Direct football disappears, Pep’s interior fullbacks are now the standard and Erling Haaland has shaken up Manchester City. Here’s five tactical lessons we’ve learned after the first month of the Premier League 2022/23…
1) ‘Interior’ full-backs go mainstream as Liverpool struggle in midfield
Pep Guardiola sent the Premier League commentariat into a frenzy on his first ever game as Manchester City manager back in 2016 when he instructed full-backs Bacaray Sagna and Gael Clichy to sit in central midfield. Six years on, it has become such a common tactic at Man City that the idea has begun to spread to the rest of the division.
Many teams are now comfortable with their full-back sitting in midfield when the ball is on the other side of the pitch, to help shuttle it across if needed, but there are a few who are taking it even further in 2022/23. Arsenal signing Oleksandr Zinchenko has allowed them to do deploy ‘interior full-backs’ as a regular feature, while Ben Davies has stepped out from central defence to perform a similar role for Tottenham Hotspur.
But the most intriguing example is at Liverpool, attempting to solve their problems in central midfield in an unusual way. Jurgen Klopp’s failing to replace Georginio WIjnaldum, coupled with Thiago Alcantara’s injury issues, means Liverpool aren’t able to control games or prevent counter-attacks like they used to. His solution has been to deploy Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson in these ‘interior’ positions. It hasn’t been working.
2) Direct football has left the Premier League
Opta’s Duncan Alexander predicted before the start of the campaign this would be the first year on record that every Premier League team would record a pass completion percentage of over 70%. Currently Southampton are bottom of the charts on 73.6%, reflecting the dying art of direct football and of long hoofs into the channels to gain yards.
The technical improvements among defenders, along with the attacking fashion of the time, means the Premier League has been moving away from direct football for a while now. But perhaps more significantly, the old ‘fire-fighter’ managers have lost their grip on the division, as even relegation-threatened clubs now prefer to bring in progressive coaches.
This may have something to do with the tactical and technical expertise of the modern footballer, who can absorb complex instructions more quickly than in days gone by. Consequently, you don’t need simple ‘back to basics’ defensive coaches to pull off a great escape.
The shift does not mean there are no longer any long-ball teams, but rather those that practice them also like to pass the ball around at the back in order to find the right angle – and the right moment, encouraging the opposition press – before launching it. That is how Brentford and Nottingham Forest in particular have been playing, the latter because they are yet to gel and the former in order to bring Bryan Mbeumo and Ivan Toney into the game.
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3) Haaland has a puzzling influence on Man City
The headline at the end of this season will be Erling Haaland’s extraordinary impact on the Premier League – one way or another. With 11 goals in seven matches Haaland looks set to obliterate the current record of 32 goals set by Mohamed Salah in 2017/18. He has given Manchester City a dramatically different feel, making them more urgent, vertical, unpredictable, and exciting; the extent to which Pep Guardiola has been willing to change the dynamic of his team to accommodate Haaland is astonishing.
The influence may not be as positive as it looks at the moment. Man City dropped points against Newcastle United and Aston Villa – and were troubled quite a lot by Crystal Palace – because they are now more vulnerable to counter-attacks and less able to build through the lines. Haaland does not come short for the ball, meaning City’s passing can look a little stale and U-shaped, while the disconnect between him and the midfielders means City are open through the lines when the ball is turned over.
Once opponents work out how to limit Haaland in the box, we might see Man City endure a turbulent time. Or maybe he’ll score 50 Premier League goals and City will romp to the title.
4) British managers’ struggle suggests PL increasingly tactically
Should Brendan Rodgers lose his job over the international period the Premier League will have just six British managers, its lowest-ever number. Three of these occupy the three relegation places. This could be a quirk, but more likely it reflects the changing attitudes of Premier League clubs (with regards to fire-fighters, as mentioned above) and the increasing understanding that tactical intelligence requires detailed coaching that, at the moment, rarely comes from Britain.
Rodgers is an excellent manager simply at the end of a cycle and an outlier here, while it is notable that Graham Potter – the only success among the six right now – slowly rose up through his coaching work in mainland Europe. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and even Eddie Howe got jobs very quickly after retirement, hence why their tactical work is limited by comparison to others.
Steve Cooper and David Moyes have been arguably the two most negative managers tactically this season, further adding to the argument that the British tradition just isn’t aligned with contemporary tactics.
5) Conte challenges conceived wisdom on good performances
Although negative tactics and direct football are no longer in vogue, as already discussed, there is one huge outlier who deserves a mention in a tactical review of the season so far. The general consensus on Tottenham Hotspur’s start to the season is that performances have been poor in spite of results – but this is a misreading of the situation.
It speaks volumes about the proliferation of possession-centric football that we cannot watch an Antonio Conte team do exactly what they are being asked to do and win the three points without criticising them. But Conte doesn’t want to dominate the ball and has no interest in pressing high, instead sitting in a midblock and inviting opposition pressure in order to spin behind in an artificial counter-attack.
He relies upon ruthless efficiency in a few select automatisms, in set-pieces, and in counters led by his front three. Unless we know what to look for, it means Conte’s Spurs don’t pass the eye test of a good team, yet this is precisely how he won titles in Italy and in England with Chelsea.
As everyone and everything else moves in the opposite direction, Conte is a reminder there is no right way to play football. We should celebrate that difference, not demand conformity.