1) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and directionless possession
Winning 17 points from nine matches against ‘Big Six’ opposition, coupled with the relatively poor seasons endured by Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea, has saved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from greater criticism. His side are on track to collect 59 points for the campaign, their lowest figure for 30 years, and while the owner and chief executive deserve the lion’s share of the blame, Solskjaer’s tactics are partially responsible.
Unless allowed to sit deep and launch counter-attacks in behind a high opposition line, Man Utd look bereft of ideas. Long periods of stale possession and sideways passing, not to mention a lack of movement among the forwards, suggests Solskjaer does not teach any in-depth tactical moves in training.
Whereas watching Liverpool or Man City you can see the players thinking and moving several steps ahead, United’s players only tend to make runs when anticipating receiving the next pass. That tells us they are expected to improvise, hence why they struggle to play with the dexterity needed to break down a stubborn defence.
Bruno Fernandes has triggered a significant improvement in performances simply because he is constantly seeking space. The Portuguese is further evidence of the individualism behind Solskjaer’s United.
2) Pep Guardiola and failing to support central defence
There is still time for Manchester City to make 2019/20 a successful season, but if they fail to win the Champions League Pep Guardiola will consider the campaign a failure. City have lost seven league games and are 25 points behind the league leaders, both of which are record lows for the Catalan.
Their disappointing Premier League results are partly the consequence of failing to replace Vincent Kompany in the summer, but Guardiola still could have attempted to solve his center-back problems in a different manner.
His biggest tactical error has been to place his trust in Fernandinho at center-back, in turn undermining the solidity of his central midfield. The Brazilian is vital in screening against opposition counters and making recovery tackles, and neither Rodri nor Ilkay Gundogan has deputised well. That in turn caused Guardiola to further compromise by switching to a 4-2-3-1, with two players sat at the base of midfield. City’s attack has suffered as a result.
In short, for the first third of the campaign City lacked character in central midfield, allowing the likes of Wolves, Newcastle, Norwich, and Man Utd to tear through the middle to victory, and then – to correct that – Guardiola disrupted the rhythm of his attackers.
3) Frank Lampard and ignoring the transitions
It would be unfair to criticise Frank Lampard too harshly. After all, Chelsea are in line for a top-four finish despite losing Eden Hazard in the summer and enduring a transfer ban. Lampard has done an exceptional job keeping things ticking over while bringing through so many academy graduates.
However, like Solskjaer, Lampard has been rescued by the weakness of the division. Chelsea have won just half of their last 30 games in all competitions, and during their worst spell – between November and January – there were some glaring tactical flaws to blame.
Jose Mourinho succinctly highlighted Chelsea’s biggest flaw in the aftermath of their opening day 4-0 defeat to Man Utd. Opening and closing his fist to express his point, Mourinho emphasised the importance of remaining compact and compressed whether playing a high or a low block.
Under Lampard, the fist has never closed. He tells his players to fan as wide as they can to make space, giving them complete freedom to roam around the pitch, and as a consequence, Chelsea are repeatedly caught in the transition. Until the young manager learns how to organise the overall team shape, they will be too fundamentally flawed to challenge for the league title.
4) Unai Emery and maddening decisions
Mikel Arteta has done brilliantly to get Arsenal playing with organisation and coherence so soon after the departure of Unai Emery, whose tactics had descended into a pure farce by the end of his 18-month reign. Here’s just a few of the weird choices he made in the autumn.
In a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool Emery deployed a narrow diamond 4-4-2, leaving the flanks completely open for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to dominate. He repeated the trick for a 1-1 draw with Wolves, whose wing-backs and inside forwards ran the game in the spaces on the outside of the bunched-up Arsenal midfield. Emery would tell reporters after the game that it was, “a bad result, but tactically it worked how we wanted”.
Emery completely lost it in the 2-0 defeat at Leicester, playing Mesut Ozil as a false nine in a 5-2-3 that inevitably saw the Gunners overwhelmed in central midfield, while he also attempted a flat and lifeless 4-4-2 for the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace – failing to switch mid-game despite Palace scoring their second goal as early as the 51st minute.
5) Dean Smith and an empty midfield
Aston Villa have been rather unlucky this season. During the first part of the season, they were often beaten by a single goal in matches they had dominated, holding their own against the country’s best clubs and generally looking like a solid mid-table side. But once John McGinn got injured everything started to fall apart.
Dean Smith’s tactics are perhaps too simplistic for Premier League level, relying on an expansive shape and possession football that targets the flanks. As a result, Villa are very open and easy to attack, and while initially, McGinn’s ridiculous energy levels papered over the cracks, Smith’s side have since been brutally exposed.
Things got worse when, in an attempt to patch up a leaky defence, Smith moved to a 3-4-3. It made a lot of sense in theory, but in practice, Villa have since been playing with just two central midfielders, and none of their options are confident enough in possession to prevent being outnumbered and overwhelmed.