Following the excitement of the 93rd-minute equaliser in the FA Cup First Round match, Cheltenham earned a replay against Swindon. Swindon’s tactics showed attacking intent from the off and were rewarded with a goal in the 91st minute only for Cheltenham to cancel it out two minutes later. This tactical analysis will contrast the tactics and strategies employed by two clubs with their eyes on a place in the second round.
Swindon (4-5-1): Steven Benda; Robert Hunt, Mathieu Baudry, Zeki Fryers, Ellis Iandolo; Diallany Jaiyesimi, Danny Rose, Michael Doughty, Jordan Lyden, Kaiyne Woolery; Jerry Yates
Cheltenham (3-5-2): Scott Flinders; Ben Tozer, Charlie Raglan, Jacob Greaves; Chris Hussey, Ryan Broom, Jake Doyles-Hayes, Conor Thomas, Sean Long; Alex Addai, Jonte Smith
Cheltenham made three changes to their team from the first fixture. Opting for experience over youth, Duff has reinstated Greaves and Doyles-Hayes to the starting line-up. Veteran forward Luke Varney has been given the evening off with Addai being rewarded with a rare start following his late equaliser in the first match.
Swindon made one change, selecting Iandolo ahead of Donohue on the left of the defence. Tactically, they have switched to a 4-5-1 with Woolery dropping to the wing. Experienced striker Doyle was once again missing for the cup game.
Cheltenham transition from attack to defence
This analysis will focus on the domination of Cheltenham’s 3-5-2 formation over Swindon’s 4-5-1. The fact that Cheltenham’s front two support the midfield means that there is dominance in the midfield. With a lone Swindon striker, one of the three central defenders can also support the midfield when required. Raglan, Greaves and Tozer can all provide a pass into the midfield and support the transition from defence to attack.
During the transition from defence to attack, both Long and Hussey on the wings can exploit the width to provide a greater attacking threat. This was caused by Swindon’s tactic to employ a free-roaming midfielder to support the attack. Doughty had the freedom to get close to Yates forcing Cheltenham to tighten the midfield and play with more compactness. As shown above, the use of a free-roaming midfielder provided space for Cheltenham in the wide areas. The result was danger from Cheltenham’s wide men which was most evident in the second half.
As the play shifts from attack to defence, Hussey and Long drop into a back five. The 3-5-2 transitions to a 5-3-2. The organisation and discipline were evident from start to finish with the defence being bolstered in the wide areas against Swindon’s lone forward. Swindon were able to exploit the wide areas in the midfield during these phases which turned out to be the key attacking option. The result was that Swindon created more chances and dominated the shot count with 11 shots, six of which were on target.
During the defensive phases, Cheltenham were able to commit their wing-backs to the attacking winger and slow play down. The remaining four defenders were able to drift across and cover the gap as a traditional back four. As shown above, the wing-back neutralises the attack by blocking the passing lane. With limited options, the player is forced to pass backwards, giving time to re-establish the defensive line. In this example, Swindon were unsuccessful in moving the defence and find a way forward.
The stand out performer for Cheltenham was Addai who has warmed the bench for the majority of the season so far. He was employed as a hybrid forward, both supporting Smith in the forward line and delivering overlapping runs on the wing. His speed was dominant on the left and presented the most dangerous threat to the Swindon defence. This is another example of how Duff’s free-flowing tactics can frustrate opponents. Addai was justly rewarded with a goal after cutting in from the wing and he is justifiably becoming a fan favourite.
Swindon’s direct play
Swindon were set up to play direct football from the start and were frustrated by the Cheltenham defence despite creating more chances. Although the ball over the top of the defence is not a fan favourite, it is effective against the right teams. In this match, Swindon were not able to change their system when playing against a team that were tactically set up to defend it.
As a ‘target man’, the centre forward is used to hold up the ball awaiting support from the midfield. I would suggest that although Yates is a quality forward who is enjoying a great start to the season, he is not a ‘target man’. Doyle would have been a better addition to the squad and would have provided a better option against Cheltenham. Once the ball is held up, a counter-attack can form with support coming from the midfield. On balance, this tactic was unsuccessful as the Cheltenham wingers dropped quickly to support the defence.
During the second half, long balls to Woolery and Jaiyesimi on the wings were more prevalent but Swindon lacked the tactics to commit and move defenders. When switching a ball to a wide player, consideration must be given to the position of the ball when it is passed. A ball passed from a wide area over a greater distance allows more time for the defence to shuffle across whilst a ball played centrally means the defence is likely to already have moved to cover the space. As the graphic above shows, the happy medium is a ball played from the half-space to an overlapping full-back.
Cheltenham’s midfield dropping deeper
When Cheltenham scored, their tactics in the defence subtly changed with the midfield appearing to drop deeper. This was partly because the midfield had dropped but also because the defence had pushed up. The vertical compactness (the distance between the front of the midfield and the back of the defence) has been decreased significantly – this is deliberate but unusual. Ordinarily, teams that play compact football are also proportionally more compact horizontally.
The result is that the width of passing channels is now reduced and Swindon are more reliant on the direct ball. With a congested defence, Cheltenham manage to hold the lead but were continually penetrated. Had greater pressure been placed on the ball from the midfield, a narrower and more compact defensive line may have been more successful.
This tactic could have been better achieved with a 4-5-1 formation than with a 3-5-2. Although still compact horizontally, the extra man in the midfield stops the build-up play which was proving dangerous. Dropping slightly deeper allows less space behind the defence for Swindon to exploit.
This tactical analysis concludes that although Cheltenham were unable to dominate the match, they proved that they are a tactically astute team. It was a disciplined performance that allowed them to outmanoeuvre Swindon and demonstrate why they are promotion prospects this season.
Swindon were wasteful and struggled to create key chances despite having six shots on target. It was for this reason that Cheltenham squeezed them out of a fierce contest. Atop League Two, Swindon are clearly doing something right but must now focus on their ability to move the defence, not just the ball.
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