The bottom line when it comes to Macclesfield is that they have survived the traumas of the early part of the summer impressively well.
Defeat in the FA Trophy final was followed by a procession of senior players heading for the Moss Rose exit – only four of the squad at Wembley remain at the club – and for a while fans of The Silkmen might have been worried as quality haemorrhaged out without many players of note coming in.
However, John Askey’s squad has pulled together nicely in recent weeks, and look capable of making another tilt at the play-offs.
It’s difficult to get too clear a handle on how a side will line up for the first game of the season, especially after so much upheaval, but we can draw certain conclusions from pre-season formations, Askey’s previous preferences and the nature of the players he has brought in.
Wrexham fans certainly had plenty of scope to examine how Askey likes his teams to operate last season, as his plans were surely executed to perfection in the two 3-0 beatings Macclesfield handed us!
He tends to favour 4-3-3 or some variation of that shape, with the flexibility to switch to a 4-2-3-1 if necessary. His favoured iteration of 4-3-3 features a pronounced midfield anchor to allow the central midfielders to break forwards. Danny Whitaker is particularly adept at getting into dangerous positions, but Wrexham fans don’t need to be told that: with five goals against us from midfield, he is the third highest scorer past The Dragons since we dropped into the National League.
Askey’s sides often create space for the attacking bursts of the likes of Whitaker by fielding strikers who are happy dropping deep to link up play, inviting centre backs to follow him and be caught out of position. Chris Holroyd did this to perfection at The Racecourse last December. It’s no coincidence that two of the trio of Macclesfield midfielders got on the scoresheet in that match.
Askey has accumulated a number of mobile strikers over the Summer. Both Scott Wilson, signed from Eastleigh, and ex-Dover forward Tyrone Marsh are fast and like to run behind defences. Those qualities should stretch opposing sides and create more space for the midfielders to move the ball around, although it’s likely one of the duo will start on the wing.
Whitaker’s flexibility is valuable to Askey as he looks to vary his side’s shape. He can break forwards from a midfield three, play off the striker in a 4-2-3-1, or cut in onto his right foot from the left.
At the back, left-sided centre back George Pilkington is a class act at this level. Rugged, aggressive in the tackle and sound on the ball, he is a key component of a solid back four.
Two seasons ago, in a goalless draw at Moss Rose, we caught a rare glimpse of Pilkington under duress when a direct supply to Kayden Jackson, either direct from deep or via the head of target man Mark Beck, allowed the striker to out-pace Pilkington and get in behind the Macc defence. However, the likely lack of an out-and-out sprinter in the Wrexham starting eleven, married to the nous of the experienced centre back, makes it unlikely we’ll see a repetition. Having said that, perhaps a dart at Pilkington off the bench by Ntumba Massanka could reap its reward late on when the game is stretched.
Askey seems to have accumulated a large amount of central midfielders in his squad, which should come as no surprise because he favours a possession-based approach where possible. Therefore, he has brought in plenty of players who are comfortable on the ball, and there are plenty of candidates to fill the defensive role in the centre of the pitch. Mitch Hancox showed quality in the role at The Racecourse last season, but he will have to survive any temptation Askey might have to field a shiny new signing in that position.
Mobility is key when Macclesfield click. It’s not uncommon, once they’ve established control of the ball and are able to commit bodies forward against a deeply-entrenched defence, to see the two more advanced central midfielders push wide. Their level of fluidity is such that they sometimes even do so on the same flank, as was seen after a quarter of an hour of the match last December, when both Whitaker and Kingsley James worked their way over onto the left wing, creating an overload with the left winger and left back which led to a cross that Holroyd scooped over the bar from close range.
The freedom to push up granted to the central midfielders by a midfield anchor man isn’t just restricted to when Macclesfield are in possession. As the example below from the match at Moss Rose in September shows, the two central midfielders are often used to press high up the pitch, looking to create an early turn-over of possession. It’s quite an unusual approach for a 4-3-3, as you’d usually expect the wide strikers to try to press rather than leave a potential gap in the middle of the pitch, and Wrexham might look to use their full backs as their regular out-balls if Macclesfield’s wide men allow them space.
In those wide positions, of course, could be some familiar faces. You’d expect Elliott Durrell to make his debut on one of the flanks – he has been used on both wings in pre-season. His delivery makes set pieces a threat, even from deep positions, and his ability to whip the ball in with his right foot with quality also means he can deliver dangerously from withdrawn positions.
Gime Touré has also been used both wide and through the middle in friendlies, and we’ve seen his pace and eagerness to run with the ball at close quarters this Summer. He offers something similar, either wide or through the middle, to Wilson and Marsh: you could imagine how, if Macclesfield are able to get the ball down and control possession, they could exploit the mobility of these strikers, with their pace opening up the possibility of stretching the game by turning the centre backs.
And finally a word for the most obvious ex-Dragon. Shwan Jalal makes an immediate return to The Racecourse having shown in pre-season that his shot-stopping ability is as sharp as ever. A string of fine saves in the win over Bury stand out, but the fact that he shone in those matches suggests that, having undergone a season of upheaval and drawn some key signings in quite late in the Summer, The Silkmen are still looking to find the ideal balance in their side.
Macclesfield look like a side which could make an impact in the National League, although the range of similar players in midfield and up front means there might be a couple of week of bedding down required before Askey has sorted out his most effective configuration. Wrexham will certainly hope they will need a couple of weeks before they get into their stride!