Gateshead are high up the table for a reason. A well-balanced team, they have pace and creativity in forward positions and will pose a threat to Wrexham’s well-marshalled defence.
Neil Aspin has worked through his options in the course of the first three matches of the season, and having tested his squad in serious competition, seems to have developed a shape which suits them.
In their opening game of the season they played a 4-3-3 at Woking but came up against a manager who is adept at reading the game and finding decisive space, as we know to our cost: last season former boss Garry Hill cleverly tinkered with his shape, leaving a wing back high up the pitch to create an overload behind Jordan Evans, which led to Woking scoring two late goals against us. In this match, new boss Anthony Limbrick found space to the left of Gateshead’s narrow midfield three, leaving right back Theo Vassell outnumbered as the Gateshead defence was stretched laterally, leaving defensive midfielder Fraser Kerr too much ground to cover.
The outcome was a situation where Gateshead were vulnerable to overloads. That happened for the first goal when Jamal Fyfield stepped up to challenge for a throw and Woking poured in behind him, and for the second when Vassell had to come narrow to cover his centre backs, leaving space outside him which Joe Ward broke into to score.
For their second match against Guiseley, Aspin stuck to a 4-3-3 but shuffled his personnel with Russell Penn, who played on the right of the midfield three at Woking, dropped into the central role to provide an important piece of the jigsaw.
Despite being the better side, they had to rely on a header from a corner to earn the win though, and Aspin altered things again for last Saturday’s match, with impressive results.
A switch to a 3-5-2 against Torquay yielded a 3-0 win and a dominant performance. With Dover having enjoyed success against Wrexham after switch to three at the back themselves, surely Aspin will be inclined to stick to his new formation.
There’s a nice balance to the way Gateshead set up their 3-5-2. The wing backs hold very high positions whenever possible, and are direct and quick in their approach. The combination of further pace from Daniel Johnson, now freed from a wide position to run centrally, and height from Jordan Burrow, who is no slouch himself when running at his man, means there’s no shortage of passing options available in front of Paddy McLaughlin, a creative midfielder with a genuine range of pass.
Of course, having so much scope to attack areas ahead of the ball means The Heed are in danger of leaving themselves exposed at the back on the counter, but that’s where Penn is crucial. He could easily have been playing on the opposing side tonight: his discipline as the deepest lying of the three central midfielders was crucial to how Gateshead operated on Saturday. He is able to spring counters from deep with his long passing, and drops back to augment the back three when there is a turnover high up the pitch.
Penn’s role in that match was much deeper than it was against Guiseley. It was reminiscent of what Noe Baba did for Macclesfield on the opening day of the season from a defensive midfield role. His spectacular winner is irrelevant, even though it turned out to be the winner; his value came in being a deep-lying option in midfield, always available to keep the ball moving if space was restricted higher up the pitch. If Wrexham allow Penn space, he has the vision to pull the strings from the centre of the pitch, but if they ask Scott Boden to drop off and occupy his space they run the risk of leaving the other striker isolated.
Gateshead use the strength of Burrow in the air well. Apart from encouraging their wing-backs to deliver crosses, both McLaughlin and Callum Williams possess long throws. However, don’t be mislead into thinking Gateshead are a long ball team. While they’re willing to look for Burrow early because with two strikers he’s never isolated, they are more likely to look for a slightly less direct transition to give the wing backs time to get into advanced positions.
Gateshead might be a side against whom a high press will bring dividends. Once they have the wing backs in advanced positions they can’t afford to lose the ball in deep areas, as it’s then too easy to bypass Penn and run at the back three. Of course, pushing high up the pitch will bring its own risks, with Johnson able to run in behind the defence, but Wrexham had difficulty breaking down deep defences against Macclesfield and Dover, and might gamble in order to entice Gateshead’s wide men forward.
The other obvious area for Wrexham to look to exploit is the flanks. Naturally, a 3-5-2 leaves the possibility of a man over on the flanks, and the combination between James Jennings and Marcus Kelly was a feature of pre-season, while Jack Mackreth has already shown what he can do when he isolates a full back. If Mackreth plays on the right, might Wrexham be bold and ask him to “cheat” and stay high up the pitch, ready for the swift counter into the space behind Scott Barrow? That might suit Wrexham’s midfield personnel with Kelly tucking in. That would serve a dual purpose: to counteract Gateshead’s extra man in midfield; and to create space outside him for Jennings to overlap into once the ball has been won.
The defensive solidity which Kevin Roberts brings to the right back role might encourage that approach as Wrexham might decide it’s worth risking him being left one-on-one with Barrow to facilitate Mackreth being able to run into space behind the wing back.
This will be a fascinating tactical contest between a side which, through trial and error, appears to have found an effective balance, and one which is looking to find a little more creative edge without compromising its solid defensive shape.