Tactical Review: Pep's 2-3-5, Koeman's defensive masterclass and Zlatan's link-up play

If the Premier League opening weekend was anything to go by, we’re in for a season rich in tactical variety. Pep Guardiola justified his reputation as the most innovative top coach in Europe, while notable calls were made by Ronald Koeman and Arsène Wenger. Interesting systems were also used by Watford’s Walter Mazzarri (3-5-2) and Southampton’s Claude Puel (4-4-2 diamond).

More intrigue could follow when Antonio Conte’s Chelsea meet West Ham tonight. For now, however, let’s review the weekend action with four tactical notes from the big matches.

1. Retro-futuristic Guardiola plays 2-3-5

The term ‘inverted full-back’ might easily be dismissed as Football Manager-inspired geekery, but it could become a household expression should Pep Guardiola’s methods gain popularity. His debut as Manchester City boss was perhaps the most anticipated opening-weekend clash tactically, and the Catalan duly unveiled an unconventional system against Sunderland.

Ostensibly, it was a 4-3-3. But when City had the ball – which was 77% of the time – full-backs Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy moved into the centre alongside anchor man Fernandinho. Wingers Nolito (left) and Raheem Sterling (right) stayed wide, while central midfielders David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne pushed up close to Sergio Agüero. With centre-backs John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov starting moves from the back, City’s shape when in possession resembled an old-fashioned 2-3-5.  

One of the advantages this provided was new passing angles. Rather than keeping a full-back and a winger in a vertical line, Guardiola created more options by keeping one player out wide and another centrally – a concept he also used at Bayern Munich. This made City fluent and elusive in the build-up play. Though they created less than expected in the final third and needed a late own goal to win 2-1, the system was surely a prelude to the kind of innovation Guardiola will offer.

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2. Koeman’s three-man defence stops Kane

Earlier on Saturday, Everton held Tottenham to a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park. The result was better than it might sound for the Toffees, given that newly appointed manager Koeman had admitted the players were 30% short of their maximum fitness, and that they missed Romelu Lukaku, Seamus Coleman (both injured) and new signing Ashley Williams (not match fit).

Credit for the point should go to Koeman’s 3-4-3, which was similar to his systems used at PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and occasionally at Southampton. The defensive trio of Phil Jagielka, Ramiro Funes Mori and 19-year-old debutant Mason Holgate repelled Spurs for long periods, helped by ball-winning central midfielders Gareth Barry and impressive newcomer Idrissa Gueye.

The fifth-minute opener by Ross Barkley enabled Everton to sit back, and though Gerard Deulofeu was a lively choice as lone striker just ahead of Barkley and Kevin Mirallas, the defence was the key area. Particularly in the first half, Everton were well positioned and kept clearing away danger, with the three stoppers outnumbering Harry Kane and Dele Alli. In fact, Kane, who racked up 40 goal attempts more than anyone else last season, did not record a single effort all game.

Eventually Spurs did equalise as Erik Lamela got in front of Holgate to meet a cross, and Spurs pressed for a winner late on. Yet that was likely to owe more to fitness than tactics: Spurs, renowned for their stamina under Mauricio Pochettino, had 13 attempts in total, but seven of those came in the final 11 minutes. Such pressure considered, Koeman could be pleased with a point.

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3. Ibrahimovic scores and creates

On Sunday, hosts Bournemouth seemed a tricky opponent for José Mourinho on his Manchester United league debut; they soon turned out to be anything but. After Juan Mata punished an error to score the opener, the game became a typical Mourinho display: solid and efficient defending coupled with moments of magic up front. Most of that magic came from Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Swede will have finer displays for United, but this was a promising debut. After a quiet first half in which he dropped deep to link up play, he served up Wayne Rooney with an acrobatic flicked through-ball before setting up the captain for another chance. Rooney missed the first and went down easily in the box for the second, with no penalty awarded.

Those passes were rare but bright highlights in an otherwise simple link-up game. Ibrahimovic completed 27 out of 37 passes: 7/10 went forward, 14/16 backward and 6/11 were squared. Notably, he gave seven passes to Rooney, but received only two back, all in the defensive half. Towards the end, the 34-year-old’s long-distance drive found the bottom corner to cap a fine display.

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4. Defensive inexperience costs Arsenal

At the Emirates, there were no great tactical novelties as Arsenal lost 4-3 to Liverpool, but Wenger’s makeshift defence was worth highlighting. The Gunners were without injured duo Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista as well as Laurent Koscielny, who was lacking match fitness. That handed the responsibility to Calum Chambers, who made just two league starts last season, and Rob Holding, who made his Arsenal debut.

The two had an average age of 20.5, and it showed. Liverpool didn’t press Arsenal as fervently as expected, at least not initially, but went close to taking advantage of a Chambers pass played straight to Roberto Firmino, with debutant Georginio Wijnaldum nearly converting the ensuing chance. That was one of several misplaced passes by Chambers in the middle third.

Later on, Holding conceded the free-kick from which Philippe Coutinho equalised, before Adam Lallana exploited more wobbly defending to make it 2-1. Coutinho should have scored his second when Firmino danced past Chambers inside the box. Shortly after, Sadio Mané skipped past Chambers to fire into the top corner for 4-1. Arsenal scored twice to come back to 4-3, but Wenger was left to rue his defensive absentees.

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