Tactical previews of all teams in the Premier League 2019/20 – part 1
This is the first of a four-part preview on what to look at teams in the remaining fixtures from a tactical perspective. The Premier League is at last returning on the 17th of June. We have missed English football for quite a while since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and most teams would have a full squad because of this long break.
This tactical analysis is mainly giving a brief analysis of the team style of plays. By looking at their strengths and weaknesses, we provide you with some hints on what to focus on in the remaining fixtures.
In the first analysis, we investigate the tactics of Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton, Newcastle United, and Aston Villa.
Expected points: 57.8 – (2nd)
Points: 82 – (1st)
Jürgen Klopp’s team were undoubtedly the best in the league this season, and they played with a 4-3-3 on most occasions. They only need one more game to win the league title, and as the next game is a Merseyside Derby, it gives them the chance to celebrate in front of their rivals.
By looking at their xG (57.5) and actual numbers of goal (66), you might think the Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino trident were hugely overperforming. It’s true that they scored more than half of the team’s goals (57.58%), but in fact, they only scored 0.72 more than the xG in total, which was 38 to 37.28. Despite the consistent performances of their front players, what made Liverpool so strong was the system of Klopp.
The Reds were excellent to create the decisional crisis for the opponent. A very good functional player was Firmino, the famous “false-nine” in Klopp’s team. Below is his heat map of the season, showing his heavy presence out of the penalty box, reaching both half-spaces.
The Brazilian could be an extra man in every zone of the pitch, such as the fourth man to overload a midfield trio, or being the additional player to overload either flank. Furthermore, since his movements were unpredictable and the coverage was large, centre-backs were reluctant to track him. It was a small wonder when seeing Firmino having more passes per 90 (32.29) than any other centre-forward in the league (if we are excluding Dele Alli, who played as the striker in Feb and Mar).
In their 4-3-3 system, Liverpool wingers were inverted to the half-spaces and kept the full-backs occupied. At the meantime, the full-backs played very wide to control the wide corridor (sometimes this was an asymmetrical shape when only Trent Alexander-Arnold pushed high), and this put the opposition full-backs in a dilemma to either left the winger or the full-back free. You could see it in this example.
If the team insisted to defend by strict man-marking the full-backs, then wingers were dropped to the defensive third. Liverpool could enjoy a comfortable first phase of the attack with space and a numerical advantage. If the winger did not retreat deep, as seen by Michail Antonio’s position in this image, the player could still pick the wide player with a lofted ball.
Since Alexander Arnold was so good at crossing, and considering his xA (10.68) was just behind De Bruyne while having the best crossing attempts in the league (7.06) per game, letting such a talent do his thing would always be catastrophic. Meanwhile, midfielders such as Georginio Wijnaldum would be keen to join the offensive players and looked for the cross. With these setups, crossing was a strength of Liverpool.
The above image also shows us the counter-pressing setups of the team. Since Liverpool forced a low block with the strong offensive setups, the opponents lacked options after regaining the ball. In this example, West Ham only had three players against Liverpool’s defence with four men.
With the instant pressure and relentless efforts of the front players, potential counter-attacking opportunities were suffocated very early. If the opponent aimed a long ball, Virgil van Dijk, who mastered the art of delaying the attack and 1 v 1 defence, would keep Liverpool’s backline safe. Thanks to the delay, Andrew Robertson and Alexander-Arnold could have time to cover the space left behind.
After talking with our resident Liverpool fan and Bundesliga analyst Cam Meighan, we agreed Liverpool arranged their set-pieces tactics based on Van Dijk. The Reds were extremely strong in the dead-ball situations, scoring six directly while 10 goals occurred after set-pieces. Both set-piece stats were top of the league.
Liverpool were good at freeing Van Dijk to meet the set-pieces by decoy runs, blocking, and runs from deep. An example that mixed the blocking and deep runs would be the goal against Man United.
In the below scenario, you could see Firmino blocked Fred while Van Dijk was arriving to free space as the deepest player in the penalty box.
The good condition and health of the front three were pivotal to the Reds, as none of them has missed more than three games in this campaign. However, given the tight schedule, we should expect Klopp to rotate his squad. Apart from seeing youngsters such as Neco Williams and Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta should get more time too.
Remaining opponents: Everton (A), Crystal Palace (H), Manchester City (A), Aston Villa (H), Brighton (A), Burnley (H), Arsenal (A), Chelsea (H), Newcastle (A)
What to focus on: variations in the midfield with Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain, set-piece strategies
Expected points: 36.7 – (13th)
Points: 41 – (8th)
Mauricio Pochettino’s team could not replicate the success last season and was subsequently sacked, while José Mourinho became the manager of Tottenham. The Portuguese manager has tried different formations because of injuries: 3-4-2-1, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-1-4-1, 3-5-2, 4-3-3. However, one of the best players in the team – Christian Eriksen had left the club and joined Inter in January. This limited the offensive approaches of Mourinho.
Offensively, Tottenham dogmatically stick to a 3-2 shape in the first phase regardless of the formation they were playing. This was not a build-up as Mourinho would not be happy to see his team taking too much risk in their own half. Using this shape is conducive to defend in transition phases as even they lost the ball in the opposition half, but still, five Lilywhites were behind the ball.
Both wing-backs, especially if Serge Aurier started on the right, would provide the width. Peculiarly, Tottenham were reluctant to circulate the ball to move the opponents and find space, though the shape provided a structural advantage by occupying all five vertical zones.
You could see the shape from the image below, an issue in this phase was the support and mobility of the midfielders. Central progression was limited because of the static positionings of Tanguy Ndombèlé and Oliver Skipp, who stayed behind the opponents and passing lanes were unavailable.
The attack also lacked the width in higher areas without the presences of wing-backs. This could be attributed to the freedom given to the attacking players to roam their positions. Neither Lucas Moura nor Erik Lamela were the wide players who stayed on the touchline to stretch the defence. As a result, you would often see Tottenham’s attack lacked options in the flanks, remained centrally and so the ball was lost in tight areas.
In the offensive transitions, the issue was similar with only two or three players making forward runs, they could not stretch the defence and the threat was limited. The below was an example case which showing they were unable to exploit the weak side of the opponents. This was because of the proximity of the Lilywhites.
Defensively, you could interpret the team as a 5-5 block. The back five stayed deep, protecting spaces instead of stepping out.
In the remaining schedule, apart from developing ways to find the back of the net effectively, Mourinho might need to ameliorate the team’s defensive performance and discipline. There are plenty of issues, the first of which is their press. Moura or Heung-min Son tended to press, but without the cover of the central midfielders and wing-backs, gaps between players were exploited and the defensive shape was lost.
Below is an example, a failed and loose press from Tottenham without the wing-back (Japhet Tanganga) covering the midfielder Skipp. Jack Cork and Dwight McNeil easily formed a 2 v 1 to overload Skipp.
Even when Tottenham decided not to press, they still had to figure out the best pair to partner as the central midfielders. So far, Ndombèlé’s performances have been unconvincing, and neither Eric Dier nor Harry Winks provided enough coverage at the midfield. The defence was exposed since midfielders did not offer protection.
Taking the below scene as an example, Ndombèlé and Skipp were merely ball-watching in the box while leaving zone 14 totally free. On Ndombèlé’s issue, we have an analysis to illustrate them one by one from last month.
Maybe Tottenham were fortunate as the key players who were expected to miss the rest of the season returned after the break. These included Harry Kane and Son, potentially Steven Bergwijn as well. They would add attacking flairs and options for the manager.
Given the limitations of the offensive setups, the team needs good strikers like Kane who could finish the half-chances (scoring 11 from 8.11 xG in this season, outperforming his xG in the five consecutive seasons). Also, they needed an experienced player such as Son to create the dynamics in the final third. The individual qualities would help Mourinho with easing the offensive inefficacy in the short term.
Half of the opponents were direct competitors for a continental competition ticket of Tottenham. We would expect to see Arsenal and Leicester play out from the back, so how Mourinho will prepare his defence and avoid repeating the issues will be vital. Whether setting up a midblock or pressing high, they are not the most important, what will be pivotal is the collective behaviours of players. They have to stay on the same page, approaching the target together while maintaining compactness.
Remaining opponents: Manchester United (H), West Ham (H), Sheffield United (A), Everton (H), Bournemouth (A), Arsenal (H), Newcastle (A), Leicester City (H), Crystal Palace (A)
What to focus on: the combinations used in the midfield, individual displays from Kane and Son, which position could Giovani Lo Celso fit at
Expected points: 42.9 – (7th)
Points: 37 – (12th)
After sacking Marco Silva, Carlo Ancelotti became the new manager of the team. In this section, we focus on the Italian’s tactics and how he turned his team into a flexible force. Under Ancelotti, they played with a back three in first few games, but switch to a 4-4-2 afterwards.
By looking at the statistics, Everton should be better than where they are. In the 11 games coached by Ancelotti, they lost three, draw three and won five. Considering the underperformance in both xG (37–43.8) and xG against (46–39.3), the Toffee should have room to further boost the performance.
Their main source of goals relied on Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, who contributed 13 and 10 goals, respectively. However, some squad members such as Theo Walcott and Moise Kean should have grabbed the chances – Walcott only scored a goal from 3.03 xG, while Kean netted once from 2.76 xG. Both were not clinical enough to ease the burden from Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.
Another issue was the sluggish performance of Gylfi Sigurðsson, as the Iceland international has failed to find his form, managed to find the net only once. This had led to Everton’s poor goal-scoring numbers from long shots, also only once.
We are showing their imbalance source of goals with this pie chart, where you could find most goals were scored by Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin.
Ancelotti is not a zealot on playing out from the back like Pep Guardiola is well-known to be. However, he still wished Everton to keep the ball and move it purposefully in the first phase. A commonly seen build-up shape was a boxed 2-2 formed by the midfielders and centre-backs. You could find it in the below example. Meanwhile, the full-backs stayed wide to provide the width (sometimes one of them stays narrow, which is an asymmetrical shape).
The function of the box was to absorb pressure centrally. In the below scenario, five Man United players were kept at the centre. This set the full-back free to occupy the wide corridor, which was Séamus Coleman here.
Mason Holgate was good at playing vertical passes, hence he had the ability to pick the midfielders through players. This allowed Everton to play the ball out, then the full-backs were often the options for further progression. He has been improving since being given chances to play in October, and it would be intriguing to see how high he could reach.
We should also remember the physical qualities of the Everton strikers. This provided the Toffees with another method to progress the ball: playing directly. The below graphs were the build-up trends of the defenders, and apart from the close options and connections with the full-backs, all the graphs shared a feature: finding the No.9.
It was not a coincidence that Calvert-Lewin appeared on all the graphs. In fact, both Everton strikers were involved in 40 and 48 aerial duels in the recent five games, even more than the entire backline. Therefore, they were not dogmatically tied to move the ball on the ground, as instead, going long was also an option.
Crossing has been an important part of Everton’s attack this season. In the Premier League only Manchester City, Liverpool, and Sheffield had more crosses than Everton per 90 minutes (16.81). This could be attributed to the process of open plays as explained above, in which the ball was played to the full-backs often. In the hopes of moving the ball near the goal, the full-back either plays an in-ball or a cross to access the centre.
Playing with two strikers allowed the two centre-backs to be occupied, while the inverted wingers potentially exploited the blindside of the full-backs. These elements appeared in the below scenario, as Djibril Sidibé prepared for a cross. There were variations in the crossings, but we won’t explain them in detail here.
When defending, Ancelotti’s team played in a 4-4-2. Either Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison would initiate the press, then one of the midfielders would push higher to support. Under these circumstances, the shape became a 4-4-2 diamond.
However, Everton’s defence was suffering from structural and compactness issues. A deficit of the two-man midfield was the potential underload by a midfield trio. This could be solved by placing the weak side winger inward, but Everton seldom maintained compactness with this setup. Therefore, after circulating the ball, United easily progressed the attack by finding the free player at the midfield, as you could see in this example.
Meanwhile, either Richarlison or Calvert-Lewin was tasked to stay high as a focal point of the counter-attacks. That means only one of them was defending without the partner’s support, which made it difficult to put much pressure on the ball.
Another Everton defensive issue was their compactness as mentioned above – the wingers’ positions were key to offer defensive covers. We believe Everton would try to achieve a place in continental competitions, the six-point margin from Sheffield would require high standard performances in the last nine games of the season.
Remaining opponents: Liverpool (H), Norwich (A), Leicester (H), Tottenham (A), Southampton (H), Wolves (A), Aston Villa (H), Sheffield United (A), Bournemouth (H)
What to focus on: Holgate’s development, the partnership of the centre-forwards, could the return of André Gomes provide creativity to penetrate centrally
Expected points: 28.3 – (18th)
Points: 35 – (13th)
Constrained by the limited budgets, Newcastle were one of the teams that played very traditional “English Football” in the Premier League. However, instead of sticking to a 4-4-2, Steve Bruce preferred to play his team in a 5-4-1 or a 5-3-2.
Bruce’s team had very unimpressive offensive statistics, being the lowest in several metrics: touches in the penalty area (10.61), progressive passes (56.76 per 90), deep completions (4.15), and passes to the final third (38.80). In some other criteria, including through passes per game (4.89) and crosses per game (12.24), they ranked 18th in the league only. You would wonder how this team were able to maintain an eight-point margin from the relegation zone.
As you would have expected, Bruce’s team were not playing out from the back and instead, they relied on several key players. Jonjo Shelvey was one of them, who played the third-most long passes (8.74 per game) in the league and having the farthest average passing length per long pass (23.83m). The former Liverpool man often initiated the attack by finding the free player on the far side or even playing into the offensive third directly.
In this example, you could see the ball was played to the right wing-back, as Shelvey’s pass helped his team to escape from the press.
When playing against a high defensive line or in the offensive transitions, Newcastle tended to use the long pass and forward runs to attack spaces behind the defence. Miguel Almirón and Allan Saint-Maximin had the pace to receive those passes.
The approach was demonstrated with this image, which Matthew Longstaff played the pass behind the Wolves’ defence for Almirón.
In the offensive transitions, Sanit-Maximin was the key as he had the technique and physical superiority to beat multiple players when given space. The Frenchman has obtained sharp statistics in these domains: 11.51 dribbles per game (58.4%) and 4.19 progressive runs per 90. Because of his quality, things were simple, and the function of the target man was to lay the ball to release the wingers, preferably Saint-Maximin.
Thanks to the quality of Saint-Maximin, pressure was absorbed around him and the Frenchman could provide shooting opportunities for the teammates. Sanit-Maximin was surrounded by four players in the below image, but he kept his head cool to find the free player: Almirón.
Intriguingly, despite how these tactics helped Newcastle to generate good goal-scoring opportunities, they were wasteful. We summarised the xG and goals of Bruce’s attacking players in the table below, and almost all of them were hugely underperforming in terms of finishing.
Thanks to the massive performance of the wing-backs and vital goals from Shelvey, Newcastle pulled many points in some important games. The wing-backs were the key to provide the width and as a free man to receive the switch of plays from the midfielders.
We would like to also highlight Jetro Willems, who provided 0.79 shot assists/90 and 3.05 dribbles/90 with a success rate of 61.1%, ranked ninth in the league. The Dutch left wing-back was able to create the dynamics on the flank while being a part of the back five.
Defensively, it was little wonder to see Newcastle have the highest PPDA in the league at 16.66, 3.64 higher than the 19th on the list (Sheffield United). This was mainly because of the defensive scheme of the team: setting a midblock no matter who their opponent was.
The key to success was the structural benefits of a back five. Since central access was denied because of Newcastle players protecting those areas, the ball was likely to go wide. Teams playing with two wide players (a back four, with a winger and a full-back) would suffer a numerical deficit.
This is illustrated in this following image, when pressing, the ball-side centre-back and wing-back were doing well. They stepped up simultaneously to approach their targets, while as the winger, Almirón, was the third man to overload the zone (3 v 2). At the meantime, you would see the central midfielders retreating to shut the central access. The offensive team could hardly progress in such a tight area.
Since Bruce’s men already got 35 points, two or three more victories and a few draws would guarantee a safe place in the top tier next season. Given the uncertainty on relying on screamers and long shots from the defenders and Shelvey, the front players have to step up and seize the opportunities. Bruce will wish Joelinton to come back stronger, forget his €44m price tag, and serve as a complete forward, grabbing goals and setting up chances for his teammates.
Remaining opponents: Sheffield United (H), Aston Villa (H), Bournemouth (A), West Ham (H), Manchester City (A), Watford (A), Tottenham (H), Brighton (A), Liverpool (A)
Players to watch: Willems, Shelvey, Saint-Maximin, Joelinton
Expected points: 23.9 – (20th)
Points: 25 – (19th)
Dean Smith’s team were in trouble after playing 28 games unless they gained all three points from Sheffield. They had the worst defensive record with the 56 conceded goals. Offensively, they scored 34 from xG 33.6, better than Watford, West Ham, and Bournemouth. Unfortunately, their two key players Wesley and John McGinn were injured and missed plenty of games. Therefore, Smith’s team had to switch the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 before the season pause. We will focus on the 3-4-3 in this section.
Offensively, Villa players spread themselves very wide, which aimed to open the shape and stretch the defence. However, they failed to utilise the structural and positional superiorities despite occupying many vertical zones. Two players in the midfield were not enough, hence why the wide centre-backs had to move the ball out often. You could see Ezri Konsa doing this in the image below.
But what were the issues with this phenomenon? A problem would be lacking the progressive options and over-relying on several players: the centre-forward or Jack Grealish. A structural issue was the vacuum midfield, as Villa were outnumbered as there were only two central midfielders. In the below scene, Tottenham easily contained all options in the block.
As a result, the attacks of Villa heavily focused on the flanks and playing long, where they lacked options and it was difficult to reach the offensive third with quality. This also contributed their fifth position in terms of crosses per 90 in the league, which was 16.14. The best way and the only way to escape from the flanks was the presence of Grealish if he was available. An example would be the following image, in which Grealish positioned himself between the lines.
We all know Grealish was vital, but how key was he? By the stats, he was good at progressive runs, offering 4.43 per 90 mins which stood fourth among offensive midfielders and wingers. He was the main man in the final third, who provided the creativity and creates something out of nothing.
There were far too many examples on the varieties of services Grealish could provide, including a goal that went past David de Gea. Grealish had exceptional passing techniques. In this example, Villa were underloaded on the right, and a Chelsea player was shutting the central passing lane. However, Grealish smartly bent a curved-ball to the central target, the curve was vital to escape from the nearest defender and not many in the league could play that ball with speed and accuracy. With a third-man run, they scored an equaliser. Almost all dangerous movements in the third required Grealish to initiate with a penetrating pass or a dribble.
On most occasions, Villa had to defend in a midblock or a low block. However, the 3-4-3 formation of Smith had a structural issue. Two midfielders were very likely being outnumbered against formations with three or more midfielders, such as the 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, and 3-4-2-1.
The opponent could easily manipulate the Villa central midfielders to open a passing lane or avoid the pressure on the ball. You could see Lo Celso was unpressured as Moura and Bergwijn attracted both Villa midfielders.
Meanwhile, huge spaces were available between the horizontal lines as Smith’s men tended to set a low defensive line. Although this could block many of the opponents’ shot (Villa blocked 4.81 shots per game and totally denied 11.28 xG, both were highest in the league), the pressing intensity remained low. As a result, Villa seldom recovered the ball in the central third, having a 24.84% recovery in that area and which was the 18th of the league.
Collectively, the Villa wing-backs had to do more by providing defensive cover and compactness. Backed to the above image, Trézéguet were too far away from the midfielders.
In fact, with a back five, Villa could have done better in the above case. Hause has left his position a bit to approach Moura. However, Luiz also moved to the same target because of the lack of communication, which was suboptimal. This was a hint that the players were confused about their individual roles, when they should trigger a press and what were the objectives.
Villa were doing quite fine in the offensive set-pieces. They scored nine goals after set-pieces, which was the joint second-best in the league. We highlighted an intriguing trend from their corners in this example.
It was a commonly used tactic. With one or two players (mainly the striker) making forward movements to the front post, all eyes were those players while spaces generated at the far post or between defenders. When the deliveries were high and deep enough, the far side players seized the moments to attack the goal.
Switching to a back three did not solve all issues, while the results were not positive enough (2W1D4L). Smith might revert the formation to a 4-3-3, which offered more layers in the attack. Another factor that might lead to the change was the return of key players, Wesley and McGinn. However, they had to ease the defensive issue by doing better in collective behaviours, such as pressing and maintaining compactness.
Remaining opponents: Sheffield United (H), Chelsea (H), Newcastle (A), Wolves (H), Liverpool (A), Manchester United (H), Crystal Palace (H), Everton (A), Arsenal (H), West Ham (A)
What to watch: the return of Wesley and McGinn, can Grealish save the team, set-piece plays
The above was mainly explaining the general style of plays of teams. It was difficult to show all the variations and tactics of the teams in a concentrated version analysis. We wish these would give you some hints and suggestions on what to notice when the Premier League returns. We will cover the whole league, there are more to come!
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