Life outside the top six, how the endangered species live to amaze
The Premier League has evolved tactically and technically in the last couple of years with the influx of foreign managers and foreign players. Not long ago most of the teams were stuck with the 4–4–2 direct approach, two strikers upfront or a big man-little man partnership and wingers. Arsene Wenger introduced new dieting systems that took the league by storm, not to mention his attacking style of play. Meanwhile, his counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson also contributed after being influenced by ideas from European teams during his Champions League runs. However, it was Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez who enhanced the league’s tactical awareness
Fast Forward to 2018 and the league has transformed tactically into a multiple headed Hydra, as a result of the different ideas from managers who were influenced by different philosophies, and a variety of players who came from all over the globe due to the league’s exposure. Moreover, the top 6 teams boast an elite managerial line up which any club would dream of having, but the rest who battle for that unofficial 7th place title are still putting their fair share of work. The winner of that honor last season was Sean Dyche’s Burnley, a well drilled team which is greater than the sum of its parts. A team which offers defensive compactness, wing play, aerial threat from set pieces and long balls. Their personnel hugely reflects their style, a strong defensive partnership in Ben Mee and James Tarkowski who usually top the balls blocked list, speedsters on the wings in Aaron Lennon and Johann Berg Gudmunsson, and finally a trio of big men upfront in Chris Woods, Sam Vokes, and Ashley Barnes whose technical ability on the ball goes under the radar. The team’s 7th place finish was rewarded with a participation in the Europa League. Extra games, less time on the training pitch and more travelling affected them heavily, and might be a reason behind their poor start. Aaron Lennon reflected on that after their 4–0 win against Bournemouth as he stated that the team now had more time on the training pitch.
Wolves are another team who has a distinctive identity, only them and Huddersfield are fielding a back three this season after its emergence during the 2016/17 when Antonio Conte managed to guide Chelsea to the title. Nuno Espirito Santo’s 3–4–3 is quite similar to the Italian with offensive wing backs who often find themselves in the box on the end of crosses, and pacey wingers who thrive in counter attacking situation. The difference however is in midfield where Wolves have a more creative duo in Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves, the Portuguese internationals have the quality to play for any Champions League side with their vision, passing ability, and control of midfield. It’s not all glamour upfront for Wolves though, the side’s 5–4–1 without the ball proved its effectiveness when facing both Manchester sides, nicking a 1–1 draw in both games.
Playmakers often play at the higher end of the table, the likes of Eriksen, Özil, De Bruyne…etc. It’s rare that a side outside the top six has this option, some have the privilege of a creative midfielder or a good passer, but only three teams got the full playmaker bundle; Everton, Leicester City and Brighton. Gilfy Sigurdsson, the Icelandic international joined the Toffees last season after 6 impressive seasons at Swansea scoring 34 goals and assisting 29. Good numbers considering that Swansea’s highest position was 8th when he managed 7 goals and 10 assists, and their relegation came when he left for Everton. After a below average season Everton agreed terms with their long awaited lover, Marco Silva. The Portuguese manager who is slowly climbing the ranks starting at Hull, then Watford and now at Goodison Park. Sigurdsson’s excellence from set pieces and shooting technique is complemented by the pace of Richarlison and Walcott. The pair also got a good eye for goal in addition to the Turkish striker Cenk Tosun, the team in blue mainly depend on wing play and incisive passing from Sigurdsson. Injuries though are getting the better of Everton, and only one win in six games sees them in the 12th position.
3 places up in the table are Leicester City who this summer acquired the services of young English rising star James Maddison after he was named in the Championship’s PFA team of the year, scoring 14 goals and assisting 8 for Norwich City. The Englishman’s technique is similar to his Icelandic counterpart, a free-kick guru, got an eye for the decisive pass, and higher technical quality on the ball. Claude Puel, the Leicester manager hasn’t find his best fit front four yet, chopping and changing every game. However, James Maddison and Jamie Vardy’s place is a certainty, the former being the team’s best player in the first six game with 3 goals and an assist to his name, the latter is still searching for his form of the last 3 years where he scored 57 times in 108 games. The duo’s understanding of each other was visible in the last two games against Bournemouth and Huddersfield, two positive performances from Leicester despite the 4–2 loss at the Vitality stadium. The most sensible system for Leicester would be in theory to play Maddison on the left hand side and give him freedom to roam as Ben Chilwell the left back offers width and good crossing ability, this will also mean a partner upfront for Vardy to derive some of the defensive attention he receives.
Brighton the home of the third musketeer Pascal Gross, the German who’s also a free-kick master but what makes him special is his ability to cross from open play situation, the ability to find the needed space to put in an exquisite cross and he does that with a Cruyff turn with the other foot. His goals and assist tally supports his overall performance, and Brighton’s style of direct long balls towards Glenn Murray and wing play help the German as he’s well positioned to collect 2nd balls from Murray’s aerial duels, and his constant roaming to the flanks to create an overload always puts him in the space to provide the perfect cross for Glenn Murray. Since his injury Brighton switched to a 4–3–3 which doesn’t suit them as it keeps Murray isolated and depends on him roaming into the channels to flick balls towards the wingers.
Different styles of play provide more entertainment, and the encounter at Craven Cottage seconded that. A high intensity game saw Fulham draw with Watford, the hornet’s direct approach of long balls towards Troy Deeney and Andre Gray slaughtered the Fulham defence in the first half and beginning of the second only for Slavisa Jokanovic’s subs to neutralize it. Javi Gracia’s narrow midfield embraces the qualities of his players, Roberto Pereyra a divine dribbler who can beat most defenders in a 1 v 1 situation putting him in a closer position towards goal, Abdoulaye Doucouré an all rounded midfielder, and Jose Holebas a left back who thrives on overlapping and under-lapping to be in the best position to cross. Plenty of offensive options for the Spaniard in the dugout, from Aerial balls towards Deeney to passing combinations in midfield, and threatening set pieces. Fulham meanwhile could provide the best games for the neutral, a leaky defense accompanied with a creative midfield in Jean Michael Seri and Tom Cairney along with three attackers upfront. The Cottagers ability to build up and their pace on quick offensive transitions gives them an edge offensively, and their ruthless attacking force of Vietto, Schürrle, and Mitrovic will hurt other defence but how many can they stop at the other end remains the million dollar question.
In the land outside the top 6, there’s always that guy that everyone fears, you hear stories about his dribbling ability and how he flashes past defenders but until you experience it firsthand he remains a myth. Wilfried Zaha is that guy, the best of the rest. Crystal Palace’s stats with and without the Ivorian is mind boggling, Roy Hodgson started the season in a 4–4–1–1 giving Zaha freedom to roam, usually towards his much favorite left side and that’s where Palace’s build up and flicks from Benteke end. Zaha’s dribbling ability leaves opponents mesmerized often doubling on him which leaves space for Van Aanholt’s runs from left back and late runs into the box from James McArthur. Beyond Zaha, Palace’s other options are set pieces and crosses for Benteke.
Some teams have a certain identity, while others are still experimenting. But it’s the uniqueness of the ideas that makes the territory outside the top six an interesting area to explore.