EPL Preview - A Tactical Take on What Lies Ahead
By Tim Dean
Ahead of the 2016/2017 English Premier League season kicking off this weekend I wanted to look at the key tactical questions relating to each of last season’s top 10 sides.
- Leicester: Who fills the void left by the departure of N’Golo Kante and how does it affect the structure of the side? No question, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez had superb seasons last year- however, Kante was perhaps the most important player to Leicester’s structure and success. His ability to cover an incredible amount of ground and then help Leicester transition to attack allowed them to play with a 2 man midfield and then 2 up top. Now, Nampalys Mendy, Matty James, Andy King or Daniel Amartey will partner Danny Drinkwater in midfield, but matching his dynamism will be highly unlikely. If too many gaps appear in midfield with just a duo, will Manager Claudio Ranieri have to make a switch in formation to find a better balance, and how will that affect their rapid counter attacks?
- Arsenal: How does Arsene Wenger select his midfield and find the right balance with the myriad of options he has available to him? The make-up of the Arsenal squad is a puzzling one for most, especially supporters whose patience wears thin with the wait for another Premier League title. Arsenal boast an incredible amount of talented players who all play or prefer to play in central midfield, and are woefully thin both at the top end of the pitch and in the back. Wenger must select three out of the following for each match: Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, Santi Cazorla, and new signing Granit Xhaka. Who starts, what is the structure, who gets left out, and who gets shunted out wide? Get it right and Wenger’s men could be contending for their first league title since The Invincibles.
- Tottenham: Can Spurs’ energetic pressing game be sustainable with the added physical toll of Champions League football? Manager Mauricio Pochettino led Spurs to an unexpected title charge last year, with an intense midfield press often setting the tone and creating counter attacking opportunities. However, Spurs were in the Europa League and often took that opportunity to rest key players. They won’t have that luxury this year, as the Champions League will demand that their top players play twice per week most weeks. Do Spurs have enough strength in depth and will they run out of steam like they did towards the end of the campaign? If they don’t press high and hard, can they play in a low block and counter attack, or will they choose to boss possession instead? Spurs are heavily dependent on key performers like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Mousa Dembele- stay fit and firing and they could make another top 4 push.
- Manchester City: Who makes up Pep’s back 4? Pep Guardiola is no stranger to dropping midfielders into the back line to add passing quality to his possession based sides. Will he do so again at Man City? Guardiola has hinted that Fernando and Fernandinho could play at CB, especially in the absence of Captain Vincent Kompany. Perhaps more alarming are the full back positions and the lack of signings being made in an area of the pitch that is underwhelming and aging. Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov, Bachary Sagna, and Pablo Zabaleta make up a group that pale in comparison to full backs who have worked under Pep before. Can he coax consistent form out of that group or will this part of City’s squad be to their detriment?
- Manchester United: Where does Wayne Rooney play? Perhaps the most intriguing quote Jose Mourinho has given us this summer, other than his standard swipes and jabs at opposition managers, is over his captain’s position ahead of the upcoming season. No midfield berth for Rooney, in either a #6 or #8 role, leaving one to wonder..Where then? With the signing of egomaniac and league title extraordinaire Zlatan Ibrahimovic sure to play in the #9 role, with exciting young talents Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial assumed to be played out wide or up front, and with creative maestro Henrikh Mkhitaryan able to play in a #10 role, where does that leave Rooney? Could he be left out? Played in a partnership with Ibrahimovic? The Captain only needs to ask his teammate Juan Mata about whether Mourinho has the audacity to leave out big names..
- Southampton: Where do the goals come from? A rather obvious question but one worth asking when a side lose their top two joint goal scorers from the previous campaign, and sign no forwards or proven goal scorers. Can Shane Long build on a strong 2015/2016 season and contribute consistently? Can Dusan Tadic fulfill his vast potential and be the creative hub for a side lacking in that area? Will Nathan Redmond show end product in the final third? And finally, can the injury plagued due of Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin stay fit and firing? Big questions for the Saints, who look to do another rebuild under another new manager.
- West Ham United: Who starts up front in Matchweek 1? West Ham actually have a few decent options to lead the line- unfortunately, they are either injured or don’t want to play for the club anymore. Andy Carroll is injured (again), Diafra Sakho is furious that he’s not the first name on the team sheet and appears headed to West Brom, and now Enner Valencia looks set to be on his way out in anticipation of a new striker coming in. Only problem: no one has been signed yet. The deal for Carlos Bacca has fallen through, and now West Ham are back to square one. Could Liverpool outcast Christian Benteke be the answer? With the amount of creative talents to play behind him, a lot of quality #9s would be anxious to start for the Hammers- now let’s see who Slaven Bilic can bring to the new Olympic Stadium.
- Liverpool: How does the absence of a natural defensive midfielder affect the organization/success of the side without the ball? Liverpool have an incredible amount of attacking options for a squad without European football- however, with the impending departure of Lucas Leiva, they will not have an experience, recognized defensive midfielder in the squad. Emre Can, Jordan Henderson, and Georgnio Wynaldum are expected to make up the midfield 3 if Manager Jurgen Klopp decides to play a 4-3-3, but top opposition should expect to find gaps there. If he goes with a 4-2-3-1, expect an even more porous defense. Can Klopp’s high tempo pressing game cover up the space in between the lines, or will the attack be expected to score 3 goals per game?
- Stoke City: How does Mark Hughes fit all the high profile attackers into his 11 and keep the side balanced? The days of Stoke City long ball, Rory Delap throw-ins, and thuggish tackles are long gone (Thank God.) Now Manager Mark Hughes has a new problem- how to seamlessly fit all the attacking talents on show at the club and get them playing cohesively? First questions is who leads the line: Peter Crouch, Jon Walters, Bojan Krkic in more of a false 9? Those 3 couldn’t really be any stylistically more different, which gives Stoke a vast array of attacking options. Joselu and Mame Diouf are still in the fold too. Behind the forward, Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay, and Marko Arnautovic all probably fancy themselves as players worthy of a spot each week. Finally, there is exciting new talent Ramadan Sobhi, nicknamed the Egyptian Messi, who has caught the eye of a few top clubs. In all likelihood, that’s 9 players for 4 spots- someone is not going to be happy with a bit part role.
- Chelsea: Who makes up the front two and how does the rest of the side adapt? Chelsea have long been a club who operate with a sole center forward- Didier Drogba had that position on lockdown for many years, with numerous center forwards being brought in and then shipped out due to a lack of playing time, being played out of position, or a lack of cohesiveness when in the side (Step up Nando Torres). New Manager Antonio Conte looks set to shake things up, with a front 2 as part of a flat 4-4-2 looking to be his desired formation. So who does he select for those 2 coveted positions? Diego Costa and Michy Batshuayi are the early favorites, although it looks possible that another forward could be on his way back: Romelu Lukaku. Loic Remy is still at the club, but can hardly be considered a candidate for a regular starting spot, and youngster Kenedy surely doesn’t have enough experience. Could one of the attacking midfielders (Hazard, Oscar, Willian, Bertrand Traore, etc) slot into one of the two forwards?