Analysis: Gloucester’s attacking playbook

This week our analyst Sam Larner takes a look at Gloucester’s attack and how their enterprising style of play has kept defences busy during the Champions Cup.

Gloucester are doing something special. They have scored the fourth most tries in the league but the ninth points for. They could have scored many many more tries as well but something seems to be happening when they get into the opposition 22. We are less interested in what is stopping them from finishing and more in how they get into the opposition 22. With that in mind, let’s take a look inside the Gloucester playbook.

Teams will typically, with few exceptions, play with a 1-3-3-1 structure. This means they have two wide forwards, the ‘ones’, and two pods of three forwards in the middle of the pitch. It allows them to move the ball wide without the same high-risk that they would lose possession if they did that without the wide forwards. This set-up takes time though and they need to be adaptive, for example off a kick receipt.

In the example below from their game against Connacht on the weekend, they have found themselves in a 3-3-2. The nearside three players are the nearest forwards to where the kick was returned. The second three forwards form a pod with Danny Cipriani out the back as an option. The outside pod of two offer a passing option for Cipriani or a pair of dummy runners he can pass behind. Watch how the defence have become staggered with one group crowding the first pod and a second group of two defenders who have a lot of attackers to deal with.

Gloucester decide to carry from the pod and for the second phase Cipriani has the two forwards outside of him or he can flip the ball out the back. What he is looking for is to split the two forwards in the blue rectangle from the two in the pink rectangle. By pulling them apart he can stick a pass to the outside forward who should be able to run through a hole.

Cipriani gets the look he wants, two separated pairs of defenders, and he moves the ball wide and across the face of the first forward. In many ways it is incredibly simple but it is also complex. It is complex because this is something which deviates from their regular set-up. They are creating this as they go and when they are not entirely sure where the ball is going to end up it’s almost impossible for the defence to know as well.

This may look unusual but it is fairly common now for teams to put a forward in at scrum-half at a lineout and deploy their scrum-half as a link man between the lineout and the fly-half. Joe Simpson does this job perfectly. His pace means he is a threat to the defensive line but he also has the pass and the awareness to pick out a hard running forward or Cipriani out the back. Jack Carty gets put into a horrible situation because of this. He has no idea which of the four options he should be looking at and he makes the wrong read. Gloucester break the gain line and begin moving forwards.

This is once again a situation where Gloucester create options. Cipriani can hit the forwards or he can go out the back to Mark Atkinson. Bundee Aki is caught in a bad position; he is too far away to help his inside defenders neutralize the threat of the forwards and also too far away from Atkinson. When Atkinson does receive the ball all he needs to do is hold Aki’s interest on the outside just long enough that he runs straight through the middle. Atkinson ends up tripping himself up but not after a healthy gain.

Conclusion

You will often hear talk in football about how teams start worrying when they stop creating chances not when they stop scoring. For whatever reason Gloucester haven’t quite clicked yet this year but they are creating chances and that will please their coaches. They remain in touch, just, in Europe and are a win away from the play-offs in the Premiership. If it all starts clicking they could be a real force in 2020.

by Sam Larner