The third matchday week of the 2019/20 EFL Championship season started last Friday when Huddersfield Town hosted Fulham at the John Smith’s stadium. Both teams started the new campaign after being relegated from the Premier League the last time out. Fulham, managed by their former player Scott Parker, came into this game after a victory against Blackburn Rovers. Contrarily, ‘The Terriers’ drew 1-1 with Queens Park Rangers and were searching for the first win in the new season.
Fulham looked a better side throughout the whole game bypassing Huddersfield’s midfield too easily at times. Fulham’s poor decision making in the final third kept ‘The Terriers’ in the game for the first 45 minutes. However, even with quite a few promising goal-scoring opportunities wasted, Fulham’s attacking quality was too much for Huddersfield to handle. Aleksandar Mitrović gave the London side the lead, but seven minutes later Karlan Grant’s header got his team back into the game. The game was eventually decided by Ivan Cavaleiro who’s wonderful curling effort into the top right corner saw past Huddersfield Town’s goalkeeper Kamil Grabara.
This tactical analysis will take a closer look at both teams’ game strategies and explain the thinking behind it.
Huddersfield went for a 4-2-3-1 formation in this game, despite the graphic above showing it as a 4-3-3. Kamil Grabara was selected to play in goal with a back four in front of him consisting of Florent Hadergjonaj, Tommy Elphick, Christopher Schindler and Terence Kongolo. Jonathan Hogg and Juninho Bacuna formed the double pivot with Lewis O’Brien just ahead of them. A left-winger Alex Pritchard and a right-winger Elias Kachunga were meant to be Huddersfield’s biggest attacking threat down the flanks with Grant being a single recognised striker.
Their opponents Fulham opted for a 4-3-3 tactical set-up, despite the 4-1-4-1 formation illustrated in the image. Marcus Bettinelli started the game between the sticks, protected by a back four of Steven Sessegnon, Alfie Mawson, Tim Ream and Joe Bryan. A former Bournemouth’s player Harry Arter acted as a holding midfielder with Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen just ahead of him. The frightening attacking trio with Ivan Cavaleiro on the left, Anthony Knockaert on the right and Aleksandar Mitrović up top were looking to light up the John Smith’s stadium.
Huddersfield’s limited attacking approach
As it can be observed in the majority of the teams which players are not the most technically gifted and greatly lack skills on the ball, they find it fairly hard to progress further up the pitch when put under pressure. As a result, it limits the team’s options when trying to build-up from the back. Huddersfield Town faced an exact same problem in this game as mentioned above.
Teams with a low level of technical skill do not want to take many risks when playing out from the back to prevent a ball loss in a dangerous area near their own goal. In the illustration below, we can see such an example when Fulham applied high press in Huddersfield’s defensive third. ‘The Terriers’ tried to play out using short passing combinations but were quickly put under pressure. One of the Huddersfield’s centre-midfielder was swiftly closed down from all the angles by three Fulham players. It forced him to play the ball back to the right centre-back who then passed it back to the goalkeeper. The Huddersfield’s goalkeeper made a ‘no-nonsense’ decision and just lumped it long.
There were times when Huddersfield started their build-up higher up the pitch after the ball was out of play. In this instance, the ball was usually moved to the right flank and recycled by a right-back Hadergjonaj. However, Fulham’s players used the cover shadows very effectively and forced the ball holder to play it back to the Huddersfield’s own half.
The image below demonstrates how Cavaleiro gave no space to Hadergjonaj and at the same time blocked the passing lane to Kachunga. Johansen, as the most advanced centre-midfielder of the three, also had a responsibility to press Huddersfield’s first line of build-up. He congested the space on the left and simultaneously blocked the passing lane to Bacuna.
The illustration below continues the analysis explained above. Hadergjonaj is forced to play the ball back to the centre-half who is then immediately closed down by Mitrović. Consequently, Elphick did not want to risk losing the ball and passed it all the way back to the goalkeeper.
After seeing his side struggling for a good period, Huddersfield’s manager Siewert altered the team’s offensive tactics. Even though it was still fairly limited to the extent that the same attacking move was used repetitively, at least it enabled Huddersfield to create something going forward.
This time, when Huddersfield had the ball in their first line of build-up, it was Bacuna who occupied the space on the right side. This tactical manoeuvre allowed Hadergjonaj to push high up the pitch down the right-wing.
In the illustration below, we can see Bacuna situated in the right channel with Cavaleiro man-marking him. Further up, it is O’Brien who dropped deeper vacating his supposed number ‘10’ role, thus, pulling Johansen with himself. Huddersfield’s right-winger Kachunga also moved to a half-space close to the half-way line. These three positional adjustments opened up space for Hadergjonaj on the right-wing to exploit.
A similar situation can be seen below again. Kachunga drops deeper to collect the ball in the right half-space who is then instantly caught in Fulham’s pressing trap. The Congolese plays a short back pass to Bacuna who again picked up the position on the right inside channel. Hadergjonaj acted as a third man running and made a run in behind the Fulham’s pressing players.
Four Fulham players were caught ball watching that allowed Hadergjonaj to get in behind unmarked. However, as it was the case throughout the whole game, Huddersfield lacked quality in all departments and the following pass from Bacuna went high into the stands.
The last example of such a tactical tweak can be seen below. Bacuna again is positioned in the right channel with Cavaleiro keeping a close eye on him. Additionally, Kachunga situates himself close to the Fulham’s left-back Bryan. These positional rotations created a temporary two against one numerical superiority for Huddersfield with Bryan caught between the two minds: whether to stay close to Kachunga or follow Hadergjonaj’s run.
Despite a low passing accuracy (only 74%), Huddersfield did manage to reach the opposition’s penalty box on a few occasions using the tactics explained above. There is no surprise that Huddersfield’s only goal came precisely when building-up down the right flank. The three images below support the previous statements even further.
Fulham’s more balanced offensive approach
‘The Cottagers’ are a better side compared to their opponents when having the ball at their feet. Thus, it gave Fulham an option to try to play out from the back using short passing combinations. Huddersfield were perfectly aware of that and tried to disrupt Fulham’s strategy as much as possible. Specifically, when the ball was being played out from the goal-kick, Huddersfield made life fairly difficult for Fulham at times.
In the first image below, Huddersfield Town were adopting a man-oriented press. A very familiar sight when both centre-halves split to the sides and the holding midfielder drops deep in between them to support. Both full-backs pushed higher up, thus, giving an option for the goalkeeper to chip the ball over the heads to one of the flanks.
Another example can be seen below. This time, Huddersfield applied an extremely high press that forced Fulham’s right-back Sessegnon to drop incredibly deep for ball reception. However, the main difference between Fulham and Huddersfield when playing out from the back under pressure was that the former did not panic. Here, instead of lumping the ball as far away as possible, Sessegnon remained cool under pressure and tried to play it forward in a sensible manner. The result was an earned throw-in.
Nonetheless, when the ball was not played out from the goal-kick, this is where Huddersfield started to struggle. When the game was resumed higher up the pitch, Fulham started their build-up process in a ‘rectangular’ shape. Huddersfield defended in a 4-2-3-1 formation that forced Fulham to have four players in a first build-up phase to avoid numerical inferiority.
Such an example can be seen below. All four Fulham’s players are positioned within close proximity from each other. It forces Huddersfield to narrow their second line of press that frees up space on the flanks. Interestingly, it was Sessegnon who came inside to form a ‘rectangular’ shape and not one of the midfielders. It denoted Parker’s intention to have Knockaert wide on the right flank in a one against one situation with the opposition’s left-back as Pritchard would have been dragged deep by Sessegnon.
The image below perfectly illustrates Huddersfield’s defensive organisation problems. At times, it seemed that Huddersfield adopted a man-oriented zonal-marking system that was not utilised collectively. This type of zonal marking is oriented towards the opponent and the pressing players seek to cover their respective zones while moving closer to a player who may be within the zone.
Below we can see how Mawson dribbles past Huddersfield’s first line of press which is their striker. Then, Mawson dribbles forward towards the zone that was initially occupied by O’Brien (see above). Huddersfield’s midfielder sees that and moves higher up to confront the opponent and prevent him from invading his respective zone. However, Huddersfield’s third line of press consisting of two centre-midfielders was too far away that allowed Fulham’s players to invade an unmarked area.
It followed with a quick intricate passing move from Arter and Bryan to Cavaleiro on the left-wing which found three Fulham’s players in between the lines.
The next example shows Fulham building-up in a ‘rectangular’ shape once again. In this situation, Huddersfield’s off the ball formation is the same 4-2-3-1; however, this time it was reflected in a high-block rather than a mid-block like in a previous example. As a result, Sessegnon is positioned wide on the right side with Cairney dropping deeper instead for additional support.
After performing a couple of passing sequences within the ‘rectangle’, Fulham managed to bring the ball higher up the pitch. This time, Huddersfield’s third line of press (Bacuna and Hogg) are within closer distance from the second line of press. This improvement regarding Huddersfield’s defensive organisation made it hard for Fulham to progress with the ball down the middle. Consequently, ‘The Cottagers’ had to look for an alternative solution. Mawson played a long ball over the top to the forward players.
Once again, the difference between Fulham’s and Huddersfield’s long balls was the intention. In most instances when Huddersfield played a long ball up the field it was a hopeless effort trying to avoid losing the ball after a high press. In Fulham’s case, at most times the long ball tactics had a clear intention – to win the first and then the second ball in the opposition’s final third.
As it can be seen below, Fulham have a four against four situation with Johansen winning the first ball and having Cavaleiro and Mitrovic on either side for support. Even though Huddersfield seemed to improve their defensive organisation, Fulham had enough quality on the ball to find different solutions.
The last element in Fulham’s flexible attacking approach was utilising Mitrović. The Serbian striker possesses a fantastic hold-up play and is capable of linking up with his teammates as well. Thus, throughout the whole game, Mitrović dropped deep to his own half on many occasions to receive the ball and then lay it off to the overlapping wingers.
In the image below, we can see how Mitrović drops to the half-way line, thus, dragging out both Huddersfield’s centre-backs with him. Cavaleiro makes an overlapping run into space with the Serbian laying the ball off precisely into that area. At the same time, Knockaert exploits the gap that opened up after both centre-halves were pulled out of their original positions by Mitrović.
Another similar example can be seen below. This time it was a slow possession build-up, thus, the whole Huddersfield team was positioned deeper into their own half. Nevertheless, Mitrović was still able to drop to the half-way line and thus pull out Huddersfield’s holding midfielder Hogg with himself. It freed up space down the centre for Cairney where Hogg was supposed to be initially.
It seems like Mitrović is as important in Fulham’s build-up play, as he is in providing a threat in the opposition’s box. His touch map backs up the statements and examples discussed above. The Serbian was more involved in Fulham’s build-up play than he spent time in the opposition’s penalty area. Nonetheless, the goal he scored was a header from the six-yard box denoting the Serbian’s important presence in the opposition’s box as well.
Overall, the statistical graph below confirms the previous statements about Fulham’s more balanced offensive approach.
The second half saw both teams performing similar playing patterns with no need in repeating them. Fulham came out as deserved winners from this game having 65% ball possession and performing 17 shots in total compared to just six from Huddersfield. The front three of Mitrovic, Cavaleiro and Knockaert are arguably the best attacking trio that Championship has to offer. On the other hand, Huddersfield do not possess such a threat going forward that makes the mission of promotion highly unlikely to succeed.