The 2018/19 EFL League Two play-off final sees Newport County take on Tranmere Rovers at Wembley for a place in Sky Bet League One. Here, we will take a comprehensive look at the two sides and provide a detailed tactical preview of their strengths and weaknesses.
Newport County ensured their spot in the final after they triumphed on penalties against Mansfield Town following a 1-1 aggregate draw, whilst Tranmere Rovers overcame Forest Green Rovers 2-1 over the two legs.
Newport County took to the field in a 3-5-2 formation for the first leg of their semi-final, matching up their opponents. However, upon switching to a 4-3-3 for the second leg they looked much more dangerous whilst also negating some of the major threats posed by Mansfield, and may well stick with the tried and tested in League Two.
Robbie Willmott moved from right wing-back to left wing, with Regan Poole becoming an orthodox right-back as a result. Joss Labadie provides real energy and bite in midfield when preferred to Matty Dolan in a box-to-box role, and will likely retain his place here to ensure they do not get overrun. The disciplined Willmott and Padraig Amond will drop into midfield out of possession to aid the full-backs defensively, creating more of a 4-5-1 formation.
As for Tranmere, they function in a variant of 4-3-3, transforming into a 4-5-1 when defending. Much of their width is created by attacking full-backs Jake Caprice and Liam Ridehalgh, with their offensive nature, is facilitated by the movement of wide men Kieran Morris and Connor Jennings into the half space.
Ollie Banks offers defensive protection from the base of midfield when attacking, with the evergreen David Perkins assisting Jay Harris in pressing high up the pitch to win back and retain possession in the final third. Leading EFL marksman James Norwood plays as a lone forward, bringing his teammates into play with his expert hold-up play.
Tactical preview – Newport County tactics
Long ball to Jamille Matt
There can be no disputing the fact that the aerial ability of Jamille Matt is a huge part of Newport’s make up. They frequently look for the head of 6’3” striker as their first out ball and will then play off the second balls from there, with their set up all based around the consequential balls coming off from the aerial duels involving Matt.
As we can see below, there is a distinct 3-1-4-2 formation taken up when the ball is played up to Matt (with the three defenders out of shot), all aimed at ensuring they can capitalise on Matt’s challenge. The two advanced central midfielders, Dolan and Bennett, are waiting to instantly snap upon any second balls that drop in front of them should Matt lose out to the defender, whilst the wing-backs (widest of the four) are in a position to attack from out wide. Finally, Amond is alert to play off a successful flick-on won.
The tactical alteration employed for the second leg saw a slight change to the positioning, but ultimately no change to the intent for Newport.
They committed one man from their midfield three in direct support of Matt, yet such was his success at winning headers in the first leg felt it worthwhile to have two pacy runners off of Matt instead, gambling on his aerial ability. They were also afforded greater defensive cover through the two deeper central midfielders, who could react to any loose balls back on top of their defence. If the energetic Labadie is indeed favoured to Dolan then expect this to be their method of support to Matt.
Finally, when chasing the game in the first leg, County boss Michael Flynn introduced Adebayo Azeez into the fray. The pacy frontman added another threat to the Mansfield backline, and should they be seeking a goal again in the final then do not be surprised to see Azeez come off the bench.
It will be the job of Nelson and Monthe to marshal Matt and ensure he does not bully them and is not allowed to use his excellent hold-up abilities. The winner of this duel will have a huge say in who comes out on top overall.
Long throw weapon
The long throw of Demetriou is a tool frequently used by Newport County in their methods of attack. Despite it being very effective they rely on the ball reaching Matt at the front post, then playing off the chaos that Matt’s challenge for the ball causes.
They will frequently isolate Matt and gamble on him winning the ball, and set up his teammates to run onto either a successful flick on or a miscued defensive clearance. Such is Matt’s aerial prowess, opponents frequently look to have a defender in front and behind him to prevent a clear path onto the ball; one would think that Tranmere will go with this method too.
Must watch for a quick switch
Such is the willingness of the Newport County central midfielders to hunt down the ball, all three will press together in hope of winning it back there and then. However, if the opposition is able to bypass the press and switch play away from the pressing trio quickly – as per the following example – then this an area where the Exiles are vulnerable.
If they leave spaces in the final then the attacking combinations of Morris, Norwood, Caprice, and company will be able to cause a multitude of problems.
As seen below, the circled midfielders were seeking the ball in its vicinity before it was switched. Therefore, this raking pass takes all three out the game, and as Willmott is positioned as an orthodox right midfielder, Poole would be exposed to a one-v-one situation against CJ Hamilton. If Newport present Rovers’ wide men with opportunities to isolate defenders then they will be in grave danger.
The task will fall to Amond and Willmott to track their opposing full-backs all the way, as we can see Amond doing below, to prevent an overload out wide. Such are the attacking capabilities of the Tranmere full-backs – and also the importance of their offensive movements in Rovers’ overall system – it is vital that the Newport wingers are disciplined in their tracking back and ensure that Tranmere are not allowed to dominate in these positions.
Using analysis, we can see Newport’s central midfield three lined up in an inverted pyramid style as below, with two of the three positioned higher up than the deeper Sheehan.
This meant that, when retreating against a ball played over to the Mansfield strikers, there was only one immediate midfielder coming back to quickly help out the defence versus an influx of on-rushing attacking midfielders (below). Yet against Tranmere – a team who can transition from back to front quickly will look to run over the opposition in midfield – they could be more inclined to position themselves with either two deeper players, or a more defensive-minded midfielder instead, such as they did at Field Mill in Bennett.
The 28-year old’s defensive nous allows him to pick up second balls thanks to clever initial positioning (first picture), and cover for any potential defensive lapses (second picture). Against such a rampant Tranmere attack, this intelligence could prove crucial.
Norwood an all-round talent
The highest-scoring player in all four English Football League divisions this season with 32 goals in all competitions, the 28-year-old has rightly caught the eye of clubs higher up the footballing pyramid. Yet, it is not just his goals that he brings to the pitch.
The potent frontman is as adept at coming up short as he is running in behind, whilst he is also frequently the focal point from which Tranmere playoff regularly (albeit from the floor as opposed to Newport’s aerial dependence on Matt). Furthermore, his finishing ability is nothing short of stunning.
The below snapshots highlight his capabilities at linking the play, going deep to then spin and also holding up the ball to allow teammates to come into the play, and all of these qualities allow Tranmere to play in a multitude of ways.
He also has a superb work ethic to ensure defenders aren’t comfortable in possession – a thankless task as a lone forward. If Newport can stop the service into Norwood or press as soon as the ball makes its way to the attacker, then they will stifle a big part of Tranmere’s attack
Harris leads Tranmere press
In his role at the head of the midfield triumvirate, Harris is tasked with using his seemingly limitless energy reserves to prevent opponents from playing from deep and disrupting their flow. The below image indicates his role in the side, pressing and harrying opponents to try and win the ball back and launch a counter attack.
He will often pause his press until the first pass out of the defence has been given and then use this as the trigger, pouncing on the recipient before he can have time to set himself and frequently winning his team the ball back high up the pitch.
If the diminutive Liverpudlian can, along with Norwood, use their enthusiasm and buoyancy to prevent the Newport backline from clipping balls into Matt then this will nullify the biggest weapon of their opponents.
Nous of Perkins vital all around the pitch
Whilst Harris may lead the high press, he is also joined by his experienced midfield colleague Perkins. The 36-year-old frequently uses Harris’ press as his trigger to press the next man, ensure that the opposition are penned in deep and cannot build attacks. As Newport do not look to go long from their midfielders but from their defenders, it would not be a surprise to see Harris and Perkins advance even higher without the ball and relentlessly harass the County backline to stop the supply line into Matt.
In addition to his tireless play without the ball, Perkins uses his vast experience to ensure his side can keep the ball in their defensive third and not fall victim to the pressing he himself is so good at.
He will often drop into a central defensive position to create an overload (below) and therefore give his team a better chance of circulating and keeping the ball as they are trying to build attacks, advancing them up the pitch slowly through his clever angles created and penetrative line-breaking passes.
Full-backs give width to attacks
The wide players on the side of the Rovers attacking ‘three’ – Morris and Jennings – do not operate as orthodox wingers and beat men on the outside, instead taking up clever positions inside within the half-space to give an overload for ball retention.
Tranmere often keeps the ball centrally before playing an incisive pass to one of their rampaging full-backs, however, this can only be facilitated by the timing and choice of movements from the aforementioned duo.
As soon as they take the ball centrally we can see that it vacates space for Caprice and Ridehalgh to quickly overlap and give genuine width and depth to their attacks, thereby keeping their numerical advantage centrally whilst also possessing threats from out wide. The disciplined Willmott and Amond will need to be constantly aware of the positions of the full-backs in order to prevent them from hurting Newport.
However, Tranmere must be wary of a break against their attack.
The attacking prowess of Caprice is a great threat going forward, yet it can be exposed through opposition counter-attacks. As Caprice gets so high to offer for the ball, the space he leaves behind him can be raided into and punished if Tranmere does not successfully retain the ball, as Forest Green demonstrate below.
As left-back Butler holds a penchant for attacking, Caprice must be equally aware of Butler’s capabilities going forward as Butler is of Caprice. If Newport are brave out of possession and gamble on themselves being able to contain Tranmere before penetrating the space left behind, then they may well prosper from the Tranmere full-backs’. They will look to support the forwards through diagonal and overlapping offensive runs.
It promises to be a fascinating affair between two outfits that each possess their own unique threats and dangers. Should either be allowed to stamp their style of play on proceedings then they certainly hold the ability to hurt their opponents, and the side who are able to dominate with their style whilst also accommodating for the strengths of the opposition will likely come out on top – and thereby take their place in the third tier next season.