For the first time in history, all four European finalists have been sourced from the same league: the Premier League.
Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea. Whilst the Gunners and Blues both started their campaigns as the Europa League’s strongest sides – not to mention needing the luck of the draw to keep them apart before Baku – Liverpool and Spurs have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to make the Champions League showpiece.
But one thing all four clubs (well, three of them – Chelsea were just kind of good) have done is succeed in a tactically interesting way en route to their respective finals. Along with Manchester United, the misfits of the bunch, they have shown some tactical tweaks that have helped their success, and given said success, could become trends that others copy. Imagine that; the Premier League, European trendsetters!
What are these trends, though? We’ve had a look for you.
Full-backs have been evolving rapidly over the last 20 years. In fact, one could argue that no position has seen such a radical shift in the way it’s deployed, as the full-back. Back in 1998/99 your full-back was your defender who could cross. There were some outliers like Cafu and Roberto Carlos (in fact it was pretty much just those two) but even then, all they did was attack more than defend.
Now we’re seeing full-backs get involved in the midfield and taking a key role in build-up play. Obviously this was originated by Dani Alves, first at Sevilla and then Barcelona. Alves was a magical kind of footballer who played three different roles at once. After him came Marcelo, who was a left-footed version of Alves, albeit not quite as spectacular.
But like Cafu and Carlos, these were/are spectacular individuals. Their genius cannot not be replicated unless you have, well, them. Premier League sides, in particular Liverpool, have decided to involve their full-backs as playmakers anyway. Whether that’s underlapping them to help add creativity and control in midfield (as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Oleksandar Zinchenko at Man City both do) or letting them be the team’s wingers (like Andrew Robertson, Sead Kolasinac at Arsenal, and Alexander-Arnold). They are featured parts of how the team attacks.
Alexander-Arnold is a particularly impressive case. He has three assists in the Champions League this season, Jordi Alba is the only full-back with more. Now Alba is very much Barcelona’s main winger but they overwhelmingly favour him on the left, whereas Liverpool are blazing a trail by having both full-backs push high and wide. When Liverpool turned over Barcelona it was Alexander-Arnold’s fantastic wing-play (what else would you call it?) that helped push the Blaugrana back and created two of the goals.
Of course, one of the main problems with having two flying full-backs (and the reason most sides don’t tend to do it) is that it leaves you exposed defensively. Real Madrid often did it during their three-peat of European title wins and were perpetually in a state of defensive exposure, but they got away with it through a combination of blind luck and sheer firepower. Again: not workable tactics.
Jurgen Klopp is determined to unleash both Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, so what does he do? He stocks his midfield with workhorses. Since Pep Guardiola’s revolution at Barcelona a decade ago, people have been stuffing as many technical players as possible into their midfields. And why not? It makes for beautiful football and hey, why not copy one of the best sides of all-time? Even Madrid’s dominance had, in large part, to do with how technical their midfield had become.
Klopp, however, went the other way. James Milner, Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson… these are all players with technical skill, for sure, but their primary ability is defensive effort. They run and run and run. Even Liverpool’s most creative midfielder, Naby Keita, is someone who works like a demon on the defensive end. These midfielders put forth enormous amounts of effort that allows the full-backs to step forward and dominate.
Of course this tactic can backfire if the opponent is able to pin the full-backs into their own half with brave attacking wing-play, as it often did for Liverpool away from home this season. But at Anfield with the crowd roaring them on, their midfield runs harder than ever and overwhelms the opponents, allowing the full-backs to impact the game. Given the two-legged nature of European football, this is a tactic that could be easily transposed to other sides with a raucous home crowd (which is a lot of them).
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Guardiola’s revolution really changed the game and how many teams think and plan their squad. Tactics as old as the game itself have fallen out of use, save for desperate scenarios. Two Premier League clubs showed this season, however, that desperation can be both effective and a viable strategy for the long-term.
When Manchester United were losing in Turin against Juventus, they began hoofing the ball long to Marouane Fellaini. Juventus’ much-vaunted defence couldn’t cope and the end result was a late two-goal turnaround and historic win for the Red Devils.
Even more impressive though were Spurs; trailing 2-0 to Ajax (3-0 on aggregate) with just 45 minutes of semi-final football left to save their season, Mauricio Pochettino turned to Fernando Llorente. They began pelting long-balls in his direction and playing off the balls he won. This disrupted Ajax’s young defence and led to Spurs completing an unreal turnaround and making their first-ever final.
The beautiful simplicity of hoofing the ball long means that any team can do it. And now that Europe has seen how it can unsettle both glorious footballing sides as well as mean defences, perhaps other smaller sides could find their own Fellaini or Llorente and raise some hell in Europe for 2019/20.
Speed kills. And pace in attack is the most dangerous weapon in football. The ability to get from point A to point B faster than anyone else will always be a gamechanger in a team-sport, where even the best defences have to leave gaps. Spurs and Arsenal were two of the best at abusing their own side’s pace this season.
Arsenal had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and so were in a near-constant state of firing balls in behind defences for him to race onto – even if the Gabon international did forget his shooting boots in the final. The semi-final against Valencia was a keen example of just how devastating pace can be. Valencia simply couldn’t live with Aubameyang and he ended the tie with four goals and one assist.
Across north London, Spurs found great value in using Heung-min Son and Lucas Moura in attack when Harry Kane was down injured. Son’s pace and penetrative ability caused havoc in the quarter-final against Manchester City. The South Korean scored three of Spurs’ four goals in the tie as they knocked arguably the best side on the planet out.
Then in the semi-final second leg, Lucas Moura exploded to life with a second half hat-trick. His pace a perfect complement to Llorente’s height and power. His first and third goals came because he had the terrifying pace to burst into position and then take his chances. A slower player simply doesn’t get there in time, and well, Spurs would be out instead of finalists.