Rotherham United’s surge to the top of the EFL League One table was briefly halted in their last match, where they came unstuck and lost 2-1 to Peterborough United. Paul Warne’s side were knocked off the top spot by their opponents in this game, Ipswich Town. Paul Lambert’s team recorded a 1-0 victory over Lincoln in their previous fixture, which was their third win in four matches.
In this battle of second vs first, it was Rotherham who came out on top, winning the contest 1-0. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics that each side employed in this EFL League One fixture, and will serve as analysis to see how Rotherham were able to overcome Ipswich in this top of the table clash.
The home side welcomed back in form striker Kyle Vassell to the side after missed their previous game, partnering Michael Smith up top. Behind the two strikers were the midfield four of Matt Crooks and Daniel Barlaser in the centre, with Chiedozie Ogbene on the right and Hakeeb Adelakun on the left. The back four consisted of Richard Wood and Michael Ihiekwe as the centre backs, with Joe Mattock at left-back and Adam Thompson at right-back. For Ipswich, they lined up with a 3-5-2, with the three centre-backs Luke Chambers on the right, James Wilson in the centre and Luke Woolfenden on the left-hand side. The wing-backs were Gwion Edwards and Luke Garbutt, with the two holding midfielders Emyr Huws and youngster Flynn Downes. Alan Judge started the game as a number ten, behind the two strikers Kayden Jackson and Will Keane.
Rotherham using their physical advantage at set-pieces
While being described as a purely long ball or physical team can be seen as a negative by some, it is hard to argue that when done correctly it can be incredibly effective. Rotherham had a clear height advantage over their opponents, fielding Crooks (6ft 4in), Smith (6ft 3in) and Wood (6ft 3in) in the same side. Their tactic was to capitalise on this at every dead ball situation.
Just minutes into the game the home side won a free-kick just inside their own half. They opted to send everyone bar one covering defender forward, enabling as many players as possible to crowd the box. This also meant Ipswich had to bring additional players back to defend, which at the same time would have limited their ability to counter-attack if the ball had been cleared. The long floated diagonal ball was aimed at Crooks, who won the header but was unable to create a clear cut chance. This established early on that Rotherham would look to be aggressive on set plays.
Later in the half, a half-cleared corner came out to Ogbene, whose first-time cross was hit towards the back post where Crooks, Smith and Wood were waiting. The Ipswich defence were not alert to the situation and neglected to mark Crooks, who should have done much better with his free header. This again illustrates that Rotherham had identified a weakness in the away side, and would look to exploit it every chance they had.
While this strategy at set-pieces did appear to be causing Ipswich problems, the clearest chance of the first half came from a different approach to a free-kick. As the ball was placed fairly centrally, Barlaser played a short pass into the inside right of the box, with Vassell darting across to his left.
The Ipswich defenders weren’t prepared for this at all, giving Vassell time to run into the box unchecked. Unfortunately for Warne’s side, they could not capitalise as the ball cannoned back of the bar. What this does indicate however is that Rotherham were able to vary up their set-piece tactics, and offered threats that weren’t just using their height advantage.
The only goal of the came via a corner. Interestingly for this set-piece, the three main targets all crammed in together, then split just after the ball was taken.
This tactic again confused the defenders, struggling to follow their runners. Smith was able to out jump Huws, heading down towards Will Norris. His save fell kindly to Wood who had no issue heading home from two yards. Finally, their physical presence and height advantage had paid off, courtesy of an inventive corner routine.
Ipswich’s attempts to utilise their strikers’ strengths
Having seen how Peterborough had success in pinning back the Rotherham centre-halves in the previous game, Ipswich looked to do the same by having their centre backs play long, early balls into their two strikers, Keane and Jackson. Given the two player’s opposing skill sets, they attempted this in different ways.
Due to Keane’s physicality, the balls to him were played directly to him, with the idea of him being able to control them before either turning or playing in others. This tactic encouraged midfield runners like Judge or Downes to get forward in support to control these knockdowns. In this example, Keane attempted to bring it down, but the covering Rotherham defender cleared the danger.
With Jackson not having the same height advantage, the idea for him was to exploit his speed, in an attempt to get in behind the home team’s backline.
Here, the ball was played high beyond the defensive line, in an attempt for Jackson to turn his marker and win back possession in the right channel. Forcing the defensive line back in this fashion enables the midfield plus the wing-backs more space to move into. However, the ball wasn’t a good one, and the keeper was able to collect.
It wasn’t just the centre-backs who were playing these long balls, in this example, it was the wing-back Edwards whose first thought was to send Jackson running beyond the Rotherham full-back. Tactically this made sense, as Jackson is a quick player and able to time his runs to break beyond defenders, whilst staying onside. But again the ball was poor, with the pass misplaced and slowly trickling out of play. This was a constant issue for Lambert’s side as the ball over the top was poor, and even when it did find the intended target, the Rotherham defenders were still able to deal with it comfortably.
Eventually, Keane was substituted as the attempts to go long to him were so easily dealt with, that he was struggling to have any impact on the game.
Rotherham’s press forcing Ipswich to alter their approach
When it became evident that Ipswich were not going to be winning many long high balls against the Rotherham centre-backs, they reverted to another plan. By lining up with a three-man midfield, they looked to dominate possession in the middle of the park, and pass round their opponents who only had two central midfielders.
The side from Yorkshire made up for having fewer men in the middle by pressing incredibly aggressively, forcing Ipswich to constantly turn back and play towards their own goal. Here, what started as a throw-in deep in the Rotherham half, ends up with the ball back with Downes. With two opposing players sprinting out to pressure him, he is forced to go pass right back to the deepest teammate in their own halve. This was an effective tactic in the home side snuffing out attacks before they had any chance to build.
It wasn’t just when the away side were attacking that Rotherham looked to quickly put them under pressure. Here, the ball had only just left the penalty area before they all moved up as a unit to shut down any space, to force Ipswich back. With no option in front of him, Huws was forced to go back to the goalkeeper.
While the pressure eased off while the goalkeeper had the ball at his feet, as soon as he played a pass into Woolfenden the Rotherham players pressed him into the corner, shutting down the forward options. This demonstrates the impact it can have when all the players press aggressively all at the same time; it denies the opposition any time on the ball and forces them further and further back.
The wing-backs were supposed to be getting forward at every opportunity to aid the Ipswich front line, but more often than not they were pinned back by the Rotherham wide players, Ogbene and Adelakun. Edwards in particular really struggled to get out, as demonstrated by his heat map.
As the game moved into the final minutes and the Rotherham players began to tire, the game opened up so Ipswich were finally able to build some forward momentum, and build through the midfield instead of just going long. In their previous game against Lincoln, both Chambers and his centre-back partner Woolfenden has been given license to get forward and join in attacks, leaving just Wilson as the last man covering at the back.
For most of the game, Rotherham denied them this opportunity, but with them in desperate search of a goal, Lambert encouraged his defenders to get forward, in an attempt to overload the home sides’ defence. Here, Chambers advanced into a gap just outside the opposition box and attempted a cross to the back post. Yet again, the side from Suffolk were let down by a poor delivery and didn’t register a shot on target. In the final few minutes Ipswich hit the post and forced a good save from a free-kick, but despite this they never seriously threatened Daniel Iverson’s goal.
Rotherham bounced back was a solid performance against one of their promotion rivals. But for better finishing and a strong performance from Norris, they would have won by more than one goal. Their next fixture is at home to Burton Albion. Ipswich rarely threatened in this game, and have now played ten and won none of their games against the current top nine sides. They will have another tough fixture against Peterborough this weekend.