EFL League One: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis

EFL League 1: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis - tactics
Bristol Rovers use the high press to limit Southend on the offence and win back possession in the opposition half.

Southend United are languishing in the relegation zone with only six points from the first 19 matches. Bristol Rovers on the other hand are fighting for promotion and are on track for a place in the playoffs. This tactical analysis will deconstruct Southend’s poor form and highlight the tactics that Bristol Rovers exploited in their pursuit of victory.

Southend performed well during spells of this match but their inconsistency was the reason they were unable to progress. Southend have the worst goal difference in the league and this would have been a key aim for Sol Campbell in his bid for League One survival. His tactics would have taken into account the excellent form of Bristol Rovers who have won their last three matches, scoring ten goals in the process.


EFL League 1: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis - tactics

Bristol Rovers are without Rollin Menayese and Oliver Clarke who are both suspended whilst Josh Hare is still out with a knee injury. Bristol Rovers have opted for a 3-4-1-2 bringing in Nichols and Clarke-Harris to play in a front two. This will transition to 5-3-2 in defence with the wing-backs dropping into the defensive line.

Brandon Goodship is back in the team following injury whilst Layton Ndukwu is unavailable for compassionate reasons. Sol Campbell is playing with a 4-5-1 formation with Milligan playing in front of the back four as a CDM. With a poor defensive record, Milligan is charged with solidifying the back four.

Southend surge into the lead

Campbell would have been pleased with the start that Southend made where they proved that they could exploit Bristol Rovers’ offensive mindset. With only three in the backline, Bristol Rovers were susceptible on the counter and were narrower than a traditional back four.

EFL League 1: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis - tactics
Southend exploited the wide areas in the first half creating chances that they were able to capitalise from.

As you can see, the wide areas were the most successful for Southend. When gaining possession, they were able to move it to wide areas quickly before the wingbacks could recover to support the defence. The two Southend runners in the middle of the box are granted more space as Bristol Rovers are still trying to recover backwards. In this attack, the finish was poor but this move characterised the offensive tactics in the first half.

EFL League 1: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis - tactics
Leahy is caught up the field leaving space on the right flank for Southend to exploit.

This tactic was enhanced by Bristol Rovers’ wingbacks failing to recover and creating space on the flanks. As the image above shows, this created space which led to the first goal. Defensively, Bristol Rovers fail to dominate the dangerous space in the box with too much space between the three central defenders. This is exploited and a good ball into the box breaks the deadlock. A more compact defence with more disciplined defensive duties for the wingbacks could have better frustrated the Southend offence.

The match was a tale of two halves with Southend dominating Bristol Rovers in the final third. Neither team could dominate possession and both were reactive when they’d won the ball back – this led to frequent balls over the top and quick transitions from defence to attack. The average time to hold possession was only 10 seconds with only a handful of passes being completed before the ball turned over. The overall pass percentage was 68% for each team with long passes only achieving 20% success. This was typical of both teams who resorted to direct football between the lines. Although the tactics weren’t successful on the whole, Southend pushed long balls to the flanks and were able to exploit the space. Tactically, they outmanoeuvred Bristol Rovers and were deserved leaders at the break.

Bristol Rovers get the breakthrough

Bristol Rovers were frustrated in the first half and needed to keep hold of the ball for longer in order to build an attack. Their offensive play started in the transition from defence when they picked up the ball deep in their own half. Both Rodman and Leahy were able to commit to the midfield and deliver quality runs into midfield. From this position, they provided width and a secondary option to the direct play. Having a second forward gave them another option that helped to pin Southend in their own half during the second half.

EFL League 1: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis - tactics
Southend defensive errors gift Bristol Rovers the breakthrough in the second half.

Southend’s poor defensive performance was to their detriment with mistakes costing them. Despite not being challenged directly, Dieng failed to clear the long ball which was picked up to create a numerical advantage in the box. Bwomono failed to track the goalscorer into the box gifting a route back into the match for Bristol Rovers. Bristol exploited these failures at the back and were able to score from half-chances against a leaky defence. This analysis is supported by the xG data with Bristol Rovers scoring four despite an xG rating of 2.04 in the second half. The quality of Southend’s defence will be Campbell’s biggest concern and I anticipate that he’ll want to make signings in January.

Bristol Rovers high press

Bristol Rovers maintained the momentum of the match through the high press in the second half which nullified the Southend attack. Southend were expressive in the first half but spent the second half defending. They created an xG rating of 0.23 in the second half having lost the potency of their offence.

EFL League 1: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis - tactics
Bristol Rovers use the high press to limit Southend on the offence and win back possession in the opposition half.

Bristol Rovers achieved this through a high press which closed down Southend quickly to win back possession. The press is achieved by Clarke-Harris and Rodman closing both the player and the passing channel. They get possession back and are able to mount another attack. Sercombe was relentless in his defensive duties by playing in a traditional number ten role with additional defensive duties, competing in 15 duels and slowing the play. Southend were unable to play out and create meaningful chances in the second half due to the defensive control that Bristol Rovers exerted.

EFL League 1: Bristol Rovers Vs Southend United – tactical analysis - tactics
The high press results in Southend committing ten players to the defence which disrupts their transition to offence.

The result of the high press was that Southend were confined to their defensive third. As you can see, ten Southend players are confined to the box leaving few options to use when transitioning to attack. Bristol Rovers defensive tactics opened up the game and gave them the opportunity to win the match. Although the quality of attacks wasn’t significant, they created 17 shots from 0.69 attacks per minute in the second half.


This tactical analysis concludes that Southend have the ability to score goals but have failed to fix the defensive mistakes which have plagued them this season. Southend’s tactics were astute and played to their strengths but control transitioned to Bristol Rovers in the second half. Southend’s struggles continue and their chances of survival are continuing to diminish – it is tough to see what Sol Campbell can do to keep them in League One.

Bristol Rovers once again proved their strength and are becoming one of the form sides in the league. This analysis has highlighted deficiencies in their tactics but their discipline and ability to react as the game changed was most impressive. The high press was the difference between the two sides and created opportunities which got them over the line with all three points.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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