Grimsby Town took on Wrexham on Saturday afternoon as two of the Vanarama National League’s form sides came head-to-head at Blundell Park. The Mariners welcomed a Wrexham side who had kept 6 clean sheets in a row and featured a few familiar faces in their line-up. Former Town trio Connor Jennings, Simon Helsop and Jamal Fyfield were joined by ex-GTFC loanee Javan Vidal who came on as a second half substitute.
The game also saw bosses Paul Hurst and Gary Mills renew acquaintances in opposite dugouts. Hurst has had mixed success against Mills’ teams in recent years. Despite the odd success for Hurst (6-1 away win at Gateshead), Mills has generally had the upper hand. His York side had the better of Scott & Hurst’s Town side 3 times in 2011/12, he got the better of Hurst when Gateshead progressed to the Play-off Final at our expense in 2014, and a 2-2 draw for Gateshead at Blundell Park end any hopes of our title challenge in 2015.
Mills always has his sides playing 4-3-3 and they usually play good football, building from the back, passing and moving with players comfortable in possession.
Today, Hurst strayed from the usual straight-forward 4-4-2 in a tactical move that helped Town deal with the problems that a side playing 4-3-3 poses for a 4-4-2. The result was Wrexham looking anything like a “Gary Mills team” in terms of style and Town taking all three points after a 1-0 win.
Hurst made two changes to his starting line-up, bringing Toto Nsiala in for Shaun Pearson at centre-back and Craig Clay in place of Danny East in midfield. Nsiala was seemingly brought in as the more athletic defender to combat deal with the pace of Wrexham forward Kayden Jackson. Clay’s inclusion allowed Nathan Arnold to switch back to the right of midfield and saw Jon Nolan take up an unusual position on the left side of midfield.
The graphic above shows the starting positions of the Town line-up – with Nolan narrow on that left side. However, if Opta or whoever provides all the stats for Premier League football were to produce heat maps for Conference football, then the average positions of the team would look a lot different to the above.
Mills’ 4-3-3 often leaves Hurst’s 4-4-2 outnumbered in midfield, so Hurst’s plan was for Nolan to drift infield and to create a 3v3 in the middle of the midfield. As he did this, Evan Horwood got forward well to offer the attacking width on that side. This was most evident from James McKeown’s goal kicks, when Horwood would up a very high position ahead of the midfielders. To compensate, Richard Tait’s forays forward from right-back were limited as he needed to sit alongside the centre-backs whilst Horwood pushed forward on the other side.
Nolan not only drifted infield to even the midfield numbers, but he was usually the one midfielder that broke lines and got forward to support the Irish strike pairing of Hoban and Amond.
When Town did lose the ball in the middle third, we were often able to win the ball back quickly in defensive transitions because we already had that three in the middle.
This second graphic shows the more realistic positions that the town players took up during the game, and how it lined up against Wrexham’s first half set-up. As well as Tait’s more conservative game today, Disley also generally sat deeper to allow Clay and especially Nolan to support attacking moves.
This approach completely nullified Wrexham’s ability to play out from the back and they invariably hit long balls over the top for the quick forwards to chase. At half time, Gary Mills made a substitution and changed to a back three, and whilst his side put up more of a performance in the second half, they were still unable to really test McKeown in the Town goal as the home side remained more threatening.
The goalmouth scrambles after Wrexham set-pieces in injury time was the first time the Town goal was under threat since Hoban headed off the line late in the first half. Wrexham remained direct in the second half and were now going long to substitute Wes York more often than not but Tait stood his ground well at right back.
The match-winning goal came in just the 7th minute when a Grimsby corner made it to the far post where Nathan Arnold calmly cushion-volleyed down for Craig Disley to smash home from 6 yards. The goal just cemented what was a good start to the game from the Mariners, and they went on to play some good stuff throughout the half. Hoban had a shot blocked after a cut-back from Horwood and Nolan mis-hit a shot after a nice lay-off from Hoban as Town pressed for a second.
After half-time it was still looking more likely that Town would double their lead, with Hoban guiding a header goalwards that cannoned back off the crossbar, Clay hitting a volley over and Nolan shooting just wide when 1v1 with the goalkeeper after a great first touch from Amond’s reverse ball.
But after Town saw out those final few minutes of injury time (where the referee found 4 minutes to add on I’ll never know) it was Paul Hurst celebrating in the home dugout. After facing criticism at times during his reign of being out-thought by rival managers (even as recently as Cheltenham at home this season), Hurst should be praised for his tactics today.
Gary Mills is a good, experienced Manager and Wrexham will cause other teams problems in the run-in. And Hurst rightly saw this as an important win judging by his reaction after the full time whistle. Yet we can also take confidence from Hurst seemingly winning a battle of tactical minds with a rival Manager. Potentially a good sign with a Play-Off campaign probably coming up in May that’ll hopefully involve 3 games? Time will tell.
Grimsby Town 1-0 Wrexham
Att: 4581 (315 away supporters)