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The tactical fix needed by each top 6 Premier League club

The international break is over, and club football is coming back. For fans of the Premier League, this means the return of an exciting battle between six sides who are increasingly organised and packed with individual quality.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are all aiming to compete for the title this season. The former two made managerial changes over the summer to boost their chances, while three of the other four either did big business in the transfer window or significantly modified their starting line-up.

After just four games, the Premier League's top six look more competitive than ever before. Here we at Tribal Football assess the tactical adjustments each team needs to make if they are to improve, analysing their systems, styles and squads.


Unai Emery is in the process of rebuilding Arsenal in his own image after succeeding Arsene Wenger as manager in the summer. The Spaniard has implemented a 4-2-3-1 system to good effect offensively, though there remain glaring issues with the team's defence.

This weakness is evident when looking at the statistics – their defensive record is the fifth worst in the English top flight, with eight goals conceded in four games. While letting in five against Chelsea and Manchester City combined could be deemed understandable, conceding three in games against West Ham and Cardiff City is not so par for the course.

Emery must build a more solid defence, and he could start by organising his back line. Too often large gaps have appeared in the channels between the players in the back four, while their high line has also been caught out. If Arsenal are to concede fewer goals, there needs to be greater co-ordination in their defensive four's collective positioning and movements.


Maurizio Sarri's appointment as Chelsea manager over the summer meant that the club were almost certain to undergo a total change in tactics. While Antonio Conte preferred a 3-4-2-1 with a defensive focus on a compact low block, Sarri believes in a 4-3-3 with high pressing and an equally high back line.

These aspects have been brought in over the last few months, along with a greater focus on maintaining and using possession. However, defensively there have been some issues, even as Chelsea won each of their opening four league games.

Sarri's 4-3-3 asks a lot of the back four, who must be quick and intelligent to cover large amounts of space behind and to the side of them. One problem that emerged in the win over Arsenal was that when the full-backs went out to close down the opponent's wide men, large spaces appeared in the inside channels. Arsenal exploited this space time and again to create scoring opportunities, and ultimately they could have scored far more than their two goals on the day.

Chelsea must work to ensure similar issues don't appear in future. This can be done by having the nearest midfielder drop back to close off the space between the centre-backs and the full-backs and ensuring the inside channel isn't so open for the opposition to attack into.


After years of changing managers and players and tweaking formations to find the right formula, Liverpool finally have something like stability. Jurgen Klopp is now in his third full season at the helm, and after two straight years of top-four finishes and a Champions League final, there is genuine belief that they could challenge Manchester City for top spot in the Premier League this term.

Such belief is bolstered by a superb start, with four wins from four games against Brighton, Crystal Palace, Leicester and West Ham. Klopp has stuck with the same 4-3-3 system and the same intense pressing and counter-pressing throughout, and the only change of personnel came when introducing Jordan Henderson at the base of midfield for the Leicester win.

Henderson as a No.6 has not been a universally popular choice over recent years. The Englishman doesn't provide the positional awareness to offer balance, so Klopp should instead look to persist with one of his multiple other options, be it Naby Keita, Fabinho or Gini Wijnaldum, all of whom have shown the qualities to operate at the heart of a three.


Kevin De Bruyne was the heartbeat of Manchester City's title in 2017/18, but he isn't available at present due to injury. Without the creator, Pep Guardiola has had to try out different ways of setting up.

City defeated Huddersfield 6-0 using a 3-1-4-2 system that saw Ilkay Gundogan join David Silva and Fernandinho in midfield. In the 1-1 draw with Wolves they went back to the 4-3-3 that served them so well last term, with Gundogan taking De Bruyne's usual spot. Then, in the 2-1 win over Newcastle, Guardiola went with a more radical 4-2-4 shape that saw Fernandinho hold and Silva pull the strings.

While the points dropped against Wolves were surprising, there appears no real reason for alarm. City are averaging roughly the same possession (down just 0.6 per cent on last season) and the same pass success rate as 2017/18. They are still scoring goals, and winning games. The only tactical quandary for Guardiola to solve is how to play without De Bruyne, but he already seems to have put several plans in place to remedy the Belgian's absence.


Last season, Manchester United's midfield never seemed settled. Jose Mourinho was reluctant to adopt a midfield three that – in the eyes of many – would have given Paul Pogba the creative license and positioning he relishes. However, this appears to have changed in the early stages of 2018/19.

Mourinho has gone for a central midfield trident in each of United's four league games, opting for a 4-3-3 system on three occasions. Summer signing Fred has played a part in this switch, while the re-deployment of Andreas Pereira as a composed deep-lying playmaker is an even more exciting development.

In the opening day win over Leicester City, Pereira showed outstanding positional awareness, often dropping back between the two centre-backs to create 3v2 situations against the opposing front two and helping Manchester United to build from the back. He also moved to connect with his fellow midfielders and the full-backs, forming triangle and diamond shapes to facilitate ball progression.

Many have complained about the lack of flair in Mourinho's side, but his switch of system and use of Pereira as a No.6 show signs that he is implementing a more effective possession-based team that is less reliant on the good goalkeeping of David de Gea for wins. His challenge now will be to remain faithful and re-integrate Pereira after the youngster's time out with injury.


Tottenham were the only member of the Premier League's top six not to make major changes to their squad via the summer transfer market this year. Instead, they decided to stick with what they already had. Considering they are perhaps the most settled English team tactically speaking, this decision made a good deal of sense.

Mauricio Pochettino has stuck by his formula of intense organised pressing and a positional attacking game, though he has made one slight alteration to his system. Whereas before Harry Kane led Spurs' frontline alone, he is now partnered by Lucas Moura, whose pace and dribbling pose a different kind of threat to opposition defences.

The addition of Lucas up front has come alongside the institution of a 3-1-4-2 system, with just one defensive midfielder. Naturally, this puts more pressure on the player operating in the defensive midfield role – without a partner, they are now solely responsible for connecting with the back three in build-up and shielding the defence without the ball.

Pochettino has rotated between Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele when choosing who to fill this role, though neither has fully convinced. Tottenham need stability, however, so the Argentine must decide which player fits the position best and allow them to form a strong relationship with Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen within their new 3-1 structure.

About the author

Blair Newman

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