With the EFL League Two season officially finished, the only matter left to decide is the playoffs. The second playoff will be played between fourth-placed Cheltenham Town and seventh-placed Northampton Town. With the season decided by points per game system, Michael Duff’s Cheltenham leapfrogged Exeter City to finish the closest to automatic promotion, setting up a tie with Keith Curle’s side.
Northampton will be able to welcome back Alan McCormack from injury, who has recovered over the break to give Curle a full complement of players to pick from. Although form goes out the window, with both sides having to get back up to speed, Northampton’s run before the break was one of inconsistency, with three wins and three defeats. However, Curle has promised it’s a ‘clean slate’ for all his players as squad rotation is set to play a major factor with the introduction of increased substitutes for both legs.
Cheltenham will likely still be without goalkeeper Scott Flinders, still recovering from a broken leg in January. Josh Debayo is a doubt with a groin injury, but Duff looks set to call on key man Ryan Broom; with eight goals and six assists, he tops both charts for his side. Cheltenham were in superb form before the break, with five wins from their last six, but with the break, Duff is sure to have done some close analysis to get the upper hand before the return leg on Monday.
In this tactical analysis, we will preview what to look out for in the first leg, as both sides make their return to competitive action.
Northampton’s direct style
The first concept to look out for this Thursday is the tactics behind Northampton’s direct style. Curle himself has admitted to the quick back to front style Northampton have showcased, with an emphasis on utilising the aerial presence of the forward, Vadaine Oliver.
This direct style is likely to be in full force for this meeting. With both sides operating in back five setups, the two strikers for Northampton will look to identify a weak area in the best defence this season, conceding only 27 goals. They have an average pass length of 23.46, above average for the division, as well as 23% of all their passes being long. But there is more to just a direct pass which Cheltenham will have to look out for.
From the same fixture in December, the example below showcases a diagonal long pass towards Oliver. With his movement away from the central defender, Ben Tozer, he stretches the back three to create gaps in between. With the pass being diagonal, the focus is on the ball for Cheltenham’s recovering defenders, and less so on the blindside runs of Paul Anderson and Andy Williams making movements centrally. Oliver jumps early and meets the ball, flicking into space behind for the onrushing Anderson and Williams.
As well as the numbers in and around Oliver, the positioning of the passer is of keen interest. They apply a diagonal cross from a deep position, of which 6.17 are completed a game for Northampton. This allows Curle’s side to distribute quickly towards Oliver, without having to build and combine in wide areas. Therefore, this reduces teammates being pulled away from a position to retain the ball from Oliver’s flicks either in behind or in between lines.
The second example below showcases the impact this direct style could have on Cheltenham’s defensive line. To nullify Oliver moving to isolate the outside central defenders, Ben Tozer steps out to compete in the air, vacating his space. With this, midfielders from deep are able to penetrate the gaps in behind, starting their runs from deep, to then give them the momentum and advantage against recovering central defenders.
With constant movement from the front two, this is sure to cause Cheltenham multiple problems around how to deal with Oliver’s aerial threat. With the lively Hoskins playing centrally behind the two forwards, this also creates problems in between, which we will highlight later. However, it is not just centrally where Northampton will look to deploy their direct style.
In this final example, the wing-back, Nicky Adams has latched onto a direct ball in space behind. Where Cheltenham will have to be careful is with how adventurous they allow their own wing-backs to occupy higher areas. With space left in behind, Adams is able to get down the side of the back three, in behind the advanced wing-back.
With the wide central defender having to step out and meet Adams, the space centrally is available for advanced Northampton midfielders to level or even overload the penalty area. With a stretched backline, Oliver is able to pull to the far post and occupy a vulnerable wing-back, who has to narrow, utilizing his aerial capabilities for an effort on goal.
Controlling Zone 14
With the aerial threat that Northampton possesses, the importance of winning the second ball is key to success in this game. Controlling the space on the edge of the area, Zone 14, particularly when Northampton look to go direct is an area Cheltenham may look to nullify in a few ways.
By looking direct, Northampton as discussed will look to flick on to runners making a movement in behind. However, there is also the option as the Cheltenham defense deepens to reduce the space behind, gaps in between lines will open up. With Northampton likely to operate with a number ten in either Sam Hoskins or potentially Arsenal loanee James Olayinka, there is the chance to maintain possession from a higher position to play penetrative passes closer to the opposition goal.
The first example below showcases the space Hoskins could find. With a direct pass into Oliver, Hoskins delays his run to pick up the space centrally (Zone 14), receiving on a higher line to either make a penetrative pass or have an attempt on goal. The recovering midfielder is caught on the wrong side, causing the outside right center-back Charlie Raglan to step out and engage.
Therefore, with Cheltenham playing a three-man midfield they may look to operate Rohan Ince, formally of EPL side Brighton and Hove Albion in a holding role to protect this area, as shown in the example below. As Northampton posses a lower passes per possessions on average with 2.55, combining and playing through the opponent is not a strength of theirs. By controlling Zone 14, Cheltenham could take a big step towards forcing Northampton to change their style.
With Ince, Cheltenham can provide cover in this area, operating in between the lines to cover the space for Hoskins. But also by positioning himself close to the player winning the header, be that opponent or teammate, Ince will reduce the opportunity for Northampton to retain possession on a high line, forcing their pattern to start from deep and look to play through.
However, as Ince drops deeper to receive any second balls in between lines, another scenario may occur in Northampton’s favor. In the example below, Ince and on this occasion, Conor Thomas, sits deeper to control Zone 14, reducing the space for Hoskins. Space can then develop in front of their midfield line for Northampton’s own midfielders to step higher and pick up the pieces from a higher line, building from an advanced position.
It will be crucial to control Zone 14 with the positioning of a holding midfielder. However, Cheltenham must not allow themselves to drop deeper and encourage Northampton to play higher. As in the example, as well as operating in the space between lines, Ince also looks to prevent any penetrative passes into Hoskins’s feet by sitting narrower.
Make sure to watch out for the number ten for Northampton. Either they will look to play in between lines, forcing Cheltenham to either press and step up or drop, giving space in front. Or, operate in between midfielders, requiring them to narrow, providing space in the wide-area for our next concept to take place.
Overloading wide areas
With both sides likely to operate their own take on a 5-3-2/3-5-2, this leaves the likelihood for the wide areas to become ever more important. The central areas are likely to be congested with not only three central midfielders each, but also three central defenders operating in the central channels. This puts an emphasis on width being provided, for both sides, through their wing-backs. Below is an example of how both sides may look to overload these areas.
In this example, we look at how Cheltenham could look towards their outside center-backs to support. With the wing-back providing width and the midfielders matching up centrally, there is an opportunity to underlap in the half-spaces. On this occasion, left-sided central defender Jacob Greaves steps in to receive in between lines creating an overload in the wide area. As Greaves steps in, Hoskins has to make a recovery run to block off the space, giving Northampton less of an attacking threat if they decide to go direct.
As well as the overload coming from a central defender, due to the mobile nature of Cheltenham’s forwards, George Lloyd has made a move into the wide channel to become an option on a higher line. With the addition of Alfie May in January, Cheltenham are likely to look towards forwards who drift from a central position, to stretch the backline, while looking to get on the ball in pockets of space in behind either wing-back for Northampton.
The home side are likely to conduct a similar concept, but with less mobile forwards, with the movement in between required from advanced midfielders. As shown in the example below, Northampton also looks toward their central defenders to support in wide areas as seen with Charlie Goode in possession. With the width provided by the full-back, Oliver and Williams occupy the central defenders, creating gaps in between for advanced midfielders to receive.
As Cheltenham’s wing-back presses his opposite number, a recovering central midfielder also recovers stretching their units. This shift allows for space in between as the rest of the units remain in the central channel to cover the aerial threat. An aspect to look out for will certainly be how often either side manages to gain possession in behind each other’s wing-backs in the half-space.
With the break, it’s difficult to call how it will affect both sides. Fatigue is sure to play a part, but the principles should remain the same as both have relied on such to put them in this position. A clean bill of health for Northampton is normally rare for these sorts of games, giving Curle the option to go in multiple directions with his setup.
From what we know before the break, expect Northampton to be direct and look to feed off any rustiness Cheltenham may showcase. For Cheltenham, it will be a case of taking their opportunities to have something to play for when returning to Whaddon Road. Controlling the area in front of their defensive line will be crucial to nullify Northampton’s clear aerial threat.