Alex Keble picks out the teams who have been operating with the best tactics and those who have got it all wrong so far this season.
The second international break of the season is always a good time to assess the relative fortunes of each Premier League club now that the table has, with 20% of the season gone, settled into a lasting pattern. And it’s safe to say few of us predicted the table would look quite like it does.
Here, we pick out the four biggest overachievers and four biggest underachievers so far this season and take a tactical look at the reasons why the Premier League table looks so shaken from its natural order.
In just a few months Brendan Rodgers has given Leicester a clear tactical identity; a philosophy for the players to follow that helps explain the club’s harmony and consistency this season. Leicester deploy dual number tens (James Maddison and Youri Tielemans) much in the way Manchester City use Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, but attack with quick verticality more in the mould of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Aggressive pressing, together with incisive forward passes, allow Leicester to enter the final third (and get Jamie Vardy in behind) before the opponents have a chance to set themselves. It is modern, thoughtful, and accentuates the strengths of each individual player. Rodgers is building something special.
Roy Hodgson’s relatively old-fashioned tactical approach has been a surprise hit this year, and while Crystal Palace will probably regress to the mean their early success is worthy of analysis. Hodgson has switched from 4-4-2 to a still-deep-lying 4-5-1, absorbing pressure (average 45.7% possession) before hitting on the break via Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew.
Ayew’s improved performances partly explains their upturn in results; his ability to run the channels means Palace no longer need a second striker, allowing them to sure up midfield. But more important is Gary Cahill’s influence and organisational skills at the back. Aside from an anomalous 4-0 defeat at Spurs, Palace have conceded just three times in seven league games.
They could so easily have suffered a Champions League hangover and, having failed to strengthen over the summer, could have struggled to motivate themselves for another swing at the Premier League title. Instead they are playing with machine-like consistency as Jurgen Klopp’s tactics pen in the opposition and relentlessly feed the front three.
Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk have not just strengthened Liverpool defensively, but added a composure in possession – heading the ball to a team-mate rather than just clearing it; playing a neat forward pass after intercepting rather than a simple backwards one – that keeps opponents under pressure. This means Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are always on the ball in narrow forward positions, which sucks the opposition defence inwards and creates space for Liverpool’s brilliant full-backs.
Few expected Chris Wilder’s side to show such defensive organisation at this level, and tactically he deserves credit for adapting Sheffield United’s approach this season; they are more direct and less possession focused than in the Championship. The players still regularly swap positions with each other and the centre-backs will overlap when appropriate, but United will also happily pump the ball into the channel or sit back and absorb pressure (they attempt more long passes, 76.6 per game, than any other team).
However, after such a strong start their lack of individual quality might be starting to show. The Blades have only scored once in their last four league games, a record that simply has to improve if Wilder’s side are to stay up. Nevertheless their fluid and technically-gifted midfield has defied the odds so far.
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With several key players looking for the exit and a manager who, like his squad, wonders how to climb the mountain again after last year’s Champions League final, it is easy to see why Spurs have been so disjointed this season. But the biggest reason is tactical stagnation caused by a lack of new signings over the last few years. Many of the players have been at Spurs for too long, meaning the manager’s tactical instructions lack the old ability to inspire.
They are not pressing so high or hard – a vital foundation of Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics – and their attacking interplay feels stale. Everyone needs a change. But beyond that, Spurs simply don’t have the quality in the full-back positions needed for their tactics. At their peak Kyle Walker and Danny Rose provided piercing overlapping runs that created chances when Spurs’ narrow attacking lines drew the opposition inwards. Nowadays, defenders can sit narrowly and entirely blunt Spurs’ attacks.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to play fast attacking football, which is as vague as it sounds, with quick young players prioritised in an attempt to recapture the direct wing-play and pure speed of United in the 1990s. But football has changed a lot since then; the big clubs are now forced to hold the vast majority of possession as the pitch increasingly becomes a territorial battle of pressure and counter-pressure.
Speed in isolation, then, isn’t very useful for a big club like United. Solskjaer does not coach attacking patterns like Jurgen Klopp, for example, and so the likes of Danny James and Marcus Rashford are left trying to use their pace against defenders so deep they leave no space in behind. In fact, as an indicator of just how little tactical work is done at United, reports emerged this week that United’s attackers are privately complaining about a lack of direction from the first-team coach.
Marco Silva certainly has a preferred tactical philosophy, although many Everton fans would argue they haven’t got a clue what it is at the moment. He is relatively similar to Pochettino in his approach, prioritising a targeted press with a midblock (not quite full Klopp), narrow wingers linking with a number ten, and darting full-backs who carry the main threat. From Andrew Robertson to Jose Holebas to Lucas Digne, everywhere he goes Silva’s left-backs are a crucial part of the attack.
But that’s all that seems to be going right this season. Defensively, an inability to compress the space between midfield and defence means the centre-backs are frequently exposed on the counter (Everton would benefit from having a midfielder who, like Eric Dier, can drop to make a back three when Everton have the ball). Their dreadful set-piece record is well documented, while central midfield is far too passive now Idrissa Gueye has gone; Morgan Schneiderlin and Andre Gomes cannot control a game.
There is plenty of time for Man City to recover, but averaging two points per game has to be considered an underachievement for Pep Guardiola’s side. They looked surprisingly flat and idealess without Kevin de Bruyne in the Wolves game, with David Silva perhaps showing his age and Ilkay Gundogan unable to offer attacking balance in the centre-right space, but all things considered attack is not a problem for City.
At the back, they are in real trouble. Nicolas Otamendi charges wildly out of position, exposing a slow Fernandinho, while Rodri doesn’t have the defensive instincts to screen in front. Kyle Walker’s form only adds to the problem, although once John Stones is back Guardiola can return Fernandinho to midfield and restore order.
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