Tranmere Rovers secured promotion back to League One with a 1-0 extra-time victory over Newport County at Wembley. Connor Jennings scored a 119th-minute header to break the Exiles’ hearts, and seal back-to-back promotions for Rovers, following their success at this stage in the National League last season.
Newport started in a variation of a 4-3-1-2, with Robbie Willmott dropping into a right midfield position when out of possession before operating as a traditional right winger when on the ball to give more of a lob-sided 4-3-3 formation. As for Tranmere, theirs was very much a 4-1-4-1 when not on the ball which then transformed into a 4-2-3-1 when in possession.
Matt dropped deeper
Striker Jamille Matt is a vital part of County’s attacking armoury. The tall, powerful striker is regularly the out ball that his side use first, to then play off either his flick-ons or knock-downs. He frequently looks to pin the central defender, dominating them with his height and strength, before winning the ball and bringing his teammates into play.
However here, Matt and Newport operated in a slightly different way.
The 29-year old would drop off the backline and look to link play from here as opposed to on the shoulder of the defence. Instead of transferring the ball immediately beyond him, he would look to move the ball back to on-rushing teammates who would then play onto the forwards running in behind.
With their midfield three, Exiles boss Michael Flynn opted to arrange them with two of the three sat deeper and then one higher up. Josh Sheehan and Scot Bennett were tasked with providing defensive cover at the base of the triangle, with Joss Labadie the furthest player at the tip.
Sheehan and Bennett had to remain compact in order to prevent Tranmere’s attacking midfielders from playing through them, as they can do to such damaging effect.
Additionally, as Bennett can also operate as a central defender, he also screened James Norwood when he was looked for in the air. This enabled Newport to deal with the 32-goal frontman with more ease, ensuring that he was always doubled up on in order to try and reduce his aerial efficiency.
Labadie fails to provide an attacking threat
In his role at the point of the triangle, if he were to be successful, Labadie had to give bundles of energy in order to disrupt Tranmere’s flow from deep, and also be a successful link between his own midfield and attack. Whilst he partially was capable in this first role, he was not as proficient at the latter.
He frequently made the wrong choice when in possession – an example of which is seen below, when he ludicrously opted to shoot from 40-yards out as opposed to drawing out the defender and then playing in his teammate – and as such failed to provide any coherent connection to his frontmen.
Had Newport chosen a more genuine attacking option in this position then they may have been able to punish Tranmere in transition – however, this was not to be.
Full-backs give plenty of options
Jake Caprice and Liam Ridehalgh are vital components within Tranmere’s attacking unit: providing width and pace out wide in order to stretch the play and thus give more room for their attacking midfielders, they are key to Rovers’ offensive success.
As is illustrated below, they take up clever positions to give a variety of options in a number of passing lanes for the man on the ball, and their presence also gives license for the two wide Tranmere forwards to drift inside and create an overload centrally.
In the example of Ridehalgh (second image), his forward burst draws away Sheehan from his initial central position. This, in turn, gives more room for Connor Jennings, the ball recipient, when he gets the ball, whilst also having an option himself in the form of the now-advanced Ridehalgh out wide. Much of Tranmere’s successful attacking play was a by-product of their full-backs’ attacking movements.
A battle that was always going to decide the outcome of the match was that of the Tranmere central defender and Matt. Such is the importance of Matt to Newport’s style of play, if Sid Nelson and Manny Monthe, the Whites’ defensive duo, could successfully marshal Matt then this would give them a huge advantage in being able to dictate play and force their football upon the Welsh team.
Initially, the tactic employed by Nelson and Monthe was to allow Matt to go up for the ball uncontested, and be ready to react to the subsequent pass off the striker. An example of such is below.
However, as the game entered its dying embers, in order to counter the runners off of Matt as Newport chased a winner, Steve McNulty was introduced as a third centre half.
Upon McNulty’s entrance, they then switched to one of the three challenging Matt in the air with the other two dropping off to cover any forward balls off the head of Matt, as can be seen below.
Raiding behind Butler
Such is the attacking nature of County’s left-back Dan Butler, this was an area of the pitch in which Tranmere looked to force much of their attacking play – especially in transition.
Since Butler would likely be high up the pitch when in possession if Rovers could win the ball back they would look to target the space vacated by Butler. In the following example, Jay Harris makes a clear run through Newport’s left, an area that would have been covered had Butler not forayed forward.
This situation occurred a number of times throughout the match, however, Tranmere were let down by Harris’ inability to capitalise when on the ball high up the pitch. When Harris was swapped for Ben Pringle, they began to look more dangerous in such situations.
On the balance of play, Tranmere deserved their victory in the final. They were able to smother Matt’s threat for much of the game, and thus inhibited the majority of Newport’s attacking threat as a result. Additionally, in a match that was always going to be decided by taking advantage of the few key moments, it was Rovers who were the more clinical.