Maidstone might only have two points so far this season, but they shouldn’t be underestimated. Their last point, earned on Tuesday, was an excellent result against in-form Aldershot: the first time anyone has taken points from the league leaders.
They have had to start the season with a tough run of fixtures: we’ve seen how competitive Maidenhead are, and they held The Stones to a draw on the first day thanks to a late equaliser; then they lost away to two sides expected to be contenders in Ebbsfleet and Orient.
They were unfortunate in those matches: although astute substitutions allowed Maidenhead to finish strongly against them, The Stones ought to have finished the game off by then. The two subsequent defeats saw United defend solidly, and both games were scoreless at the break.
At Orient they played with a very fluid 4-1-4-1 which often saw the wide midfielders take more defensive responsibility than the two central midfielders, who were more likely to offer support to the lone striker. However, it was something of a reactive formation which didn’t really give them much of a basis from which to push on and ask questions of the home team, but they held them at bay for an hour before falling to a 2-0 defeat.
The extent to which they took a safety-first approach is illustrated in the fact that, after 23 minutes, their full backs had only touched the ball four times in the Orient half, as they sat in behind the wide midfielders, never offering an overlap and often maintaining the rare sight of a four-man backline in their own half when United had possession.
Although they showed admirable defensive solidity in that game, they won’t take that approach tomorrow. The Aldershot game saw them adopt a more positive approach despite their opponents’ excellent form, going into the match with a 4-4-2 diamond.
It was an approach which not only allowed them to field an extra striker, but also gave more encouragement to Jai Reason to break forwards from the hole. Even when they went three up front after conceding late on, Reason was still able to make a run beyond them in the closing minutes from his new positions on the right of a midfield three.
The forwards are notable for their energy, particularly Delano Sam-Yorke, who often tracks across to pressure midfielders and makes in-to-out runs to try to open up space inside him for Reason and Joe Pigott. They’re both solid in the air, allowing Maidstone to mix things up when required.
The diamond is also notable for its diligence, and the game might well be decided by the clash of the two different configurations of a midfield four in the middle of the pitch. Maidstone no longer have Dan Sweeney, who was outstanding as a midfield regulator when the sides clashed in Kent last season, as he has gone to Barnet. However, Reece Prestedge is a disciplined anchor, able to drop between the centre backs when necessary as he showed at Orient.
Wrexham lateral movement of the ball must be quick: if it is, they have the chance to open up spaces and overlaps on the flanks. When the ball is on the right, the left-sided Maidstone player in the diamond has to tuck in to become a central midfielder, and vice versa. Getting the ball outside him swiftly will open up the possibility of exposing the full back.
On the other hand, Wrexham must be very careful of the space they leave between the lines. We’ve already seen Noe Baba for Macclesfield and Russ Penn for Gateshead enjoy spells where they’ve prospered as the extra man in the middle of the pitch against Wrexham: Prestedge cannot be allowed time to do the same.
Likewise, my co-commentator James Harrison suggested on Calon FM’s commentary of the Gateshead game that a lot of the chances Wrexham have conceded this season have emanated from the space in front of their back four: certainly, Macclesfield’s goal did, and Dover profited when Kane Richards was able to find space in that area of the pitch to play a measured wide ball which led to an assist. Reason cannot be allowed space to roam in those areas as he is capable of picking a pass.