Back in December, Sheffield Wednesday leapfrogged Nottingham Forest to climb into the EFL Championship play-off places, courtesy of a sensational 4-0 victory at the City Ground. The Owls did all their hard work in the first half, with Steven Fletcher’s tap in just before the interval capping off a stunning first period that saw Wednesday score four times.
Garry Monk’s side were three up after just 37 minutes, courtesy of a Jordan Rhodes hat-trick. The striker, who spent last season on loan at Norwich, scored his first Owls goals since April 2018 to end the contest before half time. Both sides then played out a very low key second half, with the away side claiming their first clean sheet in seven matches.
This tactical analysis will delve into how the Owls secured their biggest away league victory in over nine years. We’ll pay most attention to how the Yorkshire side put Forest to the sword in a breath-taking first-half display.
Sabri Lamouchi set up his Forest side in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape. Brice Samba played between the sticks. Matty Cash, converted from a central midfielder into a full-back by Lamouchi, started at right-back. Veteran Michael Dawson partnered 23-year-old Joe Worrall at the heart of the rearguard, with Jack Robinson at left-back. Just in front of them were Ryan Yates and Ben Watson. Joao Carvalho, formerly of UEFA Champions League regulars Benfica, came in for Joe Lolley to play off the left. Inside forward Sammy Ameobi played on the opposite flank. Tiago Silva played in behind lone striker Lewis Grabban.
Garry Monk’s tactics were to go with his favoured 4-4-2 system. Cameron Dawson started in goal, with a back four of Liam Palmer, Dominic Iorfa, Tom Lees and Morgan Fox. The Owls played with two inverted wingers: Adam Reach on the right and Kadeem Harris on the left. Playmaker Barry Bannan partnered Massimo Luongo in midfield. Jordan Rhodes and Steven Fletcher, formerly of EPL outfit Wolves, led the line for the visitors.
Route One Football Pays Dividends for Wednesday
Sheffield Wednesday were successful in this game by playing very direct football, overloading the right-hand side of the pitch and throwing plenty of bodies into the box to get on the end of crosses. In the first half, Wednesday scored four times and registered 2.41 expected goals. They also only had 41% possession in that period, and 42% throughout the whole 90 minutes. 63% of their possession passages resulted in the Owls reaching Forest’s half. That compares to Forest’s rate of 48%. On top of that, Wednesday reached the hosts’ penalty area with 16% of their overall possession passages: 7% of Forest’s did.
So despite having less of the ball, Monk’s side were much more productive with their possession.
As you can see in the graphic below, goalkeeper Cameron Dawson only attempted one pass to a player within Wednesday’s defensive third throughout the match.
Most of his kicks were long, with big striker Steven Fletcher the target. Fletcher was involved in 13 aerial duels, by far the most on the pitch. Of those, Wednesday’s top scorer won six. The big Scotsman’s aerial prowess was vital in Wednesday’s tactics: he was able to make the ball stick in the final third. However, the movement and positions taken up by his attacking teammates were also a key component of their victory.
In the image above, hat-trick hero Jordan Rhodes recognised that Fletcher has drawn two Forest defenders to challenge him in the air, after a route one goal kick from Cameron Dawson. Rhodes recognised the space that was left in behind Fletcher, so he used his instincts to gamble on his partner winning the header. The target man flicked the ball onto Rhodes, who hit a first time half volley into the bottom left corner.
This was a feature of the day. Wednesday’s strike partnership remained close together so they could link up quickly. Rhodes managed a hat-trick from a total of just 0.65 expected goals in an afternoon where he rolled back the years and found that long lost clinical edge.
Another thing of note in the image was the high positions of wingers Kadeem Harris and Adam Reach, which was another feature of Wednesday’s attacks. When the away team were about to play a long ball forward up to Fletcher, the two wingers would form a front four. This was to ensure that Fletcher didn’t become isolated, and they’d be in a position to run in behind should he flick it into the channels.
Also, remaining in a high position pinned back the two Forest full-backs, Jack Robinson and Matty Cash. That freed up space for Wednesday’s full-backs to advance down the line, particularly as Forest’s wingers often tucked in.
Wednesday’s gung-ho approach in the first half is clear in the image above, just with the sheer numbers they’ve thrown into the area. Morgan Fox is about to cross the ball, and the Owls have thrown four players into the area to try and get on the end of a delivery. This is despite already holding a 2-0 lead at the time. It was clear right from the start that Sheffield Wednesday wanted to beat Forest with an aerial bombardment, which worked an absolute treat.
Overloading the right and the role of Adam Reach
The Owls got a lot of joy from attacking down the right-hand side. It’s an area they looked to exploit all afternoon. Forest started with right-footed Joao Carvalho down their left side, and he’s naturally a central attacking midfielder anyway. Because of that, it was always likely that he’d drift inside, leaving left-back Robinson exposed. Wednesday took full advantage of this.
Adam Reach played a huge role in this clash, often playing as an inside forward as he was able to cut onto his stronger left foot. Wednesday placed a lot of focus on overloading this area of the pitch, with right-back Palmer, central midfielder Luongo and Fletcher all combining at times to create overloads.
Fletcher would sometimes drop deeper into the inside right channel, dragging a defender with him. Reach would then look to tuck inside and run in behind him. You can see this happening in the image below.
Fletcher has created a bit of space for Reach by dropping a bit deeper and forcing the central defender out of the back line to challenge him. The winger can then receive the ball in the half-space on his stronger left side. From there, he could either dribble towards goal, get a shot off or deliver an in-swinging cross.
The South Yorkshire outfit constantly looked to create numerical superiority down that side of the pitch.
In the above image, the Owls have created a 2v1 situation with Liam Palmer pushing up high. This allows Reach to tuck into the half-space, which as we covered before suited him more because he’s left-footed.
In the next example, Wednesday have created a 4v3 overload, with Fletcher dropping into the channel, Luongo shifting across to support, and Luongo and Reach hugging the touchline.
This gives the Owls two options; either use their numerical superiority to play through Forest and advance down the right, or look to switch the play to the left. The hosts looked to stop the overload by bringing central midfielders Ben Watson and Ryan Yates across to deal with the danger. Right winger Sammy Ameobi was high and narrow, being completely ineffective in the game’s defensive phase. Therefore, this overload on the right created an underload on the left and central areas of the pitch, where left winger Kadeem Harris was now operating.
Part of Wednesday’s game plan was to try and play quick passes down the right channel, but use Harris as a way of switching play away from the crowded area of the pitch.
This suited Harris, because he could use the open space and look to use his pace and 1v1 dribbling ability to directly run at an opponent.
Passive Forest allowed Wednesday to settle
Of course, Wednesday were helped by Forest’s lack of aggression off the ball. The Reds are usually quite difficult to break down, but they’re certainly not an aggressive, high pressing team. Their average PPDA for the season (passes allowed per defensive action – a measure of pressing intensity) is 12.27. That’s the highest score in the Championship, suggesting that instead of pushing high and trying to win the ball higher up the pitch, they sit deeper and try to draw opponents onto them. In this match, Forest’s PPDA was 15.9. When you consider the fact that the away side were very direct and therefore were less likely to string together a lot of passes in one sequence. This is quite a staggering statistic.
Take a look at the example below, showing Barry Bannan about to launch a high ball into the area. Sammy Ameobi, the closest player, is about five yards away from him. He hardly makes any attempt to rush Bannan, who is comfortably Wednesday’s best passer of the ball. Bannan is given the freedom of the City Ground to deliver a diagonal ball into Adam Reach’s head, who is occupying a high narrow position near the strikers.
As well as this giving Bannan time to deliver a more accurate ball into the box without being rushed, it also forced the Reds’ defensive line to drop off as no pressure was being applied to the man in possession. Therefore, Reach could win the header closer to Forest’s goal. This was a constant theme throughout the match, and it was a big reason why Monk’s side caused chaos in the opposing penalty area.
It also meant that when the Tricky Trees won the ball back, it tended to be in deep areas and they’d struggle to counter-attack. They’d often give the ball straight back to Wednesday, who would attack again.
It wasn’t just Ameobi who was responsible for a lack of pressing though: the whole team were. Take this example.
Joao Carvalho gets sucked into marking Massimo Luongo, who is already marked by Tiago Silva. This leaves Bannan with too much time and space, and he plays a ball into the left channel. Forest are forced to put that out for a throw-in deep in their own half. Perhaps if the hosts were better at applying pressure on the ball in the middle third, they wouldn’t have had so many problems in their own third.
Wednesday’s defence and a toothless Forest attack
Sheffield Wednesday executed their defensive game plan almost perfectly. In the image below, we can see them defending in their 4-4-2 shape.
Interestingly, the back four is pretty narrow, with both full-backs tucked in. Wednesday retained a fairly high line, and they didn’t leave much space for Forest in between the defensive and midfield lines. Therefore, it’s harder for Forest to play in those areas.
The midfield line of four was positioned quite wide. This was to deal with the two Forest full-backs. As we mentioned before, Forest’s two wingers often came inside, so Palmer and Fox got tight to them in the half-spaces. Harris and Reach would stay fairly wide, because the tendency of Ameobi and Carvalho to come more narrow would create space for the full-backs to bomb on into the channels.
In particular, right-back Matty Cash is known for the threat he poses on the overlap. This meant Kadeem Harris had to be disciplined and track him, especially if Ameobi brought the left-back inside.
We can see this in action below.
Another key part of the Owls’ defensive success was the role of the front two. Fletcher and Rhodes tended to position themselves narrowly in the middle third and would engage in pressing the two central defenders if they entered that zone. Their narrow positioning made it very difficult for Forest to play a forward pass into the midfield area, as they often occupied the same vertical line as the home side’s more advanced midfielders/inverted wingers, who would drift into the half-spaces.
You can see the front two using that strategy in the image above. The Forest central defender can’t find a progressive vertical pass into midfield, so he ends up trying a long ball which goes out of play. Interestingly, Forest’s deep-lying midfielder Ben Watson (the number eight) had moved into the right-back position, looking available for a pass.
However, every time Forest tried to play the ball into that area, winger Kadeem Harris would instantly press and force them to play a long pass down the line. Due to Wednesday having physical superiority in most areas of the pitch, it was in their interest to force Forest to play as many high balls as possible.
Nottingham Forest’s second-half readjustments
There was no doubt Nottingham Forest needed to restore some pride in the contest, with Wednesday threatening to completely humiliate them. At least the East Midlands side made the second half much more of an even clash. The analysis will now quickly focus on a much less eventful second period.
The graphic above shows the dynamics of the games’ expected goals. As you can see, Wednesday’s expected goals number is higher in the first half, but it levels off after that. That was due to the game calming down, as Forest became able to progress the ball into midfield areas without constantly giving it away. The main way they did that was by changing their build-up strategy, particularly from the back.
As we touched on, Fletcher and Rhodes were making it very difficult for the Reds to start any attacking moves without going long. However, in the second half, Sabri Lamouchi’s men started to stretch that first pressing line by dropping Ben Watson into the build-up. This allowed both centre backs to push wider, opening up both the half-spaces and channels for a pass to a teammate.
It also meant the Wednesday front two were up against a back three, so Forest could easily eliminate them by switching the ball across the backline. You can see this happening in the next example.
Ben Watson was about to switch the ball out to left-sided centre back Joe Worrall. The youngster was in plenty of time and space to pick out a midfielder or look for an option out wide. Doing this also encourages someone from the Wednesday midfield line to go and press, potentially leaving space in behind them to be exploited.
It also encourages the full-backs to push higher, and receive possession in more dangerous areas. Below, we see that right-back Cash has advanced higher up the pitch.
In this position, he’s closer to Ameobi, so they’ve got more chance of being able to link up. By stretching the play wider, Forest hoped to create more space in the centre for the likes of Grabban, Tiago Silva and Joao Carvalho.
Another way Forest managed to stop a Wednesday onslaught was by pressing them higher up the park after the break.
In this image, a midfielder is pushing up on Lees, and another is getting tight to Bannan. Therefore, Bannan is not in space to receive. This meant that instead of having time to find Bannan in space as he would have done in the first half, Lees played a rushed long ball downfield. The service up to the strikers wasn’t anywhere near as good in the second period, and it was mainly because Forest stopped the deliveries at the source.
In truth, Sheffield Wednesday did all the hard work in the first half of this contest: racing into an unbelievable 4-0 half time lead. Nottingham Forest improved after the break, but it didn’t matter. The Owls were able to sit back on a commanding lead. Although the second period was much more even, Cameron Dawson’s clean sheet never looked in doubt.
Wednesday fans are likely to be wondering where on earth this team disappeared to because they’ve slid down to 15th in the table after a horrendous run in early 2020. Fans will be hoping that if and when the season resumes, they’ll be seeing their team get close to the level of their performances before Christmas.
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