Premier League Tactical Systems: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool

On Sunday, the champions elect took on the defending champions in what promised to be a mouth-watering clash at the Etihad stadium.

However, the actual match itself was anything but. Chelsea had set themselves up to play for a draw by defending deep within their own halves and opting not to deploy a recognised striker on the pitch. It wasn’t quite clear why they went down this route, for Manchester City had played Arsenal two days before they took on Antonio Conte’s men, and were sure to show signs of fatigue as the match progressed.

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The match itself wasn’t at all entertaining, for while Chelsea were defensively resolute for major parts of the game, suffocating City’s creators around the centre and forcing them out wide, they seldom looked to make the most of whatever little possession they had. After a lapse of concentration and a fortuitous finish gave City the lead, they never needed to get out of first gear, as Chelsea had rolled over. They were happy to keep the score at 1-0, and City were likewise to keep near exclusive possession of the ball.

The two approaches prompt a question – what is the importance of a footballing system? A basic approach to every game, tailored specifically to play to the team’s strengths. Here, I look to analyse the systems of a few of the leading teams in the Premier League, and how they’ve proved to be assets or liabilities to them.

Manchester City

It would not be wrong to say that Pep Guardiola is almost obsessed with ball possession. Keeping the ball accounts for a significant part of his philosophy, with comfort in possession and positional awareness also constituting major portions. It’s because of this approach that he’s able to field two creative midfielders and a single defensive one in a midfield three.

As long as City keep the ball, they wear the opposition down, and are in no danger of conceding themselves. It is because every player is so well suited to this system, that Ilkay Gundogan, a holding midfielder by nature, was able to slot so seamlessly into the midfield three in place of the only true DM City have in their squad, and boss the game, racking up a record number of touches in a single premier league game since records begun. Since City don’t alter their approach come what may, the players are well versed with exactly what they have to do every time they walk out on to a football pitch.

The invited high press, the playing out from the back, and the extra man in midfield which leaves them with their creators in behind the midfield and in regular 4v4 situations against the back line is truly a model to behold.

This system of possession and patience, transitioning into finesse and dynamism in attack that Guardiola has implemented here at City has struck fear into opposing PL teams, with Conte openly admitting that he would rather not play and come away with a respectable 1-0 scoreline than look to attack City and lose 4-0. Pep deserves a huge amount of credit for sticking to his system, despite several (near) disasters that ensued last season.

Chelsea

As Guardiola himself put it, Antonio Conte brought with him a new way to attack, and at the same time maintain defensive solidity. Attacking and beating teams 5-0 whilst playing a five man back line was unheard of before Conte did it in the toughest league in the world.

With two defensive midfielders, the wing backs were free of most defensive responsibilities, and they bombarded forward, providing the width and the luxury of doubling up against opposing full backs. They often played on the counter, but they were so quick and so clinical that it would have taken an extremely well-constructed argument to dispute their deservingness of the title of PL champions. This season, however, they have tapered off, with the fissures and cracks ensuing straight from the start of the season.

Neither was Conte happy with the business conducted at Chelsea, neither was the board happy with their manager’s attitude. To top it all off, the players too, were signalling their disapproval of Conte’s training methods. Chelsea, fielding the same system in the first half of this season as they did the last, were often caught out by their opponents, for the new players did not have the same skill set, or potentially the same desire and hunger as they did last season.

When Conte looked to change his approach, with more emphasis on playing down the centre in a 5-3-1-1, his star striker in Morata failed to deliver, leaving him with little to no alternative to switch to a formation that didn’t include a recognised striker. The repeated changes to the system means that Chelsea were unable to find much consistency, and the uncertainty of the manager’s future, as well that of a couple of squad players’ did not help.

Arsenal

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Arsene Wenger has had exponentially more than his fair share of criticism in recent months. Failure to qualify for CL, and lacklustre outings in cup ties have completely eroded the faith of the Arsenal faithful in their manager.

That being said, Wenger has established a stable and steady system at Arsenal, with three being the preferred back line, supplemented by wing backs, shielded by two central midfielders, with a front three leading the attack. Arsenal have held fast to this system for almost a season and a half now, reverting to a back three now than a four we saw in prior years. Wenger’s system sees two holding midfielders, with the playmaker in Ozil coming in from the wide positions.

The front three generally play quite narrow, and it’s the wing backs who provide the width. It’s quite a well worked system, except for one thing; they haven’t got the players to sustain it. Xhaka and Ramsey as holding midfielders leave a lot to be desired in the central of the park, with neither of the two able to really dominate the game and orchestrate attacks, or sniff out danger and take preventive measures. The attacking prowess they offer is modest in comparison to every other top six club.

Further, as disclosed by players, Arsenal focus nearly exclusively on on-the-ball training, and not enough on physical training, which further undermines their ability to last the 90 minutes at a decent pace without emptying the energy tank. Owing to this midfield vulnerability and the lack of stamina, Arsenal have been found out on innumerable occasions, with their midfield getting run over, defensive lapses, or just being bullied off the ball and off the park by a more physical side.

Manchester United

Jose Mourinho is undoubtedly a tactical mastermind. We can say what we like about his uber-negative approaches to any and every big game, but he grinds out results. This season however, the Mourinho ship has been hit by icebergs aplenty, albeit small ones. His setup though, has been quite capricious; much like Jose himself. At the dawn of the season, United looked a class apart, putting four past teams for fun, whilst also maintaining a very sound defensive record. However, the injury to Pogba forced the Portuguese manager to adapt an unprecedented system.

He lost his main playmaker, and now there was really no one to feed Lukaku up top, who was at his best playing as a finisher, as a target man. United’s build up play got slower and slower, and teams started finding ways to suffocate and irritate United, and opposition strikers increasingly found themselves in behind the back four.

When Pogba returned, United looked set to get back on track, blowing the opposition out of the water with some mesmerising attacking displays. But it wasn’t to be, for a standoff between the French midfielder and his gaffer saw him occasionally left out of the XI.

Furthermore, United’s approach to games against title rivals and games against lower league opposition is so, so vastly different, that it became quite an ordeal for them to find consistency, and they often struggled to get out of first gear, even against lower league opposition.

Liverpool

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Jurgen Klopp seems to have masterminded a near fool proof system. With Roberto Firmino thriving in a False Nine role, Liverpool’s attack has become arguably the most potent in Europe, with the dynamic wingers Mo Salah and Sadio Mane capable of setting any defence ablaze within minutes.

Long term injuries to Clyne and Moreno forced Klopp to look towards a relatively more defensive full back pairing in Alexander Arnold and Robertson. Both players are very keen on bombarding forward, while not sacrificing the defensive aspect of their games. The midfield three (four if you count Firmino) start in almost diamond like formation in central midfield, with Can doing most of the defensive work, Henderson the chief of pressing, and Oxlade Chamberlain thriving in a free central midfield role which he didn’t have at Arsenal.

Klopp’s style has always been to employ a high press and force the ball off the opposition in well advanced areas for his players to subsequently capitalise upon, but this season, he has taken his pressing to another level. Whilst Manchester City’s pressing style involves two or three men crowding out the man in possession and taking it off him, Liverpool’s involves a zonal marking system – Whichever player presses (and only one presses the man in possession), the others crowd out the potential passing lines.

This helps stop potential counter attacks, in which players get sucked in and leave gaps in behind, and also allows Liverpool to always have enough bodies to cover central midfield, not allowing the opposition’s creators to pick the ball up near the halfway line, but rather make them resort to getting it halfway in their own half, as they demonstrated so effectively against Manchester City.

In attack, the deadly trio are well versed in the runs the other makes and the spaces they like to take up, and since defenders are unsure of whether to leave their position and challenge / mark Firmino, or allow him to get on the ball before engaging allows Liverpool to have the time and the space to pick up a runner in behind, which they’ve used to devastating effect this season. However, weakness still remain in their defensive solidity, and in the fact that they drop off quite frequently against big teams having gone ahead, with City and Tottenham’s encounters at Anfield proving to be good exhibits.

In conclusion, the better defined a system is, the more consistent it is, and the degree to which it is set to play to the team’s strengths determine how good it is. Systems can be several, ranging from a 5-2-3 with a False Nine to a 3-5-2 with no out and out playmaker – As long as it plays into the hands of the team employing it, and as long as it employed with regularity and rigidity, any system is capable of leaving the opposition chasing shadows, spectators with their jaws dropped, and a legacy of success. Just ask the architects of Tiki Taka and Total Football.

Written by Ayush Verma.

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