Four defining tactical features of 2019
As another fascinating year of football draws to a close, this provides us with a great opportunity to look back on some of the key tactical features from 2019. With innovation always on the mind and coaches on the lookout to devise new ways to give themselves an edge, here are three key tactical takeaways from the year that was.
Overlapping central defenders
Although using overlapping central defenders is nothing new to the likes of Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder and Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini, their shrewd use of this tactical option, in combination with the success of both their teams, has really brought this strategy into the spotlight.
Working best in teams that deploy a 3-5-2, 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3, which Sheffield and Atalanta do, plus others such as Ivan Juric’s Hellas Verona, who use this tactic too, this allows one of the outside central defenders (or side backs) to bomb on while the remaining central defenders and a midfielder stay back and provide structural security in case of a turnover.
By instructing the centre-halves to surge forward, this means key overloads and positional superiorities can be achieved to help the attacking team play through the opposition’s wide defensive setup using slick combination play and methods like third man runs.
With the wingback typically drifting infield and drawing his marker with him, this is key towards the onrushing centre-backs having room to overlap before either firing in a cutback, whipping in a cross or dribbling upfield.
Continually generating mismatches and destabilising opponents’ organisation, their presence persistently draws out markers to free up others ahead while importantly allowing the forwards to occupy central positions inside the box. Altering reference points for their adversaries and therefore placing confusion in the minds of defenders on who should mark who, this tactical feature has borne fruit on many occasions.
Another way this approach has proven effective is when the overload to isolate principle is applied. In such cases, the team in possession will initially direct their attack down one side, which inherently forces the opposition to shift across. Then, with the far side underloaded, a quick switch of play can be struck to the ball far side to ensure the marauding centre-back can receive in oceans of space to wreak havoc.
Unique, bold and somewhat unconventional, the implementation of overlapping central defenders has certainly been a tough tactic for opponents to combat.
Goal kick rule
Seeing as many new rules were introduced ahead of the 2019/2020 season, the one regarding goal kicks has definitely been one of the most interesting ones. The key change sees the ball considered in play as soon as it’s kicked as opposed to the old rule, where it was deemed in play once it left the penalty box.
Giving possession-oriented teams with good passing goalkeepers more scope to lure out pressers with some incisive passing, there have been many positive developments in building out from the back. Granted more freedom and possibilities to bypass the opposition structure and using the initial extra time available to them, the likes of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Maurizio Sarri’s Juventus, Paulo Fonseca’s AS Roma, Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo and so many more have come out with some promising schemes.
Stretching opposition setups if they press unsuccessfully and able to generate disconnects to find the free man, the rule alteration has unquestionably forced teams to be innovative and ambitious.
If the opposition press the offensive side well, the attacking side can also exploit the fact their foes are pressing high by going long and hoping to win the second ball high up to attack quickly from an advanced zone.
A rule that’s made for more excitement and new possibilities for the progressive, forward-thinking sides, this has been a change that’s added another layer of tactical intrigue to matches so far this campaign.
With the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson redefining the fullback role into one that sees them operate as playmakers and vital elements of their team’s attacking plans, it’s been captivating to see Jürgen Klopp give them so much responsibility to create.
Giving Liverpool another dimension going forward and making them an even more fearsome force to be reckoned with, their flying fullbacks have been nothing short of exceptional. Whether it be launching sensational switches of play, penetrative line-breaking passes, playing in forwards with precise through balls, cutbacks or crosses and driving forward on the dribble, Robertson and especially Alexander-Arnold have shone brightly.
Handed the duties to construct, connect and animate offensive moves, Alexander-Arnold has relished his quarterback style role fully, as he relentlessly puts opponents on the back foot with his intelligent movement and runs, plus through his exquisite range of passing.
Receiving crucial cover from his midfielders and defenders, Klopp’s done a super job of manufacturing the tactical conditions for him to be such a menace while ensuring the Reds aren’t too exposed in the event of a turnover.
By the numbers, Alexander-Arnold’s six assists (second in the league), 6.28 expected assists (second in the EPL), 122 crosses (most in the EPL), 47 through passes (most in the EPL), 19 key passes (second in the EPL), 185 passes into the final third (most in the EPL) and 248 progressive passes (most in the EPL) aptly demonstrate his tremendous quality.
A chance creation master from his fullback station, it’s little wonder many are tipping him to move into midfield one day because of his amazing distribution and all-round quality. “He is possibly the most creative player in the team from right full-back,” Jamie Carragher recently stated.
“People talk about the future and he could come into midfield and be a Kevin De Bruyne type player and he has more quality now than Liverpool’s midfield players. You think about the crosses that De Bruyne puts in from the right midfield position and maybe that’s a position where Trent could play.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a full-back like Trent before in the game. You’ve got great full-backs like Cafu and Roberto Carlos, overlapping and putting a great cross in, but he’s Liverpool’s playmaker. Liverpool is the best team in Europe and the playmaker is a right-back. I’ve never seen someone have that much influence on the ball in a team from that position.”
Still aged just 21 and with so much scope for improvement, Alexander-Arnold’s been a brilliant example of what an asset the playmaking fullback can be. As a result of his success, many managers will have taken notice of his effectiveness, so we just might have more coaches following suit and utilising fullbacks like the tactically sophisticated Klopp has done.
Asymmetry in formations
The last tactical feature we’re focusing on is asymmetry in football formations. Although they can look unbalanced and uneven, there’s plenty of scenarios where asymmetric shapes have benefited teams when they’re looking to give themselves balance and to maximise their chances of breaking down their opposition.
In addition, it allows teams to enhance the characteristics of certain players, with an example being when one more defensively minded fullback stays deep and the offensively geared one pushes higher. By doing this, teams can direct their attacks down one side more, knowing the opposite fullback will usually tuck in to help provide structural stability to help defend a potential counter-attack.
Other scenarios that can be regularly seen are when the far side winger comes over to the ball side to provide an overload to help his team bypass the opposition’s structure and when central defenders overlap like as previously mentioned.
Factors like rotations and opposite movements can enhance the effectiveness of these formations, for this creates further dilemmas on which defender marks who in what area of the pitch.
Giving teams some extra threat, dynamism and flexibility in their play, asymmetrical tactical setups have definitely shown their value.