The Premier League’s tactical switches of the season

Manchester City have hypnotized viewers with their scintillating football, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guided Manchester United to probably their best season since 2013, West Ham went all the way from a relegation battle last season to the Europa League, Leeds were all ponytail and pressing, and Sam Allardyce got his first ever relegation from the Premier League. The season is coming to an end.

Before the curtain call, there are still European places to fight for. Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester City are battling it out for two Champions League spots. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Arsenal will see who will represent England in the first ever version of the Europa Conference League.

It’s that time of the year again and with only 1 matchday to go that only means one thing. It’s time for the top 10 tactical switches in no particular order.

Arsenal’s effectiveness out of possession

Since the 26th of December 2020, Arsenal have accumulated the most points in the league after Manchester City and Manchester United despite playing one game less — They are only 1 point behind Manchester United.

On that day Arsenal nullified Chelsea by using Bukayo Saka inside the field to man-mark Mason Mount as Emile Smith Rowe smothered N’Golo Kante. Furthermore, when Chelsea managed to move the ball forward and Timo Werner made a run inside the box from out wide, Hector Bellerin always followed him leaving the wide defensive duty for Saka.

This wasn’t Arsenal’s only impressive performance out of possession this season. They limited Manchester United’s diamond in November by using Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in conjunction with Thomas Partey and Mohamed El Neny, pressed Leeds United into the abyss, and abducted Harry Kane at the Emirates using a flexible marking scheme.

All of that before they successfully used a mixture of the two approaches implemented by other teams to press Thomas Tuchel’s double pivot. Which leads us to our next point.

Pressing Chelsea’s double pivot

Multiple teams have found solutions to disrupt Chelsea’s build up by pressing their double pivot while adding tweaks of their own. Manchester United tried using their wide player that was on the other side of the ball to help in pressing Chelsea’s double pivot, Everton used Allan to pick up any Chelsea forward dropping to support the build up while Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes pressed Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, then Brighton added to Everton’s approach by sticking their wide center backs to Chelsea’s wide players who also wanted to drop and help.

This led us to Manchester City and Arsenal who used a hybrid approach. A free-man in midfield to pick up the Chelsea player dropping centrally to support, man-marking Chelsea’s wide forwards using the wide center backs and rotational players to press Chelsea’s double pivot.

The story didn’t end here. In Chelsea’s crucial home game against Leicester City, they moved away from the 3–2 build up shape to a 3–3 shape with Mount starting as a third midfielder in possession to support the build up….

…..and make horizontal runs in behind Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielamans who moved up to press Jorginho and Kante.

The next chapter should theoretically take place in Porto on the 29th of May.

Brendan Rodgers’ gamble

Labeled by Michael Cox as the tactical switch of the season. After getting outplayed by Liverpool for an hour and a stable 15 minutes, Rodgers switched from a 4–2–3–1 to a 4–3–1–2 which put Harvey Barnes in a more dangerous position, indirectly and directly affecting all three Leicester City goals.

On its own, the switch gave Leicester City an opportunity to come back in the game. However looking at the bigger picture, that tactical switch could be the reason Leicester City finish the season in a Champions League spot.

Manchester United’s box

In the first half away to Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United continued with the same old 4–2–3–1 with Paul Pogba at times moving inside. As we have come accustomed to Solskjaer’s side this season, it was sterile.

Come the second half, it was totally different for the men in red. Moving away from the 4–2–3–1 with Pogba going inside to a clear an obvious box midfield behind Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford who moved inside to create space out wide for Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

For 45 minutes, Manchester United had a clear attacking structure that not only brought them the three points but might also have been their most convincing display this season to date.

The build up was directed towards one side, dragging the Spurs midfield three before United found a pass into their free man in midfield. Then Rashford or Mason Greenwood moving inside allowed for more combination play centrally, runs in behind the Spurs defence and the pull to drag Sergio Reguilon inside to create space for Wan-Bissaka.

Solskjaer’s plan vs Leeds United

Despite Manchester United’s continued search of a functioning attacking structure, Solskjaer has always managed to find a chink in the opponent’s armor in one-off games.

Similar to the half time switch against Tottenham, Manchester United came into the game against Leeds United at Old Trafford with a clear attacking plan. Decoy runs from the forwards and forward runs towards the box from the midfielders dismantled Leeds’ man-marking system and gave Manchester United the upper hand.

Jose Mourinho’s last hurrah versus Pep Guardiola

“If you try to play the way they do, they are better than you. So, to beat them you have to play….in a different way.” Mourinho’s post match comments to Spurs TV resembled his ideas going into the game against Manchester City.

City’s 4–3–3 on paper was more of a 3–2–5 in possession with Joao Cancelo going inside next to Rodri, probably to guard against counter attacks — that didn’t work out well. Further ahead, the front five meant that City were able to attack the five channels. Riyad Mahrez and Ferran Torres positioned wide by the touchline to stretch Spurs’ defensive line, trying to create space for Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to attack the channels.

This is where Mourinho gained an edge over City. He used Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to protect the channels. Allowing Serge Aurier and Reguilon to elastically stretch with City’s wide players while still protecting the channels.

Mourinho’s plan was perfect in terms of stopping City’s threat in the channels while denying space centrally. The issues though, arose after that pink period and Mourinho’s Tottenham dropped down the rabbit hole.

Manchester City going back to their principles

After the 1–1 draw with West Bromwich Albion, Guardiola didn’t like the team and how they were performing. “I don’t like the way we play, it doesn’t matter the results. I don’t like it. I don’t recognize my team the way we should play.

“We just came back to the principles. A, B, C, that’s all. So wingers high and wide, a lot of players in the middle and come back without the ball run like an animal.”

That switch lit up Manchester City going forward, winning 15 league games in a row between the end of December and the beginning of March. By then, even a home loss to Manchester United didn’t matter. City were already 14 points ahead of their neighbours before the game started.

This adjustment Guardiola made won them the league and might as well help them win the Champions League. It might turn out to be more than a tactical switch of the season.

Ilkay Gundogan

Ilkay Gundogan, Manchester City’s highest scorer in the league with 13 goals and their highest scorer in all competitions with 17 goals. In a season where City won the league and are one step away from winning the Champions League, the numbers don’t add up but for Guardiola’s City it makes total sense. A consequence of their principles

“He has the right tempo to make the run. So, he doesn’t arrive in the box ten times or twenty times, doesn’t arrive one meter before or one meter later. He had to arrive in the right tempo, in the right time. When he arrives he has the calm, the slowdown, that action to make a decision.”

Manchester City’s application of their attacking principles work in conjunction with each other to benefit Gundogan. The width from the wide players stretches the opponent’s defence creating gaps for Gundogan to attack, while the overload in midfield distracts the opponent’s midfield and acts as a safety net for the German’s runs.

Leeds roaming 8s

For anyone who hadn’t watched Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United before, this season showcased how their unique style of play provides the ultimate entertainment while maintaining positive results.

One of the attacking features of this Leeds team is multiple runners in the box and against Crystal Palace their overload on the right side using both their 8s bamboozled Palace’s back four. If Palace picked up one runner, another popped up.

It was one of many entertaining Leeds displays as Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich and co all crammed in Bielsa’s Fiat 147 and sped past poor Palace.

Guardiola altering his pressing scheme in-game

One key feature of Manchester City’s away wins at Borussia Dortmund and PSG was Guardiola’s decision to move away from the 4–3–3 pressing shape to the bread and butter 4–4–2 pressing shape. In both of these games it stopped Dortmund and PSG building up easily through Manchester City’s lines.

This wasn’t the first time though that Guardiola switched away from a malfunctioning 4–3–3 pressing shape.

Against Liverpool, the narrowness of the shape meant that Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold were free when Liverpool were trying to build up. As a result Liverpool tried to find their full backs quicker without depending on central circulation.

“We couldn’t control the width of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold. The second half we adjust a little bit our setup.” Pep Guardiola told Sky Sports after the game.

“In the second half we changed the setup, to defend we played with a 4–4–2 and the beginning was a 4–3–3.” Moving to this shape allowed Manchester City to contain Robertson and Alexander-Arnold by positioning Mahrez and Raheem Sterling wider than they were in the first half.

This adaptation at half time eliminated Liverpool’s threat and smothered them into self destruction. The pressing forced the errors and the re-positioning of Mahrez and Raheem Sterling kept Liverpool’s full backs quiet.

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