The EFL League One 2019/20 season has come to an end for a majority of the clubs. With teams like Coventry City and Rotherham United gaining automatic promotion to the EFL Championship, the final promotion spot remains up for grabs. In this tactical analysis, we will be looking at a preview of the play-off semi-final fixture between Portsmouth and Oxford United. We will be looking at the tactics employed by these teams during this season and our analysis will show us what we can expect from the first leg of this semi-final.

Our tactical analysis will highlight key points from the previous league meeting between Portsmouth and Oxford United as well. We will also come up with a predicted line-up of the two sides based on an analysis of their tactics over the course of this season. Before we begin, we shall take a look at a small preview graphic of the two teams.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

Portsmouth and Oxford have faced each other twice this season, although one encounter was in a cup game which saw a young Portsmouth team emerge victorious on penalties. However, both teams have not been able to get the better of the other over the course of 90 minutes.

A look at the position from which their shots are on target shows that most of Oxford’s shots originate from just inside the penalty area. For Portsmouth, there seems to be a tendency to shoot from the left side of the goal and the shots from this position are more often on target. Corner routines of Oxford show that they prefer to take deeper corners and also target the six-yard box while Portsmouth aims their corners closer to the near post as well.

A look at their pass maps from previous games shows that Oxford concentrates their game through the middle while Portsmouth looks to push higher and play the ball to their wingers. The 4-3-3 formation has been the most frequently used by Oxford (58%) and 4-2-3-1 has been the most often used formation for Portsmouth (52%). A few key players have also been listed and we can expect most of them to start in the upcoming fixture as well.

Predicted line-ups

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

Our predicted line-up goes by an analysis of the tactics of the two sides this season and most of the players have been regulars in the squad this season.

Portsmouth (4-2-3-1): Craig MacGillivray, Lee Brown, Sean Raggett, Christian Burgess, Ross McCrorie, Tom Naylor, Ben Close, Ronan Curtis, Gareth Evans, Ryan Williams, John Marquis.

Coach: Kenny Jackett

We expect Jackett to field a more experienced line-up for this play-off semi-final. Although Alex Bass has been good in goal, we expect the 22-year-old to be on the bench in favour of the 27-year-old MacGillivray who has played more this season. We also expect Ross McCrorie, who is on loan from Rangers, to start ahead of the more defensive James Bolton at right-back.

Oxford United (4-3-3): Simon Eastwood, Josh Ruffels, John Mousinho, Rob Dickie, Sam Long, Alex Gorrin, Cameron Brannagan, Mark Sykes, Tariqe Fosu, James Henry, Matty Taylor.

Coach: Karl Robinson

Much like Jackett, we would expect Robinson to have some experience in his squad. It is due to this that we have gone for the 34-year-old Mousinho at centre-back and Long at right-back. We expect Robinson’s tactics to revolve around a strong midfield with Gorrin, Brannagan and Sykes. The three have been very reliable all season and though they have not always started, this trio has been effective when played together.

Tactical analysis of Oxford United

In this section of our tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics employed by Oxford United this season. We will also look at the previous meeting between the two sides to see how they fared.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tacticsOxford tends to play with a double pivot in midfield. The likes of Brannagan and Gorrin remain deep and provide support to their centre-backs. This support enables the full-backs to push higher up and should the opposition break out on a counter-attack, the two midfielders slot into the backline to form a temporary back four.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

Should either Gorrin or Brannagan not start or are substituted, expect Oxford to move to a single pivot. They form a defensive triangle and this is usually part of their tactics when they want to attack. Brannagan or Gorrin drop to almost a third centre-back and use their passing range to spread the ball to the wingers. These tactics are also employed when both the midfielders are on the pitch, with Gorrin staying back and allowing Brannagan to push up as well.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

As we mentioned, Oxford looks to spread the ball out to the wings. The full-backs and wingers stay close to the touchline and spread the opposition defence. Using the passing range of Gorrin and Brannagan, the ball is constantly played forward and they look to penetrate the opposition defence with a single pass.

These tactics mean that the likes of Sykes, who also plays in midfield, would have to move wider and not much of Oxford’s play takes place through the centre. Rarely there is a push through the centre that sees the ball played to the forwards and these tactics are not as effective.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

In attack, Oxford’s tactics see them move to a 3-4-3 formation as well. With Brannagan, Gorrin, or even one of the centre-backs carrying the ball forward, Oxford look to use as much pitch as possible to provide plenty of passing options. If they do manage to find a flank that could be vulnerable, Oxford has shown the tendency to channel most of their attacks down that flank. They overload the defender down that side by having not just the winger and full-back play higher, but also push a forward or midfielder closer to that area as well.

These tactics see Oxford cause a lot of trouble for the vulnerable defender and gives them the best chance of scoring. It also allows them to dictate the play and they have all liberty to change their tactics and launch sudden attacks from the opposite flank as well.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

Here we see similar tactics even when Oxford changes their formation. The attackers look to have as much space as possible between them in order to exploit gaps down the flanks. They are also able to look for spaces between defenders and split them with a single pass. We can see that most of their tactics revolve around direct play and do not make use of complex passing moves. They look to unlock defences with through passes and also move the ball out wide to later bombard the box with crosses. Such an attack could be dangerous for teams that are slow to recover on losing the ball and they will be made to pay dearly.

Tactical analysis of Portsmouth

We will now move onto the next section of our tactical analysis where we will look at the tactics of Portsmouth. Jackett has used a range of tactics this season as per the squad he has picked and in this analysis, we will go over these tactics.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

In terms of their defensive structure, Portsmouth has maintained a very flat backline this season. The full-backs stay compact to the centre-backs and this prevents attackers from slipping into gaps between them. It also allows them to efficiently play an offside trap considering that all the defenders are along the same line and can push up together.

Another feature is how close the defensive midfielders play to the defenders. They stay within touching distance of the backline and space between the midfielders and defence is very minimal. Should an attacker try to exploit this space, Portsmouth is well equipped to engage him as soon as he receives the ball. This makes it difficult for any team trying to penetrate through the centre.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

The two midfielders are also able to drop into the backline and form an organised structure at the back. This sees them have six defenders maintaining a similar line and the remaining players are able to engage the opposition. It is also highly effective against wing play as either of the full-backs can take on the wingers and engage in tackles without having to worry about exposing the centre-backs. Should the full-backs get beat, there are still five defenders covering.

This also ensures that they can be well-positioned to clear any cross that comes in. Portsmouth would overload their own box and make it difficult for the attackers to meet any cross.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

Another feature of Jackett’s tactics is the attacking threat of the full-backs. When McCrorie is in the side, Portsmouth has looked to push forward even more down the flanks. The 22-year-old has an impressive attacking capability and it is no surprise that Jackett looks to capitalise on this with his tactics.

An interesting point to note is the fact that when either full-back pushes forward, the opposite full-back stays further back. A defensive midfielder also drops back towards the flank and this guards Portsmouth against a potential counter-attack as well. Such shrewd tactics allow Portsmouth to pose an attacking threat while also safeguarding them at the back.

It also goes to show that much like Oxford, Portsmouth also attacks down the wings and are able to quickly play the ball into the centre.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

Not just at the back, Portsmouth has also shown their organisation out of possession in their high pressing as well. In the pictures above and below, we see that they look to press their opposition deep in their own half and also press them in triangles. While one person runs at the player with possession, another moves to cut off his nearest passing option while the third player stays back to cover his teammate who engages in a tackle.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

We can also see that this is not something that is limited only to players of a certain position. Every player is capable of taking on any of the three roles of the triangle and is swift to engage in this high press on losing possession. Such a press is very useful in breaking down opposition counters early on and also stalling the opposition while their defence recovers. There has certainly been a lot of training to perfect these tactics of Jackett and we can say that the effort has paid off as well.

Aerial Duels

With both teams playing through the wings and engaging in long passes, we shall take a look at the aerial ability of the two sides. In the previous fixture, there were a number of aerial duels and we expect the same from the upcoming game as well.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

The Portsmouth side has been much better in the air compared to Oxford. Their tactics of looking to win the second ball have seen them come out on top in most aerial duels, even if they do not always win the first ball. In the image above, we see how the forward, Marquis, drags his defender out of position and contests for the ball. This opens up space for his teammate who receives the second ball and can run through the centre.

Portsmouth’s superior physicality has also seen them generally win more of these aerial duels and tackles as well. This has led the Oxford players to make mistakes.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

As we see in this image, two Portsmouth players have moved towards the area where the ball falls. This pressure has led to the Oxford player to make an error in judgement and has in fact allowed the ball to fall behind him. Such an error means that Portsmouth can slip in between the defence by winning the ball and create golden opportunities to score. The initial dominance of Portsmouth in the game physically has seen the Oxford defenders miscommunicate and become overly cautious of the long ball.

EFL League One 2019/20: Portsmouth vs Oxford United - tactical analysis tactics

Once again we see a similar error in the image above. Portsmouth’s effective high press puts pressure on the Oxford defence and they make errors in judgement. The ball falls behind the defender, allowing the attacker to claim the ball in a crucial area in front of the goal. An important point to note is that should the defender win the ball, the Portsmouth forwards are always readily positioned to fight for the second ball as well. Their usual method of pressing in a triangle gives way to them pressing with two forwards for aerial balls and has proved to be effective as well.

Though Portsmouth could not capitalise on this weakness last time, they certainly troubled the Oxford defence regularly and we can expect more of the same.


In this tactical analysis, we have seen a rough idea of how Oxford and Portsmouth play. We have also seen instances from the previous league meeting between the two and had an analysis of the tactics of the two sides.

Oxford has to find an effective way to attack and penetrate the Portsmouth defence and it will be interesting to see if Robinson will change his tactics in order to do so. Jackett has also seen his side fall to late goals this season and hence Portsmouth would have to ensure that their intensity lasts the entirety of the game.

Although Portsmouth succumbed to a late equaliser in their previous meeting, we expect them to take control of their home leg and win by a margin of one or two goals. Our predicted scoreline would be 2-1 to Portsmouth. Should Oxford manage to change their tactics and take charge of the game, however, we could expect a more even fixture.