Ipswich Town hosted Wycombe Wanderers in a clash that pitted the two top sides in the league against each other. Despite Ipswich having two games in hand, Wycombe were five points clear at the top and looking to extend their lead to eight points with a win. The tactics of the two teams differ but both are known for their strong defensive displays. Despite their modest goal tallies for the season, both sides have conceded the fewest number of goals so far.
This tactical analysis aims to deconstruct their defensive capabilities and understand the offensive tactics that can be used to break them down. A greater emphasis on offensive tactics would have opened this game up into free-flowing football. In a match that was marred by poor refereeing decisions, there was more each team could have done to come out on top in their pursuit for the EFL League One title. This draw of attrition is a testament to the solidity and organisation of the defensive lines.
Ipswich reverted back to a 5-3-2 with four changes coming into this fixture. Most notably, James Norwood is back in the first eleven following his precautionary rest against Blackpool. Flynn Downes missed out through illness providing an opportunity for Emyr Huws to make his third start of the season. When in possession, the two wingbacks will push forwards to form a 3-5-2 attacking formation.
Wycombe have opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Adebayo Akinfenwa and Dominic Gape coming back into the team. The fluid system reverts to a narrow 4-3-3 in possession with Wheeler and Smyth pushing forward to support the lone forward. The defensive tactics hold five in the midfield to compete against Ipswich’s five-man midfield on the offence.
Ipswich fail to create meaningful chances
Despite dominating 64.7% of possession, Ipswich weren’t able to capitalise and failed to register a shot on target. Although Wycombe blocked seven shots, the keeper was relatively untested. The reality was that Ipswich were so defensively minded and were reactive to Wycombe’s narrow setup that they struggled to dominate in the final third of the pitch.
As shown, Wycombe are attacking in the central area of the pitch and have flooded the space with five players. With the intention of exploiting the spaces between the three central defenders, Wycombe are focused on the central channels. Ipswich countered this with a narrow back five to decrease the size of the passing channels. The defensive positioning was successful as Wycombe couldn’t create the space to exploit behind the defence. During the subsequent transition from defence to attack, Ipswich were still too narrow. Both Garbutt and Donancien didn’t have the space to break and weren’t able to best use the wide areas.
When Ipswich were able to exploit wide areas, they found success. This was predominantly in the closing stages of the first half when the wingbacks pushed forwards. Here, Garbutt is given space by Wycombe’s narrow play and delivers the ball into a dangerous area with two runners. Both runners get away from the defender and a good header places the ball under the goalkeeper. The goal was subsequently disallowed for a marginal offside call however the attacking intent was there and the wide areas were the most dangerous for Ipswich. Wycombe needed to be more reactive in the defensive third to close the space quickly and block the delivery.
Ipswich dominate the possession
Ipswich’s tactics were centred on possession and controlling the pace of the match. Wycombe allowed Ipswich to have the possession by reorganising quickly during the transitional phases. Having five in the midfield meant that Ipswich could move the ball more easily in the central areas. The reality was that the key passes were infrequent with very few balls breaking the Wycombe defensive line.
The analysis suggests that Wycombe’s narrow play gifted possession to Ipswich and fuelled their possession football. In the example above, the long ball to Akinfenwa is supported by four runners. To counter the threat, the narrow defence pick up zonal positions to win the second ball. When the ball is subsequently back in Ipswich’s possession, there is no high press from Wycombe and the midfield retreat to defend against the potential counter.
The wide areas allowed Wycombe to hold possession and push forwards due to space afforded to them. The three Wycombe attacking midfielders were outmanoeuvred and the analysis above shows the overlaps that were created with two additional players in that area. This was a theme throughout the match with Ipswich dominating in the wide areas but getting crowded out of the central defensive space. Gape and Thompson provided quality defensive service in front of the back four.
The counterattack was well employed by Ipswich who confidently committed runners when the ball was wide to exploit gaps in Wycombe’s defence. As shown, the ball in the wide area has two positive runs towards the front post with Nolan being unmarked in a dangerous area. Although the ball wasn’t delivered, the analysis suggests that the longer Ipswich took to build play and deliver a cross, the less successful they were. This stemmed not from their offensive capability but the time they allowed Wycombe to reorganise.
Wycombe’s strong defensive posture
Although Wycombe were second best for portions of the match, they showed why they are top of the league and how defensive strength is as important as attacking flair. Tactically, they were set up with a narrow backline that was zonally placed to block the passing channels. The two defensive midfielders in front were primarily focused on breaking up and disrupting Ipswich’s possession.
During the transition from attack to defence, the defensive line drops with the defensive midfielders just in front. The positioning of the defence is horizontally compact occupying only the wide, half-space and central areas on the left-hand side. The remaining two-fifths of the pitch is open but given the location of the ball on the pitch, there is relatively little danger. This discipline means that Ipswich have to work hard tactically to find the gaps. By committing fewer players to the defensive line, there is a greater midfield threat which was committed to the offence.
Breaking the line causes positional issues for the Wycombe defence which was most notable when Jackson picked up the ball in the opposition box. The defence has failed to adjust position and a ball played from the half-space to the edge of the central area is a significant danger. Two runners then exploited the space in the central area. If a better delivery was provided or greater support from the right flank, Ipswich could have capitalised on this error. This analysis highlights the risk and reward of playing a narrow back four against a wider and more aggressive forward line. Although Wycombe were defensively sound, there were weaknesses and errors that weren’t exploited by Ipswich. On the whole, Ainsworth would have been happy with Wycombe’s defending and it achieved his tactical plan. When defending, their formation was recovered as a priority whilst the player in possession was closed down to delay and stop the counter.
To conclude, this contest was a battle of attrition against the two teams with the best defensive records in the league. Although not attractive to the neutral, the tactics were well executed and stopped the opposition from getting on top of the game. The counter wasn’t executed with enough accuracy for either team to change the game. I can’t help but think that an early goal would have changed this match entirely.
The battle for width was fascinating with Wycombe comfortably occupying a very narrow area of the pitch. They played like a team that was confident of holding their line and had the discipline to do so for 90 minutes. Ipswich were the side on top this evening but even with another 90 minutes of play, I am not confident Wycombe could have been breached. Their defensive record will ensure that they are promotion contenders comes the end of the season.
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