The Premier League season is less than two weeks old, but a look at how the top sides lined up in their opening matches provides an interesting indication of how they plan to approach the season from a tactical perspective.
The diagrams below, screenshots from the ESPN Soccernet website, show the average positions adopted by the players from Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool in their teams’ opening home games of the season. (Data is taken only from home games because ESPN’s average position diagrams inexplicably go a bit haywire for away teams.)
Average position diagrams do not give a water-tight representation of a team’s formation – which is necessarily in a constant state of flux – but they do offer useful insights into basic shape.
In the 6-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion on the season’s opening day, Chelsea lined up in the same loose 4-3-3 formation that they adopted during last season’s title run-in, but with Florent Malouda playing on the left of the front three, rather than the midfield three. Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka both drop deep to get fully involved in the team’s build-up play and Malouda has become wonderfully adept at exploiting the space they vacate – as he did when he scored the sixth goal against West Brom from Anelka’s lofted pass.
[Squad numbers: 1. Petr Čech; 19. Paulo Ferreira, 33. Alex, 26. John Terry, 3. Ashley Cole; 5. Michael Essien, 12. John Mikel Obi, 8. Frank Lampard; 39. Nicolas Anelka, 11. Didier Drogba, 15. Florent Malouda; Substitutes: 2. Branislav Ivanović, 10. Yossi Benayoun, 21. Salomon Kalou]
Manchester United: 4-4-2
Against Newcastle, Manchester United reverted to the 4-4-2 that they deployed in the majority of their Premier League games last season. The midfield is configured in a fairly orthodox way, albeit with Antonio Valencia keeping much closer to the touchline on the right than fellow winger Nani does on the left. Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes rotate attacking and defensive duties in central midfield, although Scholes asserted more of an attacking influence as the game wore on and Newcastle dropped back. Dimitar Berbatov appears to play notably deeper than Wayne Rooney (whose conversion to an out-and-out goalscorer now seems complete), making the formation look like a 4-4-1-1.
[1. Edwin van der Sar; 22. John O’Shea, 15. Nemanja Vidić, 23. Jonny Evans, 3. Patrice Evra; 25. Antonio Valencia, 24. Darren Fletcher, 18. Paul Scholes, 17. Nani; 9. Dimitar Berbatov, 10. Wayne Rooney; Substitutes: 21. Rafael, 11. Ryan Giggs, 14. Javier Hernández]
Arsenal have maintained faith in the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid system they used last term. Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere anchor the midfield – with Wilshere playing much deeper and more centrally than many observers predicted for him during his fulgurant ascent through the youth ranks – while Tomáš Rosický adopts the ‘Fabregas role’. Robin van Persie is likely to take Marouane Chamakh’s place when he returns to the starting XI; not least because of the scintillating form of Theo Walcott.
[1. Manuel Almunia; 3. Bacary Sagna, 17. Alex Song, 5. Thomas Vermaelen, 22. Gaël Clichy; 2. Abou Diaby (partly obscured), 19. Jack Wilshere (partly obscured); 14. Theo Walcott, 7. Tomáš Rosický, 23. Andrei Arshavin; 29. Marouane Chamakh; Substitutes: 4. Cesc Fàbregas (partly obscured), 10. Robin van Persie, 11. Carlos Vela]
Tottenham Hotspur: 4-4-2
The limitations of Tottenham’s classic 4-4-2 were ruthlessly exposed by Young Boys in the first leg of their Champions League play-off, but Harry Redknapp is unlikely to change tack in domestic matches. Spurs’ shape in the 0-0 draw with Manchester City on the opening day mirrored the way they played towards the end of last season. Tom Huddlestone anchors a broadly diamond-shaped midfield with Luka Modrić at its tip, while Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale supply pace and athleticism on both flanks.
[1. Heurelho Gomes; 22. Vedran Ćorluka; 20. Michael Dawson, 26. Ledley King, 32. Benoît Assou-Ekotto; 7. Aaron Lennon, 6. Tom Huddlestone, 14. Luka Modrić, 3. Gareth Bale; 18. Jermain Defoe, 15. Peter Crouch; Substitutes: 17. Giovani dos Santos, 10. Robbie Keane, 9. Roman Pavlyuchenko]
Manchester City: 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3
Yaya Touré played alongside Gareth Barry and slightly ahead of Nigel de Jong in City’s 0-0 draw at Spurs, but in the 3-0 defeat of Liverpool on Monday night he was pressed into action as an unconventional advanced central midfielder. City’s formation looks like a 4-2-3-1, but Touré’s more defensive profile, coupled with the advanced positions adopted by both wide players, means City were essentially adopting the 4-2-1-3 shape recently put forward as the archetypal modern formation by Jonathan Wilson.
[25. Joe Hart; 2. Micah Richards, 28. Kolo Touré, 4. Vincent Kompany, 19. Joleon Lescott; 34.Nigel de Jong, 18. Gareth Barry; 11. Adam Johnson, 42, Yaya Touré, 7. James Milner; 32. Carlos Tévez (partly obscured); Substitutes: 5. Pablo Zabaleta, 27. Jô (partly obscured)]
Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 is as tried and tested as Premier League formations come and they looked perfectly comfortable in the 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal, despite the first-half dismissal of Joe Cole. Their familiarity with the 4-2-3-1 makes it all the more baffling that Roy Hodgson should have decided to set his side out in a completely untested (Fulham-style?) 4-4-2 at City, prompting a ruthless and not unpredictable dismantling at the hands of Roberto Mancini’s men.
[25. Pepe Reina; 2. Glen Johnson, 23. Jamie Carragher, 37. Martin Škrtel, 5. Daniel Agger; 8. Steven Gerrard, 20. Javier Mascherano; 18. Dirk Kuyt, 10. Joe Cole, 14. Milan Jovanović; 24. David Ngog; Substitutes: 17. Maxi Rodríguez, 21. Lucas Leiva, 9. Fernando Torres]