As the dust settles on a Premier League season that somehow managed to be full of surprises and yet completely predictable at the same time, Football Further looks at some of the tactical trends that characterised the campaign.
Wall-to-wall flat back fours
A flat back four, often with attacking full-backs, continues to be the overwhelmingly predominant defensive strategy in the Premier League. All 20 teams in the English top flight preferred a back four this season and the rare deviations often met with alarming results. Injuries forced Manchester United to deploy a makeshift back three of Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Richie de Laet at Fulham in mid-December and they went down 3-0, while Wigan’s attempt to stymie Chelsea’s influence in wide areas on Sunday by lining up in a previously untested 5-3-2 was an unmitigated disaster.
Another interesting feature of the campaign has been the perhaps surprising popularity of two-striker formations. Tactical experts readily assert that one-striker formations represent football’s future, but in this season’s Premier League, only Arsenal, Blackburn, Everton, Liverpool, Wigan and Wolves regularly played with only one recognisable central forward in attack.
Elsewhere, strike partnerships were all the rage, from Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka at Chelsea to Frédéric Piquionne and Aruna Dindane at Portsmouth. Some sides even played with three. Birmingham deployed James McFadden on the left of midfield in support of Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome, Martin Paterson played in a wide role alongside David Nugent and Steven Fletcher for Burnley, while Sunderland managed to accommodate Darren Bent, Kenwyne Jones and Fraizer Campbell in their line-up towards the end of the season.
“The 4-4-2 structure is not his forte,” said Birmingham boss Alex McLeish on McFadden’s repositioning as a wide midfielder. “He has got an edge in the last third which is why in the middle part of the season we played him around the corner and narrowed the midfield – [Sebastian] Larsson, [Barry] Ferguson, [Lee] Bowyer – and we compensated a wee bit in that very good run we had. James played around the corner to support the front two and that is his best position. You do take a bit away from him trying to make him a 4-4-2 player.”
The shift in attacking emphasis is borne out by the statistics. Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tévez and Bent all scored in excess of 20 goals this season (and Fernando Torres would definitely have joined them had it not been for injury), which was the first time since the 2003-04 campaign that four strikers breached the 20-goal barrier in the same Premier League season. With Frank Lampard also chipping in with a superb 22-goal haul, 2009-10 was also the first season since 1994-95 that five players broke the 20-goal mark.
Formations: 4-4-2, Christmas tree and the mythical 4-6-0
As documented last week, 4-4-2 remains the reference point for a number of Premier League sides including Aston Villa, Birmingham, Fulham, Stoke and Tottenham. Chelsea’s formation changed constantly. They began the season with a midfield diamond, switched to a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree during the Africa Cup of Nations and ended the season playing in an enterprising 4-3-3. Manchester United shifted between a fairly classic 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1 made possible by Rooney’s extraordinary new-found capacity to lead the line on his own, while Arsenal persevered with a 4-3-3 that shifted to 4-2-3-1 on occasion. Liverpool, perhaps typically, rarely deviated from their own well-established 4-2-3-1.
The season was not without innovation. Blackburn tried out a number of different midfield configurations, while Owen Coyle looked at 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 before eventually settling on an adventurous 4-4-2 with the on-loan Jack Wilshere in central midfield and wingers on both flanks in the final days of Bolton’s campaign. Arsenal’s injury blight even saw Arsène Wenger have a crack at the mythical 4-6-0.
Sunderland, who were set out in a 4-3-3 by Steve Bruce in pre-season, began the campaign in a 4-4-2, flirted with 4-3-3 during their disastrous 14-game mid-season winless streak and returned to playing with three up top (albeit with Campbell playing more as a right-sided midfielder) in the home straight.
One of the most significant organisational changes occurred at Wolves, who embarked upon the season in a 4-4-2 with Kevin Doyle and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake up front before switching to a 4-5-1 with Doyle as lone striker midway through the campaign.
“We’ve played 4-4-2 – we went to Everton and should have won and did so at Tottenham when we did win,” said coach Mick McCarthy this week. “But there came a point in the season when we couldn’t afford to get beat and I had to manage and coach and organise the team differently. I wasn’t going down with this team playing 4-4-2 and nice attractive football.”
David James, meanwhile, revealed that in his experience, tactical preparation was far from a top priority at many English clubs.
“At club level we do roughly 20 minutes on the opposition the day before a match,” the England goalkeeper wrote in his column for The Guardian in October. “At Portsmouth our video analysis bloke puts together a DVD of corners, free-kicks and penalties as preparatory work. But I’ve never been at a club where we sit down as a formation – a defensive or offensive group – and spend time working out systems.”
Centre-backs at full-back, strikers on the flanks
Football fans tend to be quite conservative when it comes to discussing a player’s best position, largely because seeing them excel in a particular role sometimes makes it difficult to imagine them operating anywhere else. It is for this reason that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi continue to be referred to as wingers, even though both now operate in very different positions altogether.
A number of players finished the season playing in different positions to the one they are usually associated with, and for many it could be a move that shapes the rest of their career. Carlos Cuéllar started Aston Villa’s first three games at centre-back but was shifted to right-back by Martin O’Neill following the acquisition of James Collins from West Ham and has played there ever since. The superb form of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann in central defence for Birmingham, meanwhile, has forced Liam Ridgewell to play at left-back, where he has performed well.
Branislav Ivanović did so well when deputising at right-back for Chelsea’s injured José Bosingwa that he will undoubtedly be asked to play there more often in future. And he was not the only one. Julien Faubert, a right-winger, spent the whole season playing at right-back for West Ham and Robert Huth, whose physical attributes scream centre-back, has featured at right-back on regular occasions for Stoke.
The well-documented fad for inside-out wingers means that players like Fulham’s Damien Duff and Simon Davies have had to get used to playing on the opposite flank from their natural side. Adam Johnson and Shaun Wright-Phillips were asked to make similar adjustments at Manchester City. Shifted inside from the right wing, Villa’s James Milner has been a revelation in central midfield. Wilshere, long considered a winger or central attacking midfielder during his rise through the Arsenal ranks, finished his loan spell at Bolton playing as a surprisingly deep-lying central midfielder alongside Fabrice Muamba (average position diagram taken from ESPN Soccernet):
Forwards have also been used in more inventive and often more defensive roles. Wigan’s Hugo Rodallega has been deployed wide on the left, while Everton’s Victor Anichebe managed to nail down a first-team place towards the end of the campaign playing as a right-winger. Nicklas Bendtner’s season kicked off with him playing wide right for Arsenal but Wenger had to abandon the experiment due to the long-term injury sustained by Robin van Persie.
As alluded to earlier, Anelka, McFadden and Paterson all spent time playing in wide areas, while Robbie Keane temporarily filled in on the left for Tottenham in the absence of the injured Luka Modrić, before his loan move to Celtic.
The fad for switching wingers to the opposite side of the pitch from their ‘natural’ flank has been written about quite extensively this season, but for the record, the following teams all did it on a regular basis: Aston Villa (Stewart Downing and Ashley Young), Fulham (Duff and Davies), Manchester City (Martin Petrov/Adam Johnson and Craig Bellamy) and Wigan (Charles N’Zogbia and Rodallega).
Some teams chose to field just one wide player on the ‘wrong’ side. Steed Malbranque often played on the left for Sunderland (sometimes in a 4-4-2, sometimes in a 4-3-3), despite favouring his right foot, while Modrić and Niko Kranjčar performed similar roles in the first half of the season for Tottenham. Nani, a right footer, mostly played on the left for Manchester United, as did Arsenal’s Andrey Arshavin. Matthew Jarvis spent the whole season scurrying up and down on the left for Wolves despite the fact he naturally favours his right foot.
Stoke’s response to playing against City’s switched wingers was to transfer their full-backs to the opposite side of the field, with the right-footed right-back Andy Wilkinson moving to left-back in anticipation of Petrov lining up on City’s right. The move backfired, but it will be interesting to see if inside-out full-backs become a feature of the 2010-11 campaign.
The Tinkermen cometh
Squad rotation is now an accepted part of the modern game, although pundits will sometimes wrongly insist that a first-choice XI still exists at most clubs. The statistics suggest that only a handful of managers (among them McLeish, Villa’s Martin O’Neill and Fulham’s Roy Hodgson) had a clear idea about their strongest team.
Most consecutive Premier League games with an unchanged side
Aston Villa: 6 (April 14 – May 9)
Birmingham City: 12 (November 21 – February 7)
Blackburn Rovers: 2 (two occasions)
Bolton Wanderers: 3 (two occasions)
Burnley: 5 (two occasions)
Chelsea: 2 (two occasions)
Everton: 2 (three occasions)
Fulham: 2 (four occasions)
Hull City: 3 (February 2 – February 10)
Manchester City: 0
Manchester United: 0
Portsmouth: 2 (February 12 – February 19)
Stoke City: 3 (May 1 – May 9)
Sunderland: 2 (April 3 – April 10)
Tottenham Hotspur: 3 (January 26 – February 6)
West Ham United: 2 (four occasions)
Wigan Athletic: 4 (September 26 – October 24)
Wolverhampton Wanderers: 6 (February 10 – March 20)
Four of the top seven sides (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United) went through the whole season without ever playing two consecutive matches with the same starting XI, but stability was rewarded too. The three sides that enjoyed the longest runs without changing their starting XI – Aston Villa, Birmingham and Wolves – all had largely positive seasons. If nothing more, the statistics above demonstrate that neither constant tinkering nor purposeful conservatism need automatically be barriers to achievement.
Harry’s final thought
Lest we ever get too concerned by the minutiae of what happens on the tactical chalkboard, Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp says the key to success is keeping things as simple as possible.
“I know it sounds a bit basic, but anyone who tells you there’s some magic formula and it’s all about super coaches and everything else is really kidding themselves and trying to kid everybody else,” he said this week.
“You get good players, you play them in the positions they are supposed to play in, you tell them what you expect them to do during the game, you tell them what their responsibilities are to the team and how you expect them to play. They are very well-paid, talented footballers and they then go out and you get them to play.”