Bournemouth is on a difficult year now facing relegation only positioned above Aston Villa and Norwich City. Eddie Howe was the manager in charge of promoting the Cherries for the first time in history five years ago, but further improvements need to be made if they want to stay one more year in the Premier League.
In this scout report, we are going to do a deep tactical analysis of one major aspect they need to improve: their defensive style. This analysis will show the tactics used by the cherries when defending, mainly based on low block compactness. Some weaknesses of this style will be shown in their game against Chelsea conceding goals from the wide areas. Also, other strategies used by the Cherries’ defensive style as “fronting” will be analyzed and will be shown how this could allow teams as Liverpool to easily create scoring chances when space and time are given in the middle third.
Low-block Compactness with a sweeper
No matter the initial formation used by Howe, which could vary from 4-4-1-1 to 4-4-2 or even 4-3-3, they always keep the same out of possession formation, a 4-1-4-1 playing with a sweeper centrally in the midfield line maintaining the team even more compact. Jefferson Lerma is commonly the one used on this sweeper position as it is shown in the next picture covering the midfield line
Even though the Cherries based their defensive style on low block compactness, sometimes when rivals re-start from their goal-kick they would position high in the pitch to try to force a long ball. This high positioning on the pitch is relatively passive when rivals intend to play the ball; the main strategy of the team is to return to their low-block. In the next picture, we can see this starting position against Chelsea, once the ball is progressed they quickly position in their compact block.
The main benefit of using this defensive compactness is the spatial control of the central area, which tends to be the most dangerous area of the game. The Cherries gain a spatial control in this critical area of the pitch by using a five-line man, with the correct distance between each to keep control of the area. In the next picture, we can see that the distance between all the midfield line is similar to cover all the central area, preventing any penetration.
When rivals proceed to the final third this compactness becomes even narrower and shorter. In the next picture, we can see cherries defensive compactness in both dimensions, keeping the whole team within the width of the box and in a short vertical distance when Liverpool is in possession in the final third.
The sweeper role is to give extra coverage to the midfield line and to position itself in the pockets between the defensive and midfield line to reduce penetrating passes behind the midfield line. In the next picture, we can see the gap between the two lines being covered by Lerma, adding a layer to the defensive compactness.
Also, the role of the sweeper is to man-mark the playmaker of the opposite team, generally number tens position on this advanced area behind the midfield. The role of the sweeper is man-marking this player, as we can see Lerma in the next picture, getting out of his position following Jack Grealish who is Aston Villa playmaker.
Man marking with “fronting”
Depending on who is in ball possession of the opposition, Howe uses two different strategies when defending on this low block. When opponents’ midfielders collect the ball in front of the midfield line the Cherries used a space-oriented man coverage. Whilst this kind of coverage is still under the threshold of man-marking, we can say that this one is a hybrid between man and zone coverage. The Cherries keep the compactness and at the same time press the opponent’s midfielders that enter into their coverage zone with the ball. In the next picture, we can see Lewis Cook pressing Mateo Kovačić as he collects the ball in Cooks’ coverage zone.
In the next picture, we can see the same defensive pattern on the game against Liverpool, again Cook in charge of pressing this time Georginio Wijnaldum as he tries to collect the ball in his coverage zone. Once the ball is bounced back Cook sits back returning to the low block, keeping it compact.
When opponent’s centre-backs are in possession, the Cherries use a defensive “fronting” strategy, more common in basketball to protect the passing lanes reducing the chances of the ball reaching an advanced position. In the next picture, we can see when Chelsea centre-back Fikayo Tomori is in ball possession, the midfield line and particularly Billing does not press and instead stay in front of the passing option keeping the compactness trying to intercept the pass.
The main idea of this tactic used by Howe’s team when defending is that instead of man-marking the midfield players and allowing them to receive the ball they mark the passing lane to prevent this player to get in ball possession and create scoring chances. In the next picture, we can see when Joe Gomez is in ball possession the midfield line stays compact not pressing the centre-back.
All compact defences and especially when they focus on gaining spatial control of the central areas suffer against teams that outperform isolating the weak-side and switching the play. In the next picture, we can see the Cherries positioned in the low block, overloading the ball-side, albeit Virgil van Dijk and James Milner are positioned on the weak-side ready to exploit it.
In the next picture, we can see a goal conceded against Chelsea in which they managed to take the ball out of the defensive overloaded area and play it to the wide player, in this case, wing-back Reece James, who had time and space to advance and send in a cross to score from.
The other weakness in the Cherries defensive style relies on their “fronting” strategy used when centre-backs collect the ball. If “fronting” is done from the middle third there is a huge space behind to cover so the opponents will find gaps between the lines not covered by the “fronting” middle line. This strategy has better outcomes when used in the final third as spaces between lines and behind the defensive line are smaller. In the next picture, we can see that Roberto Firmino positioned in an angle finds a passing lane not being cover and collect the ball in an advanced area.
Another weakness of the “fronting” strategy is that as the defense is focused on blocking passing lanes, they are not in direct contact with the rivals making it easier for the centre-backs to play comfortably. In the next picture, we can see how Gomez (not appear in the picture) with time and space managed to place a ball behind the defensive line.
We have gone through a deep analysis of the defensive style used by the Cherries, which relies on defensive compactness using a space-oriented man coverage. We also have shown that there are weaknesses that reduce the performance of this style and have impacted the team conceding goals.
The Cherries still are in a position to escape the relegation and stay one more year in the Premier League if these weaknesses are solved. Also, the defensive style is not the main detractor of their performance but this should be cover in a whole new article analyzing their style in other phases of the game.