Squad Profile and Statistical Overview
Wycombe have one of the more interesting squad profiles in the division, with their starting lineup on average and their squad overall the oldest in League One according to Transfermarkt.com. Manager Gareth Ainsworth generally likes to rely on older, more experienced players as opposed to youth, with Reading loanee Oliver Pendlebury and attacking midfielder Anis Mehmeti the only two U21 players who have featured with regularity this season. Wycombe were also once again shrewd with their summer business, picking up veteran Sam Vokes in one of the deals of the summer to replace the departing Uche Ikpeazu, ex-QPR and Sunderland midfielder Josh Scowen, and the versatile Sullay KaiKai, all on free transfers. The physical Brandon Hanlan also arrived from Bristol Rovers to bolster their forward options.
Wycombe’s most frequently used lineup this season has been the following:
Statistically, Wycombe are massive standouts. As is the topic covered in this article, a massive 29% of all of Wycombe’s passes are long passes, which is significantly higher than the league average:
However, this approach is clearly hugely efficient for Wycombe in relation to their shot creation, generating a shot for every 19 passes they make (placing them 2nd in the division behind Rotherham at the time of writing).
Remarkably, Wycombe have the second lowest average possession of any side in the division with 41%, however the fact they are able to get shots off at goal despite this indicates a hugely efficient and effective approach with the limited possession they do have:
This article therefore aims to detail some of the relatively simple but incredibly effective types of long balls and build-up patterns that Wycombe use to gain territory in the final third and consequently get off shots at goal.
By far the most common avenue Wycombe look to attack through is with a long diagonal ball from right centre-back Stewart into Vokes, who drifts towards the left side of the pitch (or onto the right centre-back of the opposition, circled red below).
Vokes drifting towards the far side is done with the intention of creating an overload on this side of the pitch, with Obita pushing onto the last line to create on the outside and Vokes’ strike partner creating the 3v2. Vokes will either look to knock the ball down for one of the supporting forwards:
Or flick it on towards Obita:
Throughout the following clips in this article you will see this pattern of play often used by Wycombe as a means to build a platform for high possession.
A massive weapon for Wycombe are Stockdale’s kicks, both from his hands and in goal kick situations. Stockdale’s kicks are both massive and accurate, which enables Wycombe to play long balls into Vokes without pressure.
Importantly, the kicks allow Wycombe time to get their support structure around Vokes who often comes towards the ball with the intention of getting a flick-on. The two-forwards and the near wing-back position themselves in close proximity but start to move when the ball is released by Stockdale.
By the time Vokes has flicked the ball on, the three supporting players are moving forward with momentum running beyond and pinning back the opposition backline, whilst Scowen and Thompson are also ready to pick up the second ball in case Vokes is unable to win the flick.
Moreso than on their left, Wycombe use a clear pattern of play down their right with the intention of getting a runner in behind the opposition backline. This usually involves a backwards pass followed by a first-time ball into the channel in behind, usually for McCleary or Scowen/Thompson in midfield.
This type of pattern is effective as a backwards pass is typically a trigger for a defensive line to step up, so a quick ball over the top can catch them napping if not fully concentrated.
Vital to Wycombe sustaining territory in these high areas of the pitch is the midfield pair Scowen and Thompson, who almost act as a recovery screen to pick up any 2nd balls or knockdowns.
It is quite incredible just how often they both seem to be perfectly positioned to pick up these loose balls and help Wycombe retain the ball in higher areas. Generally, they are positioned no further than 10 yards apart in their double pivot and hold a central position behind the front three.
Similarly, on turnovers of possession or for second balls which (rarely) bypass the defensive screen of the midfielders, the back three step out really aggressively during these moments, which again helps Wycombe use these long balls as a platform. The physicality and presence of Jacobson, Tafazolli and Stewart against opposition forward lines makes them really successful in their duels.
According to the WhoScored.com “Action Zones” statistics, 36% of action comes in the opposition third for Wycombe, the highest in the division. This highlights how successful these 2nd ball structures are in enabling them to gain territory in higher areas.
Another important route of attack Wycombe use is long diagonal balls out to the wing-backs, who as aforementioned position themselves aggressively and right on the last line of the opposition.
Both the outside centre-backs and the two midfielders can execute these switches really effectively and can drive the ball across the pitch with good speed and accuracy, which is important in creating 1v1 situations for Obita and McCarthy/Grimmer.
Stockdale also often targets the wingbacks with his kicks, as they are also both very dominant aerially:
This again therefore provides Wycombe another simple avenue to gain entry into the final third.
Gareth McCleary is vital to Wycombe’s game plan in possession in a number of different ways. McCleary’s best work firstly comes in the wider areas, despite his starting position being one of the split-strikers or #10 behind Vokes and his partner. McCleary often drifts towards the flanks for two main purposes:
- To make a run into the channel, typically the right channel as discussed in one of the previous sections. McCleary will often look to get into this space behind the opposition wing-back or full-back with the intention of isolating a defender where he can use his excellent 1v1 ability (as an ex-Premier League winger with Reading).
2. To combine with the near wing-back or work space for a cross. McCleary often creates these 2v1’s in wider areas once Wycombe have built a platform to attack off one of their long balls, and can use the presence/run of the wing-back to deliver an often quality ball into the two forwards or to cut inside and have a shot on goal.
One big feature of Wycombe when they get into crossing situations is their box presence. When the ball is on one side, both forwards will be positioned within the width of the six-yard box and the far-side wing-back will also attack the far post. Obita in particular carries a huge aerial threat in such situations.
Vokes, specifically, looks to pull away and align himself with the far post depending on what side the ball is on.
Similarly, Joe Jacobson offers massive quality on deliveries when he steps out from his centre-back slot.
The effectiveness of Wycombe’s crossing approach is highlighted in their key passing statistics, with 3.4 key passes per game coming through crosses into the penalty area. Similarly, 13% of their shots come in the 6 yard box (3rd highest in League One), indicating how consistently they deliver the ball into good areas.
Obviously, a huge part of Wycombe’s success in recent under Gareth Ainsworth has been their set-piece threat due to their massive aerial presence. This has been no different again this year, with their setup and delivery type varying depending on which side the corner is taken from. As aforementioned, Joe Jacobson offers huge value with his left-footed deliveries.
From the right, Jacobson will whip in an in-swinger right on top of the opposition goalkeeper. Wycombe will look to crowd the the six yard box with bodies with the intention of getting the first contact. Generally, three players are positioned at the front, back and middle of the six-yard box (blue circle) with another pinning the goalkeeper (red); another will hover around the penalty spot (white) and two will be on the edge of the 18-yard box for any 2nd balls.
From the left, again Jacobson will typically be the one who delivers, however this time a more driven ball with backspin is put into the box. The setup typically mirrors that of the in-swingers (albeit less crowded around the goalkeeper):
Wycombe have so far scored 9 goals from set-pieces (joint-3rd in League One), which is testament to the threat they carry in relation to both their height and presence but also the quality of delivery from Jacobson from free-kick and corner situations.
The final part of the Wycombe arsenal covered in this piece are their long throw-ins, which aren’t just limited to the opposition third.
Part of their strategy for maintaining pressure on the opposition upon gaining territory in the opposition third is to utilise long throws into the box, with their typical setup detailed below:
These throws generate dangerous first and second ball situations for opposing sides, and again their second ball structure means they can build attacks off them, quickly switching the ball out to a wing-back or putting in a cross for example when their box presence is still high.
Another interesting part of Wycombe’s use of long throws is how heavily they compress the pitch on throw-ins down the sides.
They get a huge number of bodies around the ball, with the setup for long throws down the touchline involve Vokes dropping for the flick and the second striker pinning the defender behind.
The third forward generally takes up a more central position during these throw in situations, with the general plan perfectly summarised in the below clip with McCleary positioned infield and to the right of Hanlon (18):
Through a combination of a highly specific approach to recruitment, a simple yet incredibly effective model of play, and experienced, high quality players to execute this game-plan, Gareth Ainsworth is continuing to work miracles at Wycombe. It is once again really enjoyable to watch how these types of sides maximise the qualities of the players they have and create advantages all over the pitch, despite any budgetary and financial constraints they are under.