FLUIDITY overcame rigidity at the Mayday Trust Park, with Basingstoke Town getting a well-deserved and vital victory.
The visitors’ attacking players linked up brilliantly throughout the game, swapping positions to leave Bath City chasing shadows at times – but they needed a late thunderbolt from Nathan Smart to win the game.
Town manager Jason Bristow was forced into two changes to the side that had started against Boreham Wood in the game before, Andrew Jenkinson replacing the suspended Adam Green at left-back and Simon Dunn coming in for the injured Matt Partridge in midfield.
There was just one other change, with Jordace Holder-Spooner returning from a minor injury and replacing Kezie Ibe in attack as the visitors retained their 4-4-2 shape.
Bath had looked pretty good at the Camrose in January, when they played with three central defenders, so it was something of a surprise that they opted for a traditional 4-4-2 formation.
Town set the tone by starting well
It would be a stretch to say that the game was won and lost in the opening 20 minutes, especially as the winning goal was scored so late on, but the foundations for Basingstoke’s victory were certainly laid in the very early stages.
The contrast between the two sides could not have been more marked.
While Town played at an excellent tempo, both with and without the ball, Bath were sluggish and on the back foot from the first whistle.
Basingstoke did not allow their opponents to settle, playing a high defensive line and looking to close Bath down before they got the chance to play the ball out of defence.
The hosts did the exact opposite, defending very deep and inviting pressure. On a couple of occasions, the defence retreated to the safety of the 18-yard line, with the two central midfielders, who both seemed to be playing holding roles, taking up positions just in front of them.
To be fair, they defended pretty well and Town found it hard to break through their massed ranks, but there was little or no pressure on the ball. This gave the visitors the chance to shoot from distance, something Bath would eventually pay for.
No Stearn test for the visitors
When the sides met at the Camrose last month, Bath’s Ross Stearn was arguably the game’s stand-out player, despite only being on the pitch for around half-an-hour.
On that occasion, with Bath playing 3-5-2, he was given a licence to roam in the space between Town’s defence and midfield, taking up positions across the width of the pitch and linking up well with the strikers.
On Saturday, he was by being asked to play on the right wing. He showed glimpses of his quality, winning a couple of free-kicks and having a couple of half-chances, especially in the second half, when he seemed to play higher up the pitch, but he posed far fewer problems.
Bath were very rigid all over the pitch. Their central midfielders sat deep, rarely venturing into the final third, while their wingers stayed wide, making them easy to pick up.
Town have a very similar player to Stearn in Shaun McAuley. Like Stearn, in the first match, he was given a free role at the point of a midfield diamond.
On Saturday, he too was asked to play on the right wing, but Bristow has come up with a way of getting him more involved.
Louie Soares provides genuine width on the left, allowing McAuley to come inside and link up with the strikers, who can take advantage of the space he leaves behind on the wing.
He popped up all over the pitch, interchanging with the strikers and even Soares to leave Bath unsure of who to mark.
No change despite half-time team-talks
After a poor start, Bath improved as the first half went on, but they will certainly have been more happy to get to the break on level terms.
Town did not miss any clear chances but were guilty of failing to make the most of good positions, taking too many touches or trying to play an extra pass.
However, the half-time team-talk seemed to have little effect on the hosts, who continued to be second best in the early stages of the second half.
If anything, Town’s attacking play was even better, with Simon Dunn and Wes Daly even joining in from central midfield.
Holder-Spooner had a good game, holding the ball up well and linking with the wide players. However, he was, at times, too keen to get involved in build-up play down the flanks, leaving Town without anybody in the area traditionally taken up by the strikers.
His influence also waned as the match went on and Bristow took the decision to replace him with the more direct Kezie Ibe on 66 minutes.
Unfortunately, Town then lost McAuley to a rib injury, meaning they had to play the final 20 minutes with Manny Williams on the right wing.
Ibe and Robbie Matthews are very different players to the men they replaced. They offered a more direct threat and while a couple of crosses into the box caused problems, Town were not as fluid.
However, they did manage to score what proved to be the winner in this period. Perhaps expecting a cross into the box, Bath made the mistake of backing off right-back Nathan Smart, who fired an excellent shot in off the underside of the crossbar to give Town a vital victory.
The result was more important than the performance for Basingstoke – but Bristow got both on Saturday. His front four linked up excellently to give the hosts problems and they eventually got the win they deserved.
If they can play with the same intensity and fluidity in their remaining games then they could push up the league, but they need to make more of the opportunities they create and test the opposition goalkeeper.