EFL League Two 2019/20: Cheltenham Town vs Colchester United – tactical analysis
Saturday’s round of English Football League Two clashes presented both Cheltenham Town and Colchester United with alluring rewards should they have been able to claim victory over their opponents. Depending on results elsewhere, Michael Duff’s Robins could have moved into an automatic promotion spot with three points, and John McGreal’s United into a playoffs spot with the same rewards.
However, a 1-1 draw at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium was only enough to see both sides remain where they had begun the day. With Cheltenham just inside the playoffs by a point – with a healthy goal difference advantage – and McGreal’s side sitting in tenth.
Duff opted with the same starting structure as he has done for the majority in recent months, with a 3-5-2, which has only been differed from recently for a 3-4-1-2. After the 1-0 away FA Cup victory over Swindon Town last time out, the Robins made one change in personnel. That being that Sean Long made way for Chris Hussey in the side’s midfield.
Like their opponents, Colchester stuck with a formation which has been preferred by McGreal in the vast majority for recent months, with a 4-2-3-1. Over United’s previous 12 starting formations, that has only been deviated from on three occasions, twice for a 4-4-2 and once for a 5-4-1. However, McGreal made a total of six changes to his starting lineup from the 1-0 victory over Ipswich Town in the Leasing.com Trophy last time out. Ethan Ross, Brendan Sarpong-Wiredu, Omar Sowunmi, Ryan Clampin, Tom Lapslie and Jevani Brown all made way for Dean Gerken, Ryan Jackson, Tom Eastman, Cohen Bramall, Brandon Comley and Kwame Poku.
Colchester’s long balls out of defence
Essentially, from the first minute of the game Colchester began to employ a tactic of playing long balls from defence either in between the Robins’ midfield and defensive lines or between the defence and the goalkeeper. It is safe to assume that this was a ploy by McGreal to cut out the middle of the pitch and the possibility of Cheltenham’s five-man midfield controlling the play. So, in an effort to completely bypass the middle third, the U’s defenders often played long passes centrally and into the channels.
Here, inside the first 30 seconds of the game, Luke Prosser can be seen enforcing this long ball tactic. With several viable passing options – as marked by the red arrows – the central defender opts to play long and wide, as marked by the yellow arrow. The result of this was that United’s possession percentage and pass accuracy suffered massively. McGreal’s side enjoyed just 37% of the ball throughout the clash and had a weak pass accuracy of 67%. Also, Colchester made 220 fewer passes than the Robins – the hosts with 566 compared to United’s 346.
However, the benefit to this tactic can be seen here, in the build-up to Colchester’s opening goal in the first half. Again, with a passing option to the left and one to the right – where Jackson is just out of shot – Eastman ignores both red arrows and opts for the long ball upfield, marked by the yellow arrow. This long pass forward cuts out the Robins’ attacking, midfield and defensive thirds; dropping on the edge of the 18-yard box.
Here, seconds later in the same move, the annotation shows where the ball is going to drop. The runs of both Luke Norris and Courtney Senior prove that this was a tactical play as they expected the pass and made runs accordingly. With the turn of pace on the defenders, Norris can latch onto the ball and provide a tidy finish over Scott Flinders, who has been caught off his line due to where the ball dropped.
Cheltenham’s high press
After it became clear that the visitors would be attempting to take advantage of the long ball which would cut out the middle third, the Robins began to press high to combat McGreal’s tactic. The idea behind this was to limit the U’s defence in their time on the ball to pick a long pass. This press consisted of a triangle shape, with the two forwards supported by the wide midfielder on whichever side of the pitch the ball was. The point of the triangle closest to the ball would quickly and immediately press, with the other two points then supporting by blocking close passing lines.
As can be seen in this annotation, Duff’s triangle pressing structure in attack can be seen. With Eastman just having received possession of the ball, the Cheltenham attacker immediately and quickly closes down, in an attempt to prevent him being able to take his time and spot a long pass. As previously mentioned, the two base points of the triangle then position themselves to support should the ball move wide left or right – in attempt to win back possession high up the pitch.
The U’s high and wide wingers
With the long ball tactic from the defence in full flow, the wingers in the three of the 4-2-3-1 remained as high and wide as possible to be in a position to receive the long passes. This led to the system almost becoming a 4-3-3 due to the wingers often positioning themselves on a similar level to Norris. The high wingers were a clear feature in Colchester’s goal, with the advanced position of Senior offering support to Norris – which he ultimately did not need.
As can be seen here, McGreal’s wingers are much more advanced than Harry Pell, who is currently occupying the number ten role. Despite the Robins having possession deep in their own territory, Senior and Frank Nouble are still highly advanced to stay in a position where they can quickly become a long ball option.
Here, in this annotation, the desire of the two wingers to get into advanced positions can be seen. The ball has been worked back by the Robins, and instead of keeping their shape in a mid-block, Senior and Nouble charge into the wide area.
One, this allows them to apply pressure to the ball on the off chance of a mistake and, two, again keeps them high up the pitch for a long and wide pass. The result of this tactic, however, left it an almost three versus five in midfield in the centre of the pitch, which allowed Cheltenham to dominate possession of the ball – with 63%.
Cheltenham’s squandered control
With Colchester giving Duff’s side every opportunity to control the ball, by constantly turning possession over with long balls and almost allowing them to dominate the midfield, in numbers, by advancing wingers high – the Robins squandered it. It was seemingly as though the home side did not expect United to play the way McGreal had set them up, and they continued to persist with a tactic that was ineffective and would have perhaps been more suitable for the way they thought Colchester would play tactically.
What can be seen here was a key feature for Cheltenham, whereby wingers, and players who had moved out wide, would play crosses from deep directly into the six-yard box. As can be seen, the Cheltenham man has an option to play a pass down the line, however, opts to cross directly into United’s six-yard box.
The idea behind this may have been sound, in that Duff wanted to use the speed his attackers had on the U’s middle two defenders and have crosses drop over Eastman’s and Prosser’s heads for an opportunity to volley or bundle the ball in; although that is not how it transpired. The height and stature of Prosser and Eastman allowed them to simply head clear. With the greater numbers centrally, due to McGreal’s aforementioned tactics, the Robins perhaps would have been better focussing on attacking in that area, using pace to their attackers’ advantage with through balls.
As can be seen in the difference between Cheltenham’s crossing maps from the first and second half, this was changed mid-game due to the tactic’s ineffectiveness. From the first half, almost all successful and unsuccessful crosses are towards Colchester’s six-yard box, then, in the second half, the crosses are much more varied due to first-half crosses’ ineffectiveness.
Ultimately, the Robins got themselves back into the game when attacking centrally. Here, with their pace and numbers a through ball is played into the path of Ruben Reid, who is brought down in the box and that results in a penalty for the hosts. The spot-kick, which resulted from a central-based attack, is dispatched by Conor Thomas to level the game.
While Michael Duff’s side dominated the game in terms of almost every stat imaginable, they squandered a good opportunity to secure more points on their hunt for an automatic promotion spot. Duff will be disappointed that his side were unable to make the most of their possession and the advantages awarded to them by Colchester.
While John McGreal’s plan was risky, it almost paid dividends and United would have had two more points on their hunt for a playoff spot. However, with the Robins positioned higher in the table, McGreal will perhaps be pleased with a point on the road.
This tactical analysis has dissected the English Football League Two clash between Cheltenham Town and Colchester United, highlighting key areas of the two sides’ tactics and using analysis to show how those had an impact on the outcome of the game, the spoils shared in a 1-1 draw.
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