London – Three-man Defences
Unquestionably the Premier League’s dominant tactical trend was the three-man defence. A remarkable 17 of the 20 sides started with a back three at some point in the season, with only Southampton, West Bromwich and Burnley doggedly sticking to a back four.
Its overwhelming popularity was largely down to the influence of Antonio Conte at Chelsea. His decision to switch to a three-man defence in the second half of the 3-0 defeat by Arsenal in September proved a turning point and is arguably the most significant tactical decision in the Premier League’s history. Chelsea’s subsequent run of 13 successive victories, the first six without conceding a single goal, was the main reason for their title success.
Chelsea’s system was flexible – at times it looked as if the wing-backs were part of the defence, at other points in the midfield line, but it was most effective when Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso pushed forward aggressively and effectively formed a front five with Pedro Rodríguez, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. Teams found it impossible to cope with their back four being overloaded, with Chelsea’s wing-backs regularly popping up unmarked at the far post to convert when the opposition had been dragged to the opposite flank.
Ronald Koeman’s Everton were thrashed 5-0 at Stamford Bridge when attempting to match Chelsea’s shape but opponents often found themselves faring better when deploying wing-backs. Pep Guardiola’s unusual 3-2-4-1 system should have beaten Chelsea at the Etihad but Chelsea fought back and recorded a 3-1 victory, their most important win of the campaign. Chelsea’s winning run was ended in January by Spurs, who also played 3-4-3.
By spring even Arsène Wenger was playing a three-man defence for the first time in 20 years. Arsenal took inspiration from Chelsea, who had changed system in the first place because of a defeat to Arsenal. Saturday’s FA Cup final will be 3-4-3 against 3-4-3, a fitting summary of this domestic campaign.
While many of the bottom-half clubs remained focused on dropping deep and staying solid in two banks of four, the general trend for the bigger sides was to press aggressively in more advanced positions. Although it was relatively rare to see a full-pitch press in the Premier League, midfield zones have become based around regaining the ball as much as retaining it.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham remained the Premier League’s most cohesive, efficient pressing side. With Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld happy playing in an advanced defensive line, and Victor Wanyama recruited for his ball-winning ability in front of the back four, Tottenham were even more defensively solid than last season, conceding only 26 goals.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool press in a different manner, counter-pressing to regain possession immediately after the ball is lost. They are also excellent at boxing teams in towards the flanks, shifting almost their entire side over to one touchline. On regaining possession they look to spread play and knock quick-passing combinations into attack, which occasionally worked excellently.
A few years ago, when Barcelona and Spain’s possession football was at its most revered, Premier League midfielders played calm roles, keeping their shape and using possession with care. Now everything has become considerably more frantic, based around constant sprinting, closing down and blocking off passing angles. The physical demands are extraordinary and it is notable Chelsea – like Leicester the previous season – had the benefit of no European football.
Quality in possession has taken something of a backseat and it is significant N’Golo Kante was voted the PFA player of the year. Ball-winning has rarely been so vaunted.
High goals-per-game rate
At one stage it seemed the Premier League was on course to beat the division’s record for the highest number of goals per game. In the end it fell narrowly short, finishing on 2.80 goals per game, 0.01 short of the record set in 2011-12.
But whether or not the record was broken is largely irrelevant – the main story is the average has returned to its level of a few years ago. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14 the goals-per-game average was at its highest rate, a steady spell of 2.77, 2.80, 2.81, 2.80 and 2.77. It then dropped to 2.57 and 2.70 for the last two seasons.
This season’s rise underlines that the majority of Premier League teams have generally played positive football. Perhaps only Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Watford were unduly negative – others may have defended deep but usually offered a sufficient counterattacking threat too.
The high goals-per-game ratio was also a reflection of the inequality in the division. The 15-point gap between seventh-placed Everton and eighth-placed Southampton was notable but more significant is the fact the top seven recorded goal-difference figures of +18 or more, and everyone else managed -7 or less.
The final day of the season, when the top four sides defeated the bottom four sides by an aggregate scoreline of 20-2, rather underlined the disparity and, while a high goals-per-game rate is usually celebrated as a good thing, it is worth considering the numbers in more detail. Often it is simply a sign of inequality, whereas the Premier League has marketed itself as a league where anyone can beat anyone.
The Guardian Sport