With 12 clean sheets this season, Cheltenham Town has by far the best defensive record in Sky Bet League Two. Only 27 goals conceded, 10 better than the nearest challenger Colchester, it left Michael Duff’s side with a shot at a playoff place for the first time since their promotion back to the Football League in 2016. Many hadn’t picked Cheltenham to be contenders for promotion this season but since his appointed in September 2018, Duff has been making steady progress with the Gloucester side.
With the defence being the kickstart to their success, many have asked how Cheltenham Town has been so successful. This tactical analysis will provide a scout report looking at exactly how they built the best defence in League Two.
As mentioned, Cheltenham has shown their strength in their defence which has led them to fifth place as of the time of writing. As ever with football however, it is important to look beyond and consider the statistical analysis why Cheltenham has been so successful.
To come close to understanding how Cheltenham has been so defensively solid we must consider the type of player Duff was himself. A no-nonsense centre-back who wasn’t the quickest but was committed and organized which clearly transmits to his team. Cheltenham look to utilize their wing-backs often with strong overlapping runs from Chris Hussey from the left and Sean Long from the right. The addition of Alfie May in January brought about a central threat with a direct tricky forward who has come in with six goals in 12 games. Finally, the ball-playing captain Ben Tozer brings calmness and cover from the middle of the back five.
Cheltenham often operate in a 3-4-1-2 or 5-3-2 which differs based on whether they play a top side in the division or away from home, within these systems the tactics remain the same. Cheltenham defensively work hard and rush their opponent to create mistakes and then play forward quickly to penetrate gaps of unbalanced and unorganized defences. On average Cheltenham reduce their opponent to 9.6 passes per defensive action. They also only allow 31% of their opponent’s shots on target. All this point towards a hurried opponent that can never get the time and space to get clear cut chances. Committed displays that really highlight the style of football Duff excelled at to win promotion three times to the premier league with Burnley.
Although their defensive actions are of focus in this analysis, Cheltenham in an attacking sense have certainly taken their chances with 1.44 goals per game considerably higher than their expected goals at 1.3. They also make 70% of their progressive passes from 88 on average per game, as well as 35% of all their counterattacks finishing in a shot for an average of 2.7 per game. This points to a team that looks to play forward with a purpose and not favour possession above all else averaging 51% possession, the sixth highest in the league.
This scout report will take a closer look at some of the key tactical concepts of their defending principles in action.
Forcing teams to go long
Cheltenham certainly looks to play to their strengths and where they are of strongest tactically is with their three central defenders in Charlie Raglan, Tozer, and William Boyle. This allows Duff to encourage his side to press the opponent forcing long balls and becoming predictable to avoid being turned resulting in a foot race.
As seen below, the front two, often consisting of Luke Varney and the new addition May, cut off the pitch to reduce the centre-backs’ options, while the midfield will get close to midfielders to cut off central penetrative passes. This applies pressure and rushes the opponent to play forward without quality into areas where Cheltenham are strongest.
Often due to the quality of the opponent, they will look direct which allows Tozer and co. to be aggressive and clear with distance. Tozer plays as the deeper of the three, allowing Boyle and Raglan to step and challenge while also having the safety of a sweeper in the experienced Tozer. Although simple, it is effective and results in 58% of defensive duels being won, 48% of them aerial.
The press from Cheltenham is organized and reaps rewards from intelligent players recognizing simplistic triggers. Cheltenham thrives on applying pressure when the opponent faces his own goal. This allows the forwards to encourage the midfield to push up and hunt in groups rather than individually.
As seen below, the opponent is under pressure and receives under pressure from behind, reducing his options to play forward. This trigger then encourages midfielders to get involved and win the ball high up the pitch to then play forward on average 157 times per 90 with a success of 65%. By forcing the opponent to constantly give Cheltenham possession before they can progress and start moves is a clear example of playing to their strengths.
Overloads in wide areas
What is clear in either a back three or five is that the wing-backs are identified as weak areas where opponents can look to exploit with overloads. However, this an area where Cheltenham has flipped in their advantage with the work rate from the central three midfielders.
As with any team, there must be hard work to be successful. Very few teams will be able to glide through a game without breaking a sweat. Duff has got his midfielders to buy into a work ethic ethos to create overloads in wide areas to nullify effective wing play. The outside Central defenders look to bridge the gap between themselves and wing-back, while the closest midfield player creates a 3v2 as seen below.
To isolate this, the midfield player will often show the full-back, or winger, into the wide area and towards covering defenders where an overload can develop. This gives the wing-back the opportunity to press with cover and balance behind rather than being isolated by an opposition winger. The speed of the outside centre-back moving across also reduces the space for penetrative passes into assist zones.
Another example, this time higher up the pitch, shows the gaps being reduced by the outside centre-back. Here we see as the full-back overlaps, the wing-back follows but still leaves an overload for the winger to deal with allowing. This allows Cheltenham to delay the opponent progressing, organizing centrally for any cross while making the attack predictable
Strength in numbers
This may seem obvious to remain compact and narrow, but doing it effectively is where Cheltenham can be secure defensively while also maintaining a goal threat. Playing with a narrow compact five with three in front encourages attacks around rather than through where Cheltenham can press in overloads as alluded to earlier.
As shown in the above example, the opposition will look for a forward to occupy in space in front of the back five. This results in a central defender to step in causing a narrow back five to cover around and reduce spaces in between the lines. This makes it very difficult for opposition midfield players to play through due to the lack of space in the vertical spaces giving no clear route to goal.
Cheltenham will often deploy as many as nine players behind the ball. This encourages the opposition to push numbers forward to attempt to create overloads. With Cheltenham leaving both forwards in advanced areas it gives a goal threat as well as giving the opposition a choice to make. Either push players forward and leave two defenders back or look to maintain numerical superiority.
Where this concept can be breached is if the midfield players centrally can not close the spaces effectively. This results in a central defender stepping into midfield leaving space behind if the back five isn’t compact. In this example, Tozer has stepped into midfield leaving an unoccupied space for either forwards to move into or the player in possession to drive with possession. The player in possession is able to get past Tozer and use a run from the forward to create space for a shot.
This example shows how Cheltenham can be exploited. If opponents can get in behind the Cheltenham’s midfield and into a position to commit vulnerable central defenders this can create gaps for penetrative passes in behind a slow defence.
Playing to their strengths has been important in not overly complicating the defensive ideas leading to Cheltenham’s success. The concepts, although simplistic, are effective with the stats along with their unexpected league position.
As a manager, Duff has carried a lot of what made him a successful player in his management. If the season was to continue it would be hard to argue against Cheltenham maintaining their defensive success. While they aren’t ready to be in the EPL facing off against teams like Manchester United and Tottenham, they may end up securing a playoff place with the chance for an unlikely promotion.