John Coleman was initially appointed as Accrington Stanley FC manager in 1999 when the club were in the Northern Premier League First Division (The 7th tier of the English football pyramid). Following three consecutive promotions that saw the club enter the Football League for the first time in their history in 2006, Coleman left in 2012. However, two years later Coleman was re-appointed, achieving promotion into League One in 2017–18 season.
Despite operating on one of the smallest budgets in League One, Accrington Stanley have started the 21/22 season with four wins in their opening six matches (as of the time of writing), building on their good campaign last season which saw them in the mix for the play-offs until the final few weeks of the season (eventually finishing 11th).
Throughout this article I will take a look at some of the aspects of Accrington’s simple yet incredibly effective approach that is seeing them massively outperform their budgetary and financial constraints.
*Any statistics used in this article are off a very small sample size of just five games, however have been included to supplement any observations made and not to draw conclusions from.
- Lineup and shape
- Direct possession game
- Charles and Bishop
- Overlapping centre-backs and narrow wing-backs
- Box presence
- Aggressive pressing
- Man-marking system
- Defensive transitions and man-man weaknesses
The Lineup and shape
John Coleman almost solely uses a 532/352 shape, and his most common lineup seen this season is shown below:
The experienced Michael Nottingham sits at the heart of the Stanley defence, taking up the role of veteran Mark Hughes who departed for Bristol Rovers in the transfer window. Despite lacking athleticism Nottingham is physically imposing and defends his penalty box well. Ross Sykes and Harvey Rodgers play on the right and left side of the back three respectively; Rodgers is the quicker of the three (played as a wing-back previously) and is comfortable when dragged wide to defend, whereas Sykes is less agile and struggles more when isolated, however he is a good front-foot defender and supports attacks well. All three (especially Sykes) carry a massive threat from offensive set pieces.
In midfield, Northern Irish midfielder David Morgan sits at the base of the midfield triangle and is the most comfortable of the three in possession. He also lacks athleticism but screens well and is disciplined in his role. Matt Butcher is an all-action midfielder who is given freedom to support attacks by getting into the box. Similarly, summer signing Harry Pell from Colchester United is an incredibly imposing and physical presence standing at 6"3 who is also given freedom to attack the box, however he is slightly more withdrawn than Butcher and more frequently offers defensive support down the right. Neither Pell or Butcher are high volume passers however they are both really disciplined in carrying out their defensive tasks within Coleman’s setup (covered later in the article).
So much of Accrington’s success however is down to the strike partnership between Colby Bishop and Dion Charles. Charles and Bishop were signed from National League North sides Southport and Leamington United respectively in the summer window of 2019, and in little over a year have developed one of the best partnerships in the entire division, playing a combined 7775 minutes in the 20/21 season.
John Coleman clearly likes to use a more settled starting eleven and looks to have done a really good job in phasing in players such as Sykes and Morgan who played more limited roles in the previous season, however look to be integral parts of the starting eleven this year.
Direct possession game
Accrington are not a side who look to play through the thirds, and instead use a number of well-rehearsed patterns and pass types to enter the opposition third and gain territory high up the pitch.
One pattern that has been so well drilled is a direct pass into the forwards from the wing-backs, especially from the right-footed left wingback McConville. It is extremely common to see McConville use the favourable angles he has as a right footer on the left flank to wrap a ball into the Stanley strikers who are already pinning the centre-back and ready to lay-off into supporting players or to the other striker (left clip).
As the below graph shows, Accrington are one of the most efficient sides in the league at turning their possession into shots, generating a shot for just under every 25 passes they make. This ranks them 4th in the division in this metric, and highlights the effectiveness of some of the patterns Coleman has implemented and directness of their approach.
Charles and Bishop
So much of Stanley’s direct possession game is centred around Dion Charles and Colby Bishop, who are also genuinely one of the most enjoyable duo’s to watch in the English Football League. They are a ‘throwback’ partnership of sorts, with Bishop the old-fashioned physical target-man profile the perfect foil for the live-wire Charles who is always moving into the channels or lurking on the shoulder of defenders.
Bishop himself is remarkably good at pinning opposition centre-backs and winning first balls. One primary method by which Stanley win possession high up the pitch is via a long goal kick from Trafford out towards the left, where Bishop is constantly able to pin his man and play the first ball down to McConville.
Matt Butcher’s goal opening goal against Cambridge came from such a situation:
Bishop’s brilliant back to goal ability importantly pulls centre-backs out of their slot, which is where Charles will be seen lurking on the last line and shoulder of the defenders looking to get in behind. Bishop and Charles’ combinations are quick and sharp, and typically involves a first-time flick from Bishop into Charles running beyond the defensive line.
As with any pressing system, the first line of pressure is also vital in directing the opposition towards areas where turnovers will be forced. Both Bishop and Charles are excellent in this regard, with their body positioning and pressing angles often forcing defenders to play into these “press zones” (covered later in the article). Charles especially is terrier-like in his defensive work.
Overlapping centre-backs and narrow wing-backs
Stanley’s centre-backs and wingbacks also have really interesting roles in possession. An interesting dynamic down their right is when centre-back Sykes pushes on, in a very similar way to Sheffield United’s centre-backs under Chris Wilder, to overload the opposition down the sides (Pell or Morgan often drop in to cover). Despite his large presence Sykes is a good crosser of the ball, which is a big weapon for Accrington considering their large box presence. Sykes pushing forward also triggers Pritchard to move infield and gives them an option between the lines to progress the ball into.
Pritchard especially is given freedom to drift far infield and look to support and combine with the front two. His goal against Doncaster came from receiving a ball on the half-turn in a central position between the lines.
The below clip is a good example of the dynamic down their right hand side; Pell drops into a right-back position, Sykes pushes on and the right wing-back moves inside into a position to receive between the lines:
On second ball situations, both wing-backs also often drift infield to provide further support for knockdowns. Here, Pritchard (LWB in this match) comes infield to look to pick up the second ball alongside Butcher and Charles.
One primary method of Accrington’s shot creation is by getting numbers in the box on crossing situations. Both Bishop and Charles, the far-side wingback and one/both of Pell and Butcher can be seen attacking the box. Due to Accrington’s tendency to build on the left initially with longer balls towards Bishop, McConville can also often be seen swinging in a cross towards the back-post where the far-side wingback Pritchard will be attacking.
Bishop’s complete dominance in winning the first ball directed towards the left also means McConville is the usual recipient of these flick-ons. This likelihood of winning the first ball also means that the midfield can really squeeze the surrounding space knowing they that they can win the second ball if the centre-back can’t get a clean contact (unlikely vs. Bishop) and be in a higher position to attack the box from.
When McConville receives, therefore, there is less distance to travel to attack his in-swinging cross from the left (Pell in the below example).
When the ball is over on the right, Bishop will usually drift towards the back-post or isolate himself against the right-back/right centre-back (circled below) where he can direct knockdowns to onrushing midfielders, or simply block the right-back and allow McConville to attack the far post unopposed.
Although it is difficult to see the set-piece setup of Accrington due to the camera angle for most matches, generally Charles will stand on the goalkeepers toes, Rodgers will hover around the six yard box, whilst Bishop, Pell, Sykes and Nottingham will attack the corner from around the back-post area:
Last season, Accrington ranked joint 3rd in the league in set-piece goals, showing how strong they are in this department.
Ball recovery: aggressive pressing
Off the ball, Accrington are just as impressive as they are on it. They are willing to press sides high from goal kicks, and utilise clear triggers on when to press across the pitch.
From goal kicks, Bishop and Charles will look to force opposition centre-backs into either long balls or passes into their near full-back. The pass into the full-backs acts as a trigger for McConville and Pritchard to jump out and force the full-backs into a long ball. In such situations the man-man approach in midfield makes it difficult for sides to play out through the middle, and forcing long balls is bread and butter for the towering Rodgers, Norrington and Sykes at the back.
Accrington’s PPDA numbers reflect their aggressive pressing, allowing just over 8.5 passes per defensive action (the 3rd best in the division behind Wimbledon and Shrewsbury).
When opposition sides are able to establish more settled possession, Accrington’s approach again makes it incredibly difficult to get any sort of separation in central areas due to their aggressive man-oriented system.
This system starts with Bishop and Charles, who are vary the positioning of their body depending on the situation.
Often, they will position themselves in the passing lane between full-back and centre-back, looking to funnel play towards the centre where the three midfielders and three centre-backs will be man-man with their respective opponent. The aforementioned difficulty in finding separation against such approaches, combined with Stanley’s physical superiority in these areas, means they are often able to force turnovers which lead to dangerous transition situations.
Similarly, as aforementioned their strikers also sometimes force centre-backs towards the wings, which again acts as a trigger for the wingbacks to press against the touchline and force the full-back into a long ball.
When the ball is played wide, the pressing striker cuts the pass back to the centre-back, and Accrington’s man-marking in the middle means that a pass infield usually isn’t on.
When Accrington are forced into more of a mid-block or are in defensive transition, these man-orientations still apply to plug gaps in the defensive line if a defender is dragged wide. David Morgan as the base of the midfield does a really good job at this, despite slightly lacking athleticism, as he is incredibly disciplined in his tracking of runners to fill these holes.
Interestingly, unlike in most back-five systems where the wing-back sinks back into the defensive line, Accrington’s man-orientations apply to their wing-backs even when the ball is on the far side. They both keep a very close proximity to their opposition full-back which means they can sometimes be seen holding very narrow and (relatively) high positions on the far side.
The benefit of this, however, is that upon turnovers they are in a position to immediately attack space down the channel, and Accrington exploit this well with long accurate switches when the opposition is still out of balance.
Weaknesses: Defensive transitions and man-marking
However, when Accrington’s initial pressure is bypassed, the lack of athleticism in their defensive line is often exposed. The aggressive positioning of the wing-backs especially means that the three centre-backs can be dragged towards the touchline, which is not a good situation considering their lack of agility and turn of pace on turnover situations where there are big spaces to exploit:
Also, the man-marking system Accrington implement creates two separate issues. Firstly, the centre-backs are instructed to follow their respective attacker closely and the midfielders are responsible for tracking any runners into these vacated spaces. If a midfielder does not do this job properly (Pritchard in this example), then there are huge gaps to be exploited behind and down the sides of Nottingham:
Second, in more settled possession opponents can exploit and manipulate man-marking systems with specific patterns of play or spacing. This means that it is sometimes very easy to progress the ball straight into the last line:
Accrington actually allow a shot once every 29 passes opposition sides make, the third lowest (worst) ranking in League One. This, alongside their high PPDA numbers, indicates that when teams can get through the initial pressure or play through Accrington, you can generate shots with a relatively high frequency.
I always find it interesting to analyse sides who operate on tight budgets who have to maximise the lesser relative quality of their players in comparison to other, more financially powerful sides. Accrington Stanley are a perfect example of this, with John Coleman implementing a style of play that is perfectly suited to their player profiles and individual qualities. Through a combination of well rehearsed and clear patterns of play, a brilliant strike partnership, overlapping centre-backs and an aggressive pressing approach, Stanley’s strong start to the season is no surprise, and hopefully they can avoid falling away towards the end of the season like last year and sustain a play-off push.