The 35th match week of EFL League One featured a clash between two heavyweights. Portsmouth hosted Fleetwood in a high stakes match, with both teams aiming for a playoff spot. Promotion to the Championship is of utmost importance for both clubs, and a win here would solidify their chances. This tactical analysis article will try to explain the tactics that both teams used in the match. This match had a lot of things to dissect from the analysis perspective.
Portsmouth’s manager Kenny Jackett selected a 4-2-3-1 formation for this match. Alex Bass started as the goalkeeper. Sean Raggett and James Bolton were the centre-back pairing, with Steve Seddon and Rangers loanee Ross McCrorie completing the backline. The midfield pivot comprised of Cameron McGeehan and Tom Naylor. Andy Cannon played the role of an attacking midfielder with Ronan Curtis and Ryan Williams providing width on the flanks. Ellis Harrison completed the starting eleven as the lone striker.
Fleetwood’s manager Joey Barton opted for a 5-4-1 system including two players on loan from Everton. Alex Cairns was the goalkeeper. The back three consisted of Callum Connolly, Harry Souttar and Lewis Gibson. Lewie Coyle and Danny Andrew started as the wing-backs. Jack Sowerby and Glenn Whelan were the midfield pairing, with Josh Morris and Barrie McKay acting as wide midfielders. Ched Evans led the attack as the striker.
Portsmouth displayed a very direct approach in this game. Goalkeeper Alex Bass constantly used long balls, targeting them deep into the middle third and attacking third. In fact, all of his passes were long passes. Most of them were aimed into the left-hand side of the pitch. Here’s a chart showing all of his passes:
Harrison, their striker, was used as a target man for this purpose. Most long balls were pinged towards him, to combine with his teammates. Portsmouth instructed their wide players, Curtis and Williams, and their attacking midfielder, Cannon, to stay close to Harrison constantly. They provided an option for him to lay the ball off to. This was their primary build-up strategy. Most of Portsmouth’s attacks came from the usage of deep long balls. An illustration of the strategy can be seen below. Harrison did a good job at winning these long balls, as he was able to win nine out of his total 19 aerial duels.
While in possession, Portsmouth switched to 3-1-4-2 system, with their fullbacks pushing forward. This enabled them to exploit the spaces left in wide areas due to Fleetwood’s defensive compactness. They were able to take advantage of this by quickly moving the ball from one side to the other, in an attempt to cause miscommunication in Fleetwood’s players. The players also made substantial use of diagonal passes over the top of their defence.
After receiving the ball on the flanks, the wide players were instructed to cross at every opportunity. Portsmouth were able to put in 18 crosses, but only four of them were successful. This cross-heavy approach made sense but because of the bad execution, they weren’t able to take complete advantage of the space available.
However, Portsmouth biggest issue was their failure of using the space in the central areas. Far too many times they left a gap in their midfield. This meant there was no connection between their midfield and attack.
Their attacking midfielder, Andy Cannon, was sometimes too close to their attackers. The quality of their build-up would have significantly improved if Cannon positioned himself into these spaces. This broke down several of their attacks and they were forced to go long instead. As a result, there were a lot of possession losses, which could’ve easily been avoided.
Portsmouth increased their tempo in the second half and it improved their attack significantly. They were able to engage their midfield into more quick passes. This gave their attack more fluidity. This was mostly due to the introduction of Marcus Harness in the 66th minute. His quick pace allowed Portsmouth to access the wider areas in a better way, compared to the first half.
Portsmouth’s press was fairly intense, especially in the first phase. Even though it was effective, this left them a little vulnerable in the middle third as well. With their midfield pivot sitting quite deep in the 4-2-3-1 system, there were pockets of space in the central areas.
One interesting observation was Portsmouth’s setup in defensive corner kicks. In order to prevent Fleetwood from taking short corners, they stationed two players near the corner flag.
Portsmouth also targeted Fleetwood’s keeper Cairnes on their attacking set-pieces, especially corners. Cairnes is not very good at commanding his box and he struggles at collecting crosses. Portsmouth tried to attack this weakness by putting their corners into the six-yard-box.
Four of their five corners were directed into the penalty area. Although it didn’t result in a goal, this showed that Jackett has an eye for details like this. And he isn’t scared of using them to his own team’s advantage.
Fleetwood also demonstrated a very direct nature of football. However, goalkeeper Alex Cairnes’ distribution was more even in terms of direction. He used both sides of the pitch to target the ball into.
One key difference in their direct play was that passes towards their striker, Ched Evans, were played more into his feet rather than the head.
Evans’ ability to hold on to the ball was very useful for Fleetwood. He has the knack of getting his teammates involved in the attack. After having the ball played into his feet, Evans can quickly turn and pass the ball to his teammates. Dropping deep to receive the ball also attracted a defender with him, opening up space in behind. Fleetwood’s wide players were instructed to make runs into the space created by Evans’ movement.
You can see how Evans drops deep to receive a pass from his teammate. This is a signal for McKay, their left winger, to make a run. Fleetwood’s emphasis on player movement enabled them to disrupt Portsmouth’s defensive shape and carve spaces in it.
Using a 5-4-1 system, Fleetwood packed the central areas with their players. Their overall press wasn’t very intensive, as they are not an aggressive team. They stressed on offering very little space, if any, in between the lines. Any sort of activity in those areas was met with a very intense press by their midfield. This forced Portsmouth to play the ball into wide areas.
After forcing the ball into wide areas, Fleetwood tried to overload the flanks, thus creating a numerical advantage.
A lot of these 2 vs 1 and 3 vs 2 overloading scenarios were created. This stifled Portsmouth’s attack and left them searching for answers. It resulted in an ample amount of possession gains for the away side.
Portsmouth’s structure in possession meant the wide channels were accessible. Fleetwood’s wide forwards capitalised on this by making runs into these channels. After winning possession in the midfield, their midfielders tried to reward these runs by quickly launching the ball into space.
Fleetwood’s attacks were designed to take place centrally. Instead of using long balls, they used penetrating vertical passes through the lines of defence. Portsmouth’s deeply positioned midfield allowed their players to have a lot of time on the ball, especially the midfielders. Quick ball movement allowed them to navigate through the defence. Meanwhile, the strong player movement helped them benefit from their opponent’s structural deficiencies.
One weakness of Fleetwood’s game was their mediocre defence. While their narrow defensive shape prevented any progress through the centre of the pitch, it left them exposed out wide.
Their speed of recovery could have been quicker. They weren’t able to close down attackers and allowed plenty of crosses to be attempted. They were able to get away with it this time, thanks to Portsmouth’s inefficient crossing. But this could be a problem going forward. Their discipline and overall concentration will need to improve if they want to reach their goals.
This was a strong physical game, which consisted of plenty of long balls and feisty duels. It was high scoring and entertaining, just as you’d hope a big match like this to be. Both teams were even for the most part and thus, a draw was a fair result. But both teams probably walked out thinking they could have snatched all three points. And on a different day, that might have been true. There was a fair amount of similarity between the approaches of both teams, but some minute details separated them. Although it might not look like it, this point will probably be an important one in their hopes of promotion. This match has set us up nicely for what promises to be a very intriguing playoff race. All we’re waiting for now is the return of England’s third division.