The EFL League One witnessed arguably one of the games of the season when Shrewsbury hosted Oxford on 7 March 2020. With Oxford United pushing for promotion to the Championship the next season, they visited mid-table side, Shrewsbury. A loss would see them fall behind the other six teams pushing for promotion. Both sides were in contrasting runs of form, with Oxford having won four games on the trot but Shrewsbury having won only two of their previous five games.
The game was a tale of two halves with both coaches, Karl Robinson and Sam Ricketts, having to change their initial tactics to suit the events of the match. Following is a full tactical analysis of those tactics used by both teams in this EFL League One match.
Ricketts’ Shrewsbury team started with a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to that used by Manchester United, looking to see a turnaround in terms of results. They retained the same line-up as their previous game with Ricketts hoping for some consistency in performance from the team. Josh Vela and David Edwards looked to support the defence and act as double pivots in the centre of midfield. Jason Cummings and Daniel Udoh, the club’s leading scorers in the league this season, both started as well with Udoh leading the attack.
Robinson however, made a few changes to the in-form Oxford side. Sam Long returned to the starting line-up at right-back with Nathan Holland also returning at left midfield. Top scorer Matty Taylor led the attack for Oxford in form James Henry started as well. The team shaped up to play a 4-3-3 formation with a single pivot at the start of the game.
The narrow set-up of both the teams at the start meant that a crowded midfield could be expected. Shrewsbury’s tactics meant that they were set-up for direct runs at the defence and would look to beat them with pace. Oxford, however, could be expected to keep possession in midfield before shifting the ball towards the wings.
The early stages saw Shrewsbury take control of the game and force Oxford narrower. Oxford were forced to deviate from their usual tactics and their centre-backs had to stay closer to each other. The threat of Udoh meant that they could not leave as much space between them as it would be easy to run through on goal.
The Oxford midfield was also pushed closer to each other and the early stages saw a lot of pressure in midfield. Shrewsbury wingers would drag their full-backs closer to the centre to provide gaps for Udoh to run into. These tactics served Shrewsbury very well in the early stages with Oxford having to defend for most of the initial period.
On the counter though, Shrewsbury looked to move their attack wider. Udoh would move out of his central role to the flank and allow a teammate to counter through the centre. Cummings provided another option on the opposite flank and they were able to spread the defence. This tactic allowed them to catch defenders out of position but unfortunately, they were unable to capitalise on the counter-attacking threat.
Restructuring after red card
Just after the 30th minute of the game, a series of crucial events unfolded. An injury to centre-back Aaron Pierre left Ricketts to rue his tactics of not carrying a back-up centre-back on the bench. This lack of a natural centre-back saw right-back Scott Golbourne come off the bench as the replacement. The new tactics saw starting right-back Omar Beckles move to centre-back for the remainder of the game.
The change did not seem to cause any immediate problems with Shrewsbury scoring the next minute and taking a commanding 2-0 lead. However, the very next minute saw midfielder Vela receive his marching orders for his second booking of the game. It is never easy playing with a man less and once again the team needed a change in tactics.
Shrewsbury looked to move into a low block with their now 4-4-1 formation. Udoh was left as the lone striker and the midfielders stayed close to the defence to make it harder for Oxford to penetrate. A greater emphasis was placed on defending and getting players behind the ball with their attacks only limited to occasional counters.
This space of a few minutes saw some respite for Oxford who were on the back foot till then. They were now able to see more of possession and looked to start attacks from the back.
Oxford shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, pushing the full-backs further up the pitch. The two central midfielders, Cameron Brannagan and Alex Gorrin, dropped back to play as a double pivot. In this way, they could support the defence in case of a counter-attack as well as play effectively from the back.
Oxford also looked to move into their original tactics, shifting the ball out wide more regularly. The deep-lying presence of Gorrin and Brannagan allowed them to push out from the back and dominate the midfield. With Shrewsbury playing with a low block, the two midfielders often found themselves having enough space to play a good ball out to the wing.
As can be seen from the visualisations, Brannagan and Gorrin constantly troubled the Shrewsbury defence with their long balls allowing the full-backs to get in behind. It can also be seen that the Shrewsbury midfield attempt to counter this by pressing higher. However, they were caught in awkward positions and allowed the two Oxford midfielders to bypass them with a single pass. They were also unable to provide adequate support to the defence and this lead to Oxford taking scoring late on in the first half.
Key substitutions alter tactics
The second half saw more of the same with Oxford resuming where they left off and taking charge of the play. Shrewsbury made their second substitution of the game early in the second half with Cummings going off for the more defensive Brad Walker. This saw Joshua Laurent move to a wider position from his centre attacking role. The change did not pay dividends though with Oxford still being able to threaten the defence regularly, albeit with no returns.
Ricketts, however, understood that this continuous pressure down the wing was a major threat and he made his final substitution, withdrawing goal scorer Callum Lang and bring on right-back Donald Love. This shifted them to a 5-3-1 formation in a bid to ward off the threat of Oxford’s attack down the flanks.
The lack of an equaliser in these minutes frustrated the Oxford team and Robinson sought to reshuffle his tactics once again. He made a very bold and attacking substitution by taking off the excellent Gorrin for right midfielder Dan Agyei. This move saw Brannagan play as a single pivot in midfield and altered the team’s formation to a 3-4-3, resembling Liverpool when they transition to attack. Brannagan’s drop to play almost as the third centre-back allowed him to dominate play.
Most of the attacks stemmed from his long passes. Receiving the ball from the centre-backs after a cleared attack or a failed Shrewsbury counter, Brannagan was at the heart of Oxford’s tactics throughout the second half.
As can be seen from the pass map above, Brannagan was the focal point of the Oxford team, with most passes from the centre-backs leading to him and most passes forward stemming from him Brannagan played 15 progressive passes out of which 11 were accurate. He also played 16 passes to the final third, 10 of them being accurate.
This new tactic paid off for Oxford almost instantly, with Agyei scoring just two minutes after coming off the bench.
With momentum on their side, Oxford hunted for any opening that could see them complete a dramatic comeback. This they eventually found on the right flank. Substitute Golbourne was regularly caught moving too high up the pitch to prevent Oxford full-back Long from pushing forward. However, this left Agyei with loads of space to take on makeshift centre-back Beckles.
Shrewsbury’s low block allowed Oxford to press higher as well. The midfielders and forwards were able to overload the final third and left the Shrewsbury defence scrambling to stop them. It is also important to note that Oxford did not just forget their tactics and pack the opponent box. Their disciplined push forward while maintaining their formation was crucial to their sustained attack.
Oxford forced the Shrewsbury team back towards their goal and even the Oxford centre-backs found themselves having enough space to move higher. Shrewsbury midfielders also made the mistake of not keeping track of where the attackers were and focussed on the ball instead. Being pushed so deep also meant that Shrewsbury were ineffective on the counter, with Udoh finding himself isolated up front.
The score stayed at 2-2 though, with the Shrewsbury goal-keeper making some good saves and the defenders throwing themselves in front of shots.
Heading into the final stages of the game, Oxford stuck to their tactics of playing down the right flank and overloading the final third. Agyei and Long both played higher up the pitch with the former drifting into spaces opened up by Golbourne.
Taylor played closer to makeshift centre-back Beckles and this meant both he and Agyei would attack the Shrewsbury defender. Beckles did not receive the support he needed from Golbourne, who had to take care of Long, or his midfield. This eventually led to a silly challenge from midfielder Edwards and this saw Oxford win a dangerous free-kick in the 88th minute.
As we can see, all the Shrewsbury players had come back to defend this free-kick. Despite this, we can see that Love does not take much notice of left-back Joe Ruffels. Shrewsbury focussed on defending the central portion where the forwards were and this allowed Ruffels to move down the outside. The ball was eventually played to him where he made no mistake, putting the ball in the back of the net with a headed finish.
Oxford had completed the comeback and Shrewsbury were left to rue their defensive problems. The last few minutes saw Shrewsbury throw men forward but to no avail. Their 10 men were no match for Oxford’s 11 who were able to easily defend and play out the final minutes of the game.
Through this analysis, we can see that behind this spectacular game was a mix of tactics adopted by both Robinson and Ricketts. Although Shrewsbury dominated the play early on, they were handicapped by a multitude of factors. The lack of discipline leading to a red card, coupled with a makeshift centre-back and errors from both full-backs saw them lose the upper hand. They sit 16th in the table, nine points off the relegation zone, due to their lack of consistency. They would also hope to capitalise on games like this, where they had the upper hand, in the future.
In this game, however, Oxford were able to alter their tactics and capitalise on their opponent’s weaknesses. Robinson’s shrewd decision making and substitutions saw Oxford complete their well-deserved comeback late on. Fighting for a promotion spot, Oxford showed that they have what it takes to move up to the Championship and with this performance they find themselves third in the table. With the COVID-19 pandemic suspending all footballing activities, they find themselves in a good spot should the league be cancelled and teams get promoted as per the current table.
Only time will tell what happens, but there is no denying that this game would go down as one of the games of the season.
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