The five best tacticians of the Premier League season

Date published: Monday 23rd March 2020 10:10

Jurgen Klopp has reinvented a position, while Carlo Ancelotti has kept it simple.

Jurgen Klopp has reinvented a position, while Carlo Ancelotti has kept it simple. Premier League tactics are varied and wonderful…

1) Klopp and the full-back as playmaker
It’s difficult to pick out just one Liverpool tactic for this list. It’s the sheer variety of their attacking lines, and the extraordinary complexity of how their central midfield murmuration weaves things together, that makes Jurgen Klopp’s side so special. But the one thing that really stands out is how their use of full-backs has changed the position forever.

Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah stay narrow to suck the opposition back four into central areas, in turn opening up the flanks for Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. While this is not new to 2019/20, their boldness – their arrogance – has taken things to a whole new level.

Alexander-Arnold in particular comes infield to play in the right half-space, often occupying exactly the same playmaker position that Kevin de Bruyne does at Manchester City. TAA overlaps, underlaps and cuts inside to control midfield. It is a remarkable reinvention of the role, and although Robertson isn’t quite as good he attempts something similar.

Watching these two exchange long diagonals is one of the most joyful, and unusual, tactical sights in the modern game.


2) Arteta and turning chaos into order
It is a minor miracle that Mikel Arteta has already begun to imprint his tactical philosophy on the Arsenal players following 18 months of chaos under Unai Emery. There is a lot of Pep Guardiola in what the Arsenal manager has done so far, namely giving strict positional instructions for players (both on and off the ball) to maintain a structure of tessellating triangles. The aim is to be compact at all times but also to spread evenly across the width and depth of the pitch, giving a calming sense of control.

In admitted fits and bursts, Arsenal have reacted well. Granit Xhaka has been reborn in a deeper, simpler midfield role to become the metronome, Mesut Ozil looks like he knows what he’s supposed to be doing and the combination play on the flanks tells us that Arteta has got some automisations going. The top coaches drill set moves on the training field until they become muscle memory, giving only the illusion of improvisation on match day. Arsenal are slowly getting there.

The major departure from Guardiola is in the use of full-backs. Under Arteta the right-back tucks in to form part of a back three (or midfield three, depending on the opponent) to help screen against the counter, while the left-back gets forward to replace the left winger, who in turn makes diagonal runs towards the striker. The result is a 3-2-5/2-3-5 formation that – once the defence is upgraded – will be a real Premier League force in 2020/21.


3) Wilder and the overlapping centre-backs
It was all anyone could talk about back in August, the one quirky fact that everyone knew about Chris Wilder’s Premier League-bound Sheffield United. Overlapping centre-backs have indeed been a feature of the Blades’ superb campaign, but of greater interest is what those runs symbolise and how they form part of a bigger picture.

Wilder’s tactics are as complex as those of any manager in English football. The positional interchanges between the players can send your head into a spin just watching in the stands, so one can only imagine how difficult it is to play against. The basic premise, in a 3-5-2 formation, is to cram bodies onto one side of the pitch to cause overloads, with chances created via passes into the box from out wide.

As part of this, one striker drops off, at least one midfielder comes across to help, and a centre-back overlaps, putting four men on one flank. Long diagonal switches to the then wide-open opposite wing are common, as are myriad position-shifting among the three brilliant midfielders John Fleck, John Lundstram and Oliver Norwood.

There’s a lot going on. Who knows what Wilder could achieve with better players?


4) Rodgers and the tandem playmakers
The drop-off has been so dramatic that it might seem a bit odd to praise the tactical patterns of Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City right now, but let’s not forget that in early December the Foxes had 38 points from 16 games. In normal times, that’s title-winning form for nearly half a Premier League season.

The key to this run was Rodgers’ mixture of calm possession football with sudden, rapid vertical passing into the final third once a gap opens. Jamie Vardy’s stripped-back role, playing more narrowly and running less, meant he was always in the right place to be slipped in behind seemingly out of nowhere.

The ability to quickly switch tempo marks Leicester out as a sneaky team, explaining why it took so long before opponents got to grips with Rodgers’ system. What they eventually found is that if you cram central midfield with bodies then those vertical balls disappear, because the system revolves around James Maddison and Youri Tielemans working as dual playmakers, yo-yoing up and down central attacking midfield.

With two players looking to shimmy into space between the lines, much like De Bruyne and David Silva in 2017/18, it becomes much harder to shut down the passing angles. One straight ball to Maddison and, on the half-turn, he is just one ball away from either setting Vardy free or getting Harvey Barnes running at the full-back.


5) Ancelotti and releasing potential
Carlo Ancelotti had a lot of the psychological foundations laid for him by Duncan Ferguson, who re-energised the players prior to the Italian’s appointment. But in just a few months of his arrival Everton have become one of the most interesting teams tactically.

Playing a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3, Everton sit in a compact midblock that looks to stop opponents from playing through them via diligent work from the strikers and wide men. It is a relatively simple off-the-ball shape, complemented by something more intricate when possession is won.

Ancelotti has implemented fast, vertical counter-attacks in which Richarlison shifts to the left so Theo Walcott can join the front line, making a fluid 4-3-3 focusing on raw speed. Everton are far from the finished team, of course, but Ancelotti makes this list because of the extent to which player combinations have improved since the disordered days of Marco Silva.

The Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin partnership is superb, Lucas Digne and Bernard are working well together, and Walcott is finally getting himself into goalscoring positions.

Alex Keble is on Twitter


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