The National League welcomed a new name for the 2019/2020 season, following Notts County’s League Two relegation after a dismal previous season. The Magpies’ aimed to ensure a swift return to the EFL at the first time of asking but ultimately fell short, losing to Harrogate Town in the play-off final. Questions about what went wrong have already begun to be asked. In this tactical analysis, we will attempt to answer those questions, analysing the strengths and weaknesses in the Magpies’ attacking and defensive tactics this season. The scout report will then look at their statistics from last season, to see where they can improve ahead of next season.
The red lines show this setup. Notts County’s preferred formation last season was a 4-4-2, which they used 58% of the time. The wingers are encouraged to support the final third play, which then leads to the front three that we see here. Those players stretch as far across the pitch as possible, meaning Chesterfield’s defence also have to split, and this allows the fourth County attacker, who usually happens to be Enzio Boldewijn, to then drive through the middle, as he is doing here. The wide structure of the defence means that he can then either shoot at goal, or pass to a teammate, so it creates options for County.
If we look at another example, again against Chesterfield, then we can see the same thing happening. This time, the structure is narrower, which initially makes it difficult for Notts County to attack. Again, Boldewijn is behind the main offensive line, looking to dribble the ball forward.
If we roll this situation on, we can see how Notts County have now split, positioned on either side of the Chesterfield defence. Their wide structure has again forced the Spireites to split, giving Boldewijn the space he needs to shoot at goal. As the red arrow shows, he scores in the top corner.
This section has shown us that Notts County uses this tactic on purpose, as it forces opposing defences to split. Their 4-4-2 formation is a flexible one, with the wingers able to get forward and play in the final third alongside the strikers. That helps them to create more attacking opportunities in good areas.
However, there are some areas of their attack which need addressing before the start of the next National League season.
Here, we see how Notts County are in a good position in attack, with the ball on the far side. However, instead of playing the ball into the box, County has played it backwards, as the arrow shows. This means that AFC Fylde can get back and take up their defensive positions, closing off the space that the Magpies could have attacked into. County sometimes do play the ball and offer options too slowly, and this means that they end up playing the ball backwards. As the defence moves into position quicker, playing backwards becomes their sole remaining option.
Here is another situation where they could have sped up their passing.
Here, we see how Notts County are in possession on the nearside. The Chesterfield defence has tracked back quickly and is looking to block any attempt to cross into the box. However, a second County player has run behind those defenders, as the red arrow shows. This offers a passing option forwards for County, which would then enable them to cross the ball into the box from behind the Spireites defence. This would also give them a route through to goal, so you can see how it would be a good pass to make. However, the ball is taken backwards, as the yellow arrow shows. This means that County has lost their attacking momentum, giving Chesterfield the opportunity to get back and close off the space.
We can see, therefore, how Notts County are sometimes a little negative with their passing, and this can cost them good opportunities to attack. If they are more positive, looking forwards when in possession, they may open up more attacking opportunities, and that might lead to them scoring more goals and potentially winning more games.
If they did speed up their passing in these situations, then they could catch out a few more defences, and take the ball forward even more. We will see in the next image why this could benefit them even more.
With County using a 4-4-2 formation, their wingers are a crucial element in their attack. It is a regular feature in their attack that the ball is played out to the wing, before they then look to cross it into the box, where a central attacker will be waiting for it. However, this is where things go wrong for the Magpies. You can see how they have managed to get behind part of the Fylde defence here, and are preparing to make a cross. However, the cross is overhit and goes out of play harmlessly for a Fylde goal kick.
This is the main area that Notts County need to improve on, because if the crossing isn’t accurate enough, then goals won’t be scored. They did manage to get 61 goals last season in 31 games, but that was the same as Harrogate Town and seven less than Barrow, both of whom were promoted to League Two. Therefore, we can see that, if Notts County wants to gain promotion next season, they need to find a way to score a few more goals, and if they tightened up their crossing accuracy, then this would become easier to do.
Notts County wastes a good crossing opportunity here too. The ball is on the far side of the pitch, and County is looking to transfer it into the box. In the middle, striker Kristian Dennis, in the red square, has moved towards the goal, looking to take the defenders away from the other County defenders behind him. However, the eventual cross is wasted, because it comes across the ground and is easily cut out by the Fylde defence. This shows how the lack of accuracy when moving the ball from the wing to the box, an area that County need to improve on. This was the main reason why they have struggled in some games to create chances.
If we now turn our attention to Notts County’s defence, we can again see how there are some good parts and bad parts to their tactics. If we look at the image below, we can see how they mark the opposing players when in their final third.
Dagenham and Redbridge have the ball on the far side of the pitch and are looking to cross it into the box. However, Notts County has marked up both that player and the target player in the middle, as the squares show. This means that, when the ball is crossed in, there is no player available to meet it, and it is caught harmlessly by the goalkeeper. Therefore, we can see how Notts County ensure that, when their opponents advance into these positions, they can’t convert them into goalscoring chances. The Magpies only conceded 23 goals in 38 games last season, so we can see that this defensive structure works.
Another strength of Notts County’s defence is when they have more players back, and can stretch across the pitch in front of their box.
Again, Dagenham and Redbridge have the ball on the near side of the pitch as they are looking to transfer it into an area where they can shoot. However, whilst they have players looking to move between the gaps of the County defence, the Daggers can’t play the ball through to them. Instead, they have to play the ball over the top, where the chance that the pass will be overhit becomes greater. Therefore, with this wide defensive structure, Notts County has limited Dagenham’s options. The fact that the structure is not flat also makes it harder for opponents to break down because it covers more ground. A flatter line is easier to play the ball over, so this structure is, therefore, a strength of Notts County’s defence.
However, despite these good points, there are also things that they need to improve defensively if they are to mount a promotion challenge in 2020/2021.
Firstly, we can see below how they can leave spaces open, allowing attackers to get behind them.
In the first image, we see from the red lines how Notts County’s defensive structure is out of shape. This means that space has opened up for Dagenham and Redbridge to get in and attack the goal. The player in the blue circle is doing just this. The full-back out of position also necessitates one of the two central defenders coming across to close down the open space, but that then opens up a gap in the middle of the defence for Dagenham to attack through; a second Dagenham attacker is making a run centrally.
The second image shows the same thing, as Hartlepool United have a player on the wing, looking to cross the ball in. Notts County has lost control of the wing areas, and that has forced one County player to come across, opening up the central gaps for other Hartlepool players to run through, as the blue arrows show. If we compare this with the previous section, when the full-back was in this position, then we can see how that player is crucial to County’s defensive tactics. Once that player is out of position, it becomes easy for the opposition to move in and take advantage. Therefore, this is an area that Notts County need to work on ahead of next season.
The final image shows us another thing that Notts County need to work on. In this situation, they are looking to play the ball out of the back, but they end up passing the ball back to the opposing Woking player. Whilst this is a straightforward thing to correct because it comes down to passing accuracy, it still needs to be pointed out in this analysis. Ultimately, it means that, whenever the Magpies have won the ball, they end up losing any ground they have gained by giving it away cheaply.
It also means that opponents can get into the areas behind the defence because the Notts County full-back has come forward with the ball. You can see how there is now a gap available, should the Woking attacker look to use that space, and therefore this is costly to Notts County. If their promotion bid next season is to be successful, then these little things are what could be the difference between winning and losing games.
Whilst we have analysed the strengths and weaknesses of Notts County’s attacking and defensive tactics, the primary purpose of this article has been to find the reasons why they fell short in their attempt to gain promotion back to the EFL at the first attempt. The best way to do this is to compare Notts County’s statistics with those of champions Barrow and play-off winners Harrogate Town.
The first interesting thing we can see is that Notts County had the lowest expected goals value of the three teams, which perhaps reflects how they created so few chances. If we bring in the crossing accuracy statistic to this point, then we can see that, whilst Notts County has the second-highest value, only a third of their crosses in a single match is accurate. As we have mentioned previously in this article, if they did get more crosses into the right areas, then they might score more goals, so we can see how this is linked, and how improving their crossing will help them to carry more of a threat in attack.
Defensively, they win the least defensive duels and the second-least aerial duels, so we can therefore see another way that they can improve. We have pointed out how they often let opponents get behind them, and perhaps if they were to get tighter to those attackers, then they would stop these runs in behind, and this would also perhaps lead to opponents creating fewer chances against them. They do have experience in their defensive ranks to enable them to do this, such as former Cardiff City defender Ben Turner, who has EPL experience with the Bluebirds, and so can help them defend more tightly. Still, it’s just a case of spending the time on the training field improving on these situations.
In conclusion, we can say that the main reason that Notts County failed in their bid for immediate promotion to the EFL is not a simple question to answer. We have shown in this article how they can improve in attack and defence, but it was interesting that the only statistic in the previous section where they beat both Barrow and Harrogate was in passing accuracy. Therefore, better additions are needed in both attack and defence to improve on this. Bringing in a new striker will be essential, given 15-goal striker Kristian Dennis’ move to SPFL side St Mirren this summer. Also adding a winger with a good crossing ability, and full-backs who are happy to slot in at the back much more could be the difference. If they do get all of this right and improve on the areas we have analysed in this piece, then it’s not out of the question that they could go one step further and make a return to the EFL in 2021.