A number of Scottish football clubs have enjoyed superbly, constructive transfer windows this summer. Rangers…
Aberdeen entered their ‘Battle of Britain’ Europa League qualifier with Burnley as heavy underdogs, but they began the tie strongly, earning a deserved 1-1 draw at Pittodrie in the first leg on Thursday night. Despite question marks over their recent recruitment or lack thereof, Derek McInnes’ side executed their tactical plan well to secure a positive result against English Premier League opposition with a much larger budget.
McInnes lined his side up in a 4-5-1 shape, with three summer signings starting. Dominic Ball, who has returned for another loan spell, played in midfield alongside 18-year-old Lewis Ferguson, who joined from Hamilton Academical. Meanwhile, Tommie Hoban, whose arrival was only announced the day before, started on the left-hand side of the back four. In addition, Michael Devlin made his competitive debut for the club after a long spell out with injury last term.
As for Burnley, they lined up in their customary 4-5-1 shape, with Jeff Hendrick linking midfield to lone striker Chris Wood. Sean Dyche opted for Aaron Lennon on the right wing and Johann Berg Gudmundsson on the left, while three England internationals – Nick Pope, James Tarkowski, and Jack Cork – were present in what was a strong starting XI.
Aberdeen defended in a medium 4-5-1 block with intense man-orientated pressing and man-marking. Their setup meant they were able to go man-to-man with Burnley’s central trio of Cork, Hendrick and Ashley Westwood, making it difficult for their opposition to build possession through the centre of the pitch. In terms of coverage and pressing, the tendency was for Graeme Shinnie to focus on Cork and Ferguson to focus on Westwood. That left Ball to deal with Hendrick, who generally took up a slightly more advanced position.
By man-marking their opposite men, Aberdeen’s midfield trio had immediate access for pressing should their opponent of focus receive the ball. In the above example, Shinnie presses Cork, who is in possession, while Ferguson and Ball keep a close distance between them and their opposite men, meaning they can instantly press them if necessary.
Burnley were able to establish possession fairly comfortably through their 2v1 at the back – two centre-backs up against Aberdeen’s lone striker Sam Cosgrove – but the intensity of Aberdeen’s coverage and pressing in the middle third meant Burnley’s midfielders had little to no time on the ball if and when they received it. This reduced their scope of passing – either they received with their back to goal and had no room to turn and progress play, or they had an Aberdeen player directly in front of them threatening to intercept if they did attempt to pass forwards.
Burnley have a reputation for long ball football, though this tag didn’t appear accurate for most of this match. Rather than go back to front consistently, they often tried to play gradually through the thirds. And, while Aberdeen’s defensive approach made life difficult for them, they did do a lot of good things to try and rid themselves of the home side’s man-to-man defence.
One issue was that the centre-back duo of Tarkowski and Ben Mee didn’t take full advantage of their numerical superiority in the build-up. With one of them constantly free, they should have been aiming to drive at the Aberdeen block with the ball at feet to try and provoke pressure and create space further up the pitch for their more advanced teammates. However, neither player was particularly astute on the ball, so Aberdeen didn’t feel an urgent need to press them and sacrifice their man-orientated coverage elsewhere.
What Burnley did do well was to use certain movements to try and create attacking opportunities further up the pitch. The wingers and full-backs were particularly influential in this regard, interacting through opposite movements to try and create space for one another. An example of this – albeit not involving the wingers – is seen below, where Hendrick drops deep and, simultaneously, left-back Stephen Ward moves in the opposite direction to attack the space vacated by Hendrick’s marker.
On the right-hand side, right-back Matthew Lowton regularly drove inside off the ball to isolate Lennon in a 1v1 situation against his opposite man. In these situations, where there was space to exploit, Lennon’s pace and dribbling gave him a huge advantage over his marker.
Another method Burnley used to exploit Aberdeen’s defensive strategy was to have their wingers vacate their positions completely, drifting towards the other side of the field in search of space. While the Aberdeen full-backs stayed with Gudmundsson and Lennon initially, they couldn’t maintain this in the second half. As a result, situations like the one seen below occurred more frequently. Here, Gudmundsson has moved infield and freed himself from Logan’s man-marking, finding lots of time on the ball to dribble forward or pick out a pass.
One downside of Aberdeen’s man-orientated defensive plan was that it was highly reactive. Burnley often looked to take advantage of this, exploiting the simple fact that they knew where they were moving before their markers did. Occasionally, this caused problems for McInnes’ men, but the sheer number of players they had in central areas meant the movement of Burnley’s wide players rarely led to obvious scoring chances.
In possession, Aberdeen looked to minimise risk by getting the ball to their full-backs and going long down the flanks or into the inside channels. By doing this they avoided playing into Burnley’s press, which – as teams such as Manchester City found out last season – is both aggressive and effective.
Aberdeen’s direct approach not only reduced the chances of giving the ball away deep in their own territory but looked to turn the Burnley defence and force them to clear for a throw-in inside their own half. Alternatively, they would break the visitors’ back line and get on the end of the long ball, or they would challenge in the air with the ultimate aim being to secure the second ball. They often had good support around the aerial challenger for the second balls, as seen below.
Here, Ferguson goes up to challenge in the air. While he does so, Cosgrove, Shinnie and Niall McGinn all push inside or up to support him. Even if Ferguson loses this particular tussle, the fact that there are three teammates in close proximity increases Aberdeen’s chances of winning the second ball. Another benefit of this is that, even if Aberdeen don’t win the second ball and lose possession, they have plenty of players around the ball to counter-press immediately.
From there, the attacking approach was fairly simple, and involved the wingers – McGinn and Gary Mackay-Steven on the left and right respectively – attacking their flanks and providing crosses or cut-backs for teammates attacking the Burnley penalty area. Aberdeen often got good numbers in the box to increase their chances of winning a header off a cross, while Shinnie would position himself on the edge of the box with the intention of shooting should the ball break to him.
Ultimately, Aberdeen’s only goal of the game came from a cross. Cosgrove won a penalty, going down after attempting to get on the end of a ball in from the right-hand side. Mackay-Steven stepped up to convert.
Unable to penetrate Aberdeen when building possession patiently down the wings and through the thirds, Burnley decided to change their attacking strategy with around 20 minutes left. Introducing a second target man in Sam Vokes for Hendrick, they opted for a more direct method, bypassing midfield entirely and going from back to front more often in order to utilise the twin aerial threat of Vokes and Wood.
Aberdeen were defending in a low block by this point in the match, but McInnes chose to further bolster the central defensive area by switching to a 5-4-1 defensive shape to counteract Burnley’s change of system and style. Hoban tucked inside to form a central three with Devlin and Scott McKenna, while – with Hendrick off and one less Burnley midfielder to mark – Shinnie was moved to left wing-back. The back five is seen in the above graphic.
The new shape meant that one of Hoban, McKenna and Devlin could challenge in the air with Vokes or Wood safe in the knowledge that they had two teammates covering the other Burnley striker. However, the numerical superiority Aberdeen had in this area was not enough to prevent an equaliser, with Vokes firing home in the 80th minute.
Aberdeen may not have won the game, but they can take great heart from the way they played against English Premier League opposition. They now go into the second leg at Turf Moor knowing not only that one goal can tilt the tie firmly in their favour, but that they absolutely have what it takes to compete.