How have Crewe Alexandra banished the away days of the previous campaign under David Artell in the opening three months of the 2019/2020 season in League Two? Let’s take a look.
League Results to Date & General Performances
(Crewe score first in red):
Plymouth Argyle (h): 0-3
Oldham Athletic (a): 2-1
Walsall (h): 1-0
Crawley Town (a): 2-1
Newport County (a): 0-1
Bradford City (h): 2-1
Grimsby Town (a): 2-0
Cambridge United (h): 2-3
Leyton Orient (a): 2-1
Salford City (h): 4-1
Cheltenham Town (a): 1-1
Exeter City (h): 1-1
Carlisle United (a): 4-2
Swindon Town (h): 3-1
Colchester United (a): 0-0
Port Vale (h): 0-1
David Artell has enjoyed a much better start to the league campaign than he managed at the same juncture in 2018/2019. The first match was certainly inauspicious in its scoreline, but the 3-0 reverse was by no means reflective of the Railwaymen’s performance. They then rallied to triumph in five of the next half-dozen, a narrow loss at Newport County bisecting that run.
Paul Green’s first-half dismissal scuppered their chances of holding onto the lead whilst hosting Cambridge United, which they impressively gained at one point despite being a man light. The thrashing of Salford City ably demonstrated what the young squad are capable of, and two creditable draws with likely fellow top-seven chasing sides helped to cement their own credentials.
Seven goals in the space of two games has now segued into two without any – there have been noticeably fewer chances created in the latter, and the narrow ‘derby’ loss to visitors Port Vale was of particular disappointment to supporters.
Most Used Shape & Starting XI
For as long as I can remember, Alex have prided themselves on playing a progressive style, utilising their extremely reputable and productive academy to both keep the wage bill down and the potential future fees for the cream of the crop higher. This is no different in 2019. Will Jääskeläinen has established himself as first choice stopper at just 21 – his distribution is instructed to be shorter, with the flying full-backs the usual recipients.
Eddie Nolan and Nicky Hunt will split in possession, passing the ball laterally to their respective flanks. Hunt, now converted to centre-back in his advanced years, will also cover in behind his partner as a safety measure against playing a higher line, or to receive a pass from the goalkeeper. The duo will also both join in attacking set pieces, offering alternative outlets to the target man.
Harry Pickering gallops up the surface to support Charlie Kirk, and will sometimes overlap him to put crosses in or drift inside to make the opposition think twice about attacking through the middle. Captain Perry Ng fulfils a similar role when deployed on the right.
Ryan Wintle is the most defensive-minded of the central midfield triumvirate. He will box off the spaces vacated by Paul Green and Tom Lowery, sweeping up after them when the turnover occurs. Green offers a deeper angle to attempt crosses from, as well as being a long-distance shooter. Lowery places more emphasis on being part of the attacking phases, and always tries to get forward.
Nobody has nailed down the right-wing berth when the formation is a 4-3-3, but Owen Dale has spent the most time there. Assisted by Ng, he will whip low balls into Chris Porter’s feet. The veteran striker either comes short to join in the approach play or more usually loiters inside the area, especially on the six-yard line.
Collective Strengths & Weaknesses
The roster this term is a year older. Whilst that sounds like a stunningly obvious statement to make, few other clubs in the EFL will have quite the age profile of the first team as they do at Gresty Road. Most of the ones on the younger end of the spectrum have plenty of gametime under their belts, belying their youth.
The two shapes most often utilised make full use of the speed and width in the team – a slight bias to the right channel (40% to 36%) is apparent, with Ng and Dale given more freedom to dribble than their counterparts. They also rank highly for playing in their own third, which is indicative of not rushing their passing, making the ball do the work to draw out the opposition and find pockets of space to get around their press.
An element which is both a strength and a weakness is the efficacy of the strategy lives and dies on how close Porter’s teammates can get to him in open play. If the wide men are stymied, it can be hard for them to get any meaningful supply to him, and the starting positions of the central midfielders are relatively deep. It therefore falls on Crewe to dominate possession in order to creep up the pitch, balancing the need to support Porter with not being caught on the break.
Individual Strengths & Weaknesses
Working backwards from the forward line, Porter is one of the best in the lower leagues at finishing his chances at close range, especially with his head. His movement and vast experience are bulwarks against his ageing legs, and his goals are positive proof that there is still a niche in an evolving sport for a player that makes clever runs over needlessly depleting their stamina.
Charlie Kirk is one of the most exciting talents in League Two, being their creator-in-chief from out wide and the most confident at running with the ball past an opponent, seldom dwelling on it or not looking up to see who’s making themselves available for a possible pass.
Tom Lowery’s goalscoring contributions from the middle to date have helped ease the burden on Porter to a certain degree, but hasn’t managed a single shot on target in the last four games, taking the gloss off the assists he made in both of the first two of that tranche a little.
Perry Ng continues to mature and impress in equal measure. His versatility is a huge boon to his employers, and his accuracy from a range of different passing styles and distances helps no end in ensuring Alex are the most dominant side in the fourth tier in possession. He still has work to do in an aerial sense, and some teams do target his flank as a possible area to exploit in that manner.
Last season, Artell did an interview with the excellent D3D4 Football, in which he also fielded questions sent in on social media. I asked him whether there was anything psychological behind the travails on the road, and he seemed to suggest that there was a kernel of truth to that, which lay in the mentality of his young squad. At the time of writing, they have collectively consigned that to history; in the seven fixtures on the road in 2019/2020, they have already won more (five) than the totality of 2018/2019 (four). Had their away form been even a little less woeful, they might have sneaked into the play-offs.
Currently in fourth and just a single point from the summit, there’s every reason to suggest they now have what it takes to mount a serious promotion challenge. Granted, their depth doesn’t compare to that of, say, Bradford City, but if they can avoid lengthy injuries to Porter and Kirk, and possibly recruit another striker in the January transfer window, they might make the return to the third tier after a four-year absence. The manager will be thanking the board if that does transpire for sticking with him during the difficulties last term. Many other clubs would’ve taken a different stance.