EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tactics

Cheltenham Town will take a 2-0 lead into the second leg tonight after Charlie Raglan and Connor Thomas put them in charge on Thursday night against Northampton Town. Cheltenham will be looking to gain promotion, something that has only been achieved from one of the last eleven sides finishing fourth place in the EFL League Two table. Northampton will be looking to penetrate the best defence in the EFL to turn the tie around and return to the playoff final for the first time since 2013.

Cheltenham will be able to call again on keeper Owen Evans, who performed superbly in the first leg, saving Ryan Watson’s penalty as well as numerous goalward shots. Ryan Broom impressed again, occupying space in between, with Michael Duff having the option to rely on his solid defence rather than push for the win. The neatly called ‘Duff Ball’ was on show in the first leg and an area we will discuss in this analysis as Cheltenham look to close out the tie.

Northampton will have to go on the attack and press high to stop Cheltenham dictating the game. With obviously no fans to back the home side, this makes Keith Curle’s side’s job slightly easier, but still looking to score at least two against a side that has only conceded 17 at home all season. Curle will again be looking towards Vadaine Oliver to progress their direct approach, but may look towards experienced forward Andy Williams who came off the bench in the first leg.

In this tactical analysis, we will preview what to look out for in the second leg as both sides target a trip to Wembley.

Cheltenham’s ‘Duff ball’

The first concept to look out for in the second leg this evening is the in-possession tactics Duff has implemented on his side. Cheltenham this season have looked to play a forward-thinking style with an emphasis on playing the way you face off which we will discuss looking deeper into their success.

In order to understand the principles applied, we must not just look at the technical passing abilities of Cheltenham, but their tactical understanding of positions to create space. Their ability to create space higher up the pitch not only with rotations in central channels but well-timed patterns have led to simplistic football on the eye.

In this first example, we take a look at the setup for Cheltenham. With right-sided central defender Charlie Raglan in possession, it is the positions of his teammates which is most interesting. In this situation, Aston Villa loanee Jake Doyle-Hayes has made a movement to the near side, allowing wing-back Sean Long to operate on a higher line. With this movement, he also brings Northampton midfielder James Olayinka into the wide channel. With Callum Morton screening a pass centrally and Vadaine Oliver providing height for Northampton, Ryan Watson has to push onto the deepest midfielder for Cheltenham Connor Thomas in the centre circle.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tactics

These movements, though subtle, open up the pitch much higher for Ryan Broom and Chris Hussey on the far side to overload the outside and inside half-space channels. With Tom Nichols dropping deeper, closer to Alan McCormack, the attention is taken away from Broom. This allows for a switch of play and Cheltenham to progress from a higher line, either playing into Reid with support around or to Hussey who can then deliver or combine with an overload.

So how do Cheltenham then apply their principles to their setup? Well, it comes with rotations into higher areas of the pitch, taking opponents away, while also providing a platform or pivot to then utilise. By rotating players, it is harder for the opponent to mark and therefore restrict progressive passes. As well with rotations higher rather than laterally, a high press is harder to implement as a player is removed from the space, reducing the chance to be shown backwards and predictable.

In the example below, we see an anti-clockwise rotation from Thomas and Doyle-Hayes. As Thomas doesn’t receive the ball, he moves out of the space to operate a position on a higher horizontal line. As he does this, Olayinka follows his movement leaving space for Doyle-Hayes to move into and receive. This principle is similar to that of Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig implementation of a double into a single pivot, allowing one player to rotate into advanced positions while the other retains a deeper position.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tacticsThe implementation of these rotations allow a player to pick up an advanced position is teamed with another principle of Duff’s. With Cheltenham’s two forwards, alongside Nichols, is journeyman Reuben Reid who was very effective in implementing the up, back and through patterns. As with the rotation, this allows for a midfielder to join Broom in an advanced position closer to Reid, progressing closer to the opposition goal.

In this final example, we see this pattern in action, slightly deeper. With an emphasis on playing the way you face an interception is made breaking to Reid (the up), acting as the pivot player higher than the man in possession. Thomas positions himself deeper than Reid  (the back), operating as a platform to receive and plays forward to Nichols to make a movement in the final third for the through.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tacticsThis principle utilises the physical strength and hold-up abilities of Reid, teamed with the willing running and pace of Nichols to move the opposition. As Reid will bring a player with him deeper, this opens space higher for players like Nichols and Broom to move into and receive in dangerous areas. By moving the opposition’s units at pace, this creates disorganisation of which clever and intelligent players, like Broom, can take advantage of.

Duff has certainly implemented an attractive style of football in just his second season in management, with clearly his players buying into the principles he has applied. These principles certainly cause problems for Northampton in the first leg, so let’s look at how Curle’s side may look to contain it this evening.

Northampton’s high press

Given the deficit Curle’s side find themselves in, they will have to go and take risks to get back into the tie early. As mentioned with Cheltenham’s possession-based style, Northampton may have to risk pressing high, leaving gaps behind, to win possession in dangerous areas leading to high-quality chances.

So how might they go about this? With both sides playing with a three-back setup, the width is provided from the wing-backs. Therefore, Northampton may look to cut the supply line to these areas, forcing any passes inside towards congested areas. As mentioned, Cheltenham favour rotations and dealing with this can be very difficult unless well organised. Either Northampton may look to man-mark, which they tried in the first leg. Or look to maintain the opposition in front, leaving little gaps in between the units for Cheltenham’s midfielders to rotate higher into.

In this first example, from the sides meeting in March, we look at how Northampton may look to make Cheltenham’s possession predictable. With Ben Tozer often the ball-playing central defender for Cheltenham, Northampton may look to cut off any pass to the outside central defenders. With the starting positions in-between, cutting the passing lanes, Northampton’s forwards will encourage Tozer to step in with possession, vacating the space centrally.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tacticsWith the trap set, Northampton can look to press hard in the central channel, winning the ball high from Tozer. With the space left behind, depending on the area Northampton win the ball, the recovery may be too big for the outside central defenders to make up. With the forwards already positioned centrally, they can make a move into the space, receiving on the inside of the recovering defenders.

Cutting the passes to the wider centre-backs, forces Tozer to either play into central areas or break the line by stepping into the space. Northampton can then press and win with space to play into behind. By showing inside this reduce the chance of Cheltenham playing around, getting rotating midfielders into wide areas on the ball.

However as mentioned, with Northampton pressing high, the space in between may open up for Cheltenham to look for players in space to receive penetrative passes. Therefore, Northampton will have to be organised with their press, basing the intensity off a number of triggers we will look at now.

In this first example, we highlight the trigger of a backwards pass. With the rotating midfielder, this time Broom in possession, he is shown backwards by the pressing midfielder Watson. The pass backwards towards Hussey encourages the press from Michael Harriman. Harriman looks to give the player in possession as little time as possible to retain comfortably, encouraging a pass backwards. Morton also makes a movement towards the left-sided centre-back to prevent any pass centrally or Cheltenham relieving pressure.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tactics

These triggers are not only important for the man closest to them in possession, but for all the units. With Harriman’s intensity to press, this encourages the forward unit to cut off passing lanes. The midfield unit to step onto their closest man, giving no free options and finally the defensive unit to step higher preventing space in between for Cheltenham to play into.

The importance of triggers is highlighted again in this next example. With Hussey in possession facing his own goal, the Northampton front two units look to position themselves ready to press their closest opponent. As Harriman applies pressure from behind, he cuts off the passing lanes into players who have rotated higher. The forward Oliver looks to press the central defender and cut off the pitch for Cheltenham, forcing them into a congested area in the wide channel.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tactics

Northampton can now be more aggressive with their press and look to win the ball in their opponent’s defensive third. With an organised high press, this should make it difficult for Cheltenham to implement their fluid passing principles, making it very difficult for one man in particular to have an influence on the game.

Ryan Broom’s role

The forward-thinking midfielder picked up a lot of dangerous positions for his side as they looked to play through the Northampton units in the first leg. Being Cheltenham’s highest-scoring player, Broom is a clear threat but what exactly makes him so dangerous.

This first example looks at how Broom finds space in between the lines. This intelligent movement comes from the link towards overloading in the wide areas. With William Boyle supporting Hussey down the left side, this has committed the wing-back, Harriman and also Watson to equal up this channel. As Harriman steps out, the gap between himself and Charlie Goode widens, in which Broom is able to step into the half-space left by the shift of the unit.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tacticsBroom’s intelligent awareness allows him to receive on the back foot, playing forwards to push past the deepest midfielder McCormack to set up a chance for his side. These sort of areas are perfect for Broom to showcase his ability on the ball to slide in teammates with diagonal passes in behind with blindside movements into unoccupied space.

Broom is a player who looks to invade space. Without a particular position, he is asked to roam into areas which disrupt the opponent’s backline. This next example showcases this. With Northampton’s wing-back recovering, Broom makes a move into the space unoccupied with a blindside run off the back of the right-sided centre-back.

EFL League 2 Playoff 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Northampton Town – tactical preview tactics

This movement is triggered by Nichols making a deeper movement to attract the opponent’s midfielders, allowing Broom to move in without being tracked. Occupying this gap in between, prevents Goode from narrowing to protect the space behind the central centre back, as doing so would give Broom the space to receive and drive at goal.

Broom often makes movements into the final third, moving closest to the player who is part of the up, back and through principle. With his timing of movement, Broom is able to position himself facing the player in possession to receive facing the goal where he can either drive or progress the ball at a higher tempo. The movement Broom shows has led to a number of opportunities for his side, which is clear with his statistics. If Northampton are to prevent the tie being over, for sure they will have to deal with the movement of Broom.

Conclusion

With two games in quick succession after such a long break, a few changes are expected for both sides. However, with the lure of a trip to Wembley, players on both sides will be eager to play their part. Many have said this tie is over – but Northampton have scored the majority of their goals early and another could make this a very nervy affair for Duff’s men.

Cheltenham I expect to line up system-wise very similarly, looking to maintain the ball with Northampton looking to press high and force mistakes. Northampton know they will have to go all out for the victory, but be wary at the back, as with one goal and the tie is effectively over given Cheltenham’s defensive record.