Tactical previews of all teams in the Premier League 2019/20 – part 2
This is the second of a four-part preview on what to look from a tactical perspective at all the Premier League teams in the remaining fixtures.
This tactical analysis is mainly giving a brief analysis of the team’s style of play. By looking at their strengths and weaknesses, we provide you with some hints on what to focus on in the remaining fixtures.
Expected points: 63.0 – (1st)
Points: 57 – (2nd)
Despite performing so well and lead in several offensive metrics, as well as having the highest xPt and scoring the most goals (68), they are far behind from Liverpool. Their defence has remained fragile since Vincent Kompany left the team and Aymeric Laporte missed most of the season.
Offensively, the variations and tools of Pep Guardiola’s team to break a press are far too many to be covered in such a short section. We will explain the main approaches and focus on their issues.
Of course, we will look at their famous inverted full-backs. This means the full-backs tended to tuck into the centre, forming a 2-3 or a 3-2 shape in the build-up. Consequently, a numerical overload is easily formed at the centre, and the most important aspect was how these positionings kept the opposition wingers at the centre. The passing lanes towards the winger were opened – Fernandinho passed to Raheem Sterling without obstacles here. Also, this created 1 v 1 opportunities for the winger to exploit the wide areas.
With Benjamin Mendy, City attacked with the full-backs more often and this was different from the tactics above. Instead, we would like to mingle this with the possibilities for Guardiola to play a back three. A huge difference of these setups was the freedom given to the players – since the full-backs occupied the wide corridors, wingers and midfielders roamed their positions.
An example would be the winner at Bramall Lane. You could see how the back three allowed the wide centre-backs to play the out-ball at the half-spaces, where they had more spaces and options. Plenty of positional interchanges here – Kevin De Bruyne went wide as Riyad Mahrez took his position, while Sterling came to the ball side to receive the pass from Kyle Walker. Sergio Agüero was not dropping as a “false-nine”, instead, manipulating the last line with his behaviour.
These positional interchanges helped the players to get rid of the initial markers – Sterling, Mahrez, and De Bruyne were all free. The passes were played without pressure around and facilitated quicker plays from City.
Playing with a back three also eased the defensive issues of City as they already conceded 31 goals this season. Space behind the full-backs was always the Achilles heel of the pressing system, and we have seen the opponents exploit these areas to counter. In this example, Harvey Barnes capitalised on spaces behind Walker to assist Vardy.
Another issue was the choices of centre-backs. They were poor when being isolated – the ageing Fernandinho was easily outpaced, which Jamie Vardy beat him in this case, and neither Nicolás Otamendi nor John Stones were calm enough. The Argentine defender often challenged recklessly, absolutely violating the defensive principle of “delay”. Meanwhile, Stones was not confident and aggressive at times. These have caused catastrophic consequences – both losses against Wolves, the draw against Crystal Palace, you name it.
City also looked to press to regain possession, which you would expect to see from Guardiola’s team. Their 8.69 PPDA stood third in the league, but already not as low as the previous two seasons (7.15 and 8.48). There were some issues in the intensity of the press. One of the issues was the ageing David Silva, as his loose marking and late challenges became the loophole of the press. I have previously explained this in the tactical preview against Real Madrid that this was also the reason why D. Silva was benched in huge games for times this season.
In general, their pressing shape is a 4-4-2, but the executions were often imperfect. For example, you could see Phil Foden did a good job by covering the wide player when pressing. However, Bernardo Silva and Rodri went to the same player, leaving Nemanja Matić free to receive the ball and he broke the press. Issues like this (pressing the wrong player, low intensity) often happened this season, while also in their counter-press, and it troubled City a lot.
City’s defence was very prone to make an individual error. They had the best defensive record in terms of xGA: 25.3, even better than Liverpool’s 27.2. However, there were far too many silly mistakes made: both Everton games, Southampton, Norwich, both games against Wolves, to name but a few.
They had already lost the title, all their hopes were on the UEFA Champions League and the English FA Cup as these two competitions became the motivation of the team to keep the form in the league. We would expect City to play, as usual, trying to beat the opponent, game by game.
Remaining opponents: Arsenal (H), Burnley (H), Chelsea (A), Liverpool (H), Southampton (A), Newcastle (H), Brighton (A), Bournemouth (H), Watford (A), Norwich (H)
What to watch: can Foden replace D. Silva, what Laporte and Sané could add to the team, would Eric García gets his chances.
Expected points: 46.9 – (5th)
Points: 53 – (3rd)
Leicester are undoubtedly having a very good season, outperforming their xPts as you see above. Brendan Rodgers instilled his philosophy of attacking football to the team but allowed a certain level of freedom to the players. Therefore, Jamie Vardy would not be stressed that he had to take part in the build-up, he only had to focus on the goal-scoring role and contributed 19 goals in this campaign.
All eyes were on Çağlar Söyüncü as the Turkish centre-back was confident and sharp in his first Premier League season. However, I feel lots of credit should be given to Jonny Evans as well, as the experienced 32-year-old has an excellent passing range and vision to initiate the attack.
By looking at the statistics, Söyüncü had more forward passes and a higher completion rate. However, Evans was attempting the more difficult passes, having a longer average passing distance. We summarised the stats in this table:
|Forward passes per 90||Progressive passes per 90||Average passing length (m)|
|20.11 (84.32%)||7.83 (67.8%)||
|Jonny Evans||19.73 (77.76%)||8.32 (72.27%)||
When facing a midblock, Evans’ switch of plays was vital to find the wide players. You could see he tried to find Barnes in this image, this diagonal pass surpassed six players, but riskier than a ground pass to a safe option.
Intriguingly, the centre-backs were not the only progressor – all back four played their part in the build-up phase. The below table summarised the progressive passing stats of the back four, the full-backs even had more progressive passes than the centre-backs:
|Progressive passes per 90|
Since Evans was unlikely to play a penetrating ball under pressure, hence, the full-backs were pivotal to bypass pressure. With the strong physical quality and offensive mindsets of Chilwell and Pereira, they often found a progressive pass to connect the front players. This pass either found a runner in spaces between the lines or the passer took the ball to continue from a wall pass.
The below example has shown the feature of this method to break the press. Pereira found Maddison and quickly released by the English international. The right-back was strong and quick to receive the wall pass earlier than Pedro.
The Foxes were very strong to convert the counter-attacking opportunities, scoring 10 from the offensive transitions, more than any other teams in the league. A huge factor was Vardy’s excellent mindset in this phase, as the 33-year-old striker could create space for himself by blindside runs.
A good example was the following run, where Leicester were uncertain to win the loose ball duel from Laporte. However, you could see Vardy already began his run, while Fernandinho only focused on the ball. This allowed Vardy to get into spaces behind Fernandinho and received a through pass.
Leicester had a very strong defensive record, as they only conceded 28 goals. Their xGA was 36.5, and in fact the lowest in the top seven. A huge part would be the phenomenal performance from Kasper Schmeichel.
If we are finding a weakness from their defence, the isolated Chilwell would be an issue. The left-back was better in terms of providing the width and support to the attack. When defending, he was not good at stopping crosses or fragile in 1 v 1 situations. However, neither Söyüncü nor the defensive midfielder provided enough defensive cover when Chilwell was engaging a wide player. As a result, a huge gap appeared as we drew here. This let Mahrez drift inside and score, while in other cases, this might end up with a dangerous cross or the half-spaces being exploited.
With nine games left and a 10-point margin, Leicester should have retained a place in the UEFA Champions League for next season. They had some key competitors to beat. An underlying issue would be replacing the injured Pereira, and so far, rumours have reported Hamza Choudhury might play as a part of the back four. No matter who plays this position, it must affect the Foxes on both ends. We will have to see how could they minimise the adverse impacts of this change.
Remaining opponents: Brighton (A), Watford (H), Everton(A), Crystal Palace (H), Arsenal (A), Bournemouth (A), Sheffield United (H), Tottenham (A), Manchester United (A)
What to watch: Pereira’s replacement, could Vardy pick up his goal-scoring form.
Expected points: 34.8 – (14th)
Points: 40 – (9th)
Unai Emery was sacked in December, and then Guardiola’s assistant, the former captain of Arsenal, Mikel Arteta became their new manager. As all of us would have expected, Arteta would prepare similar tactics to City as they shared the same stream of philosophy. The Gunners were not playing in a 4-3-3, instead, it was a 4-2-3-1 on most occasions.
However, what matters was the context as Arteta had to adjust the details because of the personnel in the London club. We have explained the inverted full-backs in the previous section, but Arsenal tended to play with wide full-backs in the build-up. Their formation in the build-up phase was a 4-2 (or 2-4) shape, by using the full-backs to occupy the wide corridor, with all the vertical zones were occupied. This potentially stretched the defensive shape as well, as you could tell from the below image.
Playing with two pivots in front of the defenders helped Granit Xhaka to work at the half-spaces. The Swiss international was keen to play forward passes and would be a good initiator to progress. Xhaka could flexibly move in this vertical zone to support and connect plays, hence why it looks like a back three when he operated as a wide centre-back.
Meanwhile, the other pivot, preferably Dani Ceballos, could form a passing triangle with the centre-backs, ensuring there were two layers and three at the backline. The overload and structure helped Arsenal to circulate around a one-man or two-man front line as we drew in this image.
The last we would mention was the potential overload on the left flank. As you could see, Jarrod Bowen had a decisional crisis to let either Bukayo Saka or Xhaka free.
In the offensive third, Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang occupied both zones on the left. It was a similar condition to the case when Jesus played on the left for City. The Gabonese international liked to stay at the half-spaces, which occupied the full-backs and opened the wide corridor for Saka to run into.
Also, using an inverted-winger who played as a centre-forward before allowed Alexandre Lacazette to play as a “false nine”. When the Frenchman dropped as an additional man or an extra target, the left-winger often quickly picked spaces generated by Lacazette. You could see Gabriel Martinelli and Lacazette have swapped their positions here. This deep movement of the Arsenal No. 9 released Saka to provide the assist for the Martinelli.
On the right, Arsenal relied on the individual quality of Nicolas Pépé, you could perceive his duties were similar to Mahrez at City. The Ivorian international tried 8.09 dribbles and offered 3.21 progressive in a 90-minute basis, more than any other Arsenal players.
It was uneasy for Pépé as Arsenal tended to attack asymmetrically. Héctor Bellerín had to stay deeper sometimes to prevent the defence from being exposed. Thanks to the strong 1 v 1 ability, tight footsteps, body coordination, and balancing of the player, he was strong to cut-inside and cross. You could see he managed to play an out-swinging cross despite confronting two defenders.
Another point to note in this example was an echo to Aubemyang’s positionings. Again, he stayed at the half-spaces to look for the opportunities, forming a good partnership with Pépé.
We can hardly draw a conclusion on Arsenal’s defensive style of play since Arteta is new to the team. We predict they will try to defend in a 4-4-2 with a passing-lane-orientated press, which is similar to City. By statistics, Arsenal defended with a slightly higher intensity as the PPDA under Arteta, as we summarised the stats in the below table:
|Average PPDA in 2019/20||Positions in the league|
When defending, Arsenal kept the pressure applying area centrally. Both defensive midfielders would press any pass that entered the centre of the box, while Mesut Özil formed the first line with the striker. Both wingers inverted to the half-spaces to keep the horizontal compactness. You could see Arsenal were overloading at the centre in the below image.
When pressing, there was room for improvement. Since the block mainly focused on defending the centre, collective actions to press the wide players was vital. In this case, Yerry Mina was clearly passing to Mason Holgate. However, Pépé still hasn’t recognised that this was a pressing moment. As a result, Fabian Delph (No. 8) remained unmarked and he acted as the free man to progress the ball.
In fact, there could be many variations to press in the above situation. First, the ball could be trapped at flanks if the Gunners pressed diagonally together (a prerequisite was shutting the central lane). Or, if they allowed the vertical pass to the centre, this served as a pressing trap well for the defensive midfielders to intercept a pass.
Stats also suggested Arsenal have been poor in the set-pieces, which a situation they conceded nine. This issue remained unsolved in the early months under Arteta. We highlighted an example of their defensive free-kicks. Some conceded goals were silly and should have been avoided, and plenty of them were because of a failed offside trap.
The general scheme was a zonal system, though there were little tweaks on man-marking one to two individuals. The far side was a fragile zone, where usually Aubameyang was the last defender with another full-back.
The major problem was the far side. This area was often guarded by Aubameyang and either one full-back. However, both were unaware of the player on the far side, and as such, they tended to lose the duel when the ball travelled to this area. You could tell from Bellerín’s body shape above, the Spaniard totally omitted Alex Iwobi, who was behind him.
A silly mistake was the tight marking of Aubameyang. Even if the Everton player ran forward, he would be offside, so by no means should the Gabonese international stick to him. This became a very awkward scenario, which the whole setup collapsed because of this issue.
In the last 10 games, Arsenal had to deal with strong teams and direct competitors of continental competitions. They had to be very sharp to prepare the games, amend the defensive set-pieces, and maintain the good conversion of goals from xG.
Remaining opponents: Manchester City (A), Brighton (A), Southampton (A), Norwich (H), Wolves (A), Leicester City (H), Tottenham (A), Liverpool (H), Aston Villa (A), Watford (H)
What to watch: Pressing scheme/midblock development, Pablo Marí, could Pépé outperform his xG.
West Ham United
Expected points: 31.6 – (16th)
Points: 27 – (16th)
West Ham are having a bad season compared to the stability in the last campaign. Manuel Pellegrini was sacked in December and David Moyes returned as the head coach. The Scottish manager tried to play in a 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-4-1-1 and formed a 5-4-1 when the team tried to deny City and Leicester.
Since West Ham failed to transform themselves into a possession-based build-up team under Pellegrini, Moyes reverted the attacking style to a more traditional English fashion by playing directly. Therefore, we focus on their options in the final third in this section.
Two huge boosts in February were the return of Michail Antonio and the signing of Jarrod Bowen. These two players added the physicality and goal-scoring ability to the team. We will explain the tremendous impact of Antonio in the coming paragraphs. The 30-year-old Englishman could flexibly play as a left-winger or as a partner of Sébastien Haller. When playing wide, he possessed the pace to beat defend and this was his movement in the below image.
What we should note is the potential brought by Bowen. The young winger has been outperforming his xG for three consecutive seasons, including scoring 22 from 17.24 xG in the EFL Championship last season, while bagging 16 from 13.08 xG in the first half of this campaign. Bowen has wicked movements and strong senses to put the ball into the back of the net, which was vital to West Ham.
Bowen quickly scored his first goal for the team in his first start of the team. It was a clever movement as Bowen stayed at the defenders’ blindside until the last second. He also showed his pace to exploit spaces behind the defence. Both were new elements for the team that helped him to win the place from Robert Snodgrass and Andriy Yarmolenko.
The below graph summarised crosses of West Ham in their recent five games. Amazingly, you could see Antonio was the best provider and still ranked second as a receiver.
Antonio had 19 crosses in the last five games with an accuracy of 31.6%, this was because of the wide positioning as we explained above. Mostly they occurred on the left flank, where Antonio tended to appear. Apart from Haller, the 30-year-old Englishman was also a target when the cross came from the other flank.
Antonio played as a target man in the offensive transitions. He used his body to hold up plays to receive the long passes and was involved in more aerial duels than his teammates: almost 18 per game. A flaw would be his finishing, since Antonio was underperforming from his xG a bit, scored two from 4.58 xG, or else he was a completed-forward for the team.
A source of West Ham’s goals was their set-pieces, which they scored eight after this event. A key player to watch would be Issa Diop, who scored three from set-pieces under Moyes. We highlighted the general setups that helped the centre-back to get into good positions and score.
In this example, you could see Diop was staying deep initially. These deep runs were the key to success that set Diop free from markings. Also, Diop possesses the physical qualities needed – short-distance sprints and body strength to escape from blockings.
His runs were clever as these often interacted with a teammate. That means he would run into spaces created by his teammates. In this scenario, Diop capitaliSed on the positioning of Haller that took the defender, seized the timing to receive the cross and scored.
The defence has been an issue of West Ham in this campaign. Their xGA was 49.4, ranked 17th of the league. Under Pellegrini, we did not see an organised defence but things were similar under Moyes. Still, we are yet to see clear defensive principles that were conducive to regain possession.
In general, the defence of West Ham was formed by three to four layers, with Declan Rice tended to place himself between the defenders and midfielders. His partner Mark Noble always looked to cover the forwards. As a result, the shape would look like a 5-2-1-2 or a 4-1-3-2 as you see in the below image.
I mentioned the distancing issue of Noble and Rice in a pressing analysis of the team months earlier. Apart from this partnership, the loose shape and poor distancing horizontally was another problem of the team. The opponents could pick progressive options easily since the horizontal gaps between players were huge.
Also, pressure from Haller was hugely insufficient, hence why West Ham were very passive when defending. Rice was equipped with a strong defensive mindset, but it was too difficult to recover every ball surpassed the block.
West Ham’s struggles to regain possession was shown by statistics. Apart from the general shape issue as explained above, the players were too reckless to make a challenge in 1 v 1 situations, which made equality a deficit.
Only 10.9% of West Ham recoveries occurred in the oppositions’ third, which was below the average of the league. Likewise, the recovery rate in the central third was poor also worse than the league average. These summarised how West Ham struggled to recover possession. This is pivotal to their fate in the last nine games.
West Ham only managed to escape from the relegation zone because of a three-goal difference. They were in a dangerous situation if the defensive issues remained unsolved.
In fact, the attack of West Ham was better than their competitors, their 37.2 xG and 35 goals scored were the highest in the bottom-five. Quality players such as Felipe Anderson and Pablo Fornals would help the team a lot if they picked up their forms. They had to grab the scoring chances in matches against teams behind them to keep them safe.
Remaining opponents: Wolves (H), Tottenham (A), Chelsea (H), Newcastle United (A), Burnley (H), Norwich (A), Watford (H), Manchester United (A), Aston Villa (H)
What to watch: pace injection from Bowen, the form of Antonio, could Moyes fill the defensive loopholes.
Expected points: 29.8 – (17th)
Points: 21 – (20th)
Daniel Farke and his team could not replicate the success in the EFL Championship last season by sticking to the same style of play. By playing in a 4-2-3-1 mostly, Norwich had 50.3% of possession per game, ranking them ninth in the league. Their average duration per possession was 14.8s, which was exactly the average. In this section, we explain the possession-based football of Farke briefly.
By pushing the full-backs high and wide, their build-up was in a 2-1 triangular shape or a 2-2 boxed shape. Both centre-backs split wide, and the defensive midfielders either formed a second layer or positioned themselves centrally to play the out-ball. The attacking midfielders were free to drop as the additional support at the centre.
The benefits were clear, the opponents either let Norwich to overload the centre or allowing the full-backs unmarked. In this case, Leicester wingers inverted to maintain compactness and the numbers of the midfield, then, Max Aarons was totally free at wide.
However, some issues hindered the development of attacks despite these setups created superiorities. Firstly, the body orientations were closed and suboptimal when the attacking midfielders dropped to receive vertical passes. Even a strong passer such as Emiliano Buendía was not able to adjust his body angle when dropping, which resulted in poor turnings and missing the timing for a progressive pass.
A second issue was lacking behaviours to manipulate the second line in the build-up. This was related to exploitation spaces between the lines, in this image, spaces were available between gaps of Leicester defence but no one occupied them. The ball-carrier did not have a progression option when he dribbled into the block in the above image. As a result, they either circulated the ball again or worse: losing possession.
Placing both full-backs wide helped Norwich to stretch the defence. This generates spaces between the opponents which the Canaries always looked to exploit. You could see the back-five of Tottenham was pulled horizontally as Max Aarons occupied the wide corridor. Buendía was clever to exploit spaces between four opponents as a progressive option.
So, where was Teemu Pukki? The Finland international was not the “false-nine” to exploit spaces by dropping deep. Instead, he was good at running behind the defence and finish the chances. This trait became Norwich’s strong weapon in the offensive transitions. They scored four from the counter-attacks, which is the average in the league (only Leicester and Manchester United were far above the mean: 4.4). Pukki was vital in this phase.
In this image, you could see Pukki cleverly changed his direction when seeing Luiz has lost his balance. This movement travelled to spaces between the centre-backs, opened a passing lane for the carrier. Eventually, they scored with this offensive transition.
The team xG was pretty good: 36.3, however, Norwich scored 27 in reality. This hinted that better finishing is needed. Apart from Pukki and Todd Cantwell who scored 17 in total, the other Canaries were not sharing the goal-scoring responsibility enough. Perhaps long-ranged efforts should be encouraged, as they only scored two long shots so far.
When defending, Norwich set a low defensive line which helped in blocking shots. Their figure of 4.23 ranked second in terms of shots blocked per 90, with a total of 8.33 xG was denied. However, a serious issue from a collective perspective was coverage from zone 14 to the penalty spot.
Since the defenders retreated low, Norwich midfielders should provide defensive cover by staying deeper. However, the defensive midfielder Alexander Tetty seldom offered protection around in these areas, including the below image which resulted in an Aston Villa goal.
Norwich were not good at defending set-pieces. They have conceded 10 in after set-pieces and this was the second-highest in the league. We particularly highlighted the issues when defending corners in this example.
The dominant setup in the defensive set-pieces was a zonal defence. Kenny McLean was often tasked to guard the front post, two players staying at both posts. As it was a zonal system, the front post was unoccupied until the ball was travelling. You could find these features in the below image.
However, players tended to easily be disrupted by the front post runs, including this case. Because of the relatively loose positionings, when the first player was out of position, space was opened between players. As a result, Callum Chambers won the header easily in this case.
The ball was directed to goal thanks to the pressure of McLean, but when the ball was bouncing to the free zone far post, Aubameyang was unmarked to put it into the net. This has shown the inefficacy of placing players at posts, they were too slow to cover the far posts while providing limited blockings of the goals. These issues mingled into a complex problem in the defensive set-pieces and cost Norwich some goals.
Affected by the playing style, Norwich were quite an imbalance – an offensive mindset without a good counter-press and defensive scheme. They were a bit unconfident even though they strictly stuck to their playing style. The quality of players limited the tactics, they were not quick enough to seize the moments to initiate an attack. Meanwhile, the poor defensive shape and body orientations of players have led to many conceded shots and goals. It would be difficult for Norwich to change totally, they had to try winning the highlighted games to avoid relegation.
Remaining opponents: Southampton (H), Everton (H), Arsenal (A), Brighton (H), Watford (A), West Ham (H), Chelsea (A), Burnley (H), Manchester City (A)
What to watch: could Norwich control the rhythm in the positional plays, can Buendía score?
The above were mainly explaining the general playstyles of the teams. It is 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, as there are more to come.