1 Steve Watson is prepared to be tactically flexible

A strict adherence to certain systems has proven the downfall of certain City managers in the past, encompassing Gary Mills’ attachment to 4-3-3 during the club’s first campaign back in the Football League and his successor Nigel Worthington’s reliance on 4-4-2 when it became clear that newly-signed pair Lindon Meikle and Anthony Straker were not of the required standard on the flanks. Every manager has a favoured formation – normally one that has brought them the best results in the past – with Watson no different, but preferences cannot lead to intransigence.

Watson was a big advocate of 3-5-2 at Gateshead, as he defied pre-season expectations and off-pitch turmoil to establish the north-east part-timers as promotion contenders this season. But, with eight goals having been conceded during a hat-trick of consecutive games since the switch to a back three, the former Newcastle defender showed himself willing to deviate from the system he believes in most, and the fielding of a four-man defence undeniably closed gaps in that third of the pitch.

Experience was spread right across the back-line, as full-backs Kallum Griffiths and David Ferguson were recalled either side of 30-something centre-halves David Mirfin and Sean Newton and, whilst admittedly, most teams in National League North will demonstrate greater attacking potency than Ashton, City’s shape off the ball looked better nevertheless, as second clean sheet in 13 matches was recorded.

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2 City remain over-dependent on Jordan Burrow

It is a remarkable statistic that ex-Gateshead striker Burrow has netted in each of the Minstermen’s last 11 wins. Wearing the number-nine shirt, an expectation to hit the target obviously forms a major part of the job description, but City’s supporting cast certainly need to weigh in more.

During that sequence of victories, Burrow has plundered 14 goals, with the next-best contributors defenders Hamza Bencherif and Sean Newton and fringe midfielder Alex Harris, who have each netted twice. It took a late Burrow brace to secure victory in a one-sided contest against Ashton and, without his goals this term, City would now be seven points worse off in the league and would have required replays instead of progressing in FA Trophy and FA Cup ties at Kidderminster and Blyth respectively.

The 17-goal forward has also claimed nine assists this term – four more than any other player – and there has to be a bigger effort from attacking team-mates to ensure City offer a greater attacking threat from more areas of the pitch. 

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3 Set-pieces still need work at both ends of the pitch

City have been undone from dead-ball deliveries on many occasions this season and three of Ashton’s four goal attempts came from corners. The Greater Manchester outfit, otherwise, provided next to no menace from open play, but David Ferguson still needed to clear a Luke Ashworth header off the line and the visiting skipper also hit the outside of an upright after again climbing highest in the City box.

Craig Hobson, meanwhile, should have at least tested Adam Bartlett when he headed over unopposed from a flag kick. Those opportunities arose from Ashton’s only three corners of the first half.

The Minstermen forced nine in front of the Longhurst at the other end during those opening 45 minutes, but only mustered one chance following an unimaginative series of floated deliveries. Indeed, the one opportunity created came when centre-back David Mirfin provided some much-needed variation, racing over to take a short pass which changed the angle of delivery for Scott Burgess to find Sean Newton on the far post, where the centre-back was denied by Robins keeper George McMahon.

In the second half, City were only awarded one corner, but Mirfin took up a great position from a right-wing Burgess free kick, only for the lack of pace on the latter’s delivery making it very difficult for him to inject any power into his far-post free header. Being less predictable and sending the ball in with a little more conviction could, hopefully, add some dead-ball danger to a team whose corner count is 16-7 in their favour during the last two matches.

In fact, during the Minstermen’s last seven matches – four of which were lost – only Alfreton and Chorley have won more flag kicks with a significantly favourable tally of 38 for and 27 against.

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4 Kallum Griffiths merits a regular starting place more than most candidates

Consistent performers have been conspicuous by their absence this season but, after Jordan Burrow, former Spennymoor right-back Griffiths has been the Minstermen’s most reliable performer in a squad short on dependability. It is somewhat surprising then that, disregarding injury, he has been dropped from the team on four separate occasions this season.

Despite the quality of his crossing, there has been a reluctance on the parts of both Steve Watson and his predecessor Sam Collins to employ Griffiths in a wing-back role, with the pair preferring the energy of Wes York and Nathan Dyer respectively. His trustworthy standards saw Collins shoehorn Griffiths into an anchoring midfield role, where he was also a credible option should Watson decided to revert to 3-5-2 in the future.

Griffiths wasn’t spectacular against Ashton, but carried out the basics with minimal fuss, which will have pleased his new boss.

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5 The new management team are undecided on Alex Kempster’s best role

Former Whitley Bay attacker Kempster filled two different roles against Ashton, operating in a number-10 role behind Jordan Burrow in the first half before moving on to the left flank in the second. Previously, he has performed as a left-wing back and an orthodox centre forward under Steve Watson.

The ex-PE teacher didn’t quite capitalise on his roving central position and his delivery from wide positions could have been better following the tactical switch. His defensive work comes under scrutiny, meanwhile, as a wing-back and he is sometimes at a disadvantage physically when he is pitched directly against a centre half.

It is unfair, however, to concentrate on the refinements need in the 23-year-old utility man’s game and Watson will be pondering where best to position Kempster to capitalise on his eye for a goal, enthusiasm and willingness to drive at teams on the ball.