Opposition Scouting Report: Luton Town

With a trip to Kenilworth Road on the horizon, I have taken a closer look at our next opponents, Luton Town, and in particular their last two games – the most recent of these came at Pride Park against Derby County.

Derby County 2-0 Luton Town

Here’s how they lined up against The Rams:

After setting up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation in each of their first 13 games of the season, manager Graeme Jones decided to change things up and opted for the 4-1-4-1 formation with Callum McManaman and Harry Cornick playing either side of lone frontman James Collins.

FIRST HALF

I thought Luton did well in the first half at a tough place to go, and played some decent stuff at times. They didn’t create too many chances, however, but they’ve got a clear way of playing and this is what I’ll talk about in this report.

A lot of Luton’s best play came from the wide positions, and they looked to create opportunities for their wide men (either their fullbacks or wingers) to get balls into the box from the byline. They do this by creating 3v3 or 3v2 situations on the flanks, where typically one of the CMs will go over to support the two wide men, and they try to create openings for the crosser through quick, sharp, triangle passes or one-twos which often result in a fullback or winger getting slipped through to the byline in order to get a cross in to the box – with 3 or 4 attackers waiting in the middle.

Below are a few screenshots which will show this in action.

Viewers of Luton Town last season will be very familiar with this move, it proved extremely successful and contributed to the majority of the brilliant Jack Stacey’s 8 assists in League One.

If City set up in their usual away formation of 5-3-2, then naturally they will be outnumbered on the flanks (should Luton play the same way on Saturday) so it will be down to their outside CMs and possibly outside CBs to support the wingback to try and prevent any overloads. The positive, however, is that they will have 3 CBs in the box waiting to defend any crosses into the box.

The below screenshots show another example of this move in action.

Another interesting aspect to Luton’s game is the fluidity of their 3 central midfielders. Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Andrew Shinnie and Ryan Tunnicliffe started this game and they often rotated positions throughout the match. When in possession, any one of the CMs would drop in between the two CBs and the other two would take up more advanced positions further up the pitch. This made them a lot harder to mark as they were constantly switching positions when in possession.

However, when out of possession, Mpanzu tended to be the one who would sit in front of the back four most often, with Tunnicliffe and Shinnie just in front of him, because the ex-West Ham youngster is much stronger and defensively able than than the other two CMs.

Even though most of Luton’s play came down the flanks, and the right flank especially, there was one attack in the first half which came through the middle and, even though they were playing a 4-1-4-1, showed off what they look to do in their diamond set up (I will talk about this more later when I look at their last home game vs Millwall). The striker Collins dropped deep and took up a good position between the midfield and defence and, when he received the ball, he turned and tried to play a ball through to winger Cornick – who made a run in behind from out to in. It didn’t amount to anything, but this could be dangerous against City, especially if they play a back three as there will be gaps to exploit either side of the outside CBs.

I guess I should talk about the goal that gave Derby a 1-0 lead at half time! If you haven’t seen it already, in the 11th minute Matty Pearson played what seemed to be an innocuous pass back to keeper Sluga, who failed to control it and the ball rolled under his foot and into the net. It was a shocking error from the Croatian international, and one Graeme Jones just couldn’t legislate for. In fact, Sluga was at fault for the second goal as well. In the second half, Tom Lawrence mis-hit a cross from the right flank and it should’ve been easily dealt with by Sluga. However, he was caught out of position and couldn’t get back in time to keep it out. Having watched every goal Simon Sluga has conceded this season, if I’m being kind, 8 out of 20 of them have been down to his errors. If I’m being critical, then 10 out of 20 were down to the Croat. He’s a clear weak link for The Hatters, however I believe he’ll finally be taken out of the firing line on Saturday – with 2018/19 promotion winner James Shea waiting in the wings.

SECOND HALF

Again, the second half was pretty even and if it wasn’t for the two freak goals in either half, Luton would’ve got something out of this game.

What was a clear theme in the first half carried on in the second. The Hatters kept trying to find openings down the flanks. On one occasion, right back Bree took up a more central position, occupying Tom Lawrence (who was in the LB position at the time) which created space for Cornick on his outside. The ball came to the winger, and his low cross was a dangerous one.

Later on in the half, yet again 3 Luton players combined down the wing and their quick, triangle passes created an opening in behind. This time it was down the left and it was left back Potts, Tunnicliffe (who drifted wide, with McManaman taking his place in the middle) and Shinnie. Potts’ cross was put behind for a corner, with four players waiting in the box.

In the 63rd minute, The Hatters switched to their usual diamond formation, with Izzy Brown coming on for Callum McManaman. Brown played at the tip of the diamond, in a half-false 9, half-number 10 position, Collins moved to the left as a wide striker, and Cornick played as a wide striker on the right.

Basically, something like this:

Although their starting positions were quite wide, Collins and Cornick were constantly looking to make diagonal runs in behind, from out to in.

Soon after this substitution & tactical change, Brown picked the ball up from deep, nutmegged Derby CM Bielik, and ran at the defence. He then slipped a ball through to Cornick (who made a nice, diagonal run in behind) and his cross was flapped away by Roos. This was a similar patttern of play to the one in the first half where Collins tried sending through Cornick, and it is a common move Luton try when playing in this system.

Izzy Brown added a spark when he came on, in the sense that he could dribble past players and run with the ball in central areas, committing defenders.

As I said near the top of the page, Luton didn’t create too many chances, but you could still see how they look to fashion out opportunities. On the other hand, Derby didn’t create many chances either, so there’s not a lot to say about Luton Town in a defensive aspect, other than Mpanzu was a good, physical presence in front of the back four and both of Derby’s goals were freakish and down to big errors.

This was the first time this season that Graeme Jones deviated from the 4-4-2 diamond formation. Was this a one-off, or should City expect to line up against the 4-1-4-1 on Saturday?

Luton Town 1-1 Millwall

Seeing as we’re playing at Kenilworth Road this weekend, I thought it would be useful to see how Luton play at home, so I’ve also watched their game vs Millwall (which was the game before they took on Derby).

Here’s Luton’s starting XI against the Lions:

This was the thirteenth time in a row that Graeme Jones set his team up in the 4-4-2 diamond formation, and exactly like how they ended the Derby game, Brown operated in a part-false 9, part-number 10 role, with Collins and Cornick playing as wide strikers. Also, Butterfield started as the deepest midfielder in this game, with Mpanzu and Tunnicliffe ahead of him.

FIRST HALF

As I said above, The Hatters started the game with Collins as a wide striker on the left, tasked with making runs from out to in. However, I don’t think this gets the best out of the Irishman – I believe he’s at his best when he plays centrally with his back to goal rather than wide left looking to run in behind. Although he’s not a typical target man, and has a bit of pace and good feet, playing him on the left just doesn’t get the best out of his best attributes. Perhaps Luton would be better off if he swapped positions with Brown?

One of the biggest chances of the first half fell to Harry Cornick. Mpanzu drove forward with the ball (which he’s great at), beat a couple of players before laying it off to left back Potts to whip in a cross from the byline. Cornick arrived at the back post from his wide striker position and should’ve scored the header. Should Luton start with this formation, then this is something Bristol City need to watch out for – the back post runs into the box by the wide strikers, when the ball’s on the opposite flank.

A minute later and James Collins almost scored from a corner – his near post flick was well saved by Bialkowski. In fact, Luton are very strong from set-pieces in general, they have scored the joint most in the league from them (6). Something else for Lee Johnson to watch out for.

A drawback with this system, or perhaps just with Izzy Brown, is that he never looks to get into the box when the team has a crossing opportunity. For example, in the 23rd minute, after good work on the right hand side, Cornick floated a ball in to the box but there was only James Collins to aim at in the middle. This occurred throughout the match (until Luton found themselves a goal down), and if Brown attempted to get into the box at every opportunity then it would’ve caused a lot more problems for the Millwall defence – even if he isn’t the strongest in the air.

SECOND HALF

Like against Derby, Brown was looking to receive the ball between the opposition’s midfield and defence, then turn and run at the back four whilst looking to slide through one of the wide strikers – and the Chelsea loanee was able to do this a lot more in the second half. Should Luton play the same way at the weekend, if Bristol City can stop Brown, they will minimise The Hatters’ threat through the middle.

Luton were much better in this match, and created a lot more chances than they did away to Derby, however it was the Lions who took the lead at Kenilworth Road in the 60th minute. No one got tight enough to Jed Wallace on the edge of the box, and he was able to get a cross-cum-shot away which was parried by Sluga (another error in my opinion) straight into the path of the sliding Tom Bradshaw.

In response, Jones switched to the 4-1-4-1, bringing on wingers LuaLua and McManaman for Butterfield and Cornick. James Collins moved to his best position (central striker), and Izzy Brown dropped back to CM.

Straight away, winger LuaLua ran at Millwall’s right back and managed to put in a dangerous low cross towards James Collins, whose near post effort was saved. As you’d expect, the number of bodies in the box improved when Luton went a goal down. Collins, McManaman and Brown were all in there now, as opposed to just Collins like it was at times before the Millwall goal.

Luton managed to equalise with 4 minutes to go through Callum McManaman. Substitute Luke Bolton’s low cross from the byline (yes, another low cross from the byline!) was converted at the near post by fellow sub McManaman – who drifted into the box.

IN SUMMARY

I’ll summarise what I’ve said above into some bullet points.

When playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation:

  • Luton often try to create crossing opportunities out wide by creating 3v2 or 3v3 scenarios. They carve out openings for the crossers through quick, one-touch play.
  • The 3 CMs are very fluid and rotate positions when in possession. Mpanzu sits in front of back four when out of possession.

When playing in a 4-4-2 diamond formation:

  • The two strikers start off in wide positions and look to make diagonal runs in behind.
  • The tip of the diamond sits in between the opposition’s midfield and defence, and looks to slide through one of the wide strikers when he receives the ball.
  • The wide striker on the opposite flank attacks the far post from crossing situations, however the tip of the diamond sits on the edge of the box. Thus meaning there are few bodies waiting in the middle.

In general:

  • Luton love low crosses from the byline!
  • They’re great at set pieces, the joint best in the league.
  • Simon Sluga is in awful form and is very error prone.

Opposition Scouting Report: Swansea City

Our next opponents, 2nd placed Swansea City, were defeated 1-0 at home to Nottingham Forest last weekend. In this piece, I will analyse that match, including how Swansea set up, their style of play, what they did well and what they did not so well.

First of all then, here’s how Steve Cooper’s Swansea lined-up against Nottingham Forest:

Swansea set-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation last Saturday. Top scorer Borja Baston was the lone striker, Routledge, Celina and Ayew acted as a narrow three behind him and the fullbacks Roberts and Bidwell provided the width.

It wasn’t a surprise to see Steve Cooper go with this formation again because Swansea have started all 9 matches in this shape so far this season, and I doubt Cooper will change his ways against City on Saturday after just one defeat. Swansea shouldn’t have any excuses about team cohesion either – incredibly, 9 of their players have started all seven league matches so far this season.

THE MATCH

Despite struggling in this match, Cooper has already got Swansea playing a certain way which is designed to play attractive football and to try to create lots of chances. When they’re playing out from the back for example, defensive midfielder Matt Grimes drops deep to create a back three with the two CBs which gives the two fullbacks license to push high and wide. Also, the makeshift back three helps Swansea retain possession and sustain pressure a lot more easily than a back two would because of the extra passing option in defence. This is one of the reasons why Swansea have completed the third most passes in the league this season.

Matt Grimes on the ball in the LCB position, creating a back three and allowing the two fullbacks to push on

Because the two fullbacks, Bidwell and Roberts, can now go forward due to the protection the makeshift back three have given them, the two wide attacking midfielders (Routledge and Ayew) are able to come inside and play in the pockets between defence and midfield without Swansea losing their width. These attacking midfielders, along with the no. 10 Bersant Celina, did look potentially threatening in this match, even if few big chances came from it.

There were a few instances where they picked up good positions in front of the Forest defence and were found with a good, vertical pass from one of the defenders which allowed them to turn and try to slip a ball through to Baston or one of the other attacking midfielders. Although these attacks didn’t amount to anything, they were warning signs of what to expect on Saturday and, with their quality, they can punish any team in this division. I’m hoping Adam Nagy starts for this reason – the Hungarian reads the game better than most in City’s team and we may need him to block these passing lanes to the 3 AMs.

There was a lot of interchange of positions between the three AMs as they looked to get into threatening positions to cause Forest problems. Ayew sometimes found himself through the middle, Celina to his left and Routledge on the right hand side. In the first half especially, they were extremely fluid in order to try and be as unpredictable as possible for the opposition. This is well-highlighted in Swansea’s average position map where the three AMs’ (numbers 15, 22 & 10) average positions are all in central areas due to playing everywhere across the attacking line throughout the game.

No. 22, 15 & 1o are all showing in central positions because they roamed all over the pitch throughout the match

Another strength of the fluid front three is that they can create space for the marauding full backs. There was a great example of this in the first half which is shown in the picture below this paragraph. In this attack, Routledge has picked up a narrow position just off the left-hand-side and, because the Forest right-back is aware of Matt Grimes’ threat on the ball as well as the fact he can pick a vertical pass in a tight area, he gets sucked in and decides to get tight on Routledge. This creates space down the left flank for Bidwell to break into and, because Ameobi is ball-watching instead of following the left-back, Grimes is able to play a through-ball for him to run onto which allows him to deliver a cross into the box for Baston and Ayew (I’ve noticed the Ghanaian gets into the box as often as possible when the ball is on the opposite flank). The cross didn’t come to anything in this attack, but it will plenty of times in the future if Bidwell’s statistics last season are anything to go by. The left-back had the second best crossing accuracy of all Championship fullbacks in the last campaign.

Routledge is occupying the Forest right-back in a more central area which creates space for Bidwell to run into

Another thing worth noting is that their CBs, Van der Hoorn and Rodon, are more than capable of finding the roaming AMs with a midfield-splitting vertical pass – Van der Hoorn in particular is statistically one of the best ball-playing defenders in the league. 44.9% of the Dutchman’s passes go forward (for context, only 34% of Alfie Mawson’s do too) and he’s also made the 4th most passes into the final third out of all Championship CBs so far.

As well as being one of their strengths, playing out from the back all the time could also be a weakness of Swansea’s. For example, Van der Hoorn was dispossessed on the half-way line by Samba Sow early on in the first half which led to a half chance for Nottingham Forest. It could’ve been more too, had Grabban not strayed offside. Swansea were guilty of ‘overplaying’ in the second half as well – Celina’s back-pass was cut out by Grabban, and his shot forced Freddie Woodman into a good save. This goes to show that, if you press Swansea, you will likely get chances to win the ball high up the pitch and, with livewire Andi Weimann probably starting upfront, Lee Johnson may well look to do this.

Speaking of Freddie Woodman, he was forced to make another good save in the first half too, this time from an Ameobi shot. Swansea’s xGA per 90 is currently at 1.4, however they’ve only conceded 0.7 per 90. A big reason for this is the form of the young keeper. Even though Swansea’s xGA is one of the highest in the league (which means you could suggest they’re not the best defensively), Woodman has made the 4th most saves per goal conceded in the division, with 3.6 saves. Of course, the team’s xGA doesn’t tell the whole story here – a lot of the chances they’ve conceded could well have been efforts off target and therefore not saved by Woodman – but it does suggest that they could’ve been a lot worse off without the shot-stopper.

Despite Swansea’s promising style of play, they failed to create any big chances against Forest (as I said earlier), and they only mustered 1 shot on target. Perhaps this was because they tried to play too intricately in tight spaces in front of the defence, which made it harder for them to fashion out opportunities. Forest played 2 DMs, Watson and Sow, which did help stifle most attacks coming through the middle and Sow in particular had a great game, making the most interceptions and tackles in the match.

This led to Swansea having to regularly play the ball out wide to the fullbacks since they didn’t get much joy in the central areas, even though their 3 AMs did look promising and are definitely still the key players to watch out for on Saturday. This can be backed up in Swansea’s other league games this season too – the Welsh side have scored the third most goals in the league so far, making this win even more impressive for Nottingham Forest.

Forest’s winner came 5 minutes from time, from a Swansea corner. The set-piece was cleared to the half-way line where Swansea got caught out again – this time Grabban steals the ball from Matt Grimes. The striker is then far too quick and strong for the midfielder to catch, and he eventually squares it for Semedo to tap in easily. This was the third occasion in the match where Forest created a chance from pinching the ball back from Swansea in a dangerous area.

IN SUMMARY

  • In the build-up, Matt Grimes drops deep and becomes a “third CB” which allows the two fullbacks to push high and wide.
  • This then allows the 2 wide attacking midfielders to sit narrower and interchange positions which in turn creates space for the fullbacks.
  • The 3 AMs like to play in pockets in front of the defence. It’ll be up to City’s defensive midfielder/s to plug these gaps and stifle their threat.
  • Swansea’s CBs are very good at playing out from the back (especially Van der Hoorn).
  • However they, as well as the rest of the team, are prone to losing the ball in dangerous situations. Forest created three chances from winning the ball back high up the pitch.
  • Freddie Woodman is a talented goalkeeper in great form.
  • Even though Swansea failed to create any big chances against Nottingham Forest, the signs were still there and they are still the third highest goalscorers in the league.

Opposition Scouting Report: Stoke City

An analytical piece on Bristol City’s next opponents, Stoke City.

First of all, I’ve taken a look at Stoke’s last game before the first international break of the season, a 2-1 defeat away to Birmingham City.

BIRMINGHAM 2-1 STOKE CITY

Here’s how they lined up:

Perhaps surprisingly, Nathan Jones opted for the 4-1-4-1 formation for this game, despite using his trusted 4-4-2 diamond for the first four league games, and then a 3-5-1-1 against Leeds the week before this fixture.

During this game, the fullbacks played very wide allowing wingers James McClean and in particular Tom Ince to drift inside and take up more central positions. Ince was the most advanced of the whole of the midfield, playing closest to the lone striker Gregory. There were times, though, when Ince looked to drop deep to pick up the ball and then turn and run at the Birmingham defence.

THE MATCH

To be honest the game lacked real quality from both sides, especially from Stoke. They created very few real chances, and had just 2 attempts on goal in the first 45 minutes.

There were some noticeable themes in this game, however. Joe Allen was bursting forward from midfield to support Gregory, Ince was given licence to roam from the right flank and looked to get into central and more threatening areas whilst Tommy Smith was bombing forward to provide the width down the right when Ince vacated his position. On the left-hand-side, McClean was also looking to come inside and take players on (he attempted the most dribbles in the match), and left-back Stephen Ward played extremely wide – like Smith – but not as high up the pitch as the right-back.

Despite all of this, Stoke really struggled to create any proper chances. In the first 45 especially they often had to resort to long, hopeful balls up to Gregory or McClean because they just couldn’t build-up any attacks against Birmingham’s compact 4-4-2 shape. Centre-backs Danny Batth and Liam Lindsay attempted 20 long passes in the first half, compared to the 11 from their counterparts Harlee Dean and Marc Roberts which helps show how much they struggled to build from the back at St Andrews.

After a dull first half, Stoke’s first big chance of the game came five minutes into the second half. Clucas played a one-two with Etebo and then threaded a nicely weighted ball through to Gregory who hit the post with his one-on-one effort. The ball rebounded to Allen who, again, had bursted forward and with the goal at his mercy he somehow fired wide. It was the first time in the match Stoke increased the tempo (thanks to Clucas’ short burst of pace and one-two) and they managed to create a big chance from it.

There’s not too much to say about the first two goals in this match from a Stoke City point-of-view to be honest. Liam Lindsay opened the scoring for Stoke nodding home from a deep free-kick, but this was then cancelled out by a trademark Jutkiewicz header at the back post following a well worked Birmingham move, started off by Dan Crowley. The Potters just didn’t get tight enough to the opposition at multiple times in the build-up to this goal and Jutkiewicz vs Smith at the back post was a mismatch.

Birmingham’s winner came just a few minutes later from teenager Bellingham whose weak shot from the edge of the box took a huge deflection and rolled into the net. Perhaps this goal perfectly highlights Stoke’s bad luck defensively. Their xGA (expected goals against) is at 8.21 so far this season, but they’ve conceded 15 goals – the most in the league. You could argue this is mainly down to a mixture of bad luck (like Bellingham’s deflected goal) and bad errors (most notably from Jack Butland in goal earlier in the season – who’s now seemed to have been dropped for Adam Federici).

With just over ten minutes left and chasing the game, Nathan Jones ditched the 4-1-4-1 for his trusted diamond, bringing on Scott Hogan for Stephen Ward, and it showed a glimpse of its effectiveness straight away. Clucas played a vertical pass to Gregory whose back-heel sent through Ince – now playing at the tip of the diamond and even closer to the forwards – and his shot forced a good save from Lee Camp but that was about as good as it got towards the end of the game.

Due to how disappointing Stoke were in this game, I’ll be shocked if they stick with the 4-1-4-1 on Saturday. I expect them to revert back to the diamond and, because of this, I’ve also taken a look at their game against Derby County on 17th August – the last time they used this formation at home.

STOKE CITY 2-2 DERBY COUNTY

Here’s how they lined up against Derby:

As I said above, Stoke played a diamond in this match, as they did in their first four league matches of this season as well as for the majority of last season after Nathan Jones took over. Hogan partnered Gregory upfront, Ryan Woods sat in front of the defence and Smith & McClean provided the width from full-back. Tom Ince, at the tip of the diamond, looked to receive the ball to feet and run with it just like against Birmingham, and Clucas & especially Allen were regularly trying to get into the box for potential crosses from out wide.

THE MATCH

Derby took the lead almost instantly, and this goal came about due to Stoke’s failed counter-press.

In the first picture above, Stoke had just lost the ball and then pressed urgently to try and win it back immediately. As you can see, Woods, Allen, Clucas and Ince (i.e. their whole midfield) are surrounding Tom Lawrence. The problem is, they failed to win the ball back, thus leaving them wide open defensively. A few passes later, the ball gets played to Tom Huddlestone (in the second picture) and again, there are three players around him as well as Clucas behind him – who is now effectively out of the game because Derby managed to play through the press.

Seconds later, the ball was in the back of Stoke’s net since they were far too open due to this failed press basically taking out 75% of their midfield. If they try this against City, they could get punished in a similar way due to the technical ability of our midfield – in particular Adam Nagy (who might be fit enough to start) who’s capable of beating the press.

Despite the poor start, Stoke were much more impressive compared to Birmingham away.

One of the positive features I noticed of this system was that, in the transitions, the striker who was on the same side of the pitch as the ball drifted wide and linked with the wide CM and the full-back to try and create an overload down the flank. This gave Stoke an additional passing option and ensured the shape wasn’t too narrow all the time. One of the times this worked effectively is shown below:

Here, Scott Hogan drifted towards the left-hand-side and made himself available for the pass. He then waited for the onrushing wide central midfielder, Sam Clucas, to make an overlapping run which created a 2v1 situation before the 2nd Derby defender was able to come across and support Richard Keogh. A better cut-back from Clucas and Stoke may well have scored.

Although, the strikers only really pulled out wide in the transitional phases of play. When Stoke had control of the ball in the final third, the strikers would get closer together and stay in the box. This was sometimes an issue for Stoke, as it meant the whole attack was too narrow and often the only passing option was out to the full-backs, as highlighted below:

Here, Allen has the ball in the middle of the pitch. The three players ahead of him are all in line with the six yard box and none of them are available for the pass. Allen has to therefore check-back onto his right foot and play it out to the right-back whose cross comes to nothing.

Because at times they are the only players who are available to pass to, Stoke’s full-backs do cross a lot of the time. James McClean has attempted the most crosses per 90 in the league so far (6.8) and Tommy Smith has attempted the 2nd most for a right-back, and the 17th most overall. Perhaps this is something City need to be aware of, having already conceded from crosses against Leeds, Birmingham and Middlesbrough this season.

James McClean tops the crossing charts

Another theme of this match was Stoke’s backline’s willingness to play long balls into the channels for the willing-runners Gregory and Hogan to chase. Since Gregory is superb at bringing his teammates into play, this turned out to be an effective outlet for the Potters. Their second goal (below) is a good example of when this worked well, and this time Butland is the one playing the long ball over the top (as opposed to one of the back four). Yes, you could argue it was a very poor goal to concede from a Derby point of view, but it does highlight one of the features of Stoke’s game when they play with two strikers.

As you may have noticed I’ve skipped Stoke’s equaliser (another set-piece goal from Liam Lindsay) so at this point they’re leading Derby by 2 goals to 1.

Now we get onto Derby’s equaliser, which came from the penalty spot. The manner in which Stoke conceded the penalty was pretty shocking really. Kelle Roos launched a goal kick towards the right-hand touchline (Stoke’s left) and Liam Lindsay came all the way over to try and head it away but ended up making a mess of it, meaning he was then well out of position.

The ball fell to Max Lowe’s feet, and George Evans exploited the space vacated by Lindsay with a darting run which was able to go unchallenged since Joe Allen lost his man completely, and Ryan Woods was ball-watching (picture below). Lowe slipped the ball through to Evans who was eventually tripped and then Waghorn tucked home the penalty. Perhaps the alertness (or lack-of) of Stoke’s midfield is something City can exploit on Saturday with late midfield runs from Brownhill or Palmer? Having said that, Ryan Woods has been left out of Stoke’s last two games, with Jones preferring the more defensively capable Jordan Cousins and Sam Clucas as his holding midfielders against Leeds and Birmingham respectively.

You can even see Nathan Jones in the bottom left corner trying to warn his midfield of the danger behind them!

TO CONCLUDE

Even though I think Nathan Jones will go back to his favoured diamond formation on Saturday, it’s nearly impossible to second guess the Welshman as he’s already started matches with four different formations so far this season (4-4-2 diamond, 3-5-1-1, 4-1-4-1 and 3-5-2 in the League Cup). Their starting XI is just as hard to predict too – Stoke have started 22 different players in their first six league games as Jones tries desperately to find his winning formula.

If Stoke don’t play a 4-4-2 diamond, they will most likely set-up in a 3-5-2 formation. This’ll work similar to the diamond, but with an extra centre-back instead of a DM which should give their back line more solidity – and perhaps ensure they avoid recreating the penalty they conceded against Derby.

Opposition Scouting Report: Middlesbrough

An analytical piece on our next opponent Middlesbrough’s last match against Millwall, which ended 1-1 at The Riverside.

Here’s how they lined up:

Unsurprisingly Jonathan Woodgate opted for the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation, the same formation they’ve used practically all season, with Ashley Fletcher drifting centrally, and George Saville and Paddy McNair providing the legs in midfield with the task to get forward and beyond Britt Assombalonga when they could.

FIRST HALF

The first half was a real struggle for Boro, they failed to really control the game but there were signs of how Woodgate wants them to play.

One of the themes of the first half, and the game, was the willingness of Saville and especially McNair to burst forward and support Assombalonga with runs beyond him. This worked especially well when either Assombalonga or Fletcher dropped deep to receive the ball on the turn, and were able to feed it through to the ongoing central midfielders.

Here’s an example below (click to enlarge):

Here we can see Assombalonga receiving the ball on the turn during a break-away, looking up and seeing McNair running beyond him. McNair was sent through and was able to get a shot away, however with a more precise pass he could have been clean through one-on-one with a real opportunity to score. If Welsh skipper Ashley Williams is fit enough to start this match, then Middlesbrough might have problems exploiting space through the middle against a back five (I assume City would only play a back five if Williams starts).

Another example:

In this instance, when left-back Marc Bola gives the ball to Assombalonga (who’s dropped deep) the other CM George Saville is the furthest man forward and is occupying the CBs. A clever dummy from Britt sends the ball to Fletcher who plays a through ball to Saville and the midfielder arguably should’ve won a free-kick on the edge of the box after being brought down.

This tactic does however come with limitations. Many times in the first half, Middlesbrough really struggled to build attacks from the back due to the advanced positions McNair and Saville were taking up, who found it hard to make themselves available for a short, vertical pass against Millwall’s compact midfield. When Ryan Shotton or Dani Ayala had the ball, many times the only passing options they had were to give it to Adam Clayton (who then often gave it back) or pass sideways along the back four. This eventually resulted in long, hopeful balls up to Assombalonga and Fletcher which were gobbled up by Alex Pearce and Jake Cooper. Consequently, Boro struggled to control the game or create any real chances in the first half, going in at half-time with just 2 shots on goal.

Here’s SofaScore’s AttackMomentum graph for the first half. Middlesbrough (in Green) failed to sustain any pressure against the away side. Millwall were dangerous, especially from set pieces and knockdowns by big Matt Smith.

Another theme of the first half was Ashley Fletcher drifting in to the half-spaces from the right-hand-side to turn and either run at the defence or play a through ball. Without the intelligent Adam Nagy in midfield, it will most likely be down to youngster Han-Noah Massengo to plug the gaps to stop any passes reaching the dangerous Fletcher in front of City’s defence.

SECOND HALF

Woodgate made a substitution at half-time, bringing on winger Marvin Johnson for the ineffective Marcus Browne. This instantly gave Boro a new lease of life as, at the start of the second half, Johnson and Bola combined well down the left and looked threatening, putting multiple crosses into the box for Assombalonga and Fletcher. Millwall dealt with the crosses, but this was a big improvement from the first half.

Johnson then swapped wings to the right-hand-side and was an out-ball where he would either cut back onto his left foot to whip a ball in, or take on Millwall’s left-back. Finally Boro had an extra option to pass to.

Another significant change made at half-time was to give Bola more license to get forward down the left-hand-side. Boro were too slow and predictable in the first half but this really changed in the second with Bola and Johnson providing the width on both flanks. Crucially, this helped spread out Millwall’s midfield, giving McNair and Saville more space through the middle. Here’s Marc Bola’s touch maps for both halves:

Bola played much higher and much wider in the second half, and was regularly an option for a switch of play.

If he plays that high against City on Saturday, Weimann and Afobe need to look to exploit the space he vacates on the counter-attack.

Another key change for Boro at half-time was Jonny Howson playing much narrower as an inverted full-back. The right-back picked up more central positions with winger Johnson on his outside, and played almost alongside Adam Clayton which massively helped Boro retain possession and sustain pressure on Millwall.

Howson’s change to an inverted full-back hugely helped Middlesbrough keep the ball and build attacks. Boro’s possession % went from 47% in the first half, to 71% in the second.
In the second half, Middlesbrough were able to pile the pressure on Millwall due to Bola and Johnson playing high and wide, and Howson playing more centrally to offer another passing option.

THE GOAL

Paddy McNair’s goal shows off Middlesbrough’s style brilliantly in this match.

First of all, Marc Bola drove forward with the ball down the left, then he found Ashley Fletcher in the half-space who turned and played a ball through for the onrushing Paddy McNair to finish past Bialkowski.

It will most likely be down to Massengo and Brownhill to stop the ball getting through to Fletcher in the half-space so he can turn, and also to stay with the midfield runner (either McNair or Saville, or Saturday’s substitute Lewis Wing) so they can’t receive a pass which takes them through on goal. No ball watching!

MILLWALL’S GOAL

Millwall equalised via a corner where striker Matt Smith won a knockdown (as he always does) at the back post which Bradshaw converted with his first touch after being subbed on.

Are defending set-pieces a cause for concern for Woodgate? Boro have already conceded 3 times from them so far this season – only Wigan have conceded more.

Defensive Shape

Boro defend in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Clayton patrolling in front of the back four, filling gaps and putting his foot in when required (he made 4 successful tackles, the most on the pitch). Also, Fletcher and Browne aren’t the quickest at getting back into a defensive shape so this could be exploited on the counter, however McNair and Saville have unbelievable stamina which allows them to cover out wide when needed.

To summarise, what should we expect?

  • Boro’s two central midfielders to bomb forward and beyond Britt Assombalonga
  • Marcus Browne to be dropped for Marvin Johnson, Middlesbrough’s answer to Niclas Eliasson
  • Ashley Fletcher to occupy the half-spaces, looking to either turn and run at the defence or play a through ball for the oncoming CMs or Assombalonga
  • Marc Bola to play high and wide down the left, leaving space behind
  • Howson to act as an extra midfielder, playing very narrow
  • Boro to be potentially weak at defending set-pieces