Analysing the Early Tactical Tweaks from This Season's Premier League Action
For a long time, the Premier League was viewed as a rough-and-tumble arena where the strongest, most aggressive players prospered.
Countless foreign imports arrived in the '90s only to flop in dramatic fashion, and such was the ferver over "flair" players who actually made an impact—such as Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho—that fans became convinced that looking abroad was the method to improve.
Fast-forward 10 years and the situation has reversed, with fans clamouring for their clubs to sign raw English talent and resist the urge to purchase from foreign leagues.
Manchester City bought from Italy, Ukraine and Spain this summer, while Aston Villa tested the waters in the Netherlands, Spain, Poland and Denmark.
Whether it's a coincidence or not is unclear, but the Premier League has undeniably become tactically advanced and balanced during that time, with very few teams favouring the long-ball, "hoof it" method the country is famed for.
Yes, there is still the odd fan who asks "but where's the next Julian Dicks?," but they are few and far between. This summer's business, and consequent early-season tactical trends, have only reinforced the idea that England's top tier is one of the most rapidly developing, evolving league in the world.
Brendan Rodgers' Impressive Liverpool
Liverpool have enjoyed an excellent start to the season, and the efficiency of three consecutive 1-0 victories simply cannot be underestimated.
Free-flowing, attacking football has actually taken a backseat for now, and it's not that the Reds are struggling to grab more than one goal per game, it's more they're content to win 1-0 and control proceedings instead.
In the seasonal opener against Stoke City, Liverpool lined up in a pretty regular 4-2-3-1 formation. Philippe Coutinho played from the left, Jordan Henderson from the right and Iago Aspas' supported Daniel Sturridge as a lone front man.
Going forward they were excellent, moving Stoke's defenders around like chess pieces to allow Coutinho, cutting in off the left, a chance to thread an exquisite killer ball into his forwards.
Had it not been for Aspas' profligacy and Asmir Begovic's brilliance it could have been 6-0, but the main tactical talking point was the adaption of formation once the ball was lost.
Backing off, Henderson drops into the right side of a midfield three, Aspas becomes the lone forward and Sturridge shifts to the right wing—a textbook 4-3-3 system.
It enables Rodgers to push three hardworking central players into the middle to bite at the opponents' heels, Aspas to distract and Sturridge to find space on the flank to counter; The England international is the defence's No. 1 pass option when counterattacking from deep.
Rodgers fiddled with his system a lot last season and there were hints of this emerging, but after having the entire summer to refine it, it's now become a full-time staple.
Michael Laudrup's New-Look Swansea City
Swansea City enjoyed a spectacular second season in the Premier League, with Michael Laudrup taking the reins and continuing Rodgers' fine work in South Wales.
Rather than abandon the previous principles or opt for a radical change in style, the great Dane simply adapted his predecessors' methods and made subtle alterations to the style.
The result? A 5-0 romp on the opening day away to Queens Park Rangers, setting the tone for a fantasy season in which they won Capital One Cup and achieved a top-half Premier League finish.
The magnifying glass now falls harder than ever, and with the Swans facing a fight on the European front as well as looking to move further up the table, both numbers and new ideas were a necessity.
In Wilfried Bony, Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonjo Shelvey, has Laudrup added exactly that?
The Swansea of last season were extremely pragmatic: not quite the patient, careful, lateral passers Rodgers groomed, but close to it. They had the ability to close games out with heavy possession-based football—as Bradford City, who barely got a touch, can testify—yet adopt a more direct method if needed.
The summer signings made indicate Laudrup wants depth, not just in personnel, but also in tactical options.
In their short time together, Michu and Bony have shown they have an incredible understanding of each other's games, switching into each others' positions and pulling defenders all over the place.
This is the first hint of change, as it lessens the load on Michu's back and allows him to drop in and find space.
The other new players, Shelvey and Pozuelo, are far removed from the steady, slow player Ki Sung-Yueng represents, instead offering a busy, frantic outlook.
Swansea became readable last season, and their slower tempo became a trademark of sorts. Laudrup has added a "second gear" to his team in the form of quicker, more chaotic (in a good way) players—individuals who can force the issue, up the tempo and run at opposing players.
It will take a little while to settle, but the once-surprising decision to purchase Shelvey is now becoming more and more explainable.
Manuel Pellegrini's Balanced Manchester City
Pellegrini's ethos has always been about tactical balance, and rather than set out rigid formations and roles, asks his players to understand each other's movements and respond to them.
He'll always play with two strikers up top if he can, and that can sometimes lead to people misdiagnosing his formation, explained by B/R's Jonathan Wilson:
In [City's first two] games, manager ManuelPellegrini had them play what was commonly described as a 4-4-2, although the difference between their way of playing and the blockish 4-4-2s that dominated England football in the '80s is so vast as to be almost a case study in how crude numerical designations of formations can be at times.
4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1—how would you describe the system City are using right now?
It's tough to put it into numerical values, as alluded to by Wilson, and the way Pellegrini's system at the Etihad Stadium should be described is a balanced, conscientious approach to football and formations.
If Edin Dzeko drifts wide, David Silva becomes the centre-forward to ensure the team don't clump together. He's bought a natural winger in Jesus Navas to ensure the pitch stays wide, creating room to play in, and Fernandinho and Yaya Toure have already developed a strong relationship on the field.
The Premier League continues to advance—both technically and tactically—and it's one of the major reasons foreign imports are succeeding almost immediately.
The so-called "adaption period" is almost gone, reserved for the weedier, more technical players who seem the last "type" of player to struggle—Gaston Ramirez still hasn't adapted, and it's thought many teams were turned off by Christian Eriksen's perceived lack of strength.
We've summarised three early changes, from three different managers, that imply the Premier League is no longer just the busiest, strongest, quickest league in the world: It's fast-becoming one of the most technically and tactically superior stages in world football.
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