The Premier League’s tactical switches of the season
The last matchday of this Premier League season is upon us. Relegation battlers Burnley and Leeds United head into the final week equal on points, seeking to stay in the top flight. Meanwhile, at the top it’s looking more likely that the current status quo will hold, unless a moment of magic at Carrow Road or the Etihad stadium turns the tables.
It’s that time of the season again!
From Liverpool’s continuing dominance from corner kicks to Southampton’s pressing leaving Pep Guardiola frustrated at his side’s performance. Antonio Conte’s quick, slick build ups that look like “counter-attacks” to Tottenham’s impressive defensive performance at Anfield. And Chelsea’s solution to their progression problem that was only derailed by injuries and off the pitch problems.
Throughout the season there has been a continuation of previous tactical trends, solutions to older problems, and newer innovations that gave some teams some marginal advantages. Without further ado, here’s the top 10 tactical switches of this Premier League season in no particular order.
Brentford and the Kingdom of the second phase
Thomas Frank’s Brentford side have mesmerized the Premier League neutrals with their set-piece innovations this season, and after a dip in form, it was quite fitting that set-piece master Christian Eriksen helped them to secure a place in the Premier League for another season.
It wasn’t only the first phase of set-pieces that distinguished Brentford in the league, but also the second phase of these set-pieces.
In a Masterclass episode with The Coaches’ Voice, Frank goes over a lot of things, of which the most interesting is how they play out the second phase of the set pieces.
“We are very aware that we keep either the striker, Ivan Toney, to the side or one of the center backs drops to the side. Then, instead of start playing (short) because everyone is getting up. Then we play a long ball to the side, either side. But the side where we have the best mismatch.”
Goals against Arsenal, Liverpool, Watford, Everton and more from the second phase of set-pieces showed how effective the idea is from Brentford, and these second phases complement their prowess from direct set-pieces, whether free-kicks, corner kicks or even throw-ins.
By having their center backs up and wide for the second phase of any set piece, Brentford might be susceptible to the counter. Frank, has a different idea.
“Someone will call us risky, but I think if you don’t take risk. You also take risk.”
Manchester City’s runs into the box
This idea is definitely not new, but in the first half of the season with Kevin De Bruyne yet to get going, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan’s clock-perfect runs into the box were key to Manchester City’s attacks. “I love us arriving to the boxes, not being in the boxes.” Pep said after the Manchester derby.
Utilizing the width has always been a key part in Pep’s book, and in the first half of the season there was a certain type of movement from Bernardo Silva and Gundogan that helped City enable their wide players.
By making a run towards the fullback or between the fullback and the center-back, they pin the full back thus creating space for the wide players.
The fundamental part of these runs from Bernardo Silva and Gundogan is the timing. They time the run perfectly so that the fullback has to react to them, leaving the wide player free. We can see this in the first goal against West Ham United at the Etihad.
At first, Bernardo Silva is far away from Aaron Cresswell and supposedly picked up by Arthur Masuaku…
…..but as Joao Cancelo receives the ball on the other side, Bernardo immediately makes a run in between Cresswell and Kurt Zouma. Forcing Cresswell to move inside and mark the run, which as a result leaves Riyad Mahrez completely open to receive the cross-field pass from Cancelo.
Antonio Conte’s automations
Antonio Conte’s arrival has transformed Spurs’ season, and more specifically their attack, jumping from third-bottom in terms of NPxG (non-penalty expected goals) to third-top since Conte took charge. As expected, the attacks are now more organized, and more automated.
Whether it’s Spurs’ intricate build-up, Ben Davies’ overlaps down the left, the timing of the wing-backs’ runs to provide wide passing options or Heung-min Son and Dejan Kulusevski dropping into the half-spaces to receive the ball with their back to goal and beat the defender on the turn, this is Spurs’ best attacking structure since the peak era of Mauricio Pochettino.
And no wonder Harry Kane has benefited as well. Conte’s well-drilled attacks enable Kane by creating space for him where he can receive the ball and play those deadly passes.
In the build up phase, Conte’s probably one of the best coaches in the world. His attacks are so well drilled that they cut through the opponent’s press like hot knife through butter. This makes the attacks look like “counter attacks” when they are the complete opposite.
That labeling of Spurs’ attacks prompted this Instagram post from Conte himself after Spurs’ most impressive win of the season away to Manchester City.
In that game, two of Tottenham’s goals originated from their spectacular build up patterns. And the winner came from Kulusevski’s wide movement towards the touchline, another feature of Conte’s attacks which puts the Swede and Son in favorable 1 v 1 situations with the right wing-back and left wing-back inverting.
The comeback of Liverpool’s right side triangle
Towards the end of the 2018–19 season, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp started playing Jordan Henderson on the right side of midfield, with Fabinho fully integrated into the team and playing in a central position.
Henderson’s impressive performances in that position, notably away to Southampton in April, led to Klopp jokingly apologizing for playing the English midfielder as a number six for one year and a half.
The understanding Henderson built with Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold on that right side saw Liverpool bulldoze through the Premier League the following season. In the 2020–21 season, injuries derailed that triangular combination. Henderson himself missed seventeen games through injury while playing nine times as a center-back.
How Liverpool operated on their right-hand side this season is not new, but after an absence for a season because of injuries, the right-hand side “flexible triangle” as Klopp calls it, was back in business.
In a recent interview with The Athletic, Alexander-Arnold elaborated on how this triangle works. “There has been a lot of focus this season on the two triangles out wide — so, we have the No 8 in midfield, the full-backs and the wingers on each side. It is about making sure, at all times, there should be someone occupying the width, someone high up on the last line and someone in a half-space or in a midfield eight.
“The manager says it is not too important who it is, just as long as we are occupying those three spaces. With that flexibility, you can do what you want — just make sure that there is someone in those positions. That’s why at times you will see me in between a centre-back and full-back making channel runs, because the No 8 has dropped in at right-back and Mo (Mohamed Salah) is out wide. There’s flexibility and also an understanding of movement and patterns.”
Pressing Manchester City Part 1: Southampton
Four times Guardiola mentioned Manchester City’s poor build up in the post match press conference following the draw against Southampton at the Etihad.
A question about fans? Poor build up mentioned.
A question about Raheem Sterling’s performance through the middle? Poor build up mentioned.
A question about the lack of a center forward? Poor build up mentioned.
The last question was about the lack of imagination on the ball in terms of the final third and Pep answered quickly. “No. This isn’t the reason why. The reason why (was that) our build up wasn’t good.”
Pep was right, the build up wasn’t good and that was the main problem for Manchester City. Southampton had all week to prepare and after the game Ralph Hasenhüttl told Pep that Southampton prepared everything. That was clear throughout the ninety minutes and City’s build up problem was more about Southampton’s pressing scheme and their performance off the ball.
Initially, City started with their common 2–3 build up shape with Kyle Walker and Cancelo moving inside next to Fernandinho.
Southampton’s shape without the ball started as a 4–2–2–2, and it was how their pressing scheme operated that caused a problem for City’s build up. In the first phase of the build up, Adam Armstrong and Che Adams positioned themselves narrowly in-front of Fernandinho while opening up their body to be able to make a run towards their dedicated center back. This positioning took out Fernandinho as an initial passing option and if Ederson decided to play the ball into him, both strikers were close to press.
The next part of this pressing scheme consisted of marking Manchester City’s narrow full backs. Mohamed Elyounoussi and Nathan Redmond marked Walker and Cancelo respectively by being narrow during City’s build up phase. As for Fernandinho, there was another player joining the pressing party on the Brazilian and that’s either James Ward-Prowse or Oriol Romeu.
Pressing Manchester City Part 2: Arsenal
At the Emirates, Arsenal didn’t halt City’s streak against them. Meaning that when the referee blew the final whistle the record became 12 City wins in the last 13 matches against Arsenal versus a sole win for the Gunners in the 2020 FA Cup semi final.
The result though, didn’t reflect the game itself. Arsenal’s approach out of possession was clear. A big chunk of Gabriel Martinelli’s task without the ball was to mark Cancelo, but it wasn’t his only task….
….The Brazilian at times moved up to face Ruben Dias, leaving Cancelo behind him for Granit Xhaka to pick up the Portuguese player. That meant that Thomas Partey had to translate horizontally to mark Bernardo Silva.
This way, once the ball reaches Mahrez near the touchline his near progressive passes are blocked. Martin Odegaard marking Rodri, Xhaka on Cancelo, and Partey on Bernardo Silva.
Arsenal’s pressing shape was flexible, it adapted to City’s build up. A line of four with two ahead was needed when Cancelo was wide and City’s first line of build up was stretched….
…..but seconds after when City moved to a 3–2 build up with Cancelo moving inside the pitch, Martinelli moved inside as well to form a trio alongside Xhaka and Partey. In all of the above snippets, Arsenal were nullifying City’s right side and adapting to the different movements, that left De Bruyne free multiple times on the near side of the pitch. As mad as it sounds, it was a risk worth taking.
The idea is that with the diagonal passing angles from City’s right side to De Bruyne closed down, the solution for City is to go back one line then reach the Belgian with a floating pass. This allows Arsenal’s midfield, Partey in particular, to move horizontally and keep tabs on De Bruyne.
The most important aspect about Arsenal’s performance out of possession in that first half was that they understood their roles and were alert when they needed to switch markers.
In the first half of that game, Arsenal totally shut down City and the only two major attempts came from a set piece and a second phase of a set piece. None of which were on target.
Death By a Thousand Passes
The first Manchester derby of the season might had resembled Guardiola’s idea of the perfect football match. Total ball control.
It was as if United were locked up inside City’s passing mazes as the oxygen levels dropped minute by minute, until the ticker hit 90 and there was no oxygen left.
The initial positioning of Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne and their off-ball movements was key to how City penetrated United’s block and created chances. More importantly, these movements allowed City to control the game as they constantly provided free passing options for the player on the ball.
At half time and with the score 2–0, Guardiola had only one thing on his mind. Controlling the ball.
“I ask (the players) in the half time more passes. We had to pass more the ball. So when you attack a little bit quicker then you need to attack, they will attack you much much quicker. In the transitions they are much better. So we have to rifle together and with that is more passes, more passes, more passes. Maybe we don’t have a lot of chances in this way but the chances are more clear and enough to win the games.”
What’s not to love about defending
A previous entry in this list was about Conte transforming Tottenham’s attacking structure. But the defensive performance Tottenham put out at Anfield, caused Liverpool major problems and eventually two points dropped.
Spurs needed to be dynamic in their defending. Knowing when to push, when to drop and when to switch markers. This started with Kane who, when Tottenham weren’t pressing high up the pitch, dropped onto Fabinho to block any passes into the Brazilian defender.
Behind Kane, Kulusevski had two main roles out of possession. The first was that when Liverpool had the ball on their right side, he would tuck inside to mark Thiago Alcantara to prevent Liverpool, namely Alexander-Arnold, from fizzing a quick pass to switch the play.
The other role was to support Emerson Royal against Luis Diaz, even if Andy Robertson didn’t advance. This benefited Tottenham in two ways. First, Emerson wasn’t left alone in a 1 v 1 against Diaz and secondly, Cristian Romero maintained his position in the box without needing to move out to support Emerson.
Add this to Eric Dier’s constant awareness of Sadio Mane’s positioning and Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg main role in preventing Liverpool from playing in-between the lines, and you get a tremendous defensive display.
Tottenham’s midfield duo were the main obstacle against Liverpool’s ball progression. Their job was to deny passes inside the Spurs block especially those from Alexander-Arnold on the right and Thiago on the left. The idea was that when Alexander-Arnold had the ball, the one on the left from Bentancur and Hojbjerg — Bentancur here — would move up to press while the other sits centrally to track Mane with the help of Dier…..
……and once Liverpool circulated the ball to the other side, the one which was tracking Mane — Hojbjerg here — moves up to press Thiago, while the other (Bentancur) drops to get closer to Mane. You can see here Dier pointing out to Bentancur to pick up Mane.
Rise of Chelsea’s pawns
Now that the season is ending, it serves as a good reminder that before the major injuries and off-pitch fiasco, Chelsea topped the league for 8 straight game-weeks from October till December.
Rather than sticking to the touchline in the build up phase, Chelsea’s wing-backs moved inside the field to disrupt the opponents’ pressing and marking schemes. And in the final third the wing backs switched positions regularly with the wide players to either disorganize the opponent’s defence or provide space out wide for the wide player.
Due to the aforementioned problems, this adaption from Thomas Tuchel and his players might go under the radar. But in terms of season on season reflection, Chelsea managed to find an effective solution against the pressing blueprint used against them towards the end of 2020/21.
Champions League redemption
In the 2020/21 Champions League final, it was more the faulty pressing that costed Manchester City in Porto rather than the absence of a defensive midfielder.
Yet, when both sides met in the league this season, Guardiola got his pressing scheme right.
Out of possession, Manchester City played in a 4–2–3–1 shape with Gabriel Jesus and Jack Grealish flanking De Bruyne, all three behind Phil Foden.
When Chelsea tried building up through the right side, Jesus moved inside to press Jorginho while De Bruyne shifted his focus towards N’Golo Kante and Cancelo moved up to press Reece James (Yellow). The roles of Grealish and Foden once the ball moved out wide to the Chelsea wing back was to block the passing lane backwards, something that Manchester City did excellently throughout this game (Light Blue). Behind this wave of pressing was Rodri (Red), who acted as a safety net for the press, and Bernardo Silva who was tasked with marking and pressing Mateo Kovacic.
The pressing was asymmetrical due to Kovacic’s ability to receive on the turn when compared to Kante. That meant different roles when Chelsea built up through their left side instead of mirroring the roles. On this side, Bernardo Silva moved up from the double pivot to press Kovacic. Meanwhile, Walker had the task of man-marking Marcos Alonso, and De Bruyne shifted to press Jorginho. Again, City used their forward players to block back passes into the Chelsea center backs as seen here by the positioning of Foden and Jesus.
City’s only goal in this game came from a corner kick, but the attack that resulted in that corner originally came as a result of the press. And it wasn’t only the pressing, the counter-pressing was excellent as well, giving Chelsea no time on the ball once they won it back.