After the conclusion of the Premier League season, tactical expert Alex Keble looks at the strengths and weaknesses for each top-six club.
The tactical variety that underpins Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is what makes them so extraordinary, domestically at least. This isn’t just a collection of the best players, it is the best coached team in the history of English football; every movement synchronises because every player has listened to intensive positional instructions over the last two years.
The definitive image of the team is patiently probing, waiting for a gap to open, and then slipping the ball inbetween centre-back and full-back for a low cross to the back post. The ending might frequently look the same, yet there are a hundred ways City get to that final pass.
But any summary of their season must highlight how they have changed the tactical landscape of the Premier League for the worse. Averaging 64% possession, City’s brilliance has helped create a league of attack versus defence and what is essentially a training exercise for the attackers, the most poignant moment being their 6-0 victory over Watford in the FA Cup final.
Most under-rated tactical element: The complexity of Kyle Walker’s position is often overlooked. He usually plays three roles simultaneously: a traditional overlapping full-back, a right-sided centre-back in a back three, and an inverted full-back (central midfield). Only someone with his positional intelligence and speed could pull off such a feat, with Walker the only moving part as City switch fluidly between formations.
Worst tactical element: City are still slightly vulnerable at left-back, and not just because Benjamin Mendy is so often injured. Guardiola needs another Walker type on the left in order to alternate space on the outside and inside with whoever plays left wing, because right now Oleksandr Zinchenko isn’t dynamic enough and Mendy isn’t as disciplined as the rest of his team-mates.
Summer to-do list: The priority is to sign a Fernandinho replacement. The Brazilian’s absence was felt this season when out injured, and when playing there were moments he was slow on the turn or late to a tackle, suggesting the years are catching up with him.
The story of Liverpool’s season is a transition from gung-ho gegenpressing football to a more conservative style, Jurgen Klopp’s rock-and-roll football becoming more of a power ballad since Virgil van Dijk arrived in January 2018. They are still capable of surging in short bursts, but there is more emphasis now on calmly controlling possession and capitalising on hesitant opposition defenders miscontrolling the ball.
Goals from sudden vertical counter-counters decrease, but Liverpool have replaced them with two complementary methods of attack. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah provide an individualistic, wriggling energy from the inside channels, with both players receiving the ball as quickly as possible from the midfielders in order to combine with Roberto Firmino on the edge of the area.
By doing this, they suck the opposition inwards – which opens space out wide for the full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who created 23 goals between them in the league this season.
Most under-rated tactical element: The sophistication of Liverpool’s three-man midfield, and in particular how they pinch the ball back and recycle possession, is often lost among the more popular argument that they are too stodgy as a trio. This is true to some extent, but for the majority of matches Fabinho’s screening, Jordan Henderson’s late bursts, and Georginio Wijnaldum’s intelligent one-touch passing makes for an ideal combination.
Worst tactical element: Against the deeper teams, Liverpool miss an explosiveness from a playmaker, somebody capable of cutting the lines with a pass (rather than the direct running offered by Mane or Salah). At the moment, there is a sense that Liverpool can be stunted should Salah and Mane fail to make game-changing contributions.
Summer to-do list: Liverpool need higher quality substitutes, and in particular attacking players who can change the tactical shape of a match. Xherdan Shaqiri, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi all struggle to raise the tempo, often simply slotting into the sluggish pace when Liverpool are ambling.
Finishing third and reaching the Europa League final is a good season on paper, but Chelsea fans have not taken to Maurizio Sarri and indeed the club are nothing like his Napoli side. Chelsea started strong, then crashed spectacularly, and since then Sarri has shown greater humility and adaptability - which is another way of saying he appeared to give in, giving young un-Sarri-like players a go and watching on as his one-dimensional team looked for Eden Hazard to bail them out.
Everything is too static, the rhythms too easy to read. Not only are they too Hazard-centric, but Chelsea seem to work through midfield in exactly the same way, failing to pass and move or interchange positions as Sarri would wish. It is worth noting the Italian didn’t get a whole summer to drill the players, but given how oddly prosaic they became in the final third of the season he may not get a second chance to make a first impression.
Most under-rated tactical element: For all their problems, and despite badly missing N’Golo Kante at the base of a porous midfield, Sarri deserves credit for transforming the Frenchman into a box-to-box midfielder this season. Kante’s first touch, passing under pressure, and attacking movement have dramatically improved. As an intelligent, humble, and hard-working player, perhaps Kante’s development is a sign of what Sarri could achieve if the players were more trusting of his methods.
Worst tactical element: Jorginho continues to look out of his depth in midfield, frequently giving the ball away in dangerous positions and failing to break up the play as opponents counter. His problems are a sign of how much Sarri’s football needs to change; the Jorginho situation closely resembles the harsh lessons Guardiola learnt in his first year in England, when his obsession with the “second balls” spoke to a realisation of the chaos in midfield in the Premier League.
Summer to-do list: Chelsea’s transfer ban means they may need to recall young players from loans. But their summer to-do list depends on whether Sarri is given more time. On the one hand, perhaps young and impressionable players will listen to his tactical instructions, but on the other his current senior staff seem far more suited to Mourinho/Conte reactive tactics, and so without any new signings Chelsea may consider approaching Max Allegri.
Summarising Spurs’ tactical status is particularly difficult. They are not as easily definable as any of the other top six clubs, despite a high press and quick-tempo possession football broadly defining the Mauricio Pochettino approach. Tottenham look to swarm midfield, with Harry Kane’s dual 10/9 role central to getting Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen into dangerous positions. This vague description is testament to Poch’s variation – in formation and attacking style – but also to how injuries have forced the manager to adapt his approach from game to game.
Counter-pressing is the club’s most potent weapon, Lucas Moura or Son Heung-Min breaking in behind from a delicate Eriksen/Dele pass a common threat. However, when the opposition sits back, Spurs tend to lack urgency or verticality in their play, instead consistently recycling the ball and waiting for Kane to pull something out of the bag.
Most under-rated tactical element: The sheer scale of Pochettino’s achievement is wildly under-rated. That team should not so consistently dominate matches or finish in the top four so regularly, let alone reach a Champions League final. Their struggle to find a more piercing rhythm in the final third is partly simply a lack of quality in midfield, and so the control Spurs hold in matches is, in fact, testament to the sheer brilliance of Pochettino’s positional coaching.
Worst tactical element: Spurs don’t have agility or energy in central midfield, and right now that is their biggest stumbling block to challenging for the title. For Pochettino’s high-pressing football to work, they need more players like Moussa Sissoko and fewer like Eric Dier.
Summer to-do list: Tottenham need bodies, and lots of them. A line-breaking, assertive playmaker would complement Eriksen nicely (Jack Grealish, ideally), but Pochettino also needs a new right-back, defensive midfielder in the Moussa Dembele mould, and a striker.
A very slow end to the campaign has altered perceptions of Unai Emery, but on the whole this has been an enriching – and broadly purposeful – transitional year for Emery at Arsenal. His experiments are frustrating at times (the Gunners far too often starting in the wrong system only to switch at half-time to something more practical) but following years of tactical stagnation under Arsene Wenger fans should be pleased. A Europa League final and seven more points than in 2017/18 is clear progress.
Emery wants to flit between prosaic possession football – to draw the opposition forward – and sudden vertical movements between the forwards to create fast counter-attacks. So far Arsenal have only shown this ability in patches, and certainly on the road they look tactically inept. For this, blame a lopsided squad. Emery is straining every sinew to teach the players his tactics, and it was always going to take two summers for the effects to take hold.
Most under-rated tactical element: New signings Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi are settling and by August should be perfect for Emery’s biting, high-energy attacking football. These are the sort of intelligent and malleable players the club need, even if watching them adapt has been painful at times.
Worst tactical element: Mesut Ozil’s poor performances epitomise the lethargic culture Emery is hoping to sweep away. He doesn’t work hard enough off the ball, and indeed the entire Arsenal attack (bar Aaron Ramsey) struggle to understand how constant pressing will actually create more space for themselves in the final third.
Summer to-do list: Replacing Ramsey is a top priority, but Arsenal’s away form won’t improve unless they sign at least two new defenders. Arsenal need leaders on the pitch, and a top centre-back organising those in front of him could stabilise their away form – which in turn would comfortably boost Arsenal into the top four.
From Jose Mourinho’s collapse, to Ole at the wheel, to another pitiful collapse this has been an extraordinarily dramatic season even by Manchester United’s recent standards. Gary Neville’s suggestion of Japanese knotweed in the dressing room is the most likely explanation, along with fitness issues deflating the side from March onwards. From a tactical perspective, there are signs that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a plan ready to enact in August.
During their run of form following his appointment United focused on narrow attacking lines and quick distribution into the final third, backed up by flying overlapping full-backs. These are all classic Alex Ferguson traits, with intelligent players capable of shimmying constantly for space (such as Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, and Ander Herrera) given game time ahead of the star names. It was brief, but this was the only moment of tactical coherence in a terrible campaign.
Most under-rated tactical element: Herrera’s impact on the side isn’t always easy to see, but the way he shuffles the ball along, cuts off passing lines for opponents, and constantly makes himself available to receive possession made United faster and more purposeful. Lingard does something similar only higher up the pitch, and yet both players receive flak from a large proportion of the fan base.
Worst tactical element: Rampant individualism, mixed with a lack of intensity, from United’s attacking players has been a big problem under both managers this season. Paul Pogba is the grand symbol of this problem, but the same can be said of Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial.
Summer to-do list: Where to start? United need a huge clear-out and they need young, hungry players willing to build something new from the ashes. A right-back, two centre-backs, a Herrera replacement, a striker, and a left winger are desperately required.