Few people, if any, saw Port Vale having the season they have just had. Finally rid of Norman Smurthwaite from behind the scenes, Vale massively outperformed the expectations of many. At the time that the EFL League Two season was brought to a close, Port Vale were sat eighth. They were one point and one place below the play-offs, yet selflessly voted to end the season and think of other clubs.
One man who deserves huge credit for Vale’s performances is the manager John Askey. The former Macclesfield Town and Shrewsbury Town manager has been at Vale Park since February 2019, and has guided this squad to an incredibly impressive league finish. In this tactical analysis, we will look at Askey’s tactics with Port Vale. The analysis will also show how the 55-year-old has been able to get the very best out of his mix of players.
As the above image shows, Port Vale most commonly used a 4-1-4-1 formation this season. Their tactics primarily used Scott Brown as the starting goalkeeper. Colombian Cristian Montaño and Vale academy product James Gibbons were the most common left-back and right-back respectively. Club captain Leon Legge and Madeley-born Nathan Smith often formed the centre-back partnership, though former Macclesfield product Shaun Brisley was also used on occasion.
Luke Joyce, formerly of Carlisle United and Accrington Stanley amongst others, was often deployed as the deep-lying midfielder. Ahead of him were a number of central midfielder options. Porthill-born Tom Conlon regularly played, as did former Bury midfielder Scott Burgess. Former Hull City product Will Atkinson and Nottingham Forest loanee Jake Taylor also made at least 10 appearances.
30-year-old David Worrall was one of Port Vale’s best performers on either flank in 2019-20. David Amoo, originally a youth product from Liverpool, often played on the other wing. Antigua and Barbuda international Rhys Browne was at times deployed out wide as well.
Port Vale also good depth in the striker positions. Local hero Tom Pope would always prove reliable when needed. Oldham-born Richie Bennett featured regularly in the first half of the season before a move to Stockport County. Mark Cullen, formerly of Hull City, Luton Town and Blackpool amongst others, also proved his worth as the lone striker.
An analysis of the whole squad shows that John Askey had quality across all units. Port Vale’s team has an excellent balance to it with no one position severely lacking in ability when compared to everywhere else. Because of this, it should start to become clear just why the Valiants performed so well in 2019-20.
General Offensive Shape
John Askey’s offensive philosophy involves taking up as much available space as possible. Both sets of wingers and full-backs pull wide when in possession. The lone defensive midfielder sits slightly ahead of the two centre-backs, and the lone striker pushes up to add depth to the team. The collective aim here is to stretch the opposition as far apart as possible. In turn, this can open up gaps of space between the opposition’s units which Port Vale players can run, dribble and pass into.
With the team and the opposition spread out, Port Vale have a variety of passing options. They can choose to progress down either flank if they wish. Alternatively, they can choose to progress gradually through the middle. They also can choose to go direct to the lone striker and have nearby players ready to collect the second ball when it becomes loose. John Askey’s men are not a ‘one trick pony’ and this makes it difficult for opponents to deal with them. They cannot simply stop the Valiants from playing one way as the team are comfortable with several different approaches.
The below image shows how Port Vale’s use of width and depth opens up space.
Winger David Worrall hugs the right touchline. Out of shot, Rhys Browne is on the left touchline. The two advanced midfielders, Tom Conlon and Scott Burgess, split apart and move closer to Worrall and Browne respectively. This movement spreads Colchester’s midfield apart as they try to monitor their direct opponent. Centre-back Leon Legge who is initially on the ball now has an opportunity to play a low, progressive pass right into the feet of striker Mark Cullen. In the process, Vale completely bypass the midfield third and Cullen has plenty of available options off him whilst his back is to goal.
The Triangles on either Flank
The width and depth provided by Port Vale’s offensive shape opens up the opportunity for triangles to form on either flank. These trios will normally consists of a full-back, winger and central midfielder. When these triangles are in use, there will always be at least one good passing option available for the player in possession.
Two examples of these triangles, one on either flank, are shown below from games against Forest Green Rovers and Northampton Town.
These triangles between a full-back, winger and central midfielder also prove effective when pressing teams in wide positions. The second example from the Northampton Town game shows this best. The trio have closed down the space around Nicky Adams and Ryan Watson and David Worrall has intercepted a backheel pass to win the ball. From here, he has at least one good short passing option or can choose to go direct and further upfield instead.
The importance of these triangles in Port Vale’s creativity become even clearer when analysing the statistics. Over their last five matches, six of Vale’s seven players with the most key passes were wingers, full-backs or central midfielders. The only other player in this list is Luke Joyce, the deep-lying midfielder. David Worrall easily stands out here with 11 key passes and four assists across these five games. Tom Conlon also catches the eye with four key passes and two assists.
As these wide triangles progress into the final third, the lone striker’s movement becomes important. Tom Pope and Mark Cullen have very differing physiques, and offer a different approach to Port Vale as a result.
The smaller, more agile Mark Cullen utilises his movement on the blindside of defenders. This is shown in the image above. Port Vale have players with enough quality to pick Cullen out with a pass. From there, the striker uses his close control and excellent finishing to score.
The much larger Tom Pope however operates as more of a target man. The image above shows an example of this. He is often the outlet for Port Vale’s direct play, holding the ball up as he waits for runners off him.
John Askey’s tactics make either of these approaches effective. Port Vale will often substitute one striker for the other depending on the situation the game is in.
General Defensive Shape
If Port Vale’s offensive tactics involve taking up as much space as possible, their defensive tactics focus on limiting it.
Should the opponent attack from wide positions, John Askey wants his wingers to track back and help. The above image shows an example of this. It is the job of left-back Cristian Montaño to delay the opponent until winger Rhys Browne can get back and help. Luke Joyce also shifts across from deep midfield. By doing this, he further restricts the space for the man on the ball and cuts out horizontal passing lanes.
Over their last five games, Port Vale full-backs Cristian Montaño and James Gibbons won 40 defensive duels and made 12 interceptions. Montaño stood out amongst the whole team with 27 successful duels and 9 interceptions. The pair are as important going forwards as they are coming back.
Port Vale at times will deploy a high press after initially losing the ball. If they haven’t won possession after a few seconds however, they will drop back and only the lone striker will look to close down inside the opposition half. As the opponent progresses past the half-way line, Vale’s midfield three will engage the press.
Once again, Luke Joyce will act as the midfield screen, looking to cut off passing lanes into more advanced players. As this happens, the two more advanced midfielders quickly close down the player on the ball. Limiting the amount of time in possession, this often forces a mistake from the opposition through an interception or tackle.
Legge, Smith and Brown at the Heart
If the opposition can get past Port Vale’s wide or central press, they are met by a solid defensive trio.
Goalkeeper Scott Brown ranks among the best in the division. Recording 101 saves across the whole season, the 35-year-old averages 1.2 saves a game from shots inside the penalty area and 1.3 saves a game from shots inside the penalty area. When called upon, Brown is a reliable presence who is comfortable dealing with all kinds of shots.
In front of him sits one of most impressive centre-back partnerships in League Two. Club captain Leon Legge is an ever present part of it. Across Port Vale’s last five matches alone, Legge won 11.3% of the team’s total own-third defensive duels and won 77.8% of his 21 aerial duels.
Legge’s usual defensive partner has been Nathan Smith. The 24-year-old has won 14.6% of the team’s total own-third defensive duels and won 50% of his 4 aerial duels across Port Vale’s last five games. Shaun Brisley has also been utilised alongside Leon Legge in recent games. He has won 6.6% of the team’s total on-third defensive duels and won 61.1% of his 18 aerial duels across the same period.
All three of the names mentioned are capable and intelligent defenders. The example below shows Brisley stepping out of the backline. He keeps tight to his opponent, denying them the opportunity to turn towards goal. Port Vale team mates further close down the surrounding space.
Vale’s centre-backs are commanding presences in defence and are very effective in defensive duels and aerial duels. With a top quality goalkeeper in Scott Brown available if necessary, it becomes clear why John Askey’s team conceded only 44 league goals this season.
Of course, for all their good offensive and defensive play, John Askey’s tactics aren’t perfect.
Playing in a 4-1-4-1 for instance, the lone striker can find himself very isolated. This is especially the case when Port Vale are transitioning from their defensive shape to their offensive shape.
As shown in the example above, Tom Pope has received the ball isolated in the opposition box. He is unable to turn his opponent Farrend Rawson and face goal. He also has to wait a prolonged period of time until a team mate can get upfield to support him. Forest Green end up winning the ball off the isolated striker.
When Port Vale build with their triangles, they do commit their full-backs high upfield. As well as Luke Joyce does to provide cover for these players, it does still leave Vale vulnerable on the counter attack.
The image above shows an example of this. Cristian Montaño is keen to get forward on the overlap. The pass to him however is poor and Colchester’s Ryan Jackson intercepts. With Montaño high upfield and facing the wrong way, Jackson has space to carry the ball into and forces Port Vale into an emergency defending situation.
They were thankfully able to stop this dangerous attack and see the ball out for a corner. Mistakes like this one however are what have cost Port Vale a number of goals over the course of the campaign.
Montaño is also intense and persistent with his press. This naivety has at times led to him being either dragged too far infield or upfield by the opposition. The space he leaves behind has often been exploited and led to dangerous chances. It has been a rare fault in the Colombian’s effective and impressive performances across the 2019-20 season.
Entering their first season under new owners, not much was truthfully expected of Port Vale Football Club. Surpassing many people’s epectations, the Valiants finished the season 8th, and possibly could have finished higher had the COVID-19 pandemic not brought the campaign to a premature close.
Manager John Askey sets up Port Vale very well in all areas of play. In attack, they look to make use of the entire pitch. They form triangles out wide and open up the midfield so that progressive passes can reach the lone striker. Their frontline also possesses players who can drift away from opposing defenders and others who can act as a target man and direct outlet for the team.
Defensively, all of the Vale team contribute to the press and shape. The three most noteworthy players here however are goalkeeper Scott Brown and the two centre-backs ahead of him. This defensive trio contain names that rank amongst the league’s best, and are capale of dealing with direct or possession-based opponents.
There are of course faults to John Askey’s system, but they are minor in nature. Port Vale from front to back are have a solid structure and great individual quality. They’ve caught the eye in 2019-20 with a play-off push. Perhaps in 2020-21, John Askey’s boys in black and white can do even better.