Charlton Athletic and Doncaster Rovers played out an epic semi-final second leg at The Valley on Friday night as they battled for a place in the Sky Bet League One Play-Off final at Wembley on 26 May. Charlton led 2-1 on aggregate heading into the clash, however, Rovers triumphed 2-3 on the night after extra time to take the tie to penalties; it was the Addicks who held their nerve, progressing thanks to a 4-3 victory. Here, we will provide a detailed tactical analysis of the game.
Krystian Bielik had buried a header just two minutes into the contest to put his side in the lead before Tommy Rowe hit a glorious strike into the bottom corner from 20 yards shortly afterwards.
With the score at 3-2 on aggregate, Andy Butler popped up with a crucial 88th-minute header to send the game to extra time. John Marquis then went one better as he put his side in the ascendancy in the 100th minute. However, substitute Darren Pratley profited from a blunder by Doncaster goalkeeper Marko Marosi to bag an equaliser just one minute later to ensure penalties.
Charlton started in a 4-diamond-2 formation, seeking to outnumber their opponents in midfield and use this superiority to work the ball up to their two strikers in Josh Parker and Lyle Taylor.
Bielik was situated at the base of the quartet, offering defensive protection to the back four, with Albie Morgan and Josh Cullen playing as orthodox central midfielders when on the ball-far side but moving wider when on the ball near side. Finally, at the tip of the diamond, Joe Aribo was given license to support the front two and make runs beyond them in order to give more options in attack.
Doncaster set up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Herbie Kane, Ben Whiteman and captain Rowe the central trio. Veteran James Coppinger and the explosive Malik Wilks sat either side of talisman Marquis, who was looking to add to his 21 goals for the season thus far.
Rotation vital for Rovers
Much of Doncaster’s successful attacking play is down to smart rotation from their midfielders, with all three swapping positions frequently in order to drag their opponents out of shape. They look to constantly change roles, taking their opposing numbers with them and patiently waiting for a lapse in concentration from which they can pounce upon.
We can see from the below three examples – which were all captured within two minutes of each other – that all three midfielders regularly revolve around, all taking it, in turn, to play as the deepest and disrupt Charlton’s defensive shape.
The benefit of such interchanging is that it continually drags the opposition midfield around, meaning that none can become settled defensively and thus increases the chances of producing and exposing a space that either one of their teammates can instinctively punish. They were content to keep the ball moving in their defensive third until such a gap was opened, where they would instinctively exploit it.
All three inherently rotated as we can see Whiteman moving away from the ball in order to create a space for Rowe to run onto. Kane is able to see this run, and plays a first-time pass off the outside of his foot straight into the path of the 30-year old. The persistent movement of the three is what created the confusion within the Charlton midfield to allow the opening of this space, and Rowe ruthlessly pounced on it to smash home from 20 yards.
In addition to the above tactic, Rovers also looked to create overloads out wide to move the ball quickly, playing one and two-touch football within the triangles they created in order to shift the Charlton midfield across before then quickly coming back inside into the vacated areas.
The below graphic illustrates this point, with two midfielders, the right back and right winger all coming together within ten yards of each other to provide this numerical superiority and increase their chances of keeping the ball.
Charlton had clearly noted this method of attack, as they altered the positioning of their two forwards in order to try and prevent build up in these areas.
Josh Parker was operating on the left-hand side of the front two with Taylor on right, and if Doncaster were looking to begin their forays forward on their respective side, they would drop into an almost orthodox wide midfield position to prevent numerical inferiority and thereby make it harder for Rovers to keep possession in these areas.
The Doncaster midfielders were having great joy in popping the ball around centrally and dragging around the Charlton players tasked with preventing their creativity.
Operating on the left of the four, the 19-year old finds himself centrally advanced and out of his position, creating a huge gap for Coppinger to drop into and receive the ball. Rovers immediately play a ball from defence into the feet of Coppinger, who instantly turns and drives at the Charlton defence. Although it came to nothing, it was a huge reminder to home manager Lee Bowyer as to the problems that Doncaster were posing to his men.
As a result, Morgan was sacrificed at the break in favour of the experienced Pratley who could offer greater nous and know-how in disrupting Doncaster’s attacking flow.
Pratley’s introduction prompted Bielik to drop in a central defensive position and his team to alternate between their current diamond and a 3-5-2 formation.
When staying in the diamond (doing so whilst in possession), Naby Sarr would shift from left central defender to an orthodox left-back, whilst Ben Purrington moved into the left central midfield position vacated by Morgan and Pratley sat at the base of the four. As Purrington is a natural left-back, he would be innately inclined to be conservative and therefore make his side much more compact and solid, sitting in the left half-space to provide cover when attacking down that side of the pitch.
Charlton successful when dominating half-space
With the physical capabilities of their front two in addition to the energetic nature of Aribo, Morgan and Cullen, the Addicks looked for their strikers to occupy their respective half-space, pin the full-backs – taking advantage of the physically smaller Matty Blair and Danny Andrew in comparison to central defenders Butler and Paul Downing – hold up the ball and bring into play their onrushing teammates, as is seen in the below two images.
They had success in the opening 45 minutes at employing such tactics, with the ball-retention of Parker and Taylor not just being a dangerous offensive weapon but also providing respite to the defence when they were having to withhold the Rovers attack.
However, in the second half, Charlton moved away from this tactic. Instead of playing the ball to the feet of the pair they looked to play long balls down the middle instead, and this was comfortably handled by the Doncaster central defensive pair. It lead to the two cutting frustrated figures such was their teammates’ inability to provide them with the service that not just they desired, but that had worked effectively earlier in the match.
The below image is an example of a simple pass from Aribo that should have gone into the feet of Taylor and allowed him to either spin or hold it up. Instead, it was too far back inside and allowed Downing to easily step in, dispossess the home side and start an attack of his own.
Wilks utilised more in latter stages
On-loan winger Malik Wilks has caught many an eye during his loan spell at the Keepmoat Stadium from Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, with his speed and trickery out wide being a vital part of Doncaster’s armoury.
Yet here he was taking up positions more central than usual, and looking to link play as opposed to isolating defenders and running at them one-versus-one.
His role changed as the game moved into extra time, with Rovers boss Grant McCann changing tact in utilising Wilks as he has been accustomed in a wider role, using his speed to run at tiring Charlton defenders – and it was this exact plot that brought about their third goal of the night.
Having received the ball on the right of the penalty area, Wilks faced up Sarr before darting past him towards the byline. He played a simple ball across goal straight onto the head of Marquis, who had the easy task of heading home into an empty net from six-yards out.
There can be no doubting the fact that Doncaster deserved the victory in the game in South London, with Charlton fortunate to score from a set-piece header as a defensive mistake.
Rovers were well worth their success, however, credit must be given to Charlton for their resilience to keep going when behind. They must perform much better when they meet Sunderland in the final, though, if they wish to be in the Championship next season.