Posh’s recent form and performances ahead of the trip to Fleetwood had been outstanding. Six wins from six, four of them coming against promotion rivals, 20 goals scored and just two conceded had launched Posh back into the heart of the League One promotion battle.
That run was always likely to come to an end, and while it is very possible that this is just a blip for a revitalised Peterborough side, who for my money are among the top two or three sides in the league on both form and ability, the game does pose a number of questions that need answering.
So without further ado, let’s delve into the major talking points to emerge from the game.
Team Selection Doesn’t Reflect Plan
In isolation Fegie’s team selection and tactics make perfect sense. The back three he selected, in Thompson, Beevers and Mason had recently performed well. Knight had been in contention for a while and offers a different dimension and skillset to that of Brown, which in certain matches will be merit for inclusion over Brown. With Toney injured Eisa, as the clubs record signing and a player with thirteen goals to his name this season, would have been the choice of many to start on Saturday.
The tactics too made sense. Without Toney as a target man Posh needed to find a different way of progressing the ball from back to front so playing out from the back and through midfield made sense. Especially as the conditions made hitting accurate direct passes, as they would have had to been when Dembele and Eisa are the targets, incredibly difficult.
The issue though was that the team selection did not match the plan. Why take out Brown, Posh’s best and most creative passer, when you’re looking to play through midfield? Brown’s ability to drop deep to collect possession, pick the right pass and play intelligent progressive passes was sorely missed on Saturday, especially after Fleetwood parked the boat in front of their goal once ahead.
What’s even more mystifying is that Fergie did not feel the need to introduce Brown at any stage. Despite the fact Posh bossed possession for large spells, penalty aside, they barely created a meaningful chance in the game. Posh’s non-penalty xG was 0.25, which is well… terrible.
It was unsurprising that Fergie’s tactical acumen was again questioned by some Posh supporters. To his credit he tried to influence the game. However, the brief switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation towards the end of the first half also appears puzzling as Posh barely stuck with this shape for five minutes before reappearing for the second half back in the 3-4-1-2 formation they started the game.
The issue was the Fergie failed to identify that the fundamental issues were not formational but personnel based. He had got his team selection wrong and changing shape was never going to solve the problems Posh were facing.
When Fergie did make substitutions he did little more than throw attackers onto the pitch in hope that this would lead to more chances. Idris Kanu and Ricky-Jade Jones were both introduced. While Kanu’s appearance did lead to an improvement, neither substitute addressed the biggest concern for Posh.
At times against a low block Posh struggled to sustain final third possession and attacks against packed defences. On Saturday however, Posh struggled to even get the ball into the final third. Just 20% of the game took place in Fleetwood’s defensive third and penalty aside Posh managed just one shot inside the Fleetwood box (a blocked Mo Eisa effort) and none inside the six yard box. Having 61% possession means nothing if you can’t regularly get the ball into dangerous areas.
Throwing on forwards was never going to fully address this. Posh required a way of getting the ball to the forwards and making it stick. While Kanu did well in dropping deep to collect the ball and then running at defenders his introduction alone was not enough to address this shortcoming.
To do so Posh needed to introduce Brown, and in my opinion Bennett (more on that later), to help accurately and consistently transfer the ball along the ground from back to front. With Fleetwood sitting deep this was a game for a creator, not an all action midfielder such as Knight. What was even more frustrating watching on was that Posh had not just Brown, but also Boyd and Reed sat on the bench, and Fergie made just two substitutions in the game. How could he not see the need to bring on a creative midfielder???
Brown’s exclusion for the XI also had a negative knock on effect for Posh’s number 10 Sammie Szmodics. As he was not receiving as much of the ball as he has become accustomed to in recent matches Szmodics regularly dropped deep to collect possession. We can see this in his heat map below:
The issue here though was twofold. First, this is not his natural game. Szmodics is at his best when collecting the ball between the lines or using his pace to run in behind, not when dropping into a quasi-quarter back role.
Moreover, as Szmodics was deeper this meant that the position between the lines was often left unmanned. Szmodics is Posh’s best player in that role and Posh would have been far more dangerous if they could have found him in that position more frequently. Eisa would sometimes drop into the space vacated by Szmodics but he is not effective in that zone, especially when receiving the ball back to goal. Dembele also did similar, however even he was too often crowded out and isolated when doing so.
I have found a couple of clips which reinforce some of the problems Szmodics playing deeper created:
In the first clip we see Szmodics dropping into a deep left sided position barely 10 yards in front of Posh’s back three, one of the two orange positions in his heat map showing that he regularly came into this zone. He collects the ball and plays a pass to Thompson. So what’s the problem?
Well first, why does he need to occupy this position? Look at the gap between himself and Taylor. Taylor could easily play this pass. Second, the space between Fleetwood’s defence and midfield is left unoccupied. The vast majority of Posh’s possession took place in front of the Fleetwood midfield. They lacked options to break lines and Szmodics’ positioning was part of this problem.
Alternatively, with Szmodics deep the impetus should have been on Taylor to step into the space vacated by Szmodics (hypothetical red line run). This happened occasionally, but not naturally or often enough. Thus, Posh’s options to progress the ball from midfield into more advanced positions were often frustratingly limited.
In the second clip we see Szmodics dropping deep to collect the ball on the right side of the pitch.
We can see that Szmodics has dropped into a near identical position to Knight, and again this will have consequences for Posh’s pitch coverage in other areas, as we can see in the clip below from a few seconds later. When again Posh have limited options between the lines.
Moreover, Knight is positioned behind Szmodics in a ‘wasted’ position as he could otherwise be the recipient of the pass. Taylor is a passing option, however he is level with the ball and Szmodics was typically keen to try to advance the ball from deep positions. He therefore goes for a long switch to Butler on the left wing which is intercepted. One has to think though that had Szmodics stayed in a more advanced position and Knight been the one to receive the pass from Thompson, then Posh would not have completely vacated the central areas to between the lines and therefore would have been in a better position to progress the ball.
Finally, player rotations between the front three have been a key part of Posh’s build up and final third play in recent games. However, with Szmodics often deep, and Eisa lacking Toney’s versatility, this was seldom a feature of Posh’s game on Saturday.
Having opened by primarily focusing on Fergie’s decision to start Brown I will now focus in more deatil on his other two important personnel calls.
Fergie Goes with MO
Going into this match I said that Ferguson had three key selection decisions to get right and with hindsight it is fair to say that Fergie got all three big selection dilemmas wrong.
Above we have looked at his decision to start Knight ahead of Brown, however, arguably the biggest, and most important, decision was how to replace Posh’s star man Ivan Toney. The issue here is that it is not just the League One top scorer’s goals that need replacing, but his impact on the side as a whole. Toney’s physicality, ball control, link play and aerial prowess are all huge weapons that Posh regularly look to exploit and mean Toney is heavily involved in almost all of Posh’s best moves.
Aside from his 21 league goals and four assists, every 90 minutes Toney:
Has 44.6 touches
Contests 10.5 aerial duels, winning 5.2
Wins 3.7 ground duels
Makes 13.5 accurate passes
Makes 1.6 key passes
Attempts 1.1 dribbles
Makes 1.3 possession regains (tackles and interceptions)
Makes 1.9 clearances
It is hard to capture exactly what Toney brings to Posh in stats, he is the best player in League One this season, and is vital to almost every facet of Posh’s game.
Mo Eisa represented arguably the safest and easiest option in replacing him. It is also worth mentioning that as Posh’s record signing, it is particularly worrying that we are even discussing whether Eisa should be called up as Posh’s third choice striker. However, Eisa’s recent performances, as well as the vast improvement the side showed in his absence, mean that this is the position we find ourselves in.
Eisa was often referred to as a like-for-like replacement for Toney, however this assertion could not be further from the truth. Yes both are out-and-out number 9s however the similarities stop there. Eisa offers goals and a fantastic strikers instinct but little else, whereas Toney is often the focal point of Posh’s attacks. Whereas Toney can act as a target man, is technically impressive and can both hold up the ball and link play Eisa is poor with his back to goal, and when linking play.
As I have said previously Fergie’s main concern should have been finding a way to replace Toney’s impact on Posh’s buildup, not his goals. We have discussed Toney’s impact on Posh in possession so what were Eisa’s involvements in the game? Well in 64 minutes he had, by my count, just 11 actions in possession:
1x missed penalty
1x blocked shot
3x accurate passes
2x inaccurate passes
1x aerial duel won
2x aerial duels lost
1x miss-controlled pass
Sadly that is hardly a roll of honour.
His heat map is also particularly damming both for him but also in how Posh looked to utilise him. Most of his actions (circled) took place between the Fleetwood defensive and midfield line with his back to goal. Posh looked to Eisa to drop deep and link play. They have tried, unsuccessfully, to use Eisa like this before this season and it is apparent Fergie needs to rethink Eisa’s role in the side to get the best out of him. It also reflects how little Eisa interchanged positions with his teammates, something Szmodics, Dembele and Toney have to great effect, as all his actions outside the box happened in one specific area of the pitch.
Eisa’s lack of involvement in general play was a huge hindrance to Posh’s build up play. With Posh forced to play through midfield given the conditions and a lack of a target man they needed all 11 players to contribute to their build up. Unfortunately, this was something Eisa was always likely to struggle with.
Bennett Cast Aside Again
Rhys Bennett must be wondering what he has to do to break into this Peterborough side. Tuesday night saw him put in a superbly composed display of accurate passing (against admittedly poor opposition) and defensive domination, only to find himself re-sidelined on Saturday. This is not the first time Bennett has been dropped after being drafted into the team due to injury or suspension and subsequently impressing.
Perhaps Fergie distrusts Bennett after a string of error strewn performances last season where Bennett looked a permanent liability at the back. However, while I have treated Bennett with a fair amount of skepticism this season due to the permanent scars left by some of his errors last year, Tuesday’s game against Southend again demonstrated what he brings to this Peterborough team.
Bennett carried the ball forwards confidently, passed crisply and on a number of occasions he produced pinpoint, well weighted, progressive passes which changed the point of attack for Posh and either got them on the ball deep in the Southend half or directly created a goal scoring opportunity, something that was badly missing for Posh on Saturday. Let’s look at two examples of Bennett’s passing contributions on Tuesday.
Above he has just won the ball near the halfway line. He is immediately positive, looking for a forward pass as he carries the ball forward. He then fires a split pass into Szmodics, whose flick almost releases Dembele, but instead wins a free kick for Posh in the Southend half. While Bennett’s pass is well weighted, it wasn’t perfectly executed as it bounced towards Szmodics making it difficult to control under pressure. It was however a clear example of his positive attitude on the ball and the pass was ‘good enough’ to progress the ball beyond Southend’s midfield line.
The second example is of Bennett’s clipped passing, and was one of the occasions when he sprayed perfectly weighted clipped balls over opposition players and into a teammate.
Bennett has the ball inside his own half. He clips a delightful 50+ yard pass into Toney on the edge of the area. Toney’s flick sends Szmodics on goal, although Szmodics was flagged offside. The brilliance of the pass was both in its accuracy and low trajectory which made it easy for Toney to win.
While Bennett has been used most frequently either on the right of a back three or in a two man central defensive partnership, I see him as the best candidate to start centrally in Posh’s three man defence. He has performed this role just once this season. That was away to Bristol Rovers where Posh’s deep build up play was as effective and consistent as it has been all season. That success owed a lot to Bennett’s ability to quickly and accurately transfer the ball from left to right, as well as play forwards when required. When switching play Bennett would do so quickly in two touches, while the speed of his pass ensured either Kent or Mason had time to either carry or pass the ball forwards.
His ball utilisation in that game was in stark contrast to Beevers on Saturday. Beevers was ponderously slow in possession, while his passing lacked crispness and accuracy, hampered by his failure to get sufficient weight on his passes and his bizarre obsession with playing passes with the outside of his left foot. Beevers’ limitations on the ball also played a key role in inviting pressure before Posh conceded the second goal.
Other Talking Points & Summary
While the main talking points surrounded Fergie’s team selection, there are other topics worth touching upon here, especially as we look ahead to Posh’s run-in and potential promotion push.
More Deep Defences Ahead
Early in the season Posh struggled against both sides who pressed them high up the pitch and who sat deep in a low block. While Posh appear to have a plan in place to combat the high press they again struggled to create chances against a side prepared to concede possession and congest space in their own half.
While team selection didn’t help, Posh need to move the ball quicker, use the wings more effectively and switch play at speed to create gaps to exploit against sides in low blocks. Posh have a number of games coming up against sides who will likely use a similar ploy including Burton who are up next (Blackpool, Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Tranmere, Bolton all being among the others), finding a way to break these sides down will be crucial to Posh’s chances of success come May.
Kanu to get the Call against Burton
Personally my preference for the Burton game would be for Posh to employ a 3-4-2-1 with two 10s behind Dembele as a lone striker. With Toney missing being able to play through a packed midfield and exploit the (likely limited) space available. The technical ability, movement and creativity such an approach would offer appears perfect solution to this problem.
I believe there are two logical ways of executing this. The first is to bring Brown in for Eisa, play him in central midfield and push Taylor up to 10. The second option I would consider, and favour, is playing Brown at 10. In doing so I would also bring Reed in to replace Knight and partner Taylor in midfield.
I am expecting a lot of pushback on bringing Reed in for Knight given the clamour to get Knight back into the side from many, however my reasoning is as follows:
- With Knight and Taylor as a central midfield pairing Posh really struggled to progress the ball. While having Brown at 10 would help give them more options to play to, it does not hide the fact that games where breaking down teams in a low block do not suit Knight’s skillset
- Reed was outstanding early in the season. He is good on the ball and an intelligent defender off it. Had he been the one to get injured instead of Knight in November then I honestly believe that the importance people attached to Knight in Knight’s absence would have been attached to Reed instead
- Reed struggled as Posh became overrun in midfield and he struggled cope as a single pivot. I believe Reed is better in a midfield two and would be an ideal partner for Taylor
I don’t however expect Fergie to be that adventurous in his selection. Therefore, I am of the opinion that it is Kanu who has to start upfront against Burton alongside Dembele. Posh improved somewhat after Kanu’s introduction. He is able to drop deep and link play, is a powerful and skillful dribbler, while he also offers Posh strength and pace. He’s not Ivan Toney, but he is Posh’s best alternative. Kanu was a standout performer in the Leasing.com Trophy, has improved substantially since last season and would likely have been a regular in the side (either starting or off the bench) were it not for his freak injury.
Fergie Tactical Acumen Called into Question
Fergie had an admittedly difficult challenge to solve on Saturday and unfortunately failed to find a satisfactory answer. Certain sections on Twitter were quick to use this as a stick to beat him with.
That reaction was unfair and disproportional for a number of reasons. First, Posh came into the game on the back of a six match winning run following a tough run of fixtures. SIX. Perspective is required after one disappointing performance. Secondly, Eisa seemed to be the player most Posh fans would have picked to come in pre-match. It was an understandable selection.
Finally, while I do not believe Fergie is a tactical genius, it was he who made the initial switch to a 3-4-1-2 following a string of injuries in December. It is fair to argue that he was too quick to convert back to a diamond after the loss to Doncaster, and then persisted with it for too long on the back of some poor displays. However, he deserves great credit for coming up with a 3-4-1-2 shape in the first instance and then employing it so successfully in the recent run of games. Before the trophy match at home to Ipswich I do not recall anyone advocating such a shape as an option for Posh, now though most would acknowledge it is the formation which best suits a fully fit Posh squad.