With the Premier League season now in full swing, the first three matchdays have provided plenty of entertainment and talking points. Of particular note, have been the clear tactical trends and tweaks; some of which have carried over from last season, and some of which are pleasantly refreshing.
- the continuation, alteration and improvement of the box midfield
- a re-run of inverted full-backs
- the return of the long ball
3 Tactical Trends for 2023-24 Premier League Season
The box midfield is hardly a newfangled invention, however, its modern resurgence has taken the football world by storm. It now provides a numerical one-player advantage over the standard three-man midfield.
Once, Thomas Tuchel was famous for his narrow 3-4-3 formation, where narrow wingers would tuck inside as attacking midfielders to form a box. Following this at Arsenal and Manchester City, Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola used hybridised systems to form a box, by inverting a full-back, or two, into midfield.
In the 2022/2023 season, the box midfield truly began to take over, with the likes of Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp turning to the box midfield in an attempt to solve their own tactical issues. This obsession with implementing and improvising a box midfield has continued into the 2023/2024 season.
The 2023/2024 Box Midfield
Firstly, the traditional proponents such as Manchester City and Arsenal have continued to implement the system, but in varying methods to varying success.
For example, against Burnley, City inverted their left-back Rico Lewis. However, Burnley expected this which forced a mid-game switch. Against Newcastle, Guardiola pushed central defender Manuel Akanji into midfield, in a similar style to last season.
Arsenal were far more creative, and after the first two games, their midfield arguably looked the most fluid. Against Nottingham Forest, Arsenal were often shaped in a diamond, with Thomas Partey inverted as the defensive midfield from right full-back, whilst Martin Ødegaard played as a traditional attacking midfielder flanked by Kai Havertz and Declan Rice. This often changed in-game, however, with Havertz and Odegaard often switching, as well as Rice occasionally becoming a double pivot alongside Partey in a more traditional box.
Of note, Arsenal tried the same thing against Fulham with Thomas Partey tucking in, albeit with less success. Fulham countered the overload with a diamond defence, often creating mismatches around the ball. It could be argued that when Partey tucked in early in the match, it resulted in Saka passing back into the space where a right back would have been, gifting Fulham with a goal.
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However, a surprise side to implement a box midfield has been Aston Villa. After a disastrous first-week showing against Newcastle, Aston Villa recovered from a 5-1 loss to beat Everton 4-0. A 4-2-3-1 on paper, John McGinn scarcely played down the right flank, and moved infield alongside Moussa Diaby as a second attacking midfielder. This also gave freedom to Lucas Digne to surge forward from left-back, and Everton struggled to comprehend the midfield overload atop the exploited space out wide.
Finally, Liverpool have also dabbled with the box midfield, as the side began to do toward the end of last season. The decision to invert right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold continues to work to some effect, however, Liverpool’s lack of true defensive midfielders has made for a somewhat haphazard shape. Nevertheless, given the arrival of Liverpool’s new defensive midfielder Wataru Endō, this may change in the coming weeks.
The Pros and Cons of Inverted Full-backs
On the topic of inverted full-backs, the new season has shown the good and the bad sides to this tactical ploy. Firstly, Manchester United as a whole have looked very shaky so far this season, and this has not been helped by the inverted role of Luke Shaw. On the ball, the left-back has looked uncomfortable in central areas, whilst although defensively sound himself, his positioning has at times exposed left centre-back, Lisandro Martinez.
On the other hand, Manchester United’s defeat in game week two against Tottenham Hotspur highlighted the positives of inverted full-backs. When Tottenham hired Ange Postecoglou, attacking football was the key promised principle. So far, the new tactical approach has not disappointed, and Postecoglou’s implementation of two inverted full-backs has largely been a joy to watch. Although Brentford exposed the wide areas against Tottenham in matchweek one, and Manchester United were also not short of chances, Tottenham’s attacking numbers and shape has proven to be well worth the risk.
Tottenham have, so far, played a 4-2-3-1 on paper. However, when both full-backs invert, one defensive midfielder has pushed higher alongside the now injured James Maddison, with the full-backs flanking the sole defensive midfielder Yves Bissouma. Tottenham’s shape effectively becomes a 2-3-5, and with wide wingers, the two advanced midfielders can find space between the opposing central defenders and full-backs.
With Pep Guardiola having moved away from his use of two inverted full-backs, Postacoglu’s attacking side has been a refreshing experience for many Premier League viewers.
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Long Balls are Back
Finally, the 2023/2024 season has seen, surprisingly, a return of the long ball. Long ball football is mostly considered to be an ugly brutish style, often associated with relegation-threatened or else weaker sides. Due to these sides often not having the star quality to possess the ball as effectively as other teams, long-ball football refers to always looking to go over as opposed to through an opposition press.
In recent years this style has been largely phased out, however, in direct relation to the box-midfield and the over-reliance on central control, long-ball football has recently seen a resurgence. With many Premier League sides now overloading the central areas, or else looking to capitalise through wide combinations and overlapping full-backs, certain defensive fragilities have begun to be exposed. Namely, the large pockets of space in wide areas of a defending side.
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In the modern game, many elite sides are vying for a goalkeeper who is good with their feet, however, the last few weeks have proven this goes beyond being involved in the build-up. The likes of Jason Steele at Brighton and Hove Albion, Martin Flekken of Brentford and André Onana at Manchester United were specifically chosen by their coaches for their abilities to play long passes. However, strangely, arguably the biggest culprit of the long ball has been Ederson of Manchester City. In just two games Ederson has attempted a total of 50 long passes, and more impressively, has completed over half of these at 27.
This a clear tactical decision by coach Pep Guardiola. Manchester City, a team so feared and respected for their build-up and central control, have surprised many this season. With an aerial presence in Haaland, as well as Pep’s traditional wide wingers, Manchester City have had clearly defined areas of the field to aim for. With more and more teams looking to press high in the modern game, a keeper who can accurately play long pinpoint passes will be crucial this season.
The season has just begun, and yet already tactical trends and nuances can be clearly noted. It will be fascinating observing how these develop throughout the season, however, for now, these three tactical ideas look to be dominant forces across the Premier League. The first two game weeks of the new season have not disappointed, and with a long season ahead, there is more excitement to come.