Cheltenham Town hosted MK Dons over the weekend (04/09/2021) for their Sky Bet League One 1-1 draw, which, a home game, was certainly welcomed considering Cheltenham Town have been on the road for their last four fixtures. Albeit, the visitors (MK Dons) proved to be a difficult test for Michael Duff's men, and Cheltenham Town missed key players whilst a debut was handed out to Kyle Joseph, one of the two deadline-day signings, and managed to score an impressive debut goal.
Though there is certainly room for improvements, Cheltenham Town haven't been off to a bad start in the Sky Bet League One 2021-22 campaign so far, considering the Robins are newly promoted, collecting 6 points from their opening six games (1W 3D 2L). They have conceded the joint-most in the league with ten, so the defensive unit will need to improve throughout the season, but if the defensive performance in this game is anything to go by, the were positives to take away. Nevertheless, despite the defensive concerns, they have scored an impressive eight goals, with only four teams scoring more.
Today's tactical analysis will focus on Cheltenham's tactical approach to this game and how they managed to shut out the possession-based side to earn a decent draw.
Cheltenham lined up against MK Dons in a 3-1-4-2 or, simply put, 3-5-2. But as Elliot Chapman did much dropping to receive and held his position in central midfield throughout the game, the shape often resembled a 3-1-4-2 when in possession and 5-1-2-2 when the Robins had lengthy spells without the ball. MK Dons had 73% of the possession, so we often saw Cheltenham Town in their 5-1-2-2 shape.
Cheltenham Town were without central defender Charlie Raglan, summer signing Kyle Vassell, and deadline-day signing Christian Norton all through injury, but we can also note that MK Dons were missing Mo Eisa (ex-Cheltenham striker), who proved to be a big miss for The Dons. They, too, lined up with three at the back but with what looked more like a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 depending on the match situation.
When Talyor Perry came on for Alie May around the 57th-minute mark, Cheltenham's shape starting to shift slightly into more of a 5-4-1 as MK Dons got hold of the game and put Cheltenham Town under immense pressure.
Cancelling MK Don's out
Cheltenham Town's defensive organisation made it difficult for MK Dons to create scoring chances as it was tight and compact, leaving little room for The Dons to manoeuvre in areas they could be effective. As touched on already, they defended in a 5-1-2-2 shape when MK Dons had the ball for lengthy spells, as both wing-backs Blair and Hussey dropped back and positioned themselves on the same line as the central defenders. This, of course, left plenty of space out on the flanks for MK Dons, but Cheltenham were happy to concede those areas as when MK Dons played it out to the flank, the ball-wide central midfield will engage the man on the ball as the rest of Cheltenham's midfield, and defence, carefully shift over keeping a close distance between each other.
Cheltenham defensive shape demostration
Cheltenham's defensive shape. Flat 5 at the back, 3 central midfielders with one slightly positioned deeper and 2 forwards.
Michael Duff's side were happy to allow The Dons to play to the wider areas whilst making it difficult for them to find any passing routes to the middle of the park. Moreover, this approach forced MK Dons to play many backward passes (123 backwards passes completed/131 attempted), almost as many forward passes completed (142 forward passes completed/187 attempted). However, at times, their block was breached due to the intelligent movement by the MK Dons attackers and the passing ability that both Lewington and Harvie possess.
MK Dons forward pass links
MK Dons back pass links
When looking at MK Dons forward passing links, we can see how heavily The Dons were trying to progress down the wider areas and attempted to create passing triangles to overload and beat Cheltenham's wide press, but as we can see with their back pass links, this is also an area where they played a majority of their back passes. So though the wider spaces are where MK Dons tried to progress, it is an area where Cheltenham defended well.
As a result, Cheltenham's wing-backs and wider central midfielders worked tirelessly, preventing The Dons from progressing and completed the most defensive duels for The Robins. The defensive duels map (below) also indicates that Cheltenham pressed more intensely in those wider areas.
There were plenty of positives to take away, but it was not a perfect defensive performance. As the game wore on, tired legs started to play a role, and though Chletnham operated mostly in a low-mid block, the defence line kept dropping deeper to the point of camping at the edge of their box. This gave more time and space for technical players like Ethan Robson on the ball to pick out passes, which happened for MK Dons late equaliser.
Cheltenham's defence line and line of engagement dropped, which afford the impressive Ethan Robson more time to pick a pass out wide. Harvie whipped a cross low and hard for Boateng to equalise for The Dons. After this goal had gone in, William Boyle visibly suffered from a cramp, indicating the Cheltenham defensive unit's hard work, especially during the second half.
The Robins in Possession
Cheltenham Town, during their approach play, varied between kicking it long and playing it shortly. On the occasions they did try to play out from the back, the wing-backs would go high and wide whilst Ellis Chapman would drop deep to collect and form a 3+1 shape as MK Dons looked to engage with their front three so in an attempt to have an extra man, Chapman would drop deep and even at times, as deep in between the defenders. Cheltenham's midfield also was staggered in an attempt to create space between the vertical channels as the two wide central midfielders positioned themselves in both half-spaces, and one would look to drop to help with the build-up phase. As MK Dons were tight, whenever one of the wide central midfielders drop it all pulled an MK Dons midfielder with him.
In the gallery below, we can see examples of both Cheltenham's 3+1 shape vs MK Dons three attackers as they looked to play out from the back and also an example where one of Cheltenham's wide central midfielders, Liam Sercombe, in this case, dropping to help play out from the back as well as dragging an MK Dons midfielder with him. This created space for one of the strikers to drop into the free space.
Moreover, building from the back is how Cheltenham Town scored the opening goal of the game. The central defenders worked the ball out wide to the right wing-back but what was different in this build-up pattern of play was that instead of Wright dropping deep from midfield to collect the ball, he instead made a run into the channel whilst Kyle Jospeh dropped to receive the ball from the wing-back. With Wright sprinting towards The Dons' defence, this forced them to drop deeper and created the space for Kyle Joseph to collect the ball and turn between MK Dons central defenders and midfield lines before beginning to carry the ball towards goal and drive one home.
Otherwise, Cheltenham were very direct with their passing, getting the ball forward and as quickly as possible, which resulted in them using longer-range passes looking for their new signing Kyle Joseph, who was in a physical battle with Harry Darling throughout the game or out the flanks, using the wing-backs as an outlet. At times, this allowed Cheltenham to advance up the pitch with just one pass, and Joseph did not have to win the physical battle at all times. The pressure was enough to give the defence slight problems. When looking for Joseph, Cheltenham's surrounding players would then look to recover the ball or pick up the second ball if MK Dons won the first and because the longer-passes were directed out to the wider areas, if Joseph failed to win the first ball and The Dons recovered the ball, then Cheltenham would press and engage in a defensive duel high and wide (defensive duel map shown earlier in analysis).
Cheltenham's passing links (above) and their forward passing links (below)
In-game images of Kyle Joseph in physical battles with Harry Darling. Note how Joseph doesn't attempt to win the ball in the air but looks to apply pressure by using his back towards goal and applying pressure.
Lastly and possibly the most intriguing movement I noticed from Cheltenham Town was by the young central-defender Lewis Freestone (21), who played on the left side of the back three for Cheltenham Town. If Hussey got further forward, then Freestone could cover in at left-back, which would come as no surprise considering Lewis Freestone is a natural left-back. He was aggressive in his defensive duels, often leaving his defensive line to engage in a duel but his movements off-the-ball whilst Cheltenham were in longer spells of possession is what caught the eye.
Though this did not happen on many occasions against MK Dons, when I noticed this, I had a look back at the previous game that featured Freestone as the left-sided defender in a back three, and it was clear that looking for the underlap was intentional. When Cheltenham had the ball (for longer spells) and got the ball out wide to the left flank, Lewis Freestone would then underlap the left-wing back to offer an option out wide on the flank. This overloads the defender who was 1v1 with the left wing-back and gives the wing-back more time on the ball as the defender does not want to commit and lose sight of the underlapping defender. Below are two in-game examples of Freestone looking for the underlap.
Cheltenham started the game very well, you could say they were in control for the opening 20 minutes and were rewarded with their goal, but after they took the lead, MK Dons grew into the game and saw a lot of the ball. With Cheltenham only having 23% of the possession, they had to work very hard off the ball, concentrate, and remain tight, which I felt they did well in limiting MK Dons' goal-scoring chances until Hiram Boateng's equaliser in the 87th minute.
This result was probably fair but with the spirit and fight The Robins put on display certainly will give some gans belief Cheltenham Town will stay up in the Sky Bet League One following their recent promotion.
Another positive to take away was the debut performance from Kyle Joseph, who put in a shift and remained busy keeping MK Dons defenders on their toes constantly throughout the match. I predict Cheltenham will have enough to stay up with Charlie Raglan and Kyle Vessell to return too.
That wraps this tactical analysis, I hope you have enjoyed it. Please consider supporting the site @ Patreon or via Donation button (at the top right of the site) only if you wish! It's most important that you have enjoyed this article. Thank you for reading and speak to you soon.