After two promotions in three seasons, Harrogate Town will play in the football league for the first time in their 106-year history. Last year’s 3-1 defeat in the Play-Off Quarter Finals to AFC Fylde didn’t affect the 2019/20 squad, as they gained promotion at Wembley a full year after the season started. In fact, the finishing positions of second, sixth and second in the last three seasons represent a remarkable rise for the Yorkshire side.
This data analysis will look at the reasons for Harrogate’s historic promotion to the Football League. Through a look at their system, and tendencies on and off the ball, we can look at what Harrogate will offer the EFL as its newest member.
Simon Weaver’s 4-4-2
Simon Weaver is now the EFL’s longest serving manager after his long and successful 11 years as manager of Harrogate. He is ahead of the likes of Gareth Ainsworth, Sean Dyche John Coleman, and Liverpool‘s Jürgen Klopp. Weaver seems to be a man that likes to stick to his principles, especially tactically as he employed a 4-4-2 formation for most of Harrogate’s 39 games.
Defensively, the most common back five consisted of the reliable goalkeeper James Belshaw, with Ryan Fallowfield, Will Smith, Connor Hall, and Warren Burrell across the back line. The midfield was extremely hard-working shown by Harrogate’s impressive off-the ball data which shows the intensity of their pressing. The personnel for Harrogate’s most common midfield was George Thomson, (captain), Josh Falkingham, Lloyd Kerry and Brendan Kiernan. This midfield quartet contributed 18 goals between them throughout the season, highlighting that goals were all over the pitch for Harrogate. There were other notable contributions from midfielders throughout the season, with the likes of Jack Emmett and Jack Diamond playing a key role in sustaining their promotion push with five goals between them.
In terms of forward options, Weaver was most definitely set on certain personnel to fulfil the role that he wanted a striker to carry out. Weaver often put out a strike force of a smaller and skilful striker, alongside a taller and more robust centre forward, so that both strikers complemented each other. Top scorer with 13 goals was Jack Muldoon and at 5 feet 8 inches he fulfilled the role of the little man in Weaver’s front two. Muldoon was often partnered with former Premier League striker Jon Stead or Aaron Martin as they could make Harrogate competitive aerially and help them sustain attacks for the clinical Muldoon to finish.
As you can see from the graphic above, Harrogate like to play a high and wide 4-4-2 with an emphasis on creating wide overloads with the two central midfielders and two strikers staying extremely narrow. The role of the wingers cannot be understated in this system especially when looking at their goalscoring output. Wingers Brendan Kiernan and George Thomson have contributed 12 goals and 3 assists between them this season.
Ultimately, it is a system that requires a dedication and focus from all 11 players on the pitch with pressing and intensity a key aspect of Weaver’s philosophy. This is something we will cover in the next section and explain the key tactical patterns that underline this.
Pressing all over the pitch
When looking at the pressing statistics for the National League season, it is hard to miss the impressive pressing stats of Harrogate and it was clearly a big factor in their success. The best metric used to qualify pressing intensity is PPDA (passes per defensive action) in the opponents final 60% of the pitch. In short, the lower the number of PPDA, the more intense the pressing is from the team out of position. The average for PPDA in the National League was 8.38, with Harrogate registering 7.05 on average per 90 minutes. This is second only to Yeovil Town whose PPDA for the season was 6.75.
Harrogate were also one of the best teams in the league in terms of recoveries all over the pitch. When looking at Harrogate’s recoveries in their own third, the second third and the final third, they ranked fourth with an average of 92.53 recoveries on average per 90. The league average for recoveries per 90 was 89.43, with Dagenham and Redbridge, Torquay United and Maidenhead United the only teams leading Harrogate in terms of recoveries. In the graph below, we can see how Harrogate are near the top for both PPDA and recoveries per 90 which shows the intensity of their press, in comparison to the rest of the league.
The ideal positioning for this graph is to be at the top left of the graph as this would indicate a low PPDA and high recoveries per 90. Therefore, through a closer analysis of the graph it is clear to see why Harrogate were one of the best pressing teams in the National League last season.
In addition to this, looking at Harrogate’s data in their last five matches we can see how important recoveries in the final third were to their tactics. The graphic below depicts the recoveries in the final third by Harrogate players in these last five matches by looking at positional pressing but also presses that led to shots and goals.
The role of the central midfielders in Harrogate’s press is integral to its efficiency. Falkingham and Kerry were responsible for 29 of the 57 recoveries in the final five matches. It is also important to note that Thomson, who switched between right-winger and central midfielder, completed 10 recoveries. Harrogate usually employ a press that requires the highest central midfielder to join in with the press, while the other central midfielder drops deeper to protect the back four. The wingers are also required to press intensely with the variety of recovery positioning highlighted in the graphic above.
Most of the recoveries have taken place in the deeper section of the final third, which is an indicator that Harrogate’s press is not a full-on high press, but nonetheless places huge emphasis on winning the ball back fast. A lot of the recoveries that ended up with a shot or a goal took place in the central channel of the pitch, further highlighting the importance of the central midfielders, but also the front two in creating opportunities via the press.
Getting the ball forward quickly
Harrogate’s main attacking strategy revolves around playing longer balls to their target man in the front two, but also using the flanks to create wide overloads. Harrogate’s 4-4-2 system is one that advocates width and freedom for the full backs to overload the wingers, which can be seen by the crossing positions by all Harrogate players in their last five matches. It is notable that out of the 71 crosses that were delivered in these games there was huge variety, with high crosses, ground crosses and cutbacks all utilised to create unpredictability from out wide.
It is unsurprising to see that most of the contributors to these crosses were wide players, but the eight crosses from right-sided striker Muldoon is noteworthy. This is a nod to the suggestion earlier that Muldoon’s role is much more complex than simply being the one to finish Harrogate’s chances. He often drifts wide to support the likes of Fallowfield and Thomson to create these wide overloads, and when he does this, he creates genuine opportunities for his teammates. His eight crosses had an xG of 1.16 and he was able to register an assist.
In terms of the wide players, crossing is vital and crossing often with variety is a tactic that has worked well for Harrogate. Even though Diamond wasn’t in the most common Harrogate eleven for the entirety of the season, his contribution is summed up in the graphic below.
Diamond, who is number 23, registered 27 of Harrogate’s 71 crosses in the last five games and the range of crossing positions and variety of cross is intriguing in the graphic above. Although there is variety in the crossing of Diamond here, it is worthy of note that he delivered a lot of high crosses to the likes of Stead and Martin. This is particularly apparent when comparing the number of high crosses on the other side. Fallowfield’s 14 crosses was the second highest total out of any Harrogate players and the fact he is a full-back is testament to Weaver’s attacking style of play and emphasis on width when attacking.
Harrogate also place an emphasis on getting the ball forward quickly by playing long balls to a target man. This is something that puts the opposition under pressure immediately and helps them play the game in the opposition half with the help of their intense press in the final third. In order to measure this, the graph below plots average pass length in metres alongside long passes per 90 to show Harrogate’s emphasis on playing the ball longer, weighed up against the rest of the league.
For long passes, Harrogate sit fourth in the league highlighting the regularity of their long balls forward. However, their average pass length is 23.07, which is 0.01 below the average for the league. Through this, we can conclude that Harrogate are frequently playing long balls as a deliberate attacking strategy, but the length of these passes isn’t as long as other teams. This may be down to the fact that Harrogate are intent on using the wings as an alternative attacking tactic, in addition to the long balls aimed at Stead and Martin.
Another significant statistic is the amount of losses Harrogate accumulated throughout the campaign. Losses is a self-explanatory piece of data as it measures the amount of times a team has conceded possession on average per 90 minutes. The average for the National League was 118.45 losses per 90, with the possession-based champions Barrow top of this category with only 105.58 losses per 90. This is in stark comparison to Harrogate who registered 122.94 losses per 90, which was the fifth worst in the whole division.
This is extraordinary for a team that finished second and got promoted. However, we can attribute this amount of losses to the long ball strategy employed by Weaver’s men. A lot of aerial duels are 50/50 in terms of who comes out on top, compared to Barrow’s slower and more measured approach, which ultimately results in fewer losses. On paper this may look like a worrying sign, yet it is an integral part to Harrogate’s overall plan of overwhelming the opposition and with 22 wins out of 39 games who can argue with them.
Clinical finishing and overperforming xG
A closer look at the xG data for the National League last season shows that Harrogate were extremely clinical at finishing, and, at times, rode their luck defensively. Harrogate’s xG for was 52.6, which was 8.4 lower than their actual goal tally of 61. This suggests that the forwards of Harrogate were clinical, yet they did register the most amount of shots in the league. The sulphurites managed 12.92 shots per game, with the league average for shots per 90 being 10.94. Ultimately, this suggests another clear attacking strategy from Harrogate to shoot quickly and often, which, in turn, helped them overperform their expected goals for.
In terms of where Harrogate need to improve in their attacking data, there seems to be a slight problem with creativity in the side. This conclusion can be drawn through the metrics through passes and deep completions where Harrogate rank extremely low in both categories, in comparison to the others in the league. Although it may be down to their more direct style and use of width, Harrogate are 20th in the league for through passes with an average of 4.79 per 90. This is down 0.76 on the league average, and the already explained role of the central midfielders may be the reason for the lack of through passes. Also, Harrogate are low down on deep completions, which is a metric that measures a non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 metres of the opponent’s goal. Harrogate rank 14th for deep completions with 6.64 on average per 90, which is also down on the league average. Ultimately, Harrogate’s style of play doesn’t lend itself to creativity through deep completions and through passes. However, an improvement could definitely add another layer to their attack through greater creativity, which would in turn make them more unpredictable for opposition defences.
Defensively, Harrogate’s numbers were slightly more worrying and may be a cause for concern when they make the step up to League Two. Harrogate’s 42 goals conceded was the sixth best in the league, however the xG against suggested that they should have conceded much more. The xG against for Harrogate was 53.60, with the league average being 47.73. This was the second highest xG against in the league, with only Chorley registering higher. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this for Harrogate was that Chorley conceded the second most amount of goals in the league. This data can be attributed to Harrogate’s attacking and high intensity game plan, and while they must not lose this edge to their game, Weaver may have to rethink their defensive strategy in the forthcoming campaign. In the graph below we can see how the actual goals conceded and xG against differs for Harrogate, but also for the other teams in the league. Will this really be a sustainable formula in League Two?
This data analysis has highlighted the reasons why Harrogate Town were able to book their spot in the EFL for the first time. Weaver’s men achieved this by sticking to a system that suited the core group of players. Through their pressing system and direct style that advocates width going forward, Weaver’s men were free-scoring throughout the campaign. The likes of Muldoon and Stead were extremely clinical in the final third meaning they were able to overperform their expected goals for. They were also able to overperform their xG defensively, however as already noted the difference between goals conceded and xG against is perhaps not sustainable for a team that is moving up a division. This is definitely something that Weaver will have to address going into the League Two campaign.