League Two looms for David Artell’s Crewe: How do the Railwaymen rebuild?
Everything that could have gone against Crewe has done.
Sometimes, not everyone wants to hear the same mitigating factors after each defeat, having seen 24 of them in 37 league games prior to Tuesday’s hosting of Wigan, because the argument feels tired in the face of likely relegation.
That, though, does not make those mitigating factors any less relevant now than they were in August.
The Alex lost five Championship calibre players last summer in Perry Ng, Harry Pickering, Ryan Wintle, Charlie Kirk and Owen Dale, not receiving an seven-figure fee for any of them when it should have been received for each.
Replacing those key figures has been extremely hard, not to mention throwing in the loss of an aerially competent centre-back in Omar Beckles, the contract saga with Tommy Lowery and the fact Shaun MacDonald and Tommie Hoban – tasked with providing experience in a youthful side – both retired within a month of entering the building.
As the Railwaymen head into League Two, largely because of these issues, their task is to weigh up as a club how much of them were outside their control, against how much they could have done better with and must rectify.
For example, the conduct of one or two of the players mentioned above when courting a move was not in the club’s best interests.
Some of the bids, the club were forced to accept, because suitors triggered the release clause that were issued into the contracts at the time of agreement.
Then again, the club were not forced into giving the likes of Ng and Pickering reported release clauses of approximately £300K and they had the autonomy to sell some of their players earlier, rather than risk contracts running down.
Would this have allowed them to have the same success they had, winning promotion from League Two in 2019-20 and achieving a top half League One finish the following season?
Possibly not, but it would have staggered the rebuilding process and allowed them to replace key players on more of a one-by-one or two-by-two basis, as opposed to six-by-six.
Some of this blog’s arguments come from the benefit of hindsight, but it’s also the responsibility of the club’s primary decision-makers to offer the benefit of foresight, and make shrewd strategic calls, which some have proven not to be.
The handling of contracts and release clauses needs to improve, starting with Zac Williams: retaining the 17-year-old, left-footed defender will be essential to rebuilding the financial value in the squad.
Williams is incredibly calm under pressure and can switch play delightfully, with the Wales Under-19 international’s performance in the 2-0 victory over Gillingham earning him a man-of-the-match award – and some confectionary rather than the customary champagne!
A full season in League Two in 2022-23 would be the perfect start to Williams’ career, as opposed to life in the Premier League 2 for an Under-23s side, and he will get that opportunity at such a youth-orientated club.
Where most look firstly to the transfer market and then to the academy, Crewe do the opposite.
Previously, this has meant that the golden generation had time to grow into the shirt, ride out dips in form and become the players they became, but there is a flip side: the club can be guilty of affording too much time to players who may not quite make the grade.
Callum Ainley, for example, is now 24 and, while a strong showing as a pressing, “flick-on” second striker in the 2-0 loss at Sunderland last time out has helped his cause for a regular berth next term, injuries have affected the utility man, who has not noticeably progressed from his teenage form.
Of course, the club must continue to pride itself on a productive academy and will certainly do so after Alex Morris to be promoted from Under-23 duties to Artell’s assistant, with current incumbent Kenny Lunt becoming Player Development Manager.
Left-sided defender Nathan Woodthorpe, when he recovers from an ankle injury, on-loan Nantwich star Joe Robbins, talented midfielder Joel Tabiner, left-footed poacher Tyreece Onyeka and Connor Salisbury – likened stylistically to Jamie Vardy – are all hoping to impress the senior gaffer.
However, it will be important to reduce the dependence on the academy by improving the recruitment, which has been especially poor in 2021-22.
Chris Long has been arguably the only successful addition in 16, although speedy forwards Dan Agyei and Bassala Sambou may yet come good after joining in January and many of the recruits have been unlucky with injuries (another mitigating factor).
Recruitment should be a collaborative process in which the manager profiles the players he wants, the scouting team search for anyone who fits the criteria and then come back with a list, from which he or she may cherry-pick their favoured options.
Crewe, by contrast, have had just one scout on the books, which put an enormous weight on the management team.
This does not mean that Artell and Lunt should be absolved from all responsibility for the poor recruitment, but that it becomes more understandable.
One of the key priorities for the Railwaymen this summer, therefore, is to streamline their gaffer’s remit and give him the space to focus more on improving existing players, as opposed to leading the hunt for new ones.
The club plan to do this by appointing a Head of Recruitment, setting the wheels in motion for what they hope will be a productive summer.
The first assignment on the new HoR’s desk will be the most important and most unenviable: replacing Ryan Wintle.
For all the brilliance of Ng, Pickering, Kirk and Dale, this blog would argue that Wintle was the fundamental hub, the engine, the beating heart of the successful Alex sides.
The deep-lying playmaker consistently dropped in from midfield, collected the ball off the defence, turned an opponent under pressure and either dictated the tempo with a series of short passes, or delightfully switched the play to a flank.
Luke Murphy does not at 32 have the mobility to turn an opponent like Wintle did, which makes him extremely vulnerable to the press and means he can only pop the ball back to another defender, rather than progress it somewhere meaningful.
Artell has tried to accommodate Wintle’s absence by experimenting with Lowery in a deeper role, yet the stylish midfielder’s aptitude for risk conflicts with the need for a more stable presence in the Wintle void.
Rekeem Harper lacks the defensive diligence for the job while Scott Robertson was one-footed, so alternative options have all been limited in one way or another.
If a suitable midfielder can be found, it would go a long way to solving Crewe’s problems, because the lack thereof has been a major reason why chance creation and therefore results have dropped off this term.
There have been periods in most of Crewe’s games over the last month or two, during which they have been able to get into the opposition half and from that point, we have seen remnants of the team of last season.
Not enough, of course, but once the Alex do get past the initial press, there have been some passages of play that could be built upon in League Two.
If Artell opts for 3-4-3, for example, and Williams stays on, there is potential for some excellent rotations of play between him, Long and Josh Lundstram.
The latter, right-footed, is an inverted left wing-back, but Lundstram cutting inside does allow Williams to make bold, overlapping runs and influence games high up the flank, while Chris Long makes clever runs into the channel.
Not only is Long hardworking, he produces stylish dummies and flicks which can be conducive to one-touch link-up play between him, Williams and Lundstram, who could easily end up with 8-10 League Two goals next season by ghosting into the final third and curling efforts toward the far corner with his right peg.
Right-sided defender Luke Offord, meanwhile, is proving perfectly adept at making adventurous attacking runs deep into enemy territory, so there is potential for a similar pattern of play on that side.
Crewe have talented individual defenders in Williams, Offord, Bill Sass-Davies when fit again plus Connor O’Riordan who, it should not be forgotten, has already held his own against an international target man in Sam Vokes.
What the Cheshire club need is a powerful, vocal, aerially dominant centre-back who can organise those around him, which would go a long way to solving the set piece deficiencies that have plagued Artell’s side this term.
Fix that and there may be less clamour for the club to dismiss goalkeeper Will Jaaskelainen: a strong shot stopper with excellent distribution, who has been error-prone and unable to command his box this term, thus often losing his place to the more seasoned Dave Richards.
If Regan Griffiths, Oli Finney and Travis Johnson finish the season strongly, though, then perhaps the Railwaymen rebuild does not have to be as wholesale as their league position suggests.
It may be a case of five or six strong additions across central defence, both full-back/wing-back positions, deep midfield, a focal point and a goalkeeper – depending on the call on Jaaskelainen – as opposed to ripping up everything and starting afresh.
Nonetheless, the restructuring at the club, the personnel re-arrangements and the appointment of a Head of Recruitment mean the management team must deliver.
The last 12 months have brought the end of an era to Crewe and the low fees for top performers make it hard to avoid the notion that the club is not permanently better for the work done previously, but is instead right back at square one.
That may be true, to a point, depending on the undisclosed sell-on and add-on agreements for the quality quintet, as well as the extent of lessons learnt from the past.
Nonetheless, if Artell and Morris can deliver at minimum a top half finish next term combined with increased squad value and football more in line with previous campaigns, then the club may have the right people to oversee the next era already in situ.