On the first day of last season Dover came to Wrexham and posed a rare tactical conundrum. It looks like one which we will have to overcome again at The Crabble.
A year ago Dover went man-to-man with Gary Mills’ side across the pitch, and approach which teams rarely commit to so fully. It brought back memories of a remarkable match in August 2011.
Andy Morrell’s side travelled to Alfreton in fine form, so the home team formulated an extreme response, going fully man-for-man in an attempt to nullify Wrexham’s attacking threat. The result was an emphatic failure.
They were seriously compromised by the excellent movement of the visiting front three, the play-making of Lee Fowler and the adventurousness of the full backs. That fluidity pulled Alfreton’s players all over the place, while the man-for-man approach set up some mismatches which Wrexham players exploited; particularly Jake Speight, who found a cumbersome centre back following him to the wing, where he constantly burst past him.
Good movement in midfield also dragged Alfreton into some unusual shapes, opening up space which could be exploited by defenders when they were allowed time. Nat Knight-Percival was particularly effective in this regard, embarking on a number of forays deep into the opposing half as the midfield parted in front of him. One of the goals came about when Knight-Percival was able to carry the ball unchallenged to the edge of the box.
Fast forward to Dover’s trip to The Racecourse last season, and we see the same approach working much more effectively. Dover’s side were well-grooved in the approach, and Wrexham’s side lacked movement, so the away side were able to smother the match, which drifted to a soporific goalless draw.
Dover have persevered with the approach, and deployed it in both of their games so far this season.
It’s a well-established approach, and they were rewarded with a fine win and clean sheet at Hartlepool on the first day of the season. However, last Tuesday was a different matter as they suffered a surprise 2-1 loss at home to Bromley.
Bromley’s first goal came about when they were able to capitalise on the unbalanced, reactive shape of a man-to-man side out of possession. Bromley had left three men pressed up on the back four to pin them back, so when Nortei Nortey’s man was able to run beyond him Dover were faced by a four-on-four break. Once the left back Ilesanmi’s man had got past him on the wing after hitting the goal line, Bromley had a four-on-three advantage in the box and the outcome was inevitable.
The lesson to be learned for tomorrow? The fact that Wrexham’s 4-4-2 doesn’t naturally match up with Dover’s 4-3-3 automatically offers up the possibility that Athletic players will be pulled into unaccustomed areas of the pitch if they don’t choose to alter their initial shape. The movement of the likes of Marcus Kelly and Scott Boden could be crucial if Dover’s players are to be pulled out of shape, while the pace of Jack Mackreth will be an important tool as Wrexham try to change phases of play quickly to catch Dover before they can settle. In a man-to-man system, losing one man can lead to fatal breakdown.
Having said that, this is a system Dover are used to, and they have consistently exploited it to excellent effect. They are also bold enough to commit the front three up the pitch and leave them there, daring their opponents to have a go, knowing that if they fail to outflank the man-to-man system, they'll be hit on the counter. The outcome is that sides often refuse to take the gamble, leading to a cagey encounter decided by key moments when one side or the other creates an overlaod. Expect a tight tussle.