Stephen Robinson at Motherwell FC 2019/20 – tactical analysis

Stephen Robinson at Motherwell 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

Exciting Football and Motherwell FC have become synonymous with one another this season. Moreover, it wins games. Consequently, Stephen Robinson is a potential candidate  for the Northern Ireland job.

For those that don’t follow the Scottish Premiership; Robinson’s success has had its ups and its downs. During the 17/18 season at Motherwell, they competed in the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup final, losing 2-0 to Celtic on both occasions and finishing 7th in the league.  The 18/19 season they finished 8th in the league. They had little success in cup competitions too. Going out in the early rounds of the Scottish Cup and quarter-finals of the League Cup. However, this season, Motherwell currently occupy third place. If Motherwell can keep this position for the remainder of the season they will qualify for the Europa qualifiers.

The difference? Time, trust and smart recruitment. During his first season and a half, Robinson favoured a 3-5-2 formation, firing balls long for the two forwards to win. Surprisingly, halfway through the 18/19 season Motherwell changed tactics and employed a 4-1-4-1 system, that transitions into a 4-3-3 system, shown below.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysisStephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

When Motherwell feel they are the stronger team in midfield they will often start with the 4-3-3 keeping their wingers high during defensive spell. Amid these matches, Motherwell are particularly dangerous in defensive transitions. They press hard and high in midfield. If they succeed in regaining possession, the midfielders will distribute the ball to the wingers as soon as possible.

When they play 4-1-4-1 the wingers drop deeper and they tend to set traps and defend spaces rather than go man for man in midfield.

Regardless of formation, Motherwell build play up from the back. Distributing to the centre-backs or wingers. Additionally, they’ll play direct but this depends on the positioning of their opponent.

Below is a critical tactical analysis of Robinson’s Motherwell during the 19/20 season for Motherwell FC.

Losing possession

In short, Robinson’s approach is determined by the position of the ball and the players around it. Below we’ll examine the differentiating circumstances.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

In the scenario above, Motherwell lose the ball in their half. The midfielders are ahead of the ball exposing the centre-backs to counterattacks. In this case, Liam Grimshaw, the centre-back applies pressure to delay the ball carrier. This allows Motherwell to recover, get into shape and prepare a press.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

In contrast to the previous scenario, Motherwell’s midfield are positioned behind the ball. As a result, they decide to press immediately in transition. The circled defenders and midfielders make an effort to get in front of their man, readying themselves for the second ball. Christy Manzinga and Chris Long, the forwards, react differently. They prepare for the attack, moving into their markers blind spot and running in behind.

Out of possession

On average, Robinson has his men defend in a 4-1-4-1 formation. However, facing an opponent that dominates possession, Motherwell changes to a 3-5-2 formation.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

The picture above shows the defensive shape Robinson employs at Motherwell. He wants the numerical advantage in midfield. This prevents teams from playing through the middle. Instead, the opponent is forced to go wide or play over the midfield. Should the opposition go direct, Motherwell’s defensive midfielder, Mark O’Hara is free to clear up the loose ball whilst, one defender challenges for the ball and the other centre-back sweeps.

Motherwell’s tight lines and narrow shape make it hard for the opposition to play through the middle. If the opponents are silly enough to try, Motherwell’s positioning allows them to combine and attack with pace.

If the ball travels wide right, Motherwell’s Jake Carroll, the left-back, will travel with the opposition wingers wide. This leaves a gap between him and the left-sided centre-back Hartley. In this scenario, Liam Polworth will slot into the space. Alternatively, had the ball went wide left, Allan Campbell would have slotted into the space, as Richard Tait, the right-back, pressurises the left-winger.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

The picture above shows a press that Robinson implements at Motherwell. To set the context of the picture above, Motherwell have denied Hib’s a pass down the line. Having no options the Hib’s midfielders passes it back to their centre-back.

The trigger for Motherwell’s press is the backward pass from Hibernian and Motherwell’s midfield shape. Circled, James Scott initiates the press by charging at the defender from the wing. As a result, play is forced infield. Simultaneously, the left-winger, Christian Ilic, closes the right-sided centre-back and the right-winger, Ross MacIver, marks the left-centre midfielder. Campbell, marks Hibernian’s centre-right midfielder’ because of MacIver’s positioning infield. The spare midfielder for Motherwell, Polworth, sprints to close down the forced pass. The back four and defensive midfielder anticipate the long ball out and move across accordingly.

In short, their preemptive movement along with the pressure applied by the forwards increases their likelihood of regaining possession.

Regaining possession

During their transition to attack, Robinson’s approach depends on positioning, time and space. In their half, Motherwell will do one of two things. Play fast and attack immediately or slow the tempo down and establish possession.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

Above, Motherwell win possession in the middle third and transition into attack. Instead of passing back to Donnelly, Campbell recognises Ross County’s vulnerability. The left-winger, Jermaine Hylton drops into the space in-between County’s defence and midfield. Meanwhile, Polworth joins the attack and receives a pass from Hylton. Ilic runs from wide right to left-wing, taking Hylton’s previous space. His run creates the space for Long and Polworth to exploit. Long moves towards the right-wing, dragging County’s left-back away from the centre-back. Long’s movement opens up a large space. Polworth threads a pass through the space and Long finishes.

Should they decide to slow the play and maintain possession, O’Hara is responsible for maintaining possession. His passing ability and ‘risk-free’ decision-making is used to nullify the opposition press. If they succeed, Motherwell establish control and move more players into the opposition half. This is discussed in more depth next.

In possession

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

In possession, Robinson employs the 4-1-2-3 formation. Once they have established possession, the front five will drift into one another’s position. ‘Total Football’ if you will. They use several patterns throughout a match. These include: overlapping fullbacks, the 9 dropping deep, early crosses, counter attacks and direct play. It’s truly a joy to watch. The identity of their attractive football? Possession, rotation and expression.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

The picture above is an example of Motherwell’s clever movements to open up space against a holding midfielder. Additionally, it shows the huge risk they take, positioning 9 Motherwell players forward against County’s 10. Therefore, a Ross County attacker marked by Peter Hartley is left of this picture. Hypothetically speaking, if County find their striker with a pass that beats Hartley, County’s attacker has a clear run on goal.

However, as Motherwell’s Grimshaw carried the ball forward, right-winger, Rolando Aarons, dropped deep into right-back as Richard Tait looked for the ball in behind. Subsequently, Long has moved into the right-winger’s space, bringing the Ross County left-sided centre-back with him. Grimshaw opted to pass inside.

Campbell, who filled the space vacated by Long in the centre, now pulls out toward the left. Together, County’s centre-back and holding midfielder move to intercept a pass to Campbell. Hylton darts into the space created by Long and Campbell. The outcome? A shot on goal from a dangerous area.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

The picture above shows an example of how Motherwell successfully create chances against two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Firstly, the Motherwell wingers move wide and the full-backs tuck in. This prevents the St. Johnstone’s wingers running straight at the centre-backs should Motherwell lose possession. As a result of Motherwell’s wide wingers, a space opens up in the middle for the midfield and forwards to exploit.

Meanwhile, Polworth has moved into the blindspot of his marker. As the marker moves backwards, Long drops deep and receives a lofted pass from Gallagher. Polworth drops into his midfield position and receives a pass from Long. Campbell spotted the St Johnstone’s defenders press the ball. So he makes a run into the space. Polworth dinks the ball over the centre-backs finding Campbell. Another well-worked opportunity coming from clever movement and awareness of space.

Stephen Robinson's 4-1-4-1 approach at Motherwell FC 2019/20 - tactical analysis

The picture above, shows Motherwell’s shape players in the final third. The forwards create a triangular shape in the box. Three, positioned at each corner and the fourth, positioned in the middle of the triangle. By doing so, Motherwell cover the most dangerous areas of the box. In this case, Campbell moves to the right post, Hylton moves to the left post, Polworth moves to the penalty spot and Long cuts inside and releases a shot from the top of the box.

The rectangular area shows the space Motherwell’s defensive five cover as their attackers charge forward. The height of the rectangle will differ depending on how deep the opponent drops. Tait and Carroll move inwards, aligning themselves with O’Hara. They are preparing to press the ball in the event the opposition attempt to pass the ball over or through the midfield. Hartley and Grimshaw position themselves behind the other three as cover. One marks the opposition striker as the other sweeps.


In a league dominated by physical players and direct football, Robinson decided to change tactics midway through a season. He went against the grain by playing on the ground and from the back. The analysis shows Robinson is a coach with a clear philosophy. Work hard and win games. This is evident in his team’s movement into spaces and willingness to shoot from anywhere within the final third.

Out of possession, Motherwell wants to win the 50/50s, be it a tackle a header or a duel. Failing that, they aggressively attempt to win the second ball by man-marking tightly in midfield throughout long periods of the game. If they unsuccessfully regain possession during the defence transition they drop back, set traps and press their opponents centre-backs.

In possession, Motherwell are a joy to watch. They play with fluidity, directness and pace. Playing this way requires the players to, be aware of the scenarios, understanding when and when not to play, possess a high technical level, have confidence in their ability and possess a desire to run for the full 90, this takes speed in the short term and endurance across the long term.

However, his attacking style comes at a price. Robinson’s side conceded 24 goals in the second half, with 50% of these goals scored in the last 15 minutes. Moreover, Motherwell have conceded 14 goals in the first half. These statistics suggest that the players are unable to meet the physical demands of this approach.

Every style has it’s weaknesses and its strengths and Robinson’s side is no different. Robinson’s recruitment over the summer last year fitted his philosophy perfectly. What more can fans want from a manager that has a clear philosophy, an eye for talent and an exciting brand of football? More wins! Motherwell, despite the brutal demands of modern football, currently reside third in the Scottish Premiership. I for one, am excited to see how it all plays out. Let’s hope it resumes sometime soon!