FA Cup 2019/20: Crewe Alexandra vs Barnsley – tactical analysis

Brown wins the header and delivers the ball to upcoming Chaplin. Meanwhile, three attacking players move up on the pitch to close the gap. Credit: Wyscout.

In between the fixtures of the domestic competitions, the FA cup is an exciting intermezzo for the English sides. This weekend saw Crewe Alexandra host Championship side Barnsley in an exciting FA cup match, as this tactical analysis will show.

Promotion chasing League Two side Crewe Alexandra hoped to upset a struggling Barnsley in this FA Cup tie. In this analysis, we will focus on the tactics of both teams – as this match unfolded for our eyes in Crewe.

In this tactical analysis, we will look at three tactical trends. We will look at the attacking style of play by Barnsley, the defensive set-up of Crewe Alexandra and how they frustrated Barnsley, and finally, we will look at the changes Barnsley made in the last 15 minutes of the game which saw them victorious at the Alexandra Stadium.


Crewe Alexandra vs Barnsley line-ups. Credit: Wyscout.

David Artell’s Crewe Alexandra employed a 4-2-3-1 formation with a double pivot playing just in front of the four-man defence. The double-pivot was formed by Paul Green and Tom Lowery. The sole striker was Chuma Anene who was supported by an attacking midfield of three. Crewe Alexandra wanted to attack and create chances in order to win this game against Barnsley.

Gerhard Struber’s Barnsley has not been doing great in the Championship this season and they employed a more conservative 4-3-1-2 in comparison to their opponents. The four-man defence was supported by a defensive midfield of three including Alex Mowatt, Kenny Dougal, Luke Thomas, while there were three attacking players, including the two strikers Conor Chaplin and Jacob Brown.

Barnsley’s attacking style of play

Barnsley had a slightly more conservative approach to the game with their 4-3-1-2 formation, but they managed to attack fairly in this game. They were dominant when they had the ball and had 49 attacks in this game of which 14 resulted in a shot

In the image below you can see that there’s not a particular flank that they favoured to occupy, but they were dangerous through the middle as well as the attacks. This can be measured with the expected goal threat.

Barnsley expected goal threat from attacks from the flank and through the middle, in the game against Crewe Alexandra. Credit: Wyscout.

You can see that the most xG was cumulated from the middle with 1,20 xG – but the flanks were relatively dangerous as well with 0,75 xG and 0,60 xG. Now we have seen how much attacks there were and what it means in terms of expected goals, we will have a look at how Barnsley did attack against Crewe Alexandra. How did they create the threat that caused the data given above?

In this part of this tactical analysis, we will look at how Barnsley produced attacks through their style of play and what made it difficult for Crewe Alexandra to defend against this style of play. Barnsley were dominant in the way they build their attack.  The organisation by Crewe Alexandra stood well and this meant that Barnsley needed to turn their actions with pace into attacking threat. Their attacking way of playing was hard for Crewe Alexandra to break, as their positional play resulted in 40 attacks of with 10 of them ending with a shot.

Barnsley had a back four in their formation, but in the attacking style of play, it was three defensive midfielders who would drop toward the defence for two reasons. Reason one was to collect the ball from the two central defenders and progress the attack from there. Reason two was that they would lure the attacking players of Crewe Alexandra with them – thus creating more space on the midfield. This can be seen in the image below.

Mowatt and Dougal have dropped down. Dougal plays between the striker and the attacking midfielders, while Mowatt collects the ball and looks to progress the ball forward. Credit: Wyscout.

Space has been created on the midfield which means that the full-backs could move up on the pitch and assist the attacking players. This could also be seen in the 3rd minute of the game when Barnsley opened their account and scored for 0-1.

The long ball from Mowatt reached two players: striker Brown and Chaplin. They were both in the right area to attack the pass from Mowatt. Behind those two, there were three attacking players moving up the pitch and right full-back Williams was one of them. In the attacking phase of the play, both full-backs contributed to the game.

In the image below you can see how Brown wins the header and the ball is delivered to Chaplin. At the same time, three attacking players move forward, in order to close the gap between midfield and attack.

Brown wins the header and delivers the ball to upcoming Chaplin. Meanwhile, three attacking players move up on the pitch to close the gap. Credit: Wyscout.

Eventually, Chaplin lays it off to Brown, who fires home from outside the box and gives Barnsley the lead in this FA Cup match. 

This was not the only way for Barnsley to construct an attack against Crewe Alexandra. The dropped down midfielders would pass the ball to each other as well and tried to move up on the field with their passing style of play. In the image below you can see how the midfielders are lined up when they enter the Crewe Alexandra half.

Barnsley diamond on the midfield when in the attacking phase of play. Credit: Wyscout.

The diamond on the midfield consists of four players with Simoes playing the closest to the two strikers. At the moment that the other three players progress with their passing. Simoes goes to the area where there is space in order to make a cross from the flank.

In the image below you can how central defender Diaby moves up on the pitch and with that actions gives right full-back Williams the chance to move up as well. This also gives space for Simoes to go from the ‘ten’ position to the flank and create something.

Simoes runs down the line after he receives the ball from Diaby. He crosses the near the far post, with three Barnsley players ready to attack that cross. Credit: Wyscout.

Barnsley had two particular ways of attacking as we have seen above. The long ball from the middle which started from the dropping defensive midfielders and passing the ball with their midfield diamond, in order to create chances from the flanks.

If you look at the quality of the shots as a consequence of said chances, you can see – with the help of the expected goal metric – how many goals Barnsley was expected to score in this game. The total xG for Barnsley in this game was 2,56 according to Wyscout. They did really well to score three goals, which is more than would have been expected.


Crewe Alexandra’s defensive set-up

To hold Barnsley off, Crewe Alexandra needed to execute a good defensive plan. They employed a 4-2-3-1 formation with a double pivot, which would function as the first line of defence. To frustrate Barnsley, Crewe Alexandra had to play compact and defend with the whole team.

Barnsley had been struggling in this game and this was due to the defensive effort by Crewe Alexandra. Although Barnsley had a lot of attacks in this game, they could not capitulate on those attacks and Crewe Alexandra could clear most of the attacks.

The home side did suffer a lot of attacks as said above, but those attacks came through quick positional play as the defence stood well. They characterised their defence with a strong defensive organisation with a lot of players behind the ball. This resulted in 38 interceptions, 18 clearances and 49 of their 89 defensive duels – which is 55%. In this part of the analysis, we will look at how Crewe Alexandra initially had set up their defensive line in the defensive phase of play. 

When Crewe Alexandra was in possession of the ball they played in a 4-2-3-1 formation but when Crewe Alexandra played in the transition from attacking to the defensive phase of play this changed to a 4-3-3 as you can see in the image below.

Crewe Alexandra in the transition phase of the game with a 4-3-3 formation. Credit: Wyscout.

Crewe Alexandra played in with three defensive midfielders in the transition phase but needed to get numbers back to deal with the plan that Barnsley had. This way they could frustrate them with outnumbering them. By outnumbering them, they forced Barnsley to make choices and so Crewe Alexandra could anticipate.

In the image below you can see how many Crewe Alexandra players had dropped down in order to assist the defence and prevent a goalscoring opportunity for Barnsley. This is happening in the defensive phase of their play.

Crewe Alexandra switched to a 5-2-2-1 or 5-4-1 in the defensive phase in order to have more players assist the defence. Credit: Wyscout.

Crewe Alexandra adapted to the situation and changed from a 4-3-3 formation in the transition to a 5-2-2-1 or 5-4-1 formation in the defensive phase of play. This was needed because of the numbers Barnsley had when they attacked.

Ultimately they needed 9 players with defensive duties in order to keep the Barnsley players at bay. The back four became a back five and the four midfielders in front of them made sure that Barnsley could not progress the way they wanted. The 9v5 situation was to difficult for Barnsley to come through and they had to wait for other players to join in the attack, which gave Crewe Alexandra the time to regroup after the transition.

Barnsley’s productive last 15 minutes

Before the 75th minute, the score was 1-1 and it looked like this game was going up for a replay, but Barnsley had other plans. They changed their tactics in the final 15 minutes of the game because they wanted this win. They went for a direct approach with their passing.

While they remained in their 4-3-1-2 formation, they changed the way they attacked. They utilised the chances to the fullest and were clinical. With both teams going for the win, it was the home side that pushed forward and wanted to attack through positional play. Barnsley managed to do two things that saw them grab two goals in this period. The first thing that they did was to make the most of the set pieces they were given by the referee. The 1-2 was scored from a set-piece and this can be seen in the image below.

The 1-2 of Barnsley in the making after a set-piece. Diaby heads the ball into the direction of Chaplin, who scores the 1-2 with his head. Credit: Wyscout.

The ball was kicked into the box and Diaby managed to get to the end of it and passed the ball to the incoming Chaplin who headed the ball into the far corner. While Crewe Alexandra had been good with creating more numbers in defensive phases of play, in the marking with set-pieces they were outfoxed by Barnsley.

The second thing what Barnsley did, was have patience with the attacks from Crewe Alexandra. After the 1-2, the home side was looking for the equaliser and went full attack in the final minutes of the game. Barnsley capitulated on the chances given on the break, which can be seen in the image below.

Barnsley is deadly in the counter-attack after a set-piece from Crewe Alexandra. Just one pass made sure that Thomas could score the 1-3. Credit: Wyscout.

In an ultimate attempt to get the equaliser, Crewe Alexandra moved everyone forward with an injury-time corner. With everyone from Barnsley standing correctly, they could recover the ball and directly face towards the opponent’s goal. Just one pass made sure that Thomas could run towards an empty goal and this was the perfect counter-attack for Barnsley to finish the game off.


This proved to be an interesting encounter between a struggling Championship side and a promotion-chasing League Two side. Crewe Alexandra could hold Barnsley for 75 minutes due to their defensive set-up, but in the end, it was the patience that Barnsley showed that was vital in the 1-3 win – which will take Barnsley to the next round of the FA Cup.