Posh blow chance of early promotion: Tweaking small details allows for Donny comeback
Like so many other leagues around the globe, EFL League One is reaching its climax, with teams looking to secure promotions or safety from relegation. This week, we saw Peterborough United go one step closer to confirming their promotion from League One to the Championship in an entertaining 2-2 draw against Doncaster Rovers. Rovers were flying high in the division until a couple of months ago. Now, Andy Butler’s side have won just once in their last 13 games, and while qualifying for the play-offs is still a mathematical possibility, it is extremely unlikely that they will achieve that this campaign. In recent years, Donny have been able to perform well against Peterborough, becoming somewhat of a bogey team for Darren Ferguson’s team. This tactical analysis will put a scope on the tactics used by Posh that allowed them to take an early 2-0 lead, as well as how they looked to regain that lead later in the game. Meanwhile, we will provide an analysis on where it all went wrong for Rovers to go 2-0 down, but what eventually clicked for them that enabled them to claw the game back to 2-2.
The home side went with a 4-4-2 shape, with a strike partnership that has 44 goals between the pair in League One this season – Sammie Szmodics and former Doncaster loanee Jonson Clarke-Harris. Wide support came from Joe Ward and Siriki Dembélé, who has 10 goals himself this season too, and Jack Taylor partnered Louis Reed in the middle of the park. From right to left, the back four consisted of Nathan Thompson, Frankie Kent, Mark Beevers, and Dan Butler. Joe Bursik, who had a loan spell at Doncaster earlier this season, was between the sticks.
Player-manager Andy Butler started in the back four again for Doncaster, alongside Tom Anderson, with Joe Wright playing as a makeshift right-back, and academy product Branden Horton playing at left-back. Fellow academy product Louis Jones continued his impressive season in goal. Jason Lokilo and Josh Sims, on loan from Premier League outfit Southampton, operated as the wingers with Reece James and Matt Smith, on loan from Manchester City, in the engine room. Omar Bogle partnered Fejiri Okenabirhie, who is Donny’s top scorer this season with 11 goals, lead the line for Rovers.
Posh prolific in early stages
When you consider how dominant Peterborough have been this season; how impressive they have been in front of goal, it came as no surprise that started the game on the front foot in this tie. Taking advantage of some lacklustre defending from Doncaster, they were able to create a number of early opportunities.
The home side liked to work the ball in wide areas, targeting the Rovers full-backs – an inexperienced Horton on the left, and a natural centre-half playing right-back in Joe Wright. As we can see above, this caused a few issues for Andy Butler’s men, and the Posh were able to use it to their benefit. Nathan Thompson is the man on the ball above, with Szmodics dropping in to help build the attack. He and Thompson are able to pull off a one-two passing move, and as we can see in the continued analysis below, this was detrimental to Donny as the hosts took the lead. From a defensive point of view, however, this could have been stopped. If Branden Horton’s initial positioning was close to Szmodics, the one-two would’ve been much more difficult to complete – more pressure from Josh Sims could’ve also aided this.
After the one-two on the flank, Rovers experienced even more defensive issues, when Wales international Matt Smith left Joe Ward free at the edge of the box, instead choosing to apply late pressure to stop the one-two. This mistake allowed Thompson to continue this nice Peterborough move and pick out Ward, who controlled the ball before curling it past Jones. While this was a smart move, Donny will be annoyed with themselves for this poor defending.
While Peterborough were impressive on the ball, they also show their talents and work ethic off the ball. Facing a Doncaster side who are lacking confidence and creativity, they often applied pressure as a unit of 3-4 players, severely limiting Rovers’ chances of playing out from defence. The positioning of Darren Ferguson’s men in these situations was admirable – two men ready to close down close passing options as well as being ideally placed to pressure Reece James on the ball should he look to dribble in their direction. A third man presses James from behind, rushing him even more while making it virtually impossible for the versatile Rovers man to turn and drive forward.
To their credit, Doncaster were able to do what many teams have struggled with this season – keep Jonson Clarke-Harris from scoring. However, the 29-goal-striker was still very effective in this game, using his physicality and composure to link up the play.
Again, this chance for Peterborough was a result of a slow reaction from Rovers – slow in trying to play the ball out, and slow in reacting defensively when they were dispossessed. Jack Taylor picked up the pass from Clarke-Harris, with Rovers desperately trying to regain some shape and organisation. Despite their efforts, Anderson was out of position, meaning Butler had to shift across to cover, leaving a space on the penalty spot to be exploited. Szmodics made a run towards that space, with Matt Smith again struggling to uphold his defensive duties, leaving the Peterborough forward to bag his 15th goal of the season.
Rovers’ relentless fight back
During this horrid run of form, Doncaster have lacked creativity and a sense of attacking identity, with many of their attacks falling flat. This seemed to change after Peterborough’s second goal, as Rovers reached a new level that allowed them claw the game back. Their passing was sharper, their movement was more imaginative, and their game, in general, seemed to hold more purpose.
Rovers have bounced between various formations since the arrival of Andy Butler as the interim player-manager has had a number of squad absences to handle. Whether Donny play with 1 up top or 2, seeing a striker drop in deep to hold the ball up and link up the play is a regular feature. In this case, it was Omar Bogle who played this role – but the success was not there. Bogle’s positioning was good, but a number of things factored into this particular attempt failing – we can look at how it can be improved. Firstly, Horton should be playing the pass into Bogle sooner, a little hesitation from the young full-back allowed Peterborough to prepare more. Secondly, while the pass itself was good, Bogle’s first touch was very poor – the way he received the ball is also reflective of Donny’s success in this area. He didn’t receive the ball with any clear idea of where the next pass should be – also not a new thing for this side. Despite Reece James having the potential drift inside into an open space, and Josh Sims (out of shot) on the left flank, the ball only seemed to go backwards when Donny attempted this. The potential is there, it just needs work.
Later in the first half, their attacking play really started to click, and Peterborough struggled to handle it. Earlier in the season, Doncaster were one of the most dangerous sides in attack, so we know they have firepower in their locker. A third-man-run in this attack was particularly hard to defend – Manchester City loanee Matt Smith put his Premier League calibre on display with a brilliant lofted pass into the path of former Crystal Palace youngster Jason Lokilo. As we can see in the continued analysis below, this move was more than just a lofted ball into the box, with Rovers finally utilising their creative movement.
As the ball floated in towards the winger, striker Okenabirhie made a clever run on the outside of his teammate, allowing Lokilo to cushion the ball for him before unleashing a deadly first-time shot to make it 2-1. Okenabirhie’s curved run into the area he ended up was not picked up by a Posh defender – the focus was on Lokilo and the penalty area, a smart play by Doncaster.
For all the improvement we saw from Doncaster in parts of this game, massive credit has to go to two individuals – Taylor Richards and Jason Lokilo. The two youngsters were a real handful for Peterborough’s back four, creating chances out of nothing. We almost saw the two combine in this clever attack, which had a couple of layers to it. Lokilo takes on the Peterborough full-back Dan Butler with some tricky feet, working his way to the byline. He then fires in a low cross, with Richards drifting inside from the far post to try and meet the cross. While it was ultimately defended, it was a dangerous move from the visitors. A noteworthy element of this attack is how Rovers had two men (highlighted in red) lined up at the edge of the box – acting as decoys, which dragged a couple of Posh players towards the edge of the box, creating more space for Richards to run into.
Both sides chase the winner
Peterborough needed a win in this game to mathematically confirm their promotion to the Championship, meaning they weren’t satisfied with a draw in this game. Doncaster, on the other hand, wanted to ensure they spoil the party for their counterparts, as the Yorkshire club has a history in recent years of clubs beating them to secure safety/promotions/titles. Furthermore, Donny were walking the line of trying to grab a winner to increase their momentum for the end of the season and avoiding falling to a late goal to lose the game after all of their hard work earlier in the match.
Peterborough looked to burst forward, transitioning quickly whenever they could. Donny didn’t over-commit in terms of sending players forward, but their defensive line was fairly high, especially after goal kicks/free kicks from a defensive area. This meant their backline was sometimes out of shape, which gave Peterborough a chance at attacking. In this case, the flanks were empty and available for the hosts to exploit. Dembele is the man on the ball who displayed good technique and composure to first control the ball, and then slow down and reposition himself to play the pass out wide to Ward. The two forwards and Jack Taylor also made their way into the box ready for the Posh cross – which was ultimately well defended.
Rovers also looked to pile the pressure on when possible, having their fair share of chances to take the lead. With the game frantically going back and forth, gaps were left – in this case, it’s a huge gap between Peterborough’s backline and their midfield uni. Taylor Richards utilises his vision and passing ability to thread a blind pass through to the space, with Reece James running onto it. As the continued analysis shows below, James used this as an opportunity to set up a dangerous attack.
After carrying the ball for a few yards, James played a pass in an attempt to get substitute Tyreece John-Jules in behind the opposition defence. John-Jules, on loan from Arsenal, was able to control the ball and fire in a dangerous low cross, only nobody was there to meet it. The intent from James and John-Jules is promising, and this was reflecting in the build-up play.
While a point in this game doesn’t confirm Peterborough’s promotion, it is by no means a roadblock in their season – they are practically promoted. While this wasn’t their strongest performance, they showed glimpses of why they have been so successful this season. As for Doncaster, they will take momentum from the fightback they completed to grab a draw, and they also showed glimpses of the side they were earlier in the seas