deliberate by-pass his ability to dominate centre backs in the air.
Furthermore, while Tranmere are by no means a long ball team, they didn’t use Cook’s height much in open play. They were quite direct, quick to pass their way through the thirds, but this tended to be to feet. Early service from the back was often drilled to the feet of strikers, and was often surprising inaccurate.
Having not got the best out of Cook in that match, Rovers changed their approach at Ebbsfleet. Norwood was the central striker, with Connor Jennings operating to his right and Ollie Norburn to his left. This represented a major shift of emphasis: at Maidenhead, Norwood and Jennings were two genuine attackers trying to feed off Cook, but Norburn is more of a passing midfielder, and he was naturally more cautious in his attempts to get forwards and support the striker. The emphasis, naturally, was more on using Norwood’s pace to run in behind the Ebbsfleet defence, but that strategy, and hopes to get Jennings close to him, were frustrated by a red card early in the second half.
Tranmere’s shape is essentially a 3-4-3. Stephen McNulty is, of course, the central centre back and is as prodigious in individual battles as ever, dominating in the air and hard in the tackle. Having central defensive cover either side of him offers insurance against McNulty getting exposed by a quick striker, a situation Kayden Jackson was able to profitable manoeuvre in Wrexham’s last win at Prenton Park.
At Maidenhead the other two centre backs, Evan Gumbs and Ritchie Sutton, lost more headers than one would expect from them when the home side looked to play long balls which avoided McNulty. Tranmere responded by bringing Jay McEveley into the side at Ebsfleet, but he was sent off so the Gumbs-McNulty-Sutton combination is likely to be reunited against Wrexham.
Behind the centre backs, Scott Davies struggled to gain distance with his punching at Maidenhead.
The wide strikers don’t tend to look for width, but tuck in to play off the central striker. Width is offered by the wing backs: Adam Buxton on the right is more of a straight-line runner, likely to try to overlap beyond Jennings, while Liam Ridehalgh is more conservative in terms of how far forward he looks to get, but has good left-footed delivery from deeper positions.
For all the combative qualities of Harris and the reliable Jeff Hughes in the centre of midfield, the 3-4-4 leaves them in danger of being outnumbered in the middle of the pitch. On occasion, Ebbsfleet and Maidenhead were able to pass their way around them, and when the wing backs dropped too deep they ceded a lot of space in the middle of the pitch, asking the wide strikers to cover too large an area in support of the central midfielders.
It will be interesting to see which approach Micky Mellon takes tomorrow. Tranmere fans were chanting for a change to 4-4-2 at Ebbsfleet, but it seems unlikely he would cave into that sort of pressure. However, should he decide to utilise Cook’s physicality he will have to consider the ramifications in deeper positions. Harris and Hughes form a rugged central midfield duo, well suited to the task of competing to retrieve possession, but if Mellon goes for a target man with two supporting strikers he might have to disrupt that midfield partnership to accommodate Norburn, whose passing range on his right foot is impressive. He is the midfielder most likely to play accurate balls in behind defenders for Norwood to attack, but looks less effective in the advanced position he started in at Ebbsfleet.