In 2015, David Wagner arrived at Huddersfield Town and became the club’s first non-UK manager. The former Dortmund II manager brought a similar style of play to Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp with some changes to fit the players. Just one season later, they secured promotion to the Premier League and even maintained their status at the end of the season.
But a string of unconvincing results combined with the club’s position saw Wagner’s spot being replaced by Jan Siewert, his successor at Dortmund II. He didn’t stay for too long after couldn’t save the club from relegation and only won one point from the first six Championship match in seven matches in charge. The club has announced the appointment of Lincoln City manager Danny Cowley to their managerial spot.
He brought the excitement to the fanbase for what he had done with Lincoln, securing two promotions in three seasons. This tactical analysis will provide an analysis of Cowley’s tactics at Lincoln City this season. Meanwhile, using statistics and footages, we will preview how will he set Huddersfield up.
During his time with Lincoln, Cowley mainly used the 4-2-3-1 formation for his side. It’s rare to see he moved away from his trait that was maintained throughout the recent four seasons. Depends on the opposition, there will be flexible changes to that formation to turn it into another variant.
For example, if they play against an attacking-minded opposition, two wingers could drop back to create a 4-4-1-1. Two defensive lines will be able to cope with the opposite attackers and limit their threats. Or, using two strikers to deal with the low-block could also be a viable option for Cowley. They combine with the wingers to attack between the lines and receive support from two central midfielders below.
It is a possibility that Cowley will continue his trait and deploy a 4-2-3-1 for Huddersfield. The Terriers have played with this formation in the last two seasons with Wagner and Siewert so it won’t be a problem for the players to settle in.
The fans could expect to see two flying wing-backs down both wings, similar to Harry Toffolo’s role at Lincoln. Furthermore, he also tends to have two centre-backs who are comfortable on the ball. This will allow them to put an emphasis on building their attacks from the back. They can link up with the central midfielders and progress the ball up the pitch. Up front, the flexible movements from the attackers will create spaces inside the final third and give the ball carrier more passing options to lay the ball off.
Build-up and ball progression
As mentioned, they focus on playing out from the backline and move the ball up the pitch through the defenders. They move the ball in a quick fashion and use a four-man build-up to bypass the pressure that comes from the opponent. During the build-up, two wing-backs also stick around and stretch wide to occupy the wide areas.
They are usually in a positive state to receive the ball and start the attack from either flank. When moving the ball wide, Lincoln relied more on short, quick combinations inside the half-spaces. This required the wingers to move into the wide-area more often and left the central space for the attacking midfielder.
Centrally, Cowley deployed two double pivots in Michael O’Connor and Callum Connolly who would involve in the build-up by dropping deep and offer to bring the ball out of defence. Usually, this task was put on the Everton loanee as he was a full-back back at his parent club who is capable of passing and dribbling. This will create a classic “Lavolpiana build-up” and allow them to beat the pressure that comes from the opponent.
Connolly would find teammates who were in more advanced positions to receive the ball with a direct pass. From the middle third, he could send the ball towards an attacker up front and signalled for the start of the attack. The option of laying it off to his colleague, O’Connor was also viable with the Irish midfielder is more of a passer on the field.
Another option for the two central defenders was to make long balls towards the striker. In the role of a target man, John Akinde has the physicality to shield the ball against the pressure and lay it off to one of his teammates. Usually, he will drop off from his position to receive the long pass and also attract the attention of the opposition’s defenders. This will create spaces behind his back for the wingers Bruno Andrade and Jorge Grant to move in. Furthermore, dropping deep will also bring his teammates into play and provide more passing options for the ball carrier in the team’s attack.
But with the arrival of loanee Tyler Walker this season, Cowley had changed things up a bit. He wanted to use more of his pace to help Lincoln built their attacks more flexible. A method that he adopted was to allow Walker to sit on the shoulders of defenders while Akinde positioned himself behind the Nottingham Forest loanee. Akinde played a bit deeper than his original position to link up the play while Walker moved in between the gaps between the defenders to encourage more lofted through pass to come towards him.
It is expected that Cowley will adopt similar tactics at Huddersfield. He will have at least three centre-backs who can play as ball-playing defenders in Christopher Schindler, Trevoh Chalobah and Tommy Elphick. They register an average of 38.86 (with an accurate rate of 87.7%), 51.43 (83.9%) and 37.94 (87.8%) passes per game. Schindler and Elphick might be his first choices at the heart of Huddersfield’s defence, while Chalobah can be deployed as a defensive midfielder in the role of a half-back. The Chelsea loanee will maintain the “Lavolpiana build-up” to help the side circulate the ball among the defenders and progress it up the pitch.
Up front, there are a variety of options for Cowley to choose who will lead the line. In Karlan Grant and Stevie Mounié, he will have two pacey forwards who also have the physicality to shield the ball and recycle possession. The former Charlton striker has played in all six games this season, scoring four goals and registered an average of 3.1 dribbles per game. Meanwhile, Mounié had had a very average last season in the Premier League, only found the net twice and assisted two of his teammates’ goal. But his stats showed there are certain aspects that he could improve, such as his dribbling (1.84 dribbles per game) and progressive runs (0.61 progressive runs per game).
A wing-oriented team
In the second picture above, we can notice Lincoln built their attack down the wing and this was also one of their tactical points under the management of the Cowley’s brothers. They favoured to distribute the ball into the wide areas of the pitch and relied on the combinations between wing-backs and wingers to progress the ball.
When the wing-back overlap with the ball, the winger in front of them would move into the half-space and capitalise the gap in between the opposition’s defensive line. At the same time, they will receive the support from the striker up front in creating a passing triangle to bypass the pressure from the opponent. This will also help them eliminate the numerical superiority in that area which will help them to move the ball more efficiently.
Especially down the left-hand side with the appearance of wing-back Harry Toffolo and winger Bruno Andrade, they were far more dangerous in their attacks. The former Norwich defender possesses a great pace which helps him in making overlapping runs up and down the pitch. He is also a great crosser inside the final third, making an average of 3.28 crosses per game across all competitions this season. His number also saw a significant rise from 2.39 crosses last season, still, he is far from reaching his assists tally of three but that is only a matter of time.
Last season, Toffolo formed a tight-bond partnership along with winger Andrade. These two provided a threat from the left-wing using quick positions interchanging and combinations. From his position, the Portuguese winger will cut inside and work more centrally. By doing so, he becomes a flexible attacking option in both the central and wide area. Besides from creating chances for himself (he scored ten goals last season), he could also drive the crosses into the box for the strikers inside. With four assists last season, he topped the Imps’ assist chart along with Akinde.
This season, though, Andrade was usually rotated with new signing Jorge Grant. The former Nottingham Forest midfielder can play in both the attacking midfielder and left-sided midfielder position, as well as a central midfielder during his time at Luton. He is more of a playmaker, having provided six goals for his teammates already across all competitions. His arrival gave Cowley a very decent option on the left-hand side while still putting his faith in the youngster Harry Anderson on the opposite wing.
The attacking direction graph above against Southend also showed us the tendency of creating attacks down the central area. In those situations, they maintained the striker line a bit compact and between the defensive lines. While both wingers had the option of dropping off the line, the striker and the attacking midfielder stayed on the shoulders of defenders and wait for a through ball.
At Huddersfield, Cowley will have more options to build the team’s attacks down both wings as wing-backs Florent Hadergjonaj and Terence Kongolo are capable of making overlapping runs and fulfil his defensive responsibilities. In his 4-2-3-1, these two will occasionally join the attack and enter the final third to link up with their teammates. Their stats also indicate their traits, as the former registered 2.15 dribbles, 1.08 progressive runs and 4.15 crosses per this season game. Meanwhile, the latter’s is quite lower but still possess the necessary attributes of a wing-back with 1.23 dribbles, 0.46 progressive runs and 1.54 crosses per game.
Choosing wingers for his system won’t also be a problem for him as Issac Mbenza, Adama Diakhaby and Elias Kachunga are capable of playing in those positions. They are wide forwards who have the pace to beat their markers and sprint towards the box. Creating chances is also one of their advantages using their dribbling and shooting ability.
While the former two are still looking for their second competitive goal with Huddersfield, Kachunga has been a consistent performer for the side. In his first season in the Championship, he scored thirteen goals and set up two goals for his teammates. But since then, his form dropped as he couldn’t get his tally above two goals in the recent seasons. Under Cowley, though, they hope to find new inspiration in terms of tactics that could help them get back into the scoring way.
The defensive structure
Off the ball, Cowley’s Lincoln took on an aggressive pressing play and aimed to win the ball higher up the pitch. The attackers kept their narrow line when disrupting the opposition’s build-up and moved along with the ball. During that process, they also created a shield surrounded the ball carrier and prevented them from making passes towards the central midfielders.
Their pressing strategy also required the defensive line to stay higher, more specifically, near the halfway line. They would clear any long balls from the build-up that headed towards the striker and also tracked the runs of the opposition’s attackers to stop them from entering the space behind their defensive line.
Their defenders needed to have a high level of concentration and decent positioning to know where the attackers were. In the League One level of football, some coaches tended to employ a negative style of play that used long balls to find the strikers up front. This required the likes of Jason Shackell, Michael Bostwick or Cian Bolger to intercept those passes and not only regain possession for Lincoln, but also keep them away from danger.
In the shot below against Doncaster, they used a man-oriented press to win the ball back inside the opposition’s half. Each of their players was responsible for a Doncaster player and even two were marking the ball carrier. They put pressure on the player who was holding the ball and forced him to make either a misplaced pass or a heavy touch. Those will be the signal for them to close down and win the ball back.
If the ball carrier was looking to make a pass out of that area, he had no other option but to clear it since all possible passing options were already marked. A back pass could also be viable but there would be players who were ready to step out and intercept that pass. It would put their goal in a threatening situation as Lincoln have numbers inside and around the final third.
But not in every situation that Lincoln adopted
this aggressive pressing strategy. Usually, the option they chose was to regroup into a 4-2-3-1 defensive structure and at the same time, started the press. During their retreating process, there were situations where the ball carrier dribbled the ball inside an area where Lincoln held numerical superiority.
In those cases, they would create a cage to lock that player down and at least two would approach him to tackle the ball. This strategy helped them in getting back to their defensive shape, while allowed them to approach the ball carrier and attempted to recover possession.
It’s no surprise that their ball recovery rate inside the middle third remained at a very respectable level of 31% after the first six matches. Moreover, it’s noticeable that Lincoln were focused more on their defensive works to the right-hand side of right-back Neal Eardley.
As they usually attack down the left side with the involvement of both Toffolo and either Andrade or Grant, it is important to keep the opposition away from exploiting that area in counter-attacks. The central midfielders were key to this by providing cover to the left flank while shifting the opposition’s attacking direction towards the right flank. This provided insurance for the players who were still recovering from their attacking positions.
Having made an earlier step up the division compared to his team, the Cowley brothers of Danny and Nicky will enter their first challenge with Huddersfield in the Championship this weekend against Sheffield Wednesday. This is a familiar scene as we also witnessed Nathan Jones did a similar thing last season. But Cowley has started deeper with Lincoln and achieved big things with the club.
He employed a very attractive, fast-tempo style of play in both attack and defence. While being a wing-oriented team on the ball, they showed a variety of attacking methods by playing out from the back. In defence, he encouraged his players to regroup into the shape and pressed higher up the pitch. With those noticeable tactical points in mind, there is a possibility that Cowley will adapt a similar style at Huddersfield. But everything now is still questionable and the answers will only be revealed against the brothers’ first Championship opponent this Sunday.
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