On matchday four of the 2020 League of Ireland Premier Division, the reigning champions Dundalk FC took on the 2019 FAI Cup champions Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght stadium. Both teams came into the game unbeaten from their first three games of the season, with Rovers not having conceded a single goal so far in the league. Dundalk FC dominated this fixture last season, taking 10 points from 12; on this day Rovers achieved a significant 3-2 win showing that they are a side ready to take the next step with a clear aim of winning the league this season.
In this tactical analysis, I will initially examine the tactical approaches of each team with regards to their Defending, Attacking, Transition to Defend and Transition to Attack. After reviewing the overall tactical approaches, I will then highlight two further individual topics of interest from this game which are Jack Byrne: Shamrock Rovers Key Player and Throw In’s: the Impact on the Game.
Shamrock Rovers head coach Stephen Bradley named his starting 11 as expected. Not included was top goalscorer Graham Burke who is still six to eight weeks away from a return due to a calf injury. Dundalk’s head coach Vinny Perth sent out a familiar side to previous games. Georgie Kelly returned from injury to be included on the bench and made a short appearance with five minutes remaining as Dundalk switched to a 4-4-2 pushing for an equaliser.
Shamrock Rovers tactical breakdown
Shamrock Rovers played a 3-4-1-2. Defensively they started by pressing from the front, however, this was disrupted after Dundalk’s first goal at which point the distances between the units became too large for success in pressing. In the second half, the high press was restored and the distances between the units were decreased to ensure pressure and support for the high press. In the below image, we can see Liam Scales (in defence for Rovers) is high up the field in the opposition’s half, and the central midfield three is compact with Aaron Greene pressing the ball into a compacted area. Note the positioning of Ronan Finn; he is aware of Jordan Flores to press if required, but his position also gives him space to attack if Rovers recover possession.
With regards to attack, Rovers played out from defence as a first option, with short passing into midfield looking to find the playmaker Jack Byrne; Neil Farrugia and Finn provided options in the wide areas linking up with the midfield. In the final third, Rovers looked for combination play in the central area and tried to find a slipped-pass through for an attacking player. From the wide areas, crosses were played in low and Rovers first goal was an example of this successfully being executed for Dylan Watts to finish as we can see here.
In the transition to defend, Rovers pressed when high up the pitch, however, if the press was not an option due to a quick counter, they recovered quickly to gain shape and balance. Farrugia sat back deeper than Finn, giving a little more support to the defensive unit, especially in the first half. For transitioning to attack, Rovers looked to quickly play the ball into space in wide areas, primarily to Finn. If the Dundalk defence was high, with a 1v1 option available to Rovers, they played an angled through-ball behind for one of the strikers to compete for against the Dundalk centre-back. In the below image, we see Greene sprinting onto this type of through-ball in a race that he wins against Dundalk centre-back which puts him in front of goal with an opportunity to score.
The second half was excellent for Rovers who managed to push their style of play upon Dundalk and showcased character to win 3-2 coming back from 2-1 down after Dundalk scored a second goal against the run of the play in the second half.
Dundalk tactical breakdown
Dundalk played a 4-1-4-1 for the majority of the game and swapped to a 4-4-2 when looking for an equalising goal in the last seven minutes. Defensively, Dundalk pressed high from the front and as the first half progressed, they increased this pressure right up until half time. With only Pat Hoban up top, Cammy Smith and Michael Duffy were two key players to ensure that one of them would step up each time to close-off one of the Rovers centre-back assisting Hoban. This role was mainly filled by Smith with the other midfield players and Sean Gannon covering central space.
Unfortunately, in the second half for Dundalk, the high press started to become ineffective due to the amount of open space they allowed in the midfield areas. Dundalk then dropped to a mid-block as we can see here for a period of the second half. The aim was to stop Rovers playing central balls forward by pushing the play into wide areas, compressing the space by creating defensive overloads. This, in turn, increased the chance for recovery of possession.
Pushing for a third goal, Dundalk resorted back to a high press, but it still lacked the effectiveness of the first half. From an attacking perspective, Dundalk looked to retain possession initially with a backward pass upon recovering possession. Once comfortable on the ball, Chris Shields acted as a pivotal player, picking up positions to receive the ball and to create forward options. In the phase below, Shields drops into this pocket of space to receive a pass from the Dundalk Keeper Gary Rogers, and as he dribbles forward, he plays a penetrating pass into the opposition’s half.
Going forward, Dundalk were content to play direct to the frontman Hoban, with Duffy and Smith looking to play inside centrally. This gave the Rovers defence several decisions to make. Gannon and Dane Massey attacked the wide areas, looking to play in crosses high into the box. In the transition to defend, the nearest man pressed. However, for security, Dundalk had Shields screening in front of the back four. We can see in the image below, that Shields is looking to disrupt the Rovers counter-attack. He does this by delaying the oncoming attacker; allowing Massey and Gannon time to recover. He will only commit to a tackle at this moment if it is necessary, or if the Dundalk defence has recovered into a defensive position.
In the transition to attack, Dundalk always looked to maintain and build possession; unless a counter-attack option was available, such as a direct ball to Hoban. Dundalk’s central midfield was not recovering or maintaining possession to the standard we normally see and this caused a large number of problems for them. This issue was highlighted by the changes made on the day, with 4 different types of central midfield units put together and three of them in the second half alone.
Jack Byrne: Shamrock Rovers key player
Jack Byrne is a 23-year-old former Manchester City Academy graduate, Irish International, February’s Premier Division Player of the Month and Shamrock Rovers key attacking midfield player. In this game, he was clinical to the key attacking events in the game, starting with finding space in the Dundalk defence for Rovers’ first goal. Byrne played a through-ball into the final third that set up Finn’s cross. He then assisted with the second goal, playing in the corner for Roberto Lopes’ header. He topped that all off by scoring the winner with a left-foot curled shot from outside the box into the bottom corner.
Byrne did what he is most effective at; which is finding pockets of space to receive the ball during attacking phases of the game. This movement off the ball was a primary factor that caused much disruption to the Dundalk central midfield in the first 20 minutes of the first half and throughout all of the second half. The natural reaction from Byrne when he receives the ball is to play a forward-pass, releasing a striker or winger. He can play a controlled precision-pass due to his ability in finding a pocket of free space away from the opposition midfield. He succeeds at this by using his movement and also his awareness; scanning what opportunities or obstacles are ahead of him, before receiving the ball. In the image below, we can see how he finds this pocket of space and looks to have ample time to play a through-ball into Greene.
In this next image, we see a little more detail on this process. In the first instance, Byrne finds space in the centre of the pitch by holding his position as the ball is intercepted for a counter-attack to Rovers. Secondly, as we see below, he starts to scan the pitch ahead of him, assessing the options available, before receiving the ball. He is also very strong with his body language during this moment, emphasising that he wants to receive the ball.
Upon receiving the ball, Byrne has already scanned the pitch ahead of him, knowing where the pass will be played. He quickly takes a touch into space, away from Shields, to allow him to create an angle for a through-ball. As mentioned earlier and as can be seen below, his movement and awareness, allows Byrne to play a controlled precision-pass. This time he plays Finn down the line to put in a low cross that leads to Rovers’ first goal, finished by Watts.
These actions are seen numerous times in the game by Byrne, and as it is already known, he is an excellent striker of the ball from long range. When he finds the opportunity to shoot instead of pass, he will take it. In the 82 minute, we see just that, as Byrne implements his process to receive the ball from Lee Grace just outside the box, with movement to create space and awareness of the players around him, by quickly checking over his shoulders.
Aware of the oncoming player, Byrne knows exactly what he is going to do; he wants to cut across the box to find space for a shot. With Shields pressing Byrne, he uses a little flick from his left foot to his right and then back again, throwing Shields off balance. This allows Byrne to find a yard of space. With that space, he hit a precise curled-shot into the bottom left-hand corner. The shot was out of reach for Rogers so gave Rovers a 3-2 win, capping off a memorable performance from Byrne.
Throw-In’s: the impact on the game
Both these teams tactics are known for looking to retain large periods of possession against weaker opposition. However, when we take into consideration the defensive style of play with high pressing, the ability to retain possession for each team would be a battle within the play and during every restart. Performing analysis on the multiple restarts of play, an area in which a clear advantage was seen on the day for one team was the throw-ins. There was a total of 57 taken (Shamrock Rovers 30, Dundalk 27) with Shamrock Rovers retaining possession in 73% of their throw. Dundalk however, only retained possession on 38% of their throws taken.
Reviewing these throw-ins, we can see a common theme to create a defensive overload in which the opposition looks to outnumber the team taking the throw. They do this by positioning more players on the side the throw is being taken. See the below image of Rovers performing this action and outnumbering Dundalk.
Analysing the numbers in more detail, with regards to either defending throws with a defensive overload or defending throws without an overload, we see that Rovers defended throws with a defensive overload 77% of the time. However, Dundalk only defended throws with a defensive overload 53% of the time. We know that the style of defending throws was a factor in retaining possession. Now we look at what the teams did differently in taking the throw.
Dundalk showed some good off-the-ball movements from the throw. However, they always looked to throw forward or pass forward when receiving the ball back from the throw, and numerous times the forward option wasn’t available, leading to them losing possession. In the below image, we can see that Gannon is looking to throw the ball forward into a 4v2 situation, even though Shields is standing behind him with his hands held up in the air in frustration at not receiving the ball.
Rovers provided better movement in a wider area, looking to receive the ball backwards or forwards. Upon receiving the ball, if there was no forward option, the back three would push back into the defensive third creating options to receive the pass and retain possession. Rovers, in the second half, also looked to take several quick throws, catching Dundalk by surprise at times, who seemed to lose concentration. As can be seen in the image below, the new signing from Salford City, Rory Gaffney, reacted to a quick throw from Finn. This resulted in a corner that then leads to a headed goal by Lopes.
This game had the feeling that it meant more to Shamrock Rovers than solely three points and extending the unbeaten run. By imposing their style of play for the majority of the game and picking up the win, this will carry the positive start of the season winning momentum into further challenges ahead. Stephen Bradley, beyond the excellent result, will be satisfied with his team’s performance. Shamrock Rovers reacted strongly to going 2-1 down against the run of the game to push on with their style of play to take a 3-2 lead and then see out the remaining 10 minutes of the game in a composed manner. Dundalk’s head coach Vinny Perth will be satisfied to have quickly bounced back with the aim of putting together several consecutive wins. Perth will be fully aware that there are 9 points left to be contested against Rovers before the end of the season. These points could very well be the difference in which team is on top by match-day 36.
On a final note, I would advise you to search for highlights of Dundalk’s Jordan Flores wonder goal from this game. The former Wigan Athletic schoolboy shot a cracking volley direct from a corner kick and it is certain to be the number one contender for the Premier Division goal of the season.