It’s always hard for newly promoted teams to find their feet in the Premier League. Thrust straight in at the deep end you’re now responsible for a clubs survival. You’ll need to outsmart the best teams, outperform the best players and outwit the world’s top managers, whilst an entire nation backs your immediate demise.
Having gained promotion you’re a club that’s used to winning, your fans expect performances and the board demands progress. Chances are you’ve earned promotion through offensive play, it’s unlikely that you’ve advanced a league by ‘sitting back’ and defending. But can that same style keep you in the Premier League? Can you go toe to toe with the big guns, outplay better opposition and steal enough points? Perhaps you can, but for me now is the time to reassess the tactical approach, chosen formations and team instructions.
Having recently gained promotion on my ‘Wigan – a journey back to the top‘ save I find myself in this exact scenario. My primary formation during a successful Championship campaign was a bold 4-4-2 formation with a focus on possession. I’m not going to retire this tactic, it might yet have a place in the rare home game that sees us as the favourites, but I want to work on something with more structure. As much as I rate and back my team we’re not going to have it all our way this season, and we’re not going to dominate games – a different tact is going to be required, initially.
As a starting point the first thing to look at is a solid base, a defensive shape with numbers will be the foundations of this tactic. With that in mind I see two options for the defensive formation, either a back four or a more flexible five man defence (a back three with two wing-backs). Since I already use a 3-5-2 wing-back formation for away days I’m opting for a back four this time. I also see this as a more structured setup with fewer gaps that a marauding wing-back could leave behind. I’m not looking to counter attack either, so wide players in particular will be contributing to fewer phases. My back four will be defending, nothing more.
To further develop this tactic we now move on to the midfield. I see another bank of four as the ideal way to maintain a structured shape that makes us difficult to break down. A holding midfielder seems logical too since we’ll frequently be playing against teams who favour a creative number 10 between midfield and striker. We’ll need to try and nullify players like Ross Barkley, Wayne Rooney, Mezut Ozil and other players of that ilk. A player in the ‘Makelele role’ can help us to cut the supply chain so to speak, without dispersing our two banks of four, allowing us to maintain our shape and remain difficult to break down. This clearly has the look of a very defensive formation but with a ball winner sitting just in front of the defence we can afford to give our remaining midfield players more support or attack orientated roles.
We’re left with a lone striker and a bit of a dilemma. Previously I’ve developed systems that feature a poacher / target man duo and naturally these are the types of strikers in my squad, but I can’t see those particular roles being effective here. A poacher could find himself very isolated and would be reliant on the opposition playing with a high line. A target man would likely encourage long balls forward that give our midfield little time to push on and support the striker. A preferable role in this situation would be one that instructs the striker to come deep and bring midfield players in to the fold – a link between midfield and attack. The deep lying forward role seems to be the perfect choice. With a support role he’ll look to attack from deep with the support of our midfield rather than look to go it alone.
Here’s how our team line’s up in the new 4-1-4-1 formation:
The best way to rate the success of our new formation is by analysing it after it’s been used in a game. We first used this formation away at Everton, the second game of the season and our first away match. The match finished 0-0 with Everton dominating possession as expected, but although they had seventeen shots at goal only three of those were on target, compared to our five.
On paper the formation looked to match up perfectly against Everton’s 4-4-1-1 formation, with Cheikhou Kouyaté filling the gap where Ross Barkley would be operating. Seeing Barkley as the main creative threat I gave Kouyaté specific instructions to man-mark him, an idea I got from FM Grasshopper’s ‘Stop the Passer‘ post. It’s an excellent read and covers the use of this tactic in a David versus Goliath situation, and in a lot more detail. The statistic that really stood out for me was how low Barkley’s pass completion was before he was subbed in the 57th minute. Only Aspas completed fewer passes from the Everton starting eleven.
A key area of our formation was the two banks of four, which aimed to make our defensive shape difficult to break down. The analysis below shows the average positions of our players without the ball (red) and with the ball (green). You can clearly see that the players have kept their shape throughout the game, making it very difficult for Everton to break us down and create quality chances.
I’ve only used this formation once so far so I’m not getting carried away. I’m sure there will be occasions when this tactic proves ineffective and it’s quite possible that we’ll struggle to score goals ourselves. It’s an encouraging start however, and I’ll be looking to tweak it as the season progresses.