Sanchez, Firmino and Chelsea’s 3-4-3: Why Premier League tactical flexibility is the season’s key theme so far

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Tactical flexibility and positional innovation have been major themes of the 2016/17 Premier League season so far. Joel Rabinowitz explains how and why…

There is a default tendency among football fans, pundits and journalists alike to categorise players according to specific positions on the pitch. Each individual is, in theory, assigned a specific task to perform for their team, which is carried out in a particular zone of the field.

Conversations over who is the best striker in world football are commonplace, as are debates over the greatest individuals in every other position. In an era where video games are influential in forming opinions of players, especially in the younger generation, footballers tend to be viewed according to two or three letter acronyms, as such.

LW= left winger
ST= striker
LB= left back
GK= goalkeeper
CDM= central defensive midfielder

And so on. Yet to view footballers in such binary terms is to vastly underappreciate the complexity of what their roles actually entail in reality. A “CDM”, for example, is very often not central, but found plugging the gaps when the right or left full back marauds up the field.

Full-backs, more so than ever before, blur the lines between positions. They frequently operate in such advanced areas they might better be considered wingers. For Pep Guardiola, full-backs are often instructed to drift infield and serve as auxiliary central midfielders to overload midfield and provide a foundation for to spring attacking moves.

We have entered an era whereby positions, as a general concept, are becoming increasingly outdated in terms of their practical application on the football pitch. Of course, teams still have tactical structures and players still have defined positions – some sides more so than others.

There has not been a large scale revival of Dutch total football of the 1970s. Yet the Premier League this season has exhibited an array of positional transitions across all areas of the pitch which suggest that the game is becoming increasingly flexible and dynamic, less restricted by rigid, specific individual roles.

SEE ALSO: Squad numbers – are they important?

The blistering early season form of Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool, which saw them become the most potent attacking force in the Premier League, was characterised by an attacking lineup so fluid it made little sense, nor was it really possible to identify which individuals were occupying which position.

Ostensibly set up in a 4-3-3 system, Sadio Mane would start on the right but often make diagonal runs into the centre forward position, sometimes switching over to the left hand side in order to fill the space where possible.

Philippe Coutinho, arguably one of the finest performers in the league prior to the ankle injury which keeps him sidelined until the end of the year, began cutting in from the left flank but would tend to drop deep into a number eight role in order to dictate the play from a more central, withdrawn position.

Both Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum have been converted into dynamic central midfielders after spending most of their careers to date as outright number tens. James Milner, meanwhile, has excelled at left back despite being naturally a right-sided midfielder who played centrally for Liverpool last season.

Jordan Henderson has also reinvented himself as a number six, controlling games from in front of the back four and playing with an unprecedented degree of confidence and authority.

It is an unorthodox team in so many ways, but it is arguably Liverpool’s chief presser and auxiliary centre forward, Roberto Firmino, who underpins so much of the system’s success. It would be wrong to refer to Firmino as a “false nine” given he very much serves as a central striker, but not one in the traditional mould.

Five goals and three assists in the league might seem underwhelming, but Firmino’s contribution in terms of defending from the front, shutting down passing options for the opposition and working hard to win back possession in advanced areas is crucial to Klopp’s style of football.

Premier League tactical flexibility - Coutinho, Firmino and Mane at Liverpool

While the likes of Diego Costa, Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic uphold the tradition of the old school number nine, Firmino is not the only successful instance of an unorthodox centre forward playing for a top English club.

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are reaping the benefits of Alexis Sanchez operating as a central striker, able to function even more effectively than he had previously been able to do when stationed out wide. The Chilean’s small physical stature is of no major hindrance as his pace and movement transform the entire dynamic of Arsenal’s attack, providing far greater fluidity and tactical flexibility than the relatively less mobile Olivier Giroud.

Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, meanwhile, have established themselves as title favorites ever since their switch to the Italian’s long-favoured 3-4-3 formation which has seen the London side go unbeaten, winning ten games in a row.

Positional transformations have also been key to the success of this system, with Cesar Azpilicueta seamlessly transitioning into a right-sided centre back having spent the majority of his Chelsea career as a right-footed left back. Despite his lack of aerial prowess, the Spaniard’s exemplary reading of the game and composure in possession offers ideal balance alongside the more typical central defenders in Gary Cahill and David Luiz.

The decision to deploy Victor Moses, almost a forgotten figure at the start of the season, as a right-wing-back has been a revelation, with the Nigerian providing an industrious attacking outlet as a natural winger, complementing the more conservative approach of the more natural left-back Marcos Alonso on the opposite side.

Further forward, both Eden Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez have rediscovered their best form by virtue of their inside forward positions, enabling them to pick up the ball in more central positions and provide a greater goal threat than they were able to offer when stationed as orthodox wingers with defensive responsibilities.

Tactical flexibility: not always a success

Positional flexibility has not universally yielded success, however, with Pep Guardiola facing increasing amounts of scrutiny and criticism for Manchester City’s recent plight.

While the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have performed well in deeper midfield roles- similar to Lallana and Wijnaldum at Liverpool, the decision to field Alexsandar Kolarov as a central defender has seen the Serbian international’s defensive flaws brutally exposed, most significantly in the recent 4-2 defeat at the hands of Leicester City where Kolarov’s positioning throughout the first half was culpable for two goals conceded.

In the second half, Kolarov scored and assisted another when bombing forward in support of the attack – perhaps no surprise given his natural tendency as an offensive left-back. In the same game, Pablo Zabaleta, meanwhile, performed a hybrid role between right-back and central midfield, which seemed to confuse the player just as much as pundits and supporters.

While Guardiola successfully converted Philipp Lahm into a world-class central midfielder, the experienced Argentine Zabaleta appeared to have little idea what was required of him in this quasi-midfield position, a failed tactical exploit from one of football’s most innovative and creative thinkers.

The English game is constantly adapting and evolving with new tactical trends and positional flexibility is becoming an increasingly important factor, especially for sides competing at the top of the Premier League. Gone are the days where the majority of teams would line up with orthodox centre forwards, a pair of wingers and traditional central midfielders.

Players have unique individual skillsets which can be applied in a range of positions, with managers finding creative methods to get the most out of their ability in different areas on the pitch.

In an era where false nines, inverted full-backs and number tens playing in midfield are becoming commonplace, this Premier League season has not only been exceptional for the number of goals scored, but also for an extraordinary level of tactical and positional innovation.

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