By Blair Newman, Football Whispers
Antonio Conte’s time as a Premier League manager began in underwhelming fashion. In his first six matches, he led Chelsea to just three wins, with one draw and two defeats. Consecutive losses to Liverpool and Arsenal were a very early last straw, as the Italian implemented his back three for a trip to face Hull City.
Following the tactical switch, results improved immediately. Hull were dispatched 2-0 as Chelsea went on a 13-match winning run. The 3-4-2-1 system was, by English footballing standards, highly unorthodox, but it worked a treat. Before long, copycats emerged.
Tottenham Hotspur offered up the greatest challenge to Conte’s side, who eventually finished as champions. Spurs experimented with a back three to great success, winning eight and drawing two of the ten league matches they played in a 3-4-2-1 system.
Arsenal then made use of the exact same shape, albeit with their own unique take on it, and achieved a similar upturn in form. The change essentially saved their season, and Arsene Wenger’s job, helping them past Manchester City and Chelsea to FA Cup victory.
In a league where the back four once ruled without question, the back three is the latest tactical concept du jour. Here, our friends at Football Whispers look into their crystal ball to predict the trends that may be prevalent in 2017/18.
THE BACK SIX
Tony Pulis may never be the most fashionable manager, but his West Bromwich Albion side were one of the most innovative teams in the 2016/17 Premier League campaign. The Welshman used what appeared to be a traditional 4-2-3-1 system, but in the defensive phase the shape essentially became a 6-3-1.
The two wingers, often Matt Philipps and Nacer Chadli would drop deep on their respective flanks, while the two full-backs, often Craig Dawson and Allan Nyom would tuck in next to the centre-backs. This essentially formed a back six, with a high amount of compactness between the four primary defenders.
West Brom were extremely difficult to break down as a result of this; indeed, outside of the top six only Everton and Southampton conceded fewer goals. The Baggies finished in a comfortable tenth place.
There was further validation of this idea in the form of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, who made use of a similar shape to ensure clean sheets and vital results against the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea. And, despite its negative connotations, the back six could become even more evident in the near future.
Conte’s introduction of a front three featuring two inside forwards and one striker has taken off, as discussed. This is a problem for back fours not simply due to the sheer number of central attacking opponents, but because of the way those opponents are layered.
Having two wingers track back in the defensive phase, however, allows the two full-backs to tuck in, form a compact back four and concentrate on marking the inside forwards. This then gives the centre-backs their usual two-on-one numerical advantage against the lone striker.
West Brom and Manchester United have shown the way; now expect more sides to utilise similar tactics, especially when up against the increasingly popular 3-4-2-1.
THE SOLE CENTRAL MIDFIELDER
Recent Premier League history has dictated that the centre of midfield be packed. The decline of the 4-4-2 came with a general increase in the usage of a three-man midfield. Again, Mourinho was seen as one of the key innovators, with his successful Chelsea side deploying Claude Makelele in a defensive midfield role within a central three.
The 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 have been the most popular systems in the past few years. Both employed at least two central midfielders. And the 3-4-2-1 is a continuation of that, with Chelsea partnering N’Golo Kante with Nemanja Matic, Arsenal partnering Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, and Tottenham partnering Victor Wanyama with Mousa Dembele.
READ MORE: Morata - Critics are already killing me
Pep Guardiola, however, has other ideas. While his debut campaign with Manchester City was disappointing from a results perspective, with a third-place Premier League finish coupled with a second round Champions League exit, it didn’t underwhelm tactically.
English football got to see the Catalan’s innovative streak immediately in the form of his false full-backs concept. This entailed the full-backs pushing in and supporting the build-up more centrally rather than being isolated on the wings.
Guardiola also used Yaya Toure as a lone central midfielder, breaking with the tradition of stuffing the centre with powerhouses and ball-winners. Part of the reason this was viable was the aforementioned movement of at least one of the full-backs – often Fernandinho, who started occasionally at left-back and right-back, would come inside to support the Ivorian.
Manchester City have spent big this summer, but they haven’t signed a central midfielder. Yet. Unless that changes in the coming weeks, expect them to continue using one natural centre-mid with support from the false full-backs. This will allow them to potentially field four of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, ensuring width, pace and control in the progression of attacks.
THE FALSE NINE
While the two-man strike partnership may not be as widely seen today as it was before, the Premier League fascination with the lone centre-forward remains as embedded. Most teams play with one man leading the line from the front. However, there is reason to believe this could change in the near future.
Jurgen Klopp has surprised many with his choice of system at Liverpool, opting for a 4-3-3 instead of the 4-2-3-1 he used throughout his time at Borussia Dortmund. He has also decided against playing a conventional centre-forward, instead choosing Roberto Firmino, a natural attacking midfielder, to take the central attacking role in the front three.
The Brazilian was exceptional for most of last season, flitting across the pitch to connect attacks and link up with the wide men. His movement, touch and passing were well suited to the role, enabling him to combine well with Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho. His play took away the opposition centre-backs main reference, leaving them without a striker to mark.
Liverpool have enjoyed success with this idea and this is likely to continue in 2017/18. The signing of Mohamed Salah means that now Klopp has two truly pacey wide forwards to operate in the channels, which should in turn allow Firmino to continue dropping deep and pulling wide to disrupt opposition defences.
Other teams may find inspiration from this. Guardiola famously made use of the false nine while at Barcelona, transforming Lionel Messi in the process. He could be tempted to do something similar with Bernardo Silva or, further down the line, Brahim Diaz. And perhaps Tottenham, given their lack of viable alternatives to Kane, may experiment with Dele Alli as a false nine.