CREWE have won their last three league games in League Two and EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) discusses the factors behind their form – and how far they can go
One To Watch – Crewe's climb continues
Crewe have a history of producing excellent young talent and, since George Cooper left for Peterborough 12 months ago, Callum Ainley and Charlie Kirk have stepped up.
Ainley looked like a direct winger when he first came into the senior side at the tail-end of that disastrous relegation campaign in 2015-16.
Since then, however, he appears to have become more of a technical, creative player who is always a prominent influence in the build-up play and loves to link together attacking moves with sprightly runs and first-touch passes.
Charlie Kirk, meanwhile, is equally energetic but has mastered the subtler runs.
David Artell’s 4-2-2-2 system incorporates two front-men in Chris Porter and Jordan Bowery; but the duo often act as decoys for onrushing teammates.
Kirk takes advantage by staying wide for prolonged periods of the attack, then ghosting into a goalscoring position unchartered at the final moment, which is how he has scored a large proportion of his seven league goals.
Perry performs perfectly
With Ainley drifting into those central areas and Kirk staying out on the left channel, Crewe need some creative influence down the right.
That is partially accounted for by Bowery’s graft; the powerful striker presses relentlessly down that side of the pitch to either force clearances or lay the ball off for other players.
Equally influential however, is right-back Perry Ng.
The academy graduate is not the type of right-back who will attack the flank directly with raw pace and power; if he did, that would almost de-value other elements to his game.
Ng is about clever movement, canny link-up play in tight areas and a high standard of deliveries, an example of the latter being his cross for Kirk’s back-post equaliser in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Colchester.
Indeed, when they were leading in the second half at MK Dons, most right-backs would have stayed back at all costs but Ng went on a mazy, counter-attacking run and nearly grabbed a second goal, such is his zest for forward play.
Manager David Artell believes Ng to be one of the best right-backs in the division – on current evidence, he has a point.
The start of Crewe’s three-match winning streak was a 3-2 triumph over Newport, when late goals from Porter and Ainley overturned a one-goal deficit.
Although a thrilling outcome, it was clear that for certain periods in the second half of that match that they were not secure defensively.
With Nicky Hunt, a right-back by trade, deputising at centre-back, they did not have a partner for George Ray capable of dominating in the air.
When Eddie Nolan came back into the side the following Saturday for the 1-0 win at MK Dons, he owned the penalty area with great authority.
Nolan’s aerial bravery meant, especially in the second half when Crewe came under more pressure, that their hosts did not create any clear cut chances.
The former Blackpool man has formed a fine partnership with Ray, on which the Alex could build the kind of defensive stability they have not had for some time.
David Artell’s side have already kept 10 clean sheets, the joint-fifth most in the division.
Four more from their final 16 games will see them record more shut-outs than any Railwaymen side have achieved since the Second Division promotion-winning runners-up of 2002-03; the days of Clayton Ince and Kenny Lunt.
Hopes not Wintle-ing
In some ways, Crewe have been unlucky that their two most experienced midfielders, James Jones and Paul Green, have rarely been fit simultaneously, leaving Artell light on numbers.
In other ways, they have also been lucky that the two have rarely been injured simultaneously.
Jones produced a disciplined display at MK, then found himself sidelined in the following few days, only for Green to thankfully recover from his injury for the second time this season.
With no guarantees regarding the availability of either player between now and May however, the Alex will lean heavily on Ryan Wintle.
The 21-year-old appears to have grown in confidence this season; he brings boundless energy to Crewe’s play.
While he plays his passes quickly, he rarely misplaces them and that is a big part of why Crewe have been one of the division’s more enterprising outfits in 2019.
Ideally, Wintle needs one seasoned professional next to him; somebody who knows when to push on but more importantly, when to drop in to provide the defensive cover that allows him to make those hopeful runs.
However, if the Newcastle-under-Lyme born midfielder continues to progress at his current rate, he could be an asset to Crewe’s unlikely play-off push.
The Betting Angle
Crewe are currently 8/1 (BetVictor) to reach the play-offs.
That seems tempting as a speculative punt because, over the last eight matches, Crewe have averaged 1.80 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.08 Against (xGA), giving them a ratio of 62.59% which is better than every team above them bar Mansfield.
An eight-game sequence is not a massive sample size, but big enough to suggest there has been a complete sea-change in the quality of their performances.
Can they close the six-point gap to the play-offs? It will not be easy, but it is possible.
Firstly, we can expect the three teams above them might drop their points per game ratio.
Colchester’s threadbare squad has suffered from a lack of investment, Stevenage have massively outperformed their xG ratio and Tranmere have not been playing with the verve we saw over the October period, which accounts for 31% of their current tally.
If Crewe can get above those sides, they only need one team currently in the play-off spots to suffer a strong dip in form.
Exeter went on an eight-game winless run earlier in the campaign, MK Dons have taken five points from seven prior to Tuesday’s hosting of Oldham and Carlisle could potentially miss two or three of their influential loanees from the first half of the campaign.
Plus, we have seen at clubs like Notts County that the pressure to succeed and/or avoid failure can weigh heavily, whereas Crewe had not expected to be in a position to challenge for promotion and are therefore working with a carrot rather than a stick.
They might just be worth a speculative punt.
League Two – Crewe to reach the play-offs (8/1 BetVictor)