BASINGSTOKE Town and Bath City played out a goal-less draw at the Camrose on Saturday – but it was far from the dull affair often associated with such a scoreline.
Both sides used interesting formations aimed at getting the best out of their main creative threats and tried to play football, despite a heavy pitch at the Camrose.
This made for a decent game, especially in the second half. Bath were probably happier with the result as their goalkeeper was man of the match and Town striker Kezie Ibe was desperately unlucky to see two late efforts hit the woodwork, but the visitors certainly played their part in a good game.
Both teams lined up in clever formations aimed at optimising the impact of their main creators.
Town used a midfield diamond, with Wes Daly at the base, just behind Neil Barrett and Matt Partridge and Shaun McAuley given a licence to roam in the space behind strikers Manny Williams and Ben Wright.
Bath lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, with Ross Stearn doing a similar job to McAuley behind their front two.
With a total of seven players operating in and around the centre of midfield, it was almost inevitable that things would get congested in the central third.
That was exactly what happened in the early stages of the match, which were scrappy and disjointed as the two sides battled for supremacy in what was an especially vital area of the pitch.
The exceptions, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering it appeared that both sides had built their teams around them, were McAuley and Stearn.
McAuley was given a truly free role by Town manager Jason Bristow, popping up right across the pitch in the space between the Bath defence and midfield.
He had a fine game, linking up well with both the midfielders and front two and taking up positions where Bath found him hard to pick up, particularly down the sides of the visitors’ narrow back three.
He got into a number of dangerous positions and was the player most often denied by Bath goalkeeper Jason Mellor, who had an exceptional game.
The problem with playing a midfield diamond is that it can leave teams lacking width, but that didn’t seem to be too much of a problem on Saturday. This was partly down to McAuley, who was happy to take up positions on either wing, while full-backs Robbie Rice and Andrew Jenkinson worked hard to get forward and support attacks.
This worked well, with one, almost crucial exception. At one point in the first half, Rice was caught in possession high up the pitch. Bath broke well and nobody dropped back to cover for the right-back, allowing Andy Watkins the space to smash an angled shot against the crossbar.
If Town are to continue with this strategy, they will have to work out who is responsible for covering for the full-backs. With no wide midfielders and a fairly fluid system, it’s not immediately obvious, but it’s an issue that needs addressing.
Stearn’s role was remarkably similar to McAuley’s and he also made a good start to the game, drifting across the pitch to pick the ball up in space and run at the Town defence.
He was helped by his side’s unusual formation and the willingness of the Bath strikers to work the channels.
Bath’s formation was something approaching a cross between 3-5-2 and 3-4-3. The wing-backs were conservative going forward, rarely getting beyond the visitors’ two deep-lying midfielders.
Instead, the job of providing attacking width was left to the front three. Stearn was free to flit around and take up spaces on the wings, but the Watkins and former Town man David Pratt ran the channels tirelessly.
This provided the midfielders with options out wide and also opened up space for Stearn in central areas.
It’s a good system that provides the opposition with different problems to the ones they are used to – and Bath were unfortunate to lose Stearn, the key player, to injury with just a quarter of the game gone.
Until that point, it seemed clear that whoever had the better game, McAuley or Stearn, would end up on the winning side. Noah Keats, Stearn’s replacement, was nowhere near as effective, robbing the match of an interesting sub-plot.
Basingstoke suffered an injury blow of their own at the start of the second half, losing Wright. The on-loan striker had impressed in the first half, holding the ball up well and giving Town the option of getting the ball forward quickly.
Ibe is a totally different player and it took the hosts a while to adjust, allowing Bath to enjoy their best spell of the match. McAuley was unable to get into the game as passes were misplaced, while the Town back four dropped deep, inviting pressure.
Jason Bristow reacted by introducing Jordace Holder-Spooner for Wes Daly, who didn’t have his best game. It was an attacking move and set up a frantic finale, during which the hosts were more than a little unfortunate not to grab a winner.
An interesting game in tactical terms, with two managers thinking outside the box in an attempt to get the best out of their players.
Town probably deserved three points and they will start to win more games if they can create the number of chances they did on Saturday.
McAuley has spent much of this season out on the wing and it was good to see him in his best position. He’s a far better player in the hole behind the strikers and caused numerous problems.
Hopefully we’ll get another chance to see him there against Whitehawk tonight.