Tactics: How the Premier League title contenders shape up

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.

Chelsea: 4-3-3

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.

The average positions of Chelsea's players in the 6-0 win at home to West Bromwich Albion on August 14 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[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.

The average positions of Manchester United's players in the 3-0 win at home to Newcastle United on August 16 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[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: 4-2-3-1

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.

The average positions of Arsenal's players in the 6-0 win at home to Blackpool on August 21 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[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.

The average positions of Tottenham's players in the 0-0 draw at home to Manchester City on August 14 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[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.

The average positions of Manchester City's players in the 3-0 win at home to Liverpool on August 23 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[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: 4-2-3-1

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.

The average positions of Liverpool's players in the 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal on August 15 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[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]

12 Responses to “Tactics: How the Premier League title contenders shape up”

  • I dont think you can really look much further than Chelsea’s formation when you look at how they have started the season. Their formation works perfectly because they have players to fill each position perfectly – each one is happy is that role. Where as with a lot of the other teams, people are having to play out of position to be accomodated in a formation. Chelsea are the strongest and i cant look further than them for the title.

  • […] by clubs accepting a thrashing. + Football Further tactics: How the Premier League title contenders shape up. Italy + Brescia have confirmed the purchase of Alessandro Diamanti from West Ham for a £1.8m […]

  • Not sure how you got a diamond midfield for Tottenham

    Huddlestone and Modric stay pretty close together when playing centrally and dont get forward much, all direct attacks come from the flanks in Lennon and Bale, this only differs if Niko Kranjcar plays left then he will come inside leaving the left back to bomb forward into the vacated space.

    It’s more like this

    x—x—x—x
    ————-
    —-x—x—-
    x———–x
    ————-
    —-x—x—-

  • […] Tom Williams has a really good piece (with graphics) analyzing tactics/formations of the Premiership contenders, incl…. Basically confirms what we’ve been noticing (and Darren has been telling us) the last couple […]

  • Great piece Tom, will be very interesting to see maybe after 5/10 games if anything has changed with how these teams line-up the transfer window might change a few things as well, if players come or go.

    Really good read though, well done.

  • Regarding Arsenal’s formation, I’d say we’ve played 2 distinct systems so far, the 4-2-3-1 against Liverpool and a 4-2-1-3 against Blackpool.

    Against Liverpool Arshavin and Eboue particularly operated on a line closer to Nasri, in fact sometimes behind (such that it was often 4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase and when breaking out of our own half).

    Against Blackpool, the more naturally forward-minded Walcott pressed high up against Cranie and didn’t drop back as much in the defensive phase, looking to make himself available for the diagonal ball into space (Vermaelen picked out Walcott twice with excellent crossfield passes). I think Rosicky played slightly higher than ESPN’s average position graph may suggest, after the arrival of Fabregas he dropped deeper hence the skewing of his average position towards the deep-lying duo. The interchanging between Rosicky and Arshavin was also promising, as was Chamakh’s willingness to drift into wider areas (mainly the right). For the 1st and 3rd goals, Walcott took up space vacated by Chamakh who had drifted left/right respectively.

    The one constant has however been the Diaby-Wilshere double pivot, I’m hoping it’s a conscious decision by Wenger rather than a chance occurrence. It’ll be interesting to see if Song’s return to normal midfield duties will affect the balance, with Denilson also coming back soon we may yet see a completely different holding pair.

  • One question – how do I subscribe to posts/article? I remember there used to be a checkbox above the ‘submit comment” button.

  • Good stuff Tom – agree with gibfootballshow regarding 5/10 games (although if any of the above teams have used 17+ players by that time the message may get a bit fuzzy)

    so much fantastic information to gain from this – too much to list here I’d guess.

    however, themed on Carlton’s point; looking at the Man. United averages gives the impression of a team adapting more of a 4-2-3-1 as well, even though United clearly set themselves out in an orthodox 4-4-2 (home games typically)

    United, arguably one of the best teams in European football deploying the 4-4-2 probably maintain success with this shape due to their application of encouraging an attacking style of play with plenty of fluidity. Plus the players understand the tactic extremely well, something that maybe shouldn’t be overlooked.

    great article.

  • […] Tactics: How the Premier League title contenders shape up “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.” (Football Further) […]

  • […] credit here must go to the excellent blog, Football Further, it was his article that got me thinking about this idea and inspired me to take a close look at […]

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