Wycombe Wanderers started the season as third favourites for relegation in EFL League One, with the financially troubled Bolton Wanderers and Bury below them. Promotion for the Chairboys had odds of 16/1 in a league involving historic and financially superior clubs such as Sunderland and Ipswich Town. The overall cause was obviously helped by the 75% purchase of the club by American businessman Rob Couhig in February; however, the enormity of this achievement cannot be underestimated.
This data analysis will look to find the reasons for Wycombe’s shock promotion to the Championship. Through a closer look at their unique style, we will uncover the secrets to their success, while comparing them to other teams and the differing styles across League One.
The charismatic figure of Gareth Ainsworth has now enjoyed an eight-year tenure at Wycombe. His system requires lots of hard work and a willingness to give up possession to create a solid base defensively. He has also employed a direct style of play, which compliments the likes of Adebayo Akinfenwa. This will be explored in greater detail later in the piece.
Ainsworth’s preferred formation in the 2019/20 season was 4-3-3, which he played 29 times throughout the course of the campaign. This system advocates limited width with the aim of creating overloads in central positions, particularly with the ball often played long into the extremely strong figure of Akinfenwa.
The midfield three rotates around the likes of Dominic Gape, Matt Bloomfield, Curtis Thompson, and David Wheeler. The wingers are also rotated with Fred Onyedinma mostly occupying the left-wing, whereas Wheeler sometimes plays out wide with Nick Freeman and Paul Symth ready to come in also. However, the back five was much more settled. The back five of Ryan Allsop, Jack Grimmer, Darius Charles, Anthony Stewart, and Joe Jacobson have been integral to the system. Ainsworth’s use of loans and free transfers has been a key aspect of Wycombe’s model with the likes of Onyedinma, Wheeler, and Rolando Aarons coming from the likes of Millwall, QPR and Newcastle (EPL) respectively.
As you can see from the graphic above, Wycombe play a very narrow style with the left and right-wingers often coming in to support the three central midfielders. The wingers play an important role in providing support going forwards but also helping Wycombe create a low block as they slot in to form a five-man midfield defensively. Onyedinma and Wheeler, who usually occupy the wide midfield areas, have contributed 10 goals to the team combined this season, which sees them as the third and fourth top scorers respectively.
The emphasis on using the centre of the pitch when attacking is something that can be seen in the graphic below. 38% of Wycombe’s attacks take place in the central zone of the pitch, which is only matched by Peterborough who also enjoy the same percentage of attacks in this zone. The notorious Akinfenwa has clearly been a keen benefiter of this system with 10 goals at an xG of 10.97. He is joint top scorer with the left-back and set piece specialist Joe Jacobson.
A reluctancy to keep possession
This data analysis comes from the Wyscout database, which has covered all 37 games of Wycombe’s season. An intriguing part of Wycombe’s stats this season is their passing and possession data, which tells you a lot about their style. Their passing data is shown below with average passes per 90, forward passes, lateral and long passes, alongside average pass length all covered. These statistics isolated are not much use to us but a closer look at the league average for all the different types of passes helps us draw some intriguing comparisons.
In all aspects of passing, apart from the average pass length, the league average was higher than Wycombe’s numbers. For average passes per 90, Wycombe’s was 211, compared to the league average of 330.02. Forward passes saw the league average reach 132.2, whereas Wycombe’s was 103.08. In addition to this, lateral and long passes saw league averages at 104.8 and 55.6 respectively, yet Wycombe’s was 55.07 and 49.93. There is a clear pattern here. When they do have the ball it is usually a ball that is longer than the average pass length, which means passing accuracy and possession is often sacrificed. In fact, Wycombe’s average pass length of 23.84 is the highest in the league. An analysis of Wycombe’s passing data in comparison to the league average can be seen in the table below.
These low passing stats ultimately lead to minimal possession, with Wycombe at the very bottom of possession stats in the entirety of League One. The play-off final was the ultimate contrast of styles as Wycombe faced an Oxford United side who were second in the possession stats and fifth in average passes per 90. The possession stats in the play-off final saw Oxford United completely dominate with the ball as they enjoyed 76.1% possession, compared to Wycombe’s total 23.9%. However, Wycombe find a way to win without the ball and that is what makes them so impressive.
The above graphic shows the possession stats for all the teams in League One. Wycombe’s bar is indicated red and, as you can see, they are significantly lower than the other teams. Their average of 40.8% possession was 3.7% less than the second bottom side AFC Wimbledon. The difference between Wycombe’s possession compared to MK Dons who top the possession stats was an enormous 14.7%. Tottenham Hotspur‘s José Mourinho once said that “possession is not essential to win matches” and Ainsworth’s men are defying the odds with this type of philosophy in mind.
Aggresive and intelligent defending
Wycombe’s defensive solidity was clearly declining before the lockdown as they had only a single clean sheet since December 14. This was a big decline from the six clean sheets they had in the months of October and November, prior to this slump in form. Post-lockdown saw Wycombe defend slightly better with four goals conceded in the three play-off games, which was the same amount they had conceded in the two games preceding the lockdown. Therefore, Wycombe’s record of 44 goals conceded in the regular League One season saw them as the 13th best defence in the division. This is accurate given their inconsistencies, especially in the period from December to March. We must also account for the fact that they played three extra games than 19 teams in the division.
In an attempt to uncover these inconsistencies, we need to look at their record in the different types of duels this season. Wycombe sit 18th out of 23 in defensive duels which is uninspiring, yet their record in aerial and loose ball duels tells a different story. In terms of aerial duels, Wycombe have the sixth best record with 63.77 aerial duels per 90, which is 5.17 better than the league average. Also, Wycombe boast impressive figures in the loose ball duels category. A loose ball duel is a duel when a player is fighting with an opponent to conquer a loose ball (no one has possession of the ball.) In this category, Wycombe are third with 52.44 loose ball duels per 90, a long way ahead of the league average of 45.85.
So, what can we conclude from this data? In terms of defensive duels and when Wycombe face teams that can build up play with intricate passing, Wycombe are at times suspect defensively. This is further highlighted by the fact that 61% of the goals that Wycombe conceded were from open play. However, their aerial superiority and aggressive defending shown by their impressive stats in aerial and loose ball duels means they can be extremely solid, especially when they force the opposition to play longer. The fact that only 20% of their goals were conceded via set pieces is a further indicator of their efficiency in the air.
An additional source of data to look at, in order to analyse Wycombe’s defence is their transitional play through losses and recoveries. Losses is the amount of times a team concedes possession and when we look at losses per zones, it is clear to see a trend in Wycombe’s data.
Wycombe accumulated an average of 110.08 losses per 90 this season, with 15% of these taking place in their own half, 34% in the second third, and 50% in the final third. Wycombe’s 50% of losses in the final third was the fourth highest percentage for this zone in the entirety of the league. This can be attributed to Wycombe’s long ball style as intricate passing in their own third is clearly not beneficial to the style Ainsworth wants to play. 15% of losses in their own third was one of the lowest in the division, and these figures are a clear indicator of Wycombe playing to their strengths to provide an attacking outlet, but also integral to their defensive solidity. The graphic below shows these figures with bright blue on the right-hand side indicating that Wycombe’s percentage was more than other teams. However, the other two zones are lighter blue which shows that their percentage of losses was less than other teams.
In terms of recoveries, Wycombe are far down the list in terms of average recoveries per 90. Wycombe are third bottom in this category and it is this inconsistency in their data which has ultimately led to a defence that has experienced peaks and troughs throughout the course of the season. Wycombe were also lower than the league average for average interceptions per 90, highlighting their deficiencies at recovering the ball, but also making vital interceptions to stop opposition attacks. Although they were not as low down as they were for recoveries, Wycombe were 12th for interceptions with 44.08 interceptions per 90. These statistics were a big factor in their downturn in form and the graph below shows how they were inferior to the rest of the league in both categories.
A huge part of Wycombe’s efficient attacking output this season has been their strength at set pieces. Wycombe’s total of 49 (52.03 xG) goals is the sixth highest in the league, which is impressive for a team that is so often out of possession. Goals from set pieces has contributed to 36% of Wycombe’s goals this season. This is only two goals less than open play goals, which has seen 40% of the Chairboys’ goals.
A breakdown of Wycombe’s set piece data shows the amount of penalties they have been awarded this season, but also their impressive conversion rate. Wycombe have been given 12 penalties this season, which is a league high and it is important to note that second in this category is Peterborough who have only been given eight in comparison. The conversion rate of the Chairboys was an efficient 83%, which was the joint second highest conversion rate for teams that had been given five penalties. Blackpool’s record of six penalties and six goals was the highest percentage for this category.
The main reason for the amount of penalties Wycombe have been awarded this season is down to their direct and aggressive style, which constantly puts pressure on the backline of the opposition. In fact, six of the 12 penalties were handballs which is unsurprising given that the ball is often put into high and central areas, where Akinfenwa is usually tasked with holding the ball up. Ainsworth talked about “organised chaos” from set-pieces and it was a strategy that most definitely worked.
The left-foot of Wycombe left-back Joe Jacobson has also been a key factor in their set piece prowess. Wycombe’s 27 direct free kicks is the third highest in the league with Jacobson at the forefront of these dangerous set pieces. In fact, it is telling that all of Jacobson’s 11 goals have resulted from dead-ball situations, with the breakdown consisting of seven penalties, one direct free kick and three direct corners. In Wycombe’s 3-1 home win against Lincoln City, Jacobson ended up with a hat-trick that saw him score two of his goals directly from corners.
It is also noteworthy to look at the corner distribution of Wycombe across the campaign. From Wycombe’s 162 corners taken in the season, 100 of these were either delivered to the goalkeeper zone or the far post. This was a deliberate tactic used by Wycombe to bombard central areas or hang the ball up to the back post in order to create havoc in the opposition box. The likes of Stewart, Charles and Akinfenwa were often the target of corners and with 15 goals between them it clearly worked. The fact that Jacobson managed to score three goals directly from corners highlights the variety of threats that Wycombe were able to constantly provide. Perhaps it was fitting that the two goals Wanderers scored in the play-off final were a penalty and a header from a ball that was lifted to the far post.
The graphics below show the distribution of free kicks from both the left and right-hand side from Wycombe’s last five games including the three play-off encounters. This also fits the pattern of putting the ball into the dangerous goalkeeper zone or alternatively playing to the far post, which was usually directed to Akinfenwa who could head the ball back into the danger zone.
Both sides indicate a strong desire to play the ball deeper with a lack of near post deliveries evident. Jacobson was the main deliverer of the ball from these free kicks, however, there were contributions from Allsop and Jason McCarthy at times, especially on the left-hand side. It is notable that from left-hand-sided free kicks that four shots were taken with the location of the shots in different areas of the box, and a mix between headers and normal shots. In addition to this, the right-hand side saw a goal take place in an extremely central area with the benefiitor being centre-back Samuel. In fact, the xG of Samuel and Onyedinma from these right free kicks was 0.48 and 0.52 respectively, once more highlighting the threat of delivery from Jacobson who created chances for numerous teammates particualrly in these last five matches.
This data analysis has highlighted the reasons why Wycombe were able to gain a shock promotion to earn a spot in the second tier of English football for the first time in their 133-year history. Ainsworth’s men were able to achieve this through their unique style, which played to their strengths on and off the ball. Although Wycombe’s defence was inconsistent at times, they were able to find the perfect mix especially when it came to the play-off games. The use of Joe Jacobson through dangerous set piece taking played a huge part, with a clear strategy from corners and free kicks. Although Wycombe are not ones for the footballing purists, it is hard to not give them credit for such a significant achievement. Their tactics undoubtedly worked extremely well and helped propel the Chairboys to heights they have never previously achieved.