The Premier League’s tactical switches of the season

The Premier League is — after a break — coming to an end. Liverpool have impressively won the league, Kevin De Bruyne mesmerized everyone and yet there is still something to play for. European places haven’t been concluded as Wolves and Spurs are fighting for sixth place which would guarantee them entry to the Europa League next season. As for the battle down under, it’s who can hold his breath the most under water. Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Watford are fighting for Willy Wonka’s golden ticket to stay in the Premier League.

This season has seen some interesting and effective tactical switches, whether inside a game or a team changing their approach during the season. And as we as humans are wired to be attracted to any “Top 10” list, here are the top 10 tactical switches in no particular order.

Away at Selhurst Park, Pep Guardiola found himself with a limited number of defenders and as Fernandinho has shown his ability in that position, he slotted him there. The surprise was putting Rodri Hernandez next to him as a center back pairing.

The midfield duo helped City progress the ball faster up the field and played the ball directly between the lines. The evident thing though was how Fernandinho and Rodri positioned themselves alongside Gundogan. In a 1–2 setup rather than the usual 2–1, meaning that in the build up phase City sometimes appeared to be in a 1–4–4–1 shape.

The idea behind this is that opponents who are playing in a 4–5–1 formation would have their midfielders busy with City’s roaming midfielders in David Silva and De Bruyne. Meanwhile, the wingers are out tracking Manchester City’s full backs. Leaving the center-forward unable to press three Manchester City players

Theoretically, the build up players should have more time on the ball and if they are pressed by any of the opponent’s players, it frees a more dangerous Manchester City player.

The 1–4–4–1 was used away to Crystal Palace and home to Aston Villa. It’s a card up Pep’s sleeve that is yet to be used again.

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Burnley’s set-pieces reputation is up there with their defending and organization. Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood, Ben Mee, James Tarkowski, just listing these names brings shiver down your neck when you concede a set piece against them.

They’ll just put it up and someone will head it. Is it really that simple ? Answer is no. Premier League teams analyze set pieces to the minute detail, some of them even have set piece specialists.

Burnley’s far post corner technique has further enhanced their threat from set pieces. Utilizing their height and aerial ability in a methodical way

It has different variations but the most common of them are two. First one is freeing space for a player to make a run at the back post, while blockers block the defenders and the keeper.

The two blockers here are Barnes and Tarkowski. Barnes’ role is to block Jordan Pickford from going out to collect the ball, and Tarkowski’s is to block the two Everton defenders nearby to enable the runner, Jeff Hendrick, for a free far post run.

The second variation is the pinball. This variation consists of one blocker, a far post run, and a fake run inside.

The goal-keeper blocker is as always Barnes. Tarkowski now fakes a run inside then goes to the back post rather than being a blocker. The far post runner here is Mee. Together their role is to set up Barnes rather than scoring themselves.

As the ball reaches the far post, Barnes drops off West Ham’s keeper Roberto and frees himself. Then, Tarkowski and Mee head the ball backwards to set him up. Simple, yet effective.

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Liverpool’s evolution in their possession game saw them shifting from a team excelling on transitions in 2017/18 to a more complete side in 2018/19. There was more control and a steadier approach to penetrate deep oppositions.

Roberto Firmino and the two full backs were key then as they still are now, but there was another approach Liverpool used a couple of times this season.

Fabinho’s injury against Napoli saw the return of Jordan Henderson in the pivot role in-front of the defence. Henderson had the opportunity to drop into the right channel to form a back three during Liverpool’s build up phase. The three are wide though with Virgil Van Dijk moving out wide to the left channel, and the other center-back in the center. This worked quite well against teams who press in a 4–4–2 shape. The opponent’s left wing and left back are usually busy with Liverpool’s right winger and right back, making it a 3 v 2 in the first line with Henderson and Van Dijk in the channels wide of the other center-back.

The most notable example of this is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal against Bournemouth. Henderson dropping and completely free, played a long ball behind the defence for Chamberlain to score.

Read more here.

Sticking a number on this shape is quite hard actually. It isn’t your typical 3–4–3 with two holding midfielders and wing backs flying.

It all started in the game against Sheffield United. City couldn’t penetrate Sheffield United’s lines and their lack of movements meant that it was easy for Sheffield United’s almost mirrored shape to hold — City morphed in possession into a 2–3–5/3–2–5 with Oleksandr Zinchenko going inside next to Rodri and Kyle Walker jumping between City’s first and second line. Even when De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva dropped deep in the channels they were followed by the aggressive marking of Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham with no City player free to make a run into that space.

Guardiola’s solution was to switch to a back three, line of four with wing backs providing width, and a front three. “We put more players close to Sergio (Aguero) and the guys who passed the ball from outside to inside are players with better quality than we had in the first half, with Kevin (De Bruyne) and Bernardo (Silva) and then (Ilkay) Gundogan. That was the reason why,” he said after the game.

Shapes in football are just the visualizations resulting form the implemented principles. City had three when they used this shape; putting a technical player between the lines to create, fielding your best passers in the center to have more angles whether wide to the wing backs or to the narrow front three, and finally allowing rotational movements between the narrow front three to create space for each other.

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The rivalry speaks for itself. The two most decorated football teams in England and the holders of the most English league titles. Their two fixtures this season gave two impressive tactical performances.

In the first game it was Manchester United’s usage of their wing backs in a 3–4–1–2 shape to attract pressure from Liverpool’s full back, leaving acres of spaces for Marcus Rashford and Daniel James out wide.

At Anfield, it was the rematch and Juergen Klopp used Gini Wijnaldum and Chamberlain to attack that space Firmino vacated instead of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane doing that. Making runs from midfield, Wijnaldum and Chamberlain disorganized the Manchester United shape causing hesitancy for United’s defence. The center-backs didn’t know whether to follow Firmino or stay in position.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 3–4–1–2 didn’t work the second time, but both games provided interesting tactical solutions.

Read more here and here.

The previous point ended in a draw with each team outsmarting the other once, despite Manchester United only drawing the first game. This one it was victory for the apprentice.

Twice Frank Lampard got the better of Jose Mourinho. First, when he pressed Tottenham’s three man-build up in the away fixture, then when he used Ross Barkley and Mason Mount narrowly in the reverse fixture to exploit spaces behind Tottenham’s midfield.

Mourinho’s 4–2–3–1 in the game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium moved to a 3–2–5 in possession with Serge Aurier surging forward on the right, while keeping a back four out of possession. Lampard’s solution of a 3–4–3 pressed Tottenham’s build up using a front-free causing Spurs problems in the build up, while also creating an overload with Marcos Alonso when going forward. Both Chelsea’s goals originated from Alonso’s threat.

The second time was at Stamford Bridge. Mount and Barkley’s narrowness allowed them to collect Olivier Giroud’s flick-ons and caused confusion in the Spurs’ lines. Confusion as Spurs’ midfield duo Harry Winks and Tanguy Ndombele were concerned with Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic leaving behind them Mount and Barkley who positioned themselves between the lines. The Spurs center-backs weren’t sure whether to be dragged out of position, creating gaps in the defensive line or to keep their places allowing Mount and Barkley to operate freely.

Read more here and here.

Going into Project Restart, Manchester United had a problem against teams who sat deep against them. They found a solution with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes and the resurrection of Nemanja Matic.

This three man build up is slightly different than that of Liverpool. Manchester United use it to find passing angles into Bruno Fernandes. The problem before was that United’s attacks would often start from the full back after the center-backs have circulated the ball between them. This was mainly because there was little to no passing angles for the center backs. Nor passing options that would allow vertical ball progression up the field.

Now with Matic dropping to form a three man build up, the wideness of the center-backs not only gave them good passing angles. It also attracted pressure from Burnley’s wide midfielders, thus freeing United’s full backs.

Reaching Bruno Fernandes behind the opposition midfield from different options, center back sand full backs was the ultimate goal.

Read more here.

After losing to Chelsea, Manchester City wanted to redeem themselves by beating the champions and redemption it was. Four goals to none. Obviously, Liverpool had won the league by then but Pep’s choice of where to attack Liverpool was interesting.

On paper the Manchester City line-up read a 4–2–3–1 but the positioning of the players merely represented that shape throughout the match. Out of possession City defended in a 4–4–2 block, but in possession it was more of a 4–2–2–2 with Raheem Sterling moving inside next to Gabriel Jesus as De Bruyne and Phil Foden occupied the channels.

De Bruyne and Foden were in prime position behind Henderson and Wijnaldum, but positioning alone isn’t the solution. You would need to bypass the Liverpool press and reach De Bruyne and Foden in those positions before the defence can collapse.

And that was the role of City’s double pivot in terms of attracting pressure from Liverpool’s midfield in conjunction with the movement of De Bruyne and Foden to the aforementioned positions in the channels.

Once De Bruyne, Foden, Sterling or Jesus had the ball the viewers had the impression that the pitch was bigger due to the space between Liverpool’s midfield and defence, created by attracting Henderson and Wijnaldum up the field. Meanwhile, the defence was pinned by Sterling and Jesus’ positioning.

Read more here.

Sheffield United’s overlapping center backs. Yes !! Well, that’s only one part of what they offer. The overlapping center backs gained as much attention and have been analyzed excessively throughout this season and the one before.

Another part of this cohesive gear that consists of multiple cogs is their pressing schemes. So cohesive you might mistake them for cyborgs. Chris Wilder and Alan Knill have missed out on European football, which would have been Sheffield United’s first ever adventure in Europe. However, there is still next year and if there’s one man to lead them into is Europe, it’s definitely Wilder.

Against Chelsea, they boxed Chelsea’s build up players. David McGoldrick, Oli McBurnie and Oliver Norwood didn’t need to aggressively mark Jorginho. Quite simply, positioning around him in a way to box him inside and lure the other Chelsea players away from passing into the Brazilian.

The idea was to limit Chelsea’s build up by putting their build-up players in an imaginary box. Then, the other Chelsea players would try to move around by passing in a U-shape or go direct.

Multiple months prior to this game was their thrilling encounter with Manchester United. The pressing scheme implemented by Sheffield United denied the opponent from progressing the ball into their front three.

McGoldrick and Lys Mousset were tasked with pressing Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire respectively. As for Phil Jones it was John Lundstram’s role to keep a distance but rapidly press the defender once the ball was coming his way.

Lundstram’s role didn’t stop here. He also helped in terms of pressing Fred and Andreas Pereira who had a tough time against Sheffield United’s midfield. The extra player in midfield whether it was John Fleck, Oliver Norwood or Lundstram meant that they could shift markers between them to also contain the wing back near the ball and still contain Fred and Pereira.

Read more here and here.

Mikel Arteta’s first game against Bournemouth in charge saw Arsenal playing in a new shape in possession. Granit Xhaka dropped to the defensive line, as Bukayo Saka pushed forward on the left wing and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tucked inside. Arsenal were in a 3–2–5 shape in possession. Attacking with five players.

However, it wasn’t Arsenal only. The big sides have adopted this approach, notably Manchester City, but even Mourinho in his first game again West Ham pushed Aurier up front when Tottenham were in possession. Essentially forming a 3–2–5.

The shape helps by adding a further player up front, while also having players centrally to defend against the counter attacks.

Read more here.

There’s only game week to go this season and a lot of things at stake. Maybe there will be a tactical idea that will crash the top ten, but till then these were the most interesting tactical trends this season.

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