Fleetwood got the basics wrong against Accrington in the first half, but turned things around and should have won at Highbury


Simon Grayson will be frustrated not to have taken all three points against Accrington Stanley on Saturday afternoon, but he will take positives from his sides’ second half turnaround .

Accrington opened the scoring after a 25-yard wonder strike from Adam Phillips into the top left corner, before Fleetwood responded a minute later through their standout man Wes Burns.

The hosts had a number of chances in the second half but failed to capitalise on them and a missed penalty from Josh Morris towards the end left them wondering how they did not deliver a much needed victory.

In the first half Stanley’s game plan was clear. Colby Bishop would drop inside to show for the ball whenever Phillips looked to spring an attacking phase, dragging Callum Connolly out of position in the process, knowing that they could then release the ball over the top for Dion Charles who would ease past Charlie Mulgrew who was slow and languid on the turn.

It was a simple but effective tactic that gave them a number of openings in the opening 45 minutes of the game.

Simon Grayson prides himself on stripping back teams when he arrives and ensuring the basics are catered for first, but this sort of naivety to continually make the same mistake in following Bishop inside, opening up gaps in the defensive line, would be something to cause him huge frustration.

Mulgrew offers a technical ability that the majority in the division simply do not have, however against a side like Stanley who look for runners in behind and aren’t afraid to play direct over the top, he does not have the pace, nor the awareness to cope with it.

The centre half is slow to return to the higher defensive line when Fleetwood push out and it causes a disjointed look to their defensive setup.

Not only that, but with Connolly quick to press aggressively to stop Bishop turning inside and having a run at the defence, Mulgrew is not the person you want beside you dropping into that space, you would rather have Mulgrew as the aggressor and Connolly dropping in behind.

Ultimately, had Fleetwood simply sat off Stanley in these phases of play, then the gaps in behind would not have appeared and the clear-cut chances that arrived in the first half would have petered out without much danger.

Another fragility of the home side was their organisation at set pieces.

It was surprising to see as this is another part of the game that Grayson is known for getting right as a first point of improvement.

The opening goal came from that lack of awareness on set pieces.

A mixture of zonal and man marking left Phillips open on the edge. Credit: Fleetwood Town: Youtube

As seen above, Fleetwood had four men marking zonally. One blocking off the near post effort, another at the near post, one at the back post and finally an extra body in the central area to sweep up in case of a low-drilled effort.

Now a mix of zonal and man marking works well for most teams who adopt it, but what Grayson’s side did not account for, surprisingly given he has adopted that position all season in these areas, was Phillips loitering 25 yards out from goal.

To me that strikes of naivety that seemed to shine through Fleetwood’s first half performance.

Accrington tend to play set pieces low or short and look to disorganise the marking with that, before playing a secondary cross into the area when more space has appeared so this was no surprise.

Whether Grayson had accounted for this and his side had not adopted his approach or whether he simply had not is a debate to be had, but either way it is another basic element of their play letting them down.

Following that first half performance, it was important that Fleetwood tweaked to adapt to Stanley’s approach, they looked lively going forward throughout the game and were they to cut out those elements of their play, then they would kick on and that is exactly what they did.

Twice in the opening ten minutes of the second half, Bishop dropped into the hole to try and draw Connolly out but this time the defender stuck to his original position in line with the low defensive block and Accrington were forced to recycle position with no opening appearing.

It was a simple thing to do but it had a major impact on the game as Stanley’s ability to break down the home sides’ defence faltered as the minutes ticked by.

Mulgrew going off through injury only strengthened Fleetwood’s attempts to deal with Accrington’s play because they could now be more aggressive in their defensive pressure knowing that Danny Andrew, moved inside from left back after the substitution, had the pace to cover the ground left by Connolly in behind.

Their build up play in the counter attack worked well, looking to spring pacey breaks in the wide areas with Alex Cairns’ long throws causing Accrington problems as they raced to get back into their defensive block.

Wes Burns ran the show as well as Dan Batty, whose energy in midfield drove the pace of Fleetwood’s attacks and left a tiring Accy stretched at points in the game.

What was missing was the final touch of quality from Kyle Vassell up front. The ex-Blackpool man’s goals have dried up since he moved to Rotherham in 2018 and were it not for his strength and physicality in holding off defenders, it would be hard to see what Fleetwood gained from his performance.

His hold up play and first touch were left wanting, just as dangerous attacks were starting to build through Burns and Camps, his final touch would allow Accrington time to regroup and intercept.

Any chances he did get were wasted and easily saved by Nathan Baxter as they tended to hit the centre of the goal.

Whilst he had a striking partner in Ged Garner, he opted to drop inside or wide quite often and worked tirelessly off the ball in an attempt to break up Stanley attacks in the build up stage.

Garner was not going to be the man capable of winning the game for Fleetwood but nor was Vassell.

It said everything that needed to be said about Kyle Vassell’s performance when, with two minutes remaining, Grayson replaced him with Harvey Saunders, knowing that the loanee was not going to provide the winning touch.

It would be harsh to pinpoint the issues in front of goal at Grayson’s door. The arrival of Vassell and sale of Ched Evans happened before his arrival and Paddy Madden’s injury was a huge disadvantage in this one.

He can take solace from the build up play from his side and that, when Madden returns, provided they play with the same intensity as they did in the second half, they will pick up the points required to stop having to look over their shoulder.

It was a much more creative performance than can be expected from what Simon Grayson has served up at his recent jobs but the out ball when playing direct needs a number nine capable of holding up the ball and bringing the likes of Callum Camps into play, who looked quite lost at times.

As for Accrington, despite a sensational campaign so far, John Coleman bemoaned fatigue and a small squad following the draw and it looks likely that they will begin to tail off towards the back end of the season.

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