Looking forward to the derby has been complicated by what happened in Hampshire last Saturday. While Wrexham had the day off, Chester played a rearranged game with Eastleigh, and completely changed their shape from what they’d used for the last few games. There were injuries to contend with which might have forced Marcus Bignot’s hand, but whatever his intentions might have been before the game, he may decide to stick with his new three-at-the-back formation as it helped to earn a useful away point.
At Eastleigh, the brand new defensive formation was punctured in the opening two minutes as Chester conceded an early goal. It was a chance created because the right wing back, Reece Hall-Thompson, pushed up the pitch to press, which triggered the right-sided centre back Andy Halls stepping up into the gap he’d left behind him. However, Halls is not the fastest, and Eastleigh were able to break into the gap he’d left behind, with the Chester midfield failing to track the runner, and pull a ball back into the box which led to a goal.
This lack of pace at the back for Chester, and indeed in general around the pitch, is an issue. Against Maidstone, Halls was used as a holding midfielder, and looks uncomfortable. A lack of mobility meant he was sometimes bypassed, leaving him reluctant to attack the ball in case he left himself stranded.
A lack of mobility was an issue in central positions behind him in that match as well, as both John McCombe and Ryan Astles are strong, physical centre backs who are more than capable of defending their penalty area, but can be caught out by the ball behind them when they step up. As a result, Chester’s defensive line was often quite deep and their lines became stretched.
Although injuries might have forced Bignot’s hand, the switch to three at the back addressed some of the problems he’d been experiencing with his previous 4-1-3-2 formation. The two wing-backs, Hall-Thompson and Lathanial Rowe-Turner, both have pace and were given more license to drive forwards and cross than the full backs were in Chester’s previous shape.
Furthermore, Bignot was able to field three attacking players, with two forwards supported by Ross Hannah in the hole behind them, thus offering more goal threat.
Previously, Bignot had used, Hannah and Jordan Archer as a pair in attack, and the duo have combined well since Archer arrived from Stourbridge. Archer is good in the air and can operate as an aerial target, flicking on a good percentage of the straight long balls which are played to him, and Hannah’s experience is clear in the way he recognises early the potential to feed off Archer’s flicks, regularly making well-timed runs in behind him while the ball is in the air.
However, this partnership was broken up on Saturday as James Akintunde lined up alongside Archer. He has greater pace than the other two, and was able to run in behind the Eastleigh defence to good effect early on.
Before the switch to three at the back, Bignot utilised a defensive midfielder in front of his back four. Against Barrow and Borehamwood, this role was carried out by Lucas Dawson, and it seemed to suit him well. He read the game well, was tactically disciplined, and showed that he had a good range of passing from a deeper position, most obviously in providing an assist for Archer by threading the ball down the left channel for the striker to run onto.
There was a lack of creativity in the Maidstone game, caused to a great extent by the difficulty the three men in the second line behind the strikers had in creating chances. Certainly, a consideration of the personnel in these positions would explain why they had this problem, as none of them would normally be considered to be an out-and-out attacking midfielder or winger.
Dawson was central and although he is mobile and perhaps over-eager to hit shots from distance, as I mentioned earlier he is better suited to the role of protecting the back four. He looked comfortable at Eastleigh, as his role in a midfield pair with Kingsley James did not require him to push forwards so much.
Either side of him at Maidstone were James and Paul Turnbull, two proven midfielders at this level who were perhaps playing a little further up the pitch than was ideal. Neither have the pace to burst past full backs and provide crosses, so the aerial potential of Archer from such situations was untested.
Furthermore, both are predominantly right-footed, so when they swapped flanks after half an hour it made no real impact as no new questions were asked of the full backs: they were still faced with a left-sided player who wanted to cut in and a right-sided player who, unable to get around the outside, looked to provide continuity in possession by passing back into midfield. James possesses a powerful shot and can be dangerous when the ball falls to him on the edge of the area, but this didn’t happen at Maidstone, and was much less likely to happen once he’d switched to the left flank.
Both players pressed quite aggressively high into the opposing half when the ball was lost, with a good amount of success, but when they were by-passed, Chester were presented with problems on the counter-attack. With the wide players and strikers up the pitch, Chester could look empty in midfield, and with their centre backs reluctant to press up, there was a lot of room in which to develop a break. This led to some difficult decision-making for the defensive players, especially the full-backs, who had to gauge whether to push up and meet wide players on the break or not. This was not such an issue for Hall-Johnson as the right back has terrific pace and was able to cover the ground swiftly, but on the other flank Jordan Gough often pushed up uncertainly, concerned by the yawning gap ahead of him on the left, and disconnected himself from the centre backs.
The other problem posed by this situation was that the full backs were not overly keen on overlapping, which was a problem because Chester’s wide players weren’t able to get into crossing positions. Hall-Johnson’s pace allowed him to occasionally get ahead of the midfielder in front of him, but generally he was conservative in his positioning when Chester had the ball, as was Gough.
As I said earlier, many of these issues were addressed by the switch to three at the back last Saturday. Chester were more threatening from wide areas and were able to get more threatening players into attacking positions.
However, the attacking nature of a 3-4-1-2 means that spaces can appear in midfield and either side of the centre backs when the ball is lost in the opposing half.
Chester are a threat from set pieces. McComb and Astles in particular are very big units, and Astles in particular is able to cause problems even when free kicks from a central area are lofted into the edge of the area, as his bulk means he can win headers consistently and flick them on towards goal. Halls also possesses a long throw which can be used to pick out the centre backs at the near post.