Peterborough hosted Portsmouth in the 37th fixture of the EFL League One season. Both teams’ goal is the playoffs position that leads to a place in the EFL Championship. This tactical analysis article will try to give a point of view of the tactics that both teams used in the match. Peterborough had players from EPL clubs on the bench like Josh Knight, who is on loan from Leicester City, while on the other side, Portsmouth also had young players sitting on the bench like Ross McCrorie, on loan from Rangers. This match had a lot of things to dissect from the tactical analysis aspect.
Peterborough’s manager chose the 3-4-1-2 formation to face Portsmouth. Christy Pym was the goalkeeper while the three defenders were Mark Beevers, Nathan Thompson, and Frazer Blake-Tracey. The two central midfielders were Reece Brown and Jack Taylor, while Dan Butler and Joe Ward were the two wing-backs. The attacking midfielder was Sammie Szmodics and the two centre forwards were Siriki Dembele and Ivan Toney.
Portsmouth lined up with the 4-1-4-1 formation. The goalkeeper was Alex Bass. Jack Whatmough and Sean Raggett were the two centre backs, and Steve Seddon with James Bolton were the left and right full-backs, respectively. Tom Naylor was the defensive midfielder in front of the defensive line and the two central midfielders were Cameron McGeehan and Ben Close. The left-winger was Ronan Curtis and the right-winger was Ryan Williams. At the edge of the formation was John Marquis, as the centre forward.
Peterborough’s approach in the game
Peterborough chose a direct style of game. The goalkeeper Pym was trying to play long balls, directly to the middle and final third of the field. Pym had in total 27 passes – 24 of which were long balls as Pym passed just three times into the first third of the field. That is something that shows us the direct style of play that Peterborough chose against Portsmouth.
With that tactical approach, Peterborough tried to transfer the game quickly into the final third. Pym’s successful passes from direct play were targeting at an 87.5% percentage to the centre forward, Toney. That was because Toney is a well-built player that can go for body challenges. The players that were around Toney were trying to take advantage of the potential of Toney winning the challenge.
When the players of Peterborough had to play the ball from their half, they got support from Szmodics and Toney, the attacking midfielder and one of the two centre forwards, who were stepping deeper in the field and were trying to outnumber the opposition. The only player that was staying higher in the pitch was Dembele.
The reason why this was happening was because of his speed and technical abilities. Those two indicators made Dembele a very tough opponent to compete against, and especially if he finds open field he can then take advantage of his speed. Portsmouth could easily overload the central area of the field and restrict the options of passing that the two centre midfielders of Peterborough had. So Toney and Szmodics by stepping deeper played a crucial role in solving that problem.
That tactical move from those two players created free spaces that the wing-backs tried to take advantage of. The two wing-backs were taking a high position on the field and were trying to be supportive when Peterborough had possession of the ball. Ward and Butler, the two wing-backs, were taking a high and wide position on the field – that was a way for Portsmouth to try and stretch the defensive line of the opposition.
Moreover, by going high and wide, they had more chances of taking advantage of the movements that Toney was doing. He was stepping deeper to support the carrier of the ball, either to support and create space for his teammates or have a combination game.
Moreover, when the ball was at the flanks, Peterborough had at least three players in the box of the opposition. In that way, Peterborough were trying to put pressure on their opponent: Portsmouth was playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation, so their defensive line had to adjust quickly to the situation, as their opponent could have an advantage from this scenario.
That was depending on the side that the three players were choosing to move to: for example, if the three players, who were the attacking midfielder, Szmodics, and the two centre forwards, Toney and Dembele, were deciding to move central, in the goal area, the two centre-backs of Portsmouth had to face a 3 v 2 situation.
When Peterborough were in possession in their opponent’s half, they usually had up to seven players in that half of the field. Peterborough’s players had a high positioning, including one of the centre-backs. The high positioning of one of the centre-backs had two meanings: he could efficiently support the offensive part of the game and he could be an extra player in tight areas.
So, this is something that gave extra flexibility in Peterborough’s tactics, and the fact that Portsmouth were playing with just one forward gave more comfort to the three centre-backs of Peterborough to try to get involved more in the offensive part when they could.
Despite the fact that Peterborough had many players with a high position in the field, when they were losing the ball, they did not choose to put instant pressure on their opponent. Peterborough chose to have a player on the ball, and the rest of the players’ duty was to have a quick run in their own half to organise the defence and become compact. They had time to become compact because they had a player marking the carrier of the ball. That player was usually the one that was closer to the ball.
As such, Peterborough’s pressing could be characterised as medium block pressure because they were not pressing high, but they were putting pressure on when the opponent was at the central part of the field, and especially when coming closer to Peterborough’s box.
Peterborough’s 3-4-1-2 was turning into a 5-2-3 when defending as the two wing-backs were stepping back next to the three centre-backs. The two centre midfielders were holding their position. The attacking midfielder had a slightly deeper position compared with the two centre forwards. This is because Szmodics, the attacking midfielder, was defending along the pitch from flank to flank. That was a way for Peterborough to retain the balance in the flanks.
Without that movement, their formation would have been exposed many times by Portsmouth, as the defending 5-2-3 had a disadvantage compared with the 4-1-4-1, where there is the winger and the full-back that could outnumber the opponent’s wing-back. The player that usually was staying higher in the pitch was Dembele, as he could take advantage of long balls because of his speed and technical abilities.
The unit that made the difference for Peterborough
Peterborough tried to take advantage of the two forwards and the attacking midfielder. Those three players not only helped the team in the offensive part of the game with their technical ability but they also did support the defensive part. By helping and taking part in the defensive part, they made sure that Peterborough would have an effective transition from defence to attack. As mentioned before, Toney and Szmodics were stepping deeper and supporting either by maintaining the balance when defending, or by overloading to create some combination games.
Toney was the target man for Peterborough. Most of the long balls, either coming from the goalkeeper, or coming from the defensive line, were targeting him. This is because Toney is a strong player that knows how to use his body. Szmodics and Dembele were close to him and tried to take advantage of this situation and have a combination game. All of them are quick and technically good players. For that reason, a combination game after a long ball could be beneficial for them, as they will find the opposing team unprepared and with many free spaces that they could take advantage of.
Moreover, the player that Peterborough tried to take full advantage of was Dembele. That was because Dembele is a technically gifted player, and combines technique and speed. Whenever Dembele had the ball, he was a threat for the opponents. The chances for him to be even more threatening to Portsmouth was when he had an open field to drive the ball.
In those kinds of situations, he dragged upon him more than two players. In that way, he gave more free space to his teammates, and they had the chance to receive the ball from him with more chances of creating something remarkable.
Portsmouth chose a direct approach for this game as well. Breaking down how they played against Peterborough and starting the analysis from the back, we notice that the goalkeeper was playing long and direct balls. Every time that the goalkeeper had the ball at his feet, Portsmouth’s players were overloading the left flank of the field. In that area of the field was the striker and left winger of Portsmouth, Marquis and Curtis respectively. Those two players were the target players from the goalkeeper, as they could retain control of the ball under pressure and create the right circumstances to attack from that part of the field.
When Portsmouth had possession of the ball in the middle third of the field, they tried to take advantage of the fact that the attacking midfielder of Peterborough was moving to the flanks to support the defensive part of their game there. By doing so, Szmodics created free space in the central part of the field, where Naylor, the defensive midfielder and one of the two centre-backs, Whatmough and Raggett, could take advantage of it.
In that way, Portsmouth could build up their game high in the field with extra players and a lot of free space. If the defensive midfielder or one of the centre backs acted quickly in that space, they could outnumber the midfielders of the opposition by driving the ball vertically up the field and create a 3 v 2 situation.
When the ball was at that point of the field, Marquis was stepping deeper. In that way, he was creating free space, either for him or his teammates and, moreover, he could support the possession of the team by becoming an extra player in the midfield area. The reason why Marquis was doing that so often was because of Peterborough’s formation.
Peterborough, as mentioned before, was playing a 3-4-1-2 formation that was turning into a 5-2-3 when defending. So if Marquis was not stepping deeper into the midfield area, he would be isolated by the three centre-backs of Peterborough. By coming away from the box, he not only supported the possession of the ball for his team, but he also created free spaces for his teammates by dragging the Peterborough players with him.
Oliver Hawkins came into McGeehan’s position. That substitution turned Marquis into a central midfielder. Those changes let more players of Portsmouth step into the box of their opponent. Portsmouth in the second half tried to take something from the game as Peterborough were leading the score. So what Portsmouth’s manager did was to bring more players into the box. By doing so, Peterborough could not support their defensive game in the flanks efficiently.
So for Portsmouth, that was a way to take advantage on the wings: the full-backs came higher and were more offensive compared with the first half and tried to deliver the ball into the box. Marquis came deeper as a central midfielder, which gave Portsmouth more aggression in the middle third of the field and more creativity.
When Portsmouth did not have possession of the ball the 4-1-4-1 formation was turning into a flexible 5-3-2. If the ball was playing on the left side of Portsmouth’s field (in the way that they were defending), then the right-winger would step back next to the defensive line. The defensive line would focus to support the left-winger.
If there was a need for the left full-back to step out and be more aggressive while defending, to support efficiently the left-winger or the central midfielder who were in front of him, he could do it and still there would be four players in the defensive line. The same was happening on the other side of the field. That gave flexibility and more aggression to Portsmouth’s players when defending and they could support each other between the lines more efficiently.
This was a strong physical game, as there were a lot of long balls, which led to many challenges in the midfield area. This is the reason in this article for why there is no build-up analysis, as both teams chose to eliminate each other and depend on the physicality of their players by playing a direct style of play. Moreover, that win for Peterborough would be very useful in the race for the playoffs.