The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to every English league apart from the Premier League and EFL Championship to finish early, with teams placed in the table based on points per game. It must be decided which team will join Swindon, Crewe and Plymouth from EFL League Two to EFL League One next season. Cheltenham Town were rewarded fourth place due to having the fourth highest points per game, meaning they would play seventh placed Northampton Town who only finished one point ahead of Port Vale.
Cheltenham Town have had the meanest defence in League Two, only conceding 0.75 goals per game prior to playing Northampton Town and were unbeaten in six coming into this match. Northampton on the other hand, were not in great form coming into this fixture, having won only two of their previous seven matches. This tactical analysis takes an analytical look at the first leg at the PTS academy stadium using statistics and visual analysis.
Being unbeaten in six, Michael Duff decided to stick with his preferred 3-5-2 formation, giving a start to on-loan forward Tom Nichols ahead of Alfie May as well as welcoming back captain Ben Tozer at the heart of the defence, replacing Jacob Greaves. Jake Doyle-Hayes replaced Max Sheaf in the middle of the pitch with Duff potentially having one eye on the return fixture on Monday.
Keith Curle was without joint top striker Sam Hoskins through suspension, paving the way for the inclusion of 18 year-old James Olayinka, currently on loan from Arsenal. He was preferred to Andy Williams who like Hoskins has scored eight goals this season. This allowed Northampton to play an extra man in central midfield than they would usually. The only other change was demoting winger Mark Marshall to the substitutes bench with defensive minded Michael Harriman starting at right wing-back.
Styles make fights
Both sides performed well this season using different approaches, with Northampton playing more direct and Cheltenham preferring to keep possession of the ball where possible. Northampton’s aerial ability became apparent early on, but the Cheltenham resolve stood well for the whole match and this is an occurring theme within this tactical analysis.
Northampton go direct
From the beginning Northampton’s approach was clear, playing 97 long balls, 23 more than their opponents, the transition from defence to attack was rapid; having won the ball back, the defence would instantly look to play a long ball rather than take a slower approach by playing a short pass. Their passing accuracy suffered at only 54% and their strikers were isolated at some points in the game when the long ball was played in areas that spread the Northampton team, allowing Cheltenham to win the ball back quickly before support arrived for the Northampton attack.
Playing with two strikers, Vadaine Oliver and Callum Morton allowed Northampton to have two options when pumping the ball forward. Following a long ball to Oliver, three Northampton players surround him looking to win the second ball ahead of the Cheltenham defence. This happened throughout the game where Morton would be joined by other Northampton players to attempt to win an Oliver knock down.
Northampton Town’s tactics were effective to an extent because Oliver won 10 of his aerial battles, however, Northampton seemed slow at times reacting to the second ball when the first was won. Alternatively, they would play the ball in behind the Cheltenham defence with Morton and Oliver running onto balls played into space.
One of Northampton’s best opportunities was when Morton received the ball and laid it off to Olayinka who displayed some skill to take a shot from 20-yards out. Six Northampton players flooded forward once that second ball was won by Morton which created space for Olayinka to run into as the Cheltenham defence retreated. McCormack sat in front of the defence for most of the game to allow Olayinka and Ryan Watson to join the attack.
The Cheltenham resolve
Northampton played into Cheltenham’s hands for most of the game with only five of the Cobbler’s 16 attempts on goal coming from open play, largely due to the low defensive block applied by Cheltenham.
The above shows the average position of the Cheltenham’s starting eleven. The aim for Cheltenham was to nullify Northampton’s open play tactics which focussed around playing direct football.
Once the Northampton backline moved into the Cheltenham half, a successful press is applied by Cheltenham. The press works so well here as shown above because Northampton were weak at passing, only making 54% of their attempted passes and the compactness of Cheltenham hurried the Northampton players into making a quick decision because they were always in close proximity to any Northampton player receiving the ball, thus forcing a mistake. This would occasionally lead to a Cheltenham counter attack.
The Cheltenham strikers dropped deep to press the centre-backs, allowing the centre midfielders to focus on applying pressure to their opposite position, rather than pushing up to pressure the strikers.
Northampton centre-backs, Charlie Goode and Scott Wharton played 19 long balls between them. The low press meant that the attacking outlets were tightly marked meaning only six of these passes were received by Northampton players.
This frustrated Northampton because they were struggling to get on top of the game, even after altering their tactics to play less direct. At the start of the second half, Northampton started to improve by playing shorter passes but were limited to playing crosses from deep as Cheltenham covered space that wing-backs could run into with the ball.
Northampton liked to play the majority of their game within the widths of the 18-yard box and so were reluctant to pass the ball out wide unless they had to, forcing Northampton players into panic decision making. When Nicky Adams or Michael Harriman received the ball out wide, their crosses were very deep, allowing the Cheltenham defence to deal with the cross better than if it were at the byline.
Michael Duff encouraged his team to keep the ball on the floor and in this game, with stats stating they had 97 more touches on the ball than Cheltenham and kept more possession.
Generally, Cheltenham centre-backs have two options when receiving the ball and usually would attempt to keep possession of the ball. Below we can see a sequence of play where Cheltenham play themselves out of trouble; the Northampton press was broken on several occasions by passing combinations constructed by the Cheltenham players in a number of areas of the pitch and here only Morton actively pressed the ball which allowed Cheltenham to comfortably pass around him without much pressure.
In this instance right wing-back Sean Long received the ball, he had the choice to pass to either Raglan or Conor Thomas who would then start another next triangle, with the potential ball paths being shown by the dotted lines above. The triangles allowed Cheltenham to exploit the 3-5-2 formation, being able to spread the ball easily with an extra man in midfield, two wing-backs as wide midfielders and three central midfield players.
Further up the pitch, Northampton were able to exploit the triangles in key areas. Statistics showed that 55% of Cheltenham’s attack was down the left-hand side which is no surprise given that left-wing back Chris Hussey has been a major threat all season, with seven assists in all competitions. Harriman did well at nullifying Hussey’s threat and instead, some of Cheltenham’s best play was down the right-hand side.
Cheltenham performed well in wide areas, sub Jonte Smith is provided with two options because Broom who plays as an advanced midfielder, finding pockets in the opposition defence which gave Cheltenham’s wide players another option to pass to when attacking.
Alternatively, to relieve pressure from the backline, Cheltenham liked to play longer passes to the feet of the strikers when they were isolated with one of the Northampton centre-backs.
The broken press
Northampton manager Keith Curle was heard shouting at his team to ‘get up’ throughout the game to put Cheltenham under more pressure. Northampton were very aggressive in the press, making 19 fouls in the game which aimed to slow the game down, breaking Cheltenham’s passing rhythm.
The average position map above shows a gap between the four Cheltenham players furthest forward and the rest of the team explaining how the press was broken so easily, particularly on that right-hand side; Cheltenham players exploited the space left by Northampton players allowing them to pass the ball in triangles in a greater area of the pitch as the Northampton team became stretched. This made it harder for Northampton to put pressure on the receiver of the ball as Cheltenham transitions from right to left where they like to switch the ball, stretching the opposition and breaking the press.
The Northampton strikers do not appear in the above image because the Cheltenham players broke the first line of press and thus could once again overload the Northampton midfield. Cheltenham could again make triangles around the Northampton players who appeared isolated after two of their three central midfielders were out of position.
Northampton’s press may have been more effective if the team pressed together and stayed more compact when pressing, something we may see Curle implement in the second leg. McCormack could be key for Curle in the second leg, having made two interceptions that stopped Cheltenham attacks before being substituted in the 66th minute.
Battle of the set pieces
Exactly half of the attempted shots in the game came from set-pieces and in the end, set-pieces were the difference between the two teams. Northampton are one of the most dangerous teams in League Two from set-pieces, with stats showing Charlie Goode has been a significant problem for a lot of teams, winning 5.8 aerial battles per game this season as well as proving to be a real threat from throw-ins.
Rory Delap anyone?
Both sides specialised in long throws with Ben Tozer for Cheltenham, and Scott Wharton and Charlie Goode for Northampton possessing a strength in long throws. Goode’s throws caused the most problems and were one of the main threats posed to the Cheltenham defence.
Cheltenham appeared cautious of the threat posed by Northampton from throw-ins, applying a man-marking system to track the movement of runners, and bringing back one striker to increase the number of bodies to block any Northampton attempts at goal resulting from the throw-in which worked well apart from when Broom conceded a penalty by fouling Harriman.
Zonal or man-mark?
Cheltenham’s first goal came from a corner and was due to a combination of an attacking set-piece routine from the training ground and a lapse of concentration from the Northampton defence.
Charlie Raglan scored from the resulting corner here. All Cheltenham players in the 18-yard box surrounded the area near the back post to cause confusion to Northampton’s zonal marking system. By overloading the back post, Northampton were clearly in two minds whether to position more players near the back post.
Raglan made a run to the front post beating Goode to the ball to score with a glancing header. Because of the zonal marking, Goode couldn’t make such a high leap for the ball as Raglan did, who was running onto the ball.
Ironically, 11 of the Northampton attempts came from set-pieces and they have been dangerous when carrying out such play this season. Keith Curle is likely to have told his team to draw fouls from Cheltenham when possible to allow players such as Goode and Oliver to challenge the Cheltenham side, with both winning the fair share of their aerial duels. The Cheltenham line was always well positioned and high which stopped Northampton players heading the ball close to the goal. They were also unlucky that they were up against an in-form Owen Evans in goal.
The contrast in tactics certainly provided an interesting analysis. In the second leg, Keith Curle will look to try and take advantage of their strength from aerial duels, having won 52 duels, 13 more than their opponents. When Northampton were not so direct in the first period of the second half, they appeared more dangerous and if Adams could replicate the crosses that caused many teams problems this season, he could be a key factor in changing the tide of the game. Michael Duff will look to how his side can hold onto their two goal lead and may play an unchanged side on Monday night in the hope of making it to Wembley.