Last weekend’s Championship clashes saw Pep Clotet’s Birmingham City claim their first away points, and first away goal, since the opening game of the season. The high-flying Charlton Athletic were their opponents, with Lee Bowyer looking to secure the Addicks’ third, league victory on the bounce.
The 1-0 win and three points have left Blues out of the Championship’s playoffs on goal difference alone, with Charlton remaining in second place. This tactical analysis will highlight how both sides set up for the tie in terms of tactics and explain just how Clotet and Birmingham were able to leave the Valley with three points.
Charlton enforced a tactic which is fast becoming a familiar lineup at the Valley by playing a 4-1-2-1-2, as they have done all season, with a narrow midfield four. Bowyer made only two changes to his starting XI after their 2-0 victory over Reading last time out: Jonny Williams and Lyle Taylor made way for Erhun Oztumer and Tomer Hemed.
Clotet – who has shown himself to be fluid by way of tactics and selection – lined Blues up in a 4-4-2 formation, similar to that which saw Birmingham defeat Stoke City 2-1 in their previous outing. The Spaniard made three changes to his starting lineup from the game against the Potters: Alvaro Gimenez, Fran Villalba and Jefferson Montero all made way for Kerim Mrabti, Daniel Crowley and Jude Bellingham.
Both sides favoured a high press
From early in the game it was clear that both Charlton and Birmingham would be pressing high up the pitch. The intended goal of a high press is to either force the opposition into a mistake and dispossess them or to cut passing lines and simply intercept a stray pass. However, a high press does have its faults – should the opposition play their way out of the press they will face fewer men as they advance further up the pitch.
The organisation of Lee Bowyer’s press differed only slightly to Birmingham’s in that Charlton would press as high up the pitch, in Birmingham’s third, as possible. Here Hemed can be seen directly pressing Blues’ goalkeeper, Lee Camp, and supporting players cutting his passing lines; the intended goal here to force Birmingham’s stopper into an error. However, due to an imbalance of attackers and defenders Birmingham found it much easier to break Charlton’s press than the Addicks did in reverse.
Clotet’s press differed to Bowyers only marginally, with Birmingham not pressing as high as the Charlton ‘keeper – Dillon Phillips. Instead, Blues would sit a little deeper and quickly press in numbers when Charlton were on the verge of leaving their own third of the pitch. This would lead to a second phase of the press – if the first was successful – where attackers would drive defenders back towards their own goal should they begin to panic, as can be seen above.
Diamonds may not be forever for Charlton
As can be seen in the photo, Lee Bowyer stationed his midfield four of the 4-1-2-1-2 formation as a diamond, as he has done previously this season. When performed well the greater number of players centrally should enable the user to overload the centre of the park and out-muscle opposition midfielders due to sheer numbers.
However, Birmingham heavily relied on their wide players in this encounter – as will be discussed later in this analysis – and when the central midfielders could not get wide quick enough, this left the full-back to face two opposition players in the winger and opposite full-back. Perhaps, then, this realisation may lead Bowyer to consider an alternate tactic when facing opposition who often look to exploit the wide areas.
Bowyer’s set-up did, however, have its merits – which in part led to few clear-cut chances for Birmingham and restricted them to just their solitary goal. When out of possession the base of the diamond midfield, Sam Field, would drop into defence and the back four would transition into a back five. The extra man in defence enabled Bowyer’s backline to become less penetrable and remained so for large periods of play; as can be seen in the above annotation.
Blues’ vital wide areas
Pep Clotet’s 4-4-2 can offer many variations in how the players involved can influence play, through when to attack, defend, drop deep, press high, rotate and so on. For Birmingham against Charlton, their heavy reliance came in the wide areas and the ability of the full-back and wide midfielder on each flank to play in tandem.
As can be seen here, when pressing – which was a vital area of Blues’ tactics – the full-back and wide midfielder would pair up in hunting down the opposition player in possession. Here, Maxime Colin would pressure any player down his flank – in this instance Conor Gallagher – and force them to turn back towards their own goal where possible which would allow Daniel Crowley to apply further pressure to player. Both the central defender and midfielder would then shift across to cover behind the two wide pressers.
Whilst Clotet was keen to exploit the defensive capabilities of the wide players, they also had a vital role in attack which was aided by Charlton’s narrow diamond in midfield. The basic principle would be that the wide midfielder would turn his back to the opposition goal and support his full-back, which in turn would drag Charlton’s full-back out of position and with a quick one-two Birmingham’s full-back would have the whole Charlton flank to charge down due to the lack of cover from the midfield four.
In the above instance, Crowley dropped deep from his wide midfield position, whilst dribbling with the ball, Ben Purrington applied pressure leaving a large area of open space behind him. In one pass the entire right flank was opened up for Colin to move into; Purrington, unable to turn quickly enough, was taken out of the Charlton defence.
Wide tactic played huge role in Birmingham’s goal
While the heavy press of both sides were offering little by way of opposition mistakes, leading to somewhat of a stalemate, early in the second half Birmingham’s favour of the wings and Charlton’s narrow diamond paid dividends for Blues.
As can be seen Crowley again dropped deep to support Colin – which in turn dragged a Charlton man out of position. This then gave Colin a large area to drive into with the ball during the build-up to Birmingham’s goal. Having collected the ball Colin did indeed drive into the open area of the pitch, relying on a deft piece of skill to beat a central midfielder, however, the basic principle of the move remained the same as previously seen.
By this stage of the game, Bowyer and his players knew of Birmingham’s danger from the wide areas and as such four Charlton players were been dragged across to support that area of the pitch – leaving Jude Bellingham in a large area of space centrally. With Charlton struggling to get back due to the speed of Blues’ attack Kerim Mrabti was able to slide the ball across to Bellingham, who applied the finish into Phillips’ goal.
Lee Bowyer will be disappointed that his side were unable to continue their momentum against Birmingham, however, his saving grace will be that Charlton lost no places in the table because of it; beginning and finishing Saturday second in the Championship. Pep Clotet will be delighted that his Birmingham side were able to effectively enforce their own tactics whilst making a slight advantage from Charlton’s, as this analysis has explained. Their three points and first goal on the road since the opening day should help to act as a springboard for Blues.
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