Two of the most technically gifted sides in League One met at London Road on Saturday. Both Posh and Oxford have managers keen for their respective sides to build from the back and play ‘possession’ football.
However, while Posh played with a sense of pragmatism about their game, happy to play long into Toney or turn the Oxford back four in recognition of Oxford’s fast and impressive high press, Oxford stuck religiously to their ‘principles’. The men in yellow frequently refused to play long, even in the face of a Posh press which with Toney, Szmodics, Dembele and Taylor all bringing bundles of pace and energy is fast becoming a well-oiled pressing machine.
This was, to my mind, the key difference on Saturday, and went a long way to ensuring Posh recorded a dominant 4-0 win over difficult opposition. Whereas Posh played sensibly, Oxford stuck to their guns and offered no plan B, even though this meant they frequently conceded possession in and around their own half leaving themselves susceptible to Posh’s rapid fire transitions.
It brought to my mind a quote from one of Freddie Ljungberg’s Arsenal U23 players shortly after he had been appointed interim manager of the senior side. Reports coming out of the U23 camp was that Ljungberg encouraged the U23s to play ‘men’s football’, namely recognising that given the fast-paced nature and high stakes of professional football it is at times necessary to play percentage passes or simply clear your lines.
That analogy seems apt as Darren Ferguson sent his Posh side out to play ‘men’s football’. When they could they would get it down and play but they’d also use the pace in attack and Toney’s strength to go direct if this was the best option. Karl Robinson’s Oxford side however tried to play an overly idealistic version of the game. Despite looking free flowing at times they also came regularly unstuck playing this way and it was in the end their downfall.
In this analysis we will start by looking at the above point in more detail as this was probably the key detail on which the game was decided, before moving onto more talking points from Saturday’s game.
Posh Press & No Oxford Plan B
Posh looked to employ and man-oriented press with an initial three-man line of Szmodics, Toney and Dembele. Between them those three did a good job of limiting occupying and cutting off passing lines for the four nearest players to the ball. We can also see that Taylor has stepped up to guard the split pass into deep midfield.
Each player in Posh’s press had clearly defined roles. Behind the front three Brown and Taylor went man-to-man, tightly covering Oxford’s two 8s Brannagan and Henry. Szmodics tracked Gorrin but also pressed the centre backs Dickie and Mousinho. If the ball was on the right hand side then Dembele would cover the space between the right centre back and right back, while Toney would cover the pass from right centre back to left centre back. When the ball was on left side Toney would cover he left centre back and left back while Dembele would position between the two centre backs. Were the play switched, this would typically trigger a press from the wing back.
Because Posh operated a man-oriented press it meant that Posh’s shape in the press was fluid and reactive to opposition movements. At times then it could resemble anything from a 5-2-1-2 to a 5-1-1-3, 5-2-3 or even at times 4-3-2-1 or 4-2-3-1. Let’s look at some examples below:
The above picture isn’t the best quality but in it we can see Posh’s 4-3-2-1/4-3-3 shape dictated by the position of the opposition players. Dembele and Toney a pressed high to cover Mousinho and Dickie, Szmodics has tracked Gorrin’s movements while Brown is marking Brannagan with Tayor tight to Henry. In the above clip we can also see that Butler has stepped up to press Long as Oxford looked to build down their right.
Above is another nice illustration of Posh’s press. On this occasion Toney and Dembele have switched sides so Toney is pressing Dickie in possession. Dembele is in a position to pressure Mousinho (just off screen) should he receive a pass. Szmodics is tight to Gorrin while Butler is high against Long as the ball had recently been switched to the Oxford right wing triggering his press. Taylor and Brown are again tight to Oxford two 8s. Posh have ended up in a 4-2-3-1 defensive shape, again this is primarily dictated by the opposition player and passing movements.
In the opening, rather frenetic exchanges, Oxford demonstrated a certain pragmatism to their approach. Take the clip below, having worked the ball to Mousinho in a wide left position, he notices that Oxford have short passing options as Posh’s defence is set and therefore opts to play long.
His decision is clearly the right one. He has no obvious passing options, Toney’s angle of approach ensures that he has no option to switch play, and his only other two passing options, indicated by red lines, would clearly play teammates into trouble. But this ball, rather than being something of a backup or last resort, should have been a staple of Oxford’s game. Indeed Posh themselves utilised channel balls to turn Rotheram’s high defence and release the pace of the forwards behind, they also used it effectively, although not as frequently, on Saturday. On this occasion it was also effective for Oxford as we can see below.
We can see that Ward is pressed up high on Ruffels. Browne’s movement (circled) is also important. He was previously pinned up high against Thompson. When he drops off Thompson starts to follow him, worried that he will collect the ball in space with time to turn and run at him. However, it is likely that Browne’s movement was actually intended to free up the space in behind Thompson. As the ball is played over the top Thompson is still moving the wrong way and the ball is sent in behind him. This releases Taylor 1v1 against Beevers.
This is a pretty good match up for Oxford. Not only does it allow them to turn the Posh defence, but Beevers is both painfully slow and not particularly adept at 1v1 defending. Taylor meanwhile possesses good movement, ball control and enough (if not blistering) pace to trouble Beevers. On this occasion Beevers gets to the ball first thanks to his head start, and clears his lines for an Oxford throw deep inside Posh’s half.
You imagine that, had Oxford persisted with this ball, by pulling Beevers into the right channel, where he is not comfortable, they would have had a good chance of having some joy. However, as the game wore on Oxford became more determined to play out short from the back and at times, especially in the middle period of the first half, put together some slick passing moves, pulled Posh players out of position and created spaces to play.
At other times though Oxford ended up playing themselves into a dead end, or worse, into trouble. It is probably fair to say that the risk factor of their approach outweighed the reward. When their initial passing move failed to break a line and Posh got the press set in an effective shape, Oxford typically took one of two options: force a risky pass and try to play through the press or go back to the keeper who was, more often than not, forced to kick long. Playing long from the keeper is never going to be as effective as allowing the full backs or centre backs to play long from 30-40 yards higher up the pitch. The ball has to travel further, the opposition side has more time to set and it is much harder to turn opposition defences.
Indeed, after the game Robinson complained that Oxford played too much of the game in front of Posh and didn’t look to play in behind often enough. He clearly recognised, as others surely have, that Posh want sides to keep possession in front of them so that they can organise, press, turn the ball over and then punish sides with their pace in transitions.
Stats Not Pretty Reading for Oxford
The stats on this help to paint a clear picture. Oxford played just 61 of their 488 attempted passes long (12.5%), for contrast Posh played 75 of their 292 passes long (26%). Of the 61 passes Oxford played long only 20 (33%) of them were accurate, whereas Posh connected with 44% of their long passes.
Moreover, of the 60 long passes attempted, Eastwood played 15 of them, with just one finding their target. This means that of the 46 long passes played by outfield players, a respectable 41% were accurate, again demonstrating how much more effective playing long from more advanced positions was.
Part of the issue also stemmed from Posh’s dominance in the air. Posh’s back 5 (including subs) won 71% of their aerial duels. Another indication that using Eastwood to punt long for a 50/50, rather than playing more accurate passes to chest/feet or in behind the Posh defence, was not an effective ploy.
Given the pace of the game and traps both sides were setting in the press, regularly turning the defence or quickly playing into the forward line was essential. Not only would it allow the side in possession to build their attacks from advanced areas, it would also make the opposition think twice about committing so many men into the press, potentially buying a bit more time and space to play in the defensive and midfield thirds.
When Oxford attempted to play through Posh’s press they regularly gave the ball away in dangerous areas of the pitch through individual errors, both in terms of execution and decision making. High turnovers, and Posh’s ability to transition at speed, was the source of Posh’s first goal:
As Brannagan controls the ball he is quickly pressed by Taylor. If he plays quickly, he might be able to work the near side, where Oxford have a 3v3, with the pass highlighted by the red line. However, he decides to step over the ball and turn back to face his own goal, presumably he was unaware of the picture behind him.
As he turns back, Posh are covering the passing lines to all three nearest players. In reality his only option is to play a long ball back to Eastwood and reset play. Instead, he attempts a near suicidal split pass to Dickie through a gap which was never on. Toney intercepts, plays to an underlapping Szmodics, who releases Dembele 1v1 with the keeper to score.
As well as acknowledging the quite frankly ridiculous pass choice by Brannagan, it’s also important to note the positioning of Posh’s two attackers. Toney and Dembele always looked to position themselves between two defenders when pressing. Not only does this allow one pressing player to influence two opposition players, it also left them, in this case Dembele, in prime position to receive a split pass/through ball in transition. In the above picture, Dembele’s position between two defenders ensures neither can cover his run as Posh transition.
Next, the third Posh goal came from a free kick. However, the passages of play which lead to that free kick make fairly ugly viewing from an Oxford perspective:
With Posh down to 10 men they have converted to a 3-4-1-1/3-5-1 formation. They are not able to press with anywhere near the same intensity of effectiveness, and while Knight and Toney are applying pressure to the ball, Oxford have a simple switch and plenty of space in midfield to exploit (show in red). The actual pass (white) however is sloppy, it trickles all the way back to Eastwood. Eastwood, is forced to clear long first time as the pace of the pass allows Toney to apply pressure. Although Bennett wins the first header Oxford regain comfortable possession on the half way line.
Now Posh, having just committed Toney and Szmodics to a press on the keeper are disorganised. I know what you’re thinking, surely he has to break a line by playing a split pass into Henry (red), which will release Henry in behind the Posh midfield to run at the defence. Well you’re wrong, Kelly instead over-hits a pass to left back Ruffels (white), his pass puts Ruffels tight against the touchline. To compound matters Ruffels then takes a heavy touch, allowing Ward to nip in and clear long, Toney outmuscles Mousinho, wins a free kick and Posh score. I mean, how preventable is that???
Now perhaps fatigue played a part in Oxford’s display, they did after all play 120 minutes against Premier League opposition on Tuesday, but at times their pass selection, execution and movement patterns left a lot to be desired. Posh pressed and defended incredibly well and in fairness both sides worked impressively hard off the ball especially in the midfield zones. However, I want to look at some alternative patterns Oxford could have employed to better combat Posh’s off the ball setup.
The first pattern I want to touch on is the channel ball in behind the Posh defence, which, as already mentioned, was used too infrequently by Oxford in the first half. I won’t go into too much detail as we’ve covered it above, but here’s a quick reminder of what it looked like:
Now, the second pattern is in response to Posh going man to man with Oxford in the midfield area. As mentioned Szmodics, Posh’s ‘10’, primarily followed Gorrin, Oxford’s ‘6’, while Posh’s two ‘8s’ Taylor and Brown, tracked Oxford’s ‘8s’ Brannagan and Henry.
While Posh’s approach made it difficult for Oxford to play from defence into midfield, it did present the opportunity for Oxford’s midfield three, especially Brannagan and Henry, to create spaces for passing lines direct into the Oxford front three. Look at the clip below, which shows the space available to play in between the Posh defensive and midfield.
Next, let’s look at the clip just before Oxford were forced to play long from their keeper. Both Henry and Brannagan are in central positions. Occasionally, one or both of them could have pulled deeper and wider. If Henry does this in the clip below, Taylor would likely have adjusted to go with him (although if he doesn’t Henry becomes a passing option himself). If Taylor does track Henry, then the pass into the space above becomes an option.
Now that the passing line has been created either one of the wingers (preferably Brown given his technical ability in tight spaces), or number ‘9’ Taylor (who’s just off screen), can move into position to receive the pass.
To be successful all these movements would have to happen quickly before Dembele, Szmodics and Toney got set to block such passes. It would have required quickly shifting the ball along the back four and sharp, purposeful movements from Henry and Brannagan. Nonetheless, it would have posed Posh a new and interesting problem by breaking two lines of their press in a single pass, something that Oxford rarely managed to do. An alternative visualisation of how this could be executed is provided below:
So, what can we see above? Kerrigan drops in between the two centre backs, this pulls Szmodics high out up the pitch (central of three advanced dots). Mousinho pulls wide to create a gap between himself and Toney so he has time and space to receive a pass. If Kerrigan has time he can fire the pass into the Posh half himself, however it is likely Mousinho will be the player with time to play it. Therefore, the player rotations are vital. As Kerrigan receives possession, LCM Brannagan needs to pull wide with left back Ruffels moving forwards to vacate that space.
With Ruffels having moved into an advanced position, Browne cuts inside to receive the split pass off Mousinho. Alternatively, Browne could tuck in slightly (between Beevers and RCB Thompson) with Taylor dropping into space to receive the pass.
Finally, Oxford could have looked to exploit the fullback to fullback switch of play. As we can see from the image below Posh left the furthest man, in this case Long, in acres of space. Moreover, when the ball side wing back pressed high, the opposite wing back stayed deep forming a back four with the three centre backs. This opened up the intriguing possibility of a big switch from full back to full back.
Provided the pass was well executed, and given the time and space on the opposite wing the margin for error is high, it would open up and host of options for Oxford in possession and pose an interesting challenge to Posh. First, does Butler break from his position to press Long? If he does, he leaves Posh 3v3 at the back and the ball into the channel behind the Posh defence becomes a distinct possibility. If he stays, then Long can carry the ball forward into space, most likely breaking Posh’s first line of defence and creating an opportunities for overloads down the right. The worst-case scenario is that Toney or Szmodics manage to track across in time. But even then, the amount of space Posh’s first pressing line would have to cover would likely mean that spaces are created to exploit, while the movement for the front three is both demoralising and tiring.
Therefore, we can see that Oxford could have utilised lateral, as well as vertical, long balls to help break or spread Posh’s press.
Other Key Tactical Takeaways
We have covered in detail what I believe to be one of the most pressing, pun intended, reasons Posh were able to dominate the game on Saturday. Therefore, in this section we will briefly cover some of the other key takeaways from the match.
1. Oxford fail to cover counter attack
Posh are one of the best counter-attacking sides in League One and have scored more goals (6) on the counter than any other side in League One. With this in mind it is vital to have a setup in possession to help prevent transitions and secure key areas of the pitch. The modern trend therefore is to have your deepest players set up in either a 3-2/2-3 (if leaving five men behind the ball) or 3-1/2-2 if leaving four men back.
This setup, partially popularised by Guardiola’s narrow full backs at Bayern Munich, has two key benefits. First, the narrowness of the sitting players ensures that the most dangerous area of the pitch, the middle, is protected, thus forcing opposition attacks wide away from goal. Second, having two lines of defence ensures that opposition players cannot travel large distances in transition unopposed.
The second, slightly underhand but arguably even more effective technique, is the tactical foul. While a player risks picking up a yellow card for this, although not always if done deep enough into opposition half or with enough disguise to look less blatant. The tactical foul is hugely effective as sides are most open and susceptible when transitioning from attack to defence, with the tactical foul buying time for that side to get back into their out of possession shape.
Oxford did not do a good job of stopping Posh’s fast paced transitions. Take the second goal as an example. Oxford have just lost possession deep inside Posh’s half. Kerrigan has the opportunity to tactically foul Taylor and stop the move at source. Given how innocuous the foul would like (seemingly a tussle for possession), he is highly unlikely to be booked. The foul becomes even more necessary as Kerrigan was Oxford’s deepest lying midfielder, meaning that if he is bypassed the back four are left exposed.
Instead though, Taylor is able to play a clever back heeled pass to brown. Who plays a ball into the path of Butler still inside his own half. Now Oxford have a problem. As Kerrigan has failed to cut the move off Oxford are now 4v4 with a marauding Butler.
Butler’s run started well inside his own half and he was allowed to carry the ball a near 60 yards unopposed. Now for my money Long, circled, should have already stepped into engage Butler to force him wide, creating a 3-1 shape. Yes, Szmodics is breaking forwards ahead of Butler off screen to the left, but the sooner Oxford can force the play wide the better. Instead, they allow Butler to drive through the middle unopposed. If Long had pressed then Dickie can come across to engage Szmodics and continue to show him away from goal, while Mousinho and Ruffels can tuck across to cover Toney and Dembele. It’s not ideal, but it’s a better solution than simply backing off, and neither forcing the direction of play, getting pressure on the ball or actually covering the pass to Szmodics.
By the time Szmodics collects the ball he is unmarked inside the penalty area, as opposed to 50 yards from goal in the channel with Oxford having time to recover and try to force him wide. Szmodics’ is low ball is converted at the back post by Toney.
2. Posh Work Rate off The Ball
In characterising Posh’s winning run you could point to a number of factors. The change of shape has certainly made a huge difference. Szmodics, and especially Taylor and Brown, have increased the technical proficiency of the side. But the five relatively new additions to the XI (Thompson, Dembele, Szmodics, Taylor and Brown) all have one thing in common. Call it what you want but they have all added to Posh’s hunger, desire, commitment, effort, intensity and determination to both win the ball back and win football matches. The impact of this on performances has been huge.
3. Posh’s final Third Linkup Play
Until the turn of the year Posh’s ability to sustain attacks in the final third was poor, especially given the attacking talent at their disposal. While Toney was still the focal point of most attacks, and did a fine job of unsettling defenders and holding the ball up, those around him often let him down. Maddison’s propensity to frequently go for the extraordinary, although occasionally leading to moments of magic, meant that Posh would regularly concede possession as soon as they entered the opposition half, rather than build and sustain attacks. Eisa is an outstanding finisher but his all-round game outside the box is poor, while Posh’s midfielders lacked guile and creativity in the final third.
Now though, those around Toney have the necessary qualities to allow Posh to maintain pressure in the final third. Dembele is strong on the and has the skill and dribbling prowess to create space when it does not appear to exist. Szmodics is a willing team player, who’s pace and movement on and off the ball creates opportunities for himself and others. Finally, in Taylor and Brown Posh have players who bring creativity and comfort on the ball in the final third. This is now a very different, and much improve, Posh outfit.
4. Marcus Browne Conundrum Browne has now started three league matches for Oxford since his return to Oxford on loan. The issue appears to be that he has started each of those games in a different position (LW, CM, CF). Browne is a player of undoubted quality and looked Oxford’s most dangerous threat on Saturday, however Oxford need to find a way to get the best out of him. One suspects that his most effective role would be as a free roaming ’10’ (think Maddison for Posh this season), although this would not fit Oxford’s current 4-3-3. Finding a position/system to get the best out Browne could be key to their chances of promotion this season