Premier League
February 26, 2017

Are relegation fighting sides and defensive-minded managers adapting their style?


Every Premier League season, we will see teams fighting off relegation but then suffer a bad run of form which then leads to the manager being sacked. The most likely candidates to replace said sacked manager are all rather similar managers in terms of style. The likes of Sam Allardyce and Steve Bruce are usually linked with vacant managerial roles mainly due to their reputation in keeping teams up midway through a season. However, with the recent appointments of Paul Clement and Marco Silva at Swansea City and Hull City respectively, I believe we are seeing a potential change in the landscape of bottom teams in the Premier League. Favouring more expansive coaches over the more ‘old-fashioned’ managers we’ve grown to be accustomed to in previous seasons, we’ve seen Swansea and Hull evolve and be more compact defensively.

While most teams that are in a relegation battle tend to play more defensively, Swansea and Hull have shown they can defend in a deep block as well as have a distinct counter attacking threat and be comfortable and dangerous in possession. Both Clement and Silva are very different coaches; Silva is rather experienced for his young age and favours a counter attacking and pressing style with an idea to keep possession and use direct switches of play when winnning the ball deep, while Clement has spent most of the past few years being the assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich but is almost as flexible in his approach as Silva is, using a blend of counter attacking, possession and pressing football while also being able to play a deep block successfully in his recent away win over Liverpool. Both managers are more expansive in their use of the ball than their typical “ultra defensive” counterparts, both having implemented a strategy based on pressing half spaces and being compact in midfield. A better way of explaining this is in their recent approaches to big sides; Hull outwitted Liverpool due to their defensive  block and uses of direct switches to find counter attacking chances (as seen by them winning possession back deep in their own half and then playing a quick direct pass brought LFC’s midfield and defence into the path of Oumar Niasse to make it 2-0). Swansea’s second goal in their 2-3 away win over LFC was smartly executed; Tom Carroll exchanging passes then finding Martin Olsson overlapping from LB, before receiving possession again and crossing to Fernando Llorente for his second goal of the afternoon. This is opposed to the generic defensive teams  in the league who struggle to keep possession, create chances or even match up to teams in spells.

I’ll go over some examples of “smaller” teams who I’ve taken some notice of this season:

Tony Pulis is probably the most famous “keeping the sides up” manager. He’s grown a reputation for playing highly defensive football based on long balls and using set pieces to their advantage. But the summer signing of Nacer Chadli from Spurs has given his West Brom side a better edge going forward. Giving them an extra attacking option both in possession and through counter attacks, Chadli has been an important figure in West Brom occupying the 8th place spot in the league this season (as of the writing of this article). While it may be too soon to say that Pulis has “evolved” as a coach, it’s telling that he’s managed to give West Brom better outlets when they win the ball, thus giving them a better counter attacking threat.

Sean Dyche is another manager who’s had a bright season with an ordinary side. His Burnley side have a superb home record this season and are in mid table as of now, an impressive feat considering the level of the squad. Burnley have shown a counter attacking edge this season which has seen them score a fair amount of late goals as well as make them more threatening then they were under Dyche in the 2014/15 season (where they got relegated). In that season, Burnley averaged one of the highest distance covered stats in the league, clocking the highest distance covered (km) in 2015. While admirable, they failed to stay up in the league or offer much of an attacking threat to relieve pressure during games (as they aren’t a team who focus on having the ball). With the likes of Andre Gray proving finishing, pace and directness on the counter and Stefan Defour providing creativity and smart passing, they look a more threatening side this season as opposed to 2 years ago. While they haven’t scored many goals (only have 28 goals as of February 26th) and their away record is poor, their home record shows they have adapted as a team. They also don’t have many shots on goal, however their lack of possession and limited creativity could explain that. It also shows room for improvement for Dyche and his team. It’s interesting to note how compact Burnley are in matches, compared to Sunderland under David Moyes or even Crystal Palace under Alan Pardew and now Allardyce. They are more adept to closing down spaces and pressing high than Big Sam’s teams are, and thus have a better counter attacking threat after winning back possession. This is also (somewhat) the case with WBA under Pulis too; they’re both better tactically than other “small” sides are.

Middlesborough under Aitor Karanka this season have a very impressive defensive record this season, having only conceded 28 goals as of February 26th. However they are the lowest goalscorers in the division, only having scored 19 goals (the least in the division) and have the fewest wins out of any teams in the division (4). They also average the least shots (9.1) and key passes (6.3) per 90 minutes in the league, which might give the impression that they’re too defensive. They’ve gotten some impressive away draws against tough sides (getting a 0-0 draw vs Arsenal and scoring a late equaliser vs Man City). However, their lack of creativity and finishing means that they are under pressure to win games at a lower margin so these are issues which Karanka has to solve.

My final example is a team who is different to the other teams I’ve mentioned: Bournemouth under Eddie Howe. Howe’s Bournemouth tend to play a positional style of play based on keeping possession and exploiting spaces with their use of width, the ball and a monopoly of possession. While this is more akin to a top side, Bournemouth have had moderate success in the league and have received a reputation for being a good footballing side under Howe. While they do have issues (the style of play requires players who are better used to positional play and they have a very poor defensive record), they’ve managed to gain points due to their ability to create chances and pin most teams back through their pressure and ability to sustain possession in dangerous areas. They’re currently in poor form but it can be argued that the points they gained earlier in the season (such as that famous come-from-behind home win over Liverpool and almost defeating Arsenal at home only to throw away a 3-0 lead) will be enough to keep them up. Howe is a young manager so he has time to grow and improve on the issues his team has defensively, but I doubt many people think Bournemouth should replace him with a strictly defensive style of play.

So I cannot say for sure that the smaller sides or coaches are evolving with their hiring of coaches and use of football respectively (this is still somewhat new and this could easily change back to the norm) but I do believe that the likes of Sam Allardyce and David Moyes could do with adapting their style to have a more potent attacking threat as well as being able to press more intelligently. Most of these managers I’ve mentioned (excluding Howe) have defensive blocks but only a few have found ways to relieve pressure, score more goals and be better in possession, rather than having to rely on set pieces solely.

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You can find me on @Flaminiesta on Twitter. Also look at my personal website for some of my articles.

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