This neverending 2020 has proven to be one of the hardest for football clubs in history, providing an unprece­dent­ed set of challenges for coaches and players globally. Tight schedules and brand-new cir­cum­stances meant managers had to think of new solutions, on and off the pitch. Here are some of the most defining tactical features that we saw on the pitch this year.

Importance of throw-ins

The ever-growing importance of set pieces has really come into focus this year, with throw-ins being a particularly hot topic. Discussion has largely been centered around Liverpool and their appointment of throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark, whose work has shone the spotlight on how beneficial throw-ins can be.

An often overlooked detail of the beautiful game that’s not typically given its due credit, Gronnemark’s influence has been clear to see when watching the Reds. How they create space for receivers, use rotations, opposite movements and decoys has been a joy to watch. Whether creating conditions to strike quick switches to isolate the far side fullback, generating overloads to progress or maintain possession and to get runners in behind, their varied strategies have borne fruit on many occasions.

Using a combination of long, short and mid-range throw-ins, they keep their opponents guessing, as they effectively take advantage of any indecision to explore vacant spaces.

Positioning themselves coherently so quick layoffs and combinations can be played, this also ensures they’re well located to counter-press immediately if possession is lost.

Liverpool’s fourth goal vs. Atalanta arose from this smart throw in routine

In a recent interview with The Athletic, Gronnemark, who also coached at progressive Danish outfit, FC Midtjylland, for 10 years, gave a great insight into his work. “I categorize throw-ins into three categories — long, fast and clever. With Liverpool, I work more on the fast and clever options, as they don’t look to utilize the long throw into the box when in the final third. With Midtjylland, it was more focused on long throws,” he explained.

“I’ve won the Champions League and the Premier League as Liverpool’s throw-in coach, but my biggest dream is to change football. I want to help those playing at amateur or youth levels develop this part of their game, not just those at the top.”

Gaining an edge over many adversaries courtesy of their aptitude here, many teams have also made big strides in this area and recognized how useful having a dedicated throw-in or set-piece coach can be.

When the margins are so fine between success and failure, it makes perfect sense for teams to take advantage of this potentially game-changing aspect.

Five substitution rule

Another factor that’s gained plenty of traction in 2020 has been the decision to allow five substitutes. Introduced following the first lockdown to help with player load management due to the congested schedule, it was widely seen as a positive.

Considering the huge amount of muscle injuries suffered by players over recent months (up 42% compared to last season), the five subs rule has certainly come in handy but still hasn’t stopped plentiful injuries from occurring.

With most of the top leagues across Europe embracing the rule change, except the Premier League, most of the resistance has come from teams who believe this only further serves as an advantage to the bigger teams. The reasoning behind this is that the richer teams have excellent squad depth to call on as opposed to the smaller teams, thus giving them an upper hand, which is certainly an understandable viewpoint.

Jurgen Klopp’s comments on the issue made for fascinating reading, as he stated: “I think that information (on injuries) speaks for itself. I told you the facts that if we would have voted in the managers’ meeting, which we were not allowed to, then it would have been through, 100 percent, with 15 or 16 votes. That it didn’t happen since then is obviously a sign that some shareholders see it differently from their managers.

“That’s not really a good sign as it shows that these people really ignore the player welfare. The coaches don’t do that but these people do it. If we don’t have a chance to vote for it then we have to accept it for the moment, but because it’s about player welfare – mental health and player welfare, it’s a whole package. We will not stop fighting for it because it’s just the right thing to do.”

Across other leagues over the continent, coaches are able to switch players on three occasions during games, not including half time, which has unquestionably been a boost having the ability to get fresh legs on to help their teams.

Due to the sheer amount of injuries that have occurred and the unprecedented times we’re living in, this rule definitely has made sense in terms of player safety and wellbeing.

235/325 offensive shape implemented by many

In today’s game, managers, coaches and analysts are always on the lookout to find the best way to break down opposition backlines. The 2-3-5/3-2-5 has been a preferred method this year by many, with its traditional use by the likes of Ajax and Barcelona adapted smartly to the modern game by many.

Allowing coaches to get so many numbers in offensive areas to provide width and depth to attacks, places huge pressure on opposition backlines. As seen by the likes of Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona, Liverpool, Arsenal, AS Roma and Atalanta to name a few, this has been especially effective against deep sitting defenses.

Granting coaches the ability to advance the wingbacks high and get three attackers in central areas while allowing the defenders and central midfielders to push higher to facilitate quick circulation to switch the angle of attacks, positives have been plenty.

Juventus in their 3-2-5 offensive structure.

To compound things for opponents, frequent switches of positions (horizontally, vertically and diagonally) between players can be achieved to manipulate defensive shapes to create openings for runners. Forever generating possibilities by dragging defenders out of shape and placing doubts in their minds, this in combination with the many numbers this tactic enables teams to get in the box, adds to its value.

By having so many players to aim for, crosses and cutbacks can prove very useful for chance creation. In addition, the fact the wingback on the opposite side can embark on blindside runs towards the back post, which gives them a dynamic advantage over awkwardly oriented opponents, to attack crosses in favorable conditions has been very valuable.

Another key element is how the outside central defenders typically will have huge spaces to dribble into to add an extra number to attacks due to the heavy occupation of the defensive line. The idea is then to draw out a player to subsequently make space for a free man or a third man runner.

Stretching defensive horizontally and vertically while keeping them constantly on their toes, there’s been much upside attached to this intriguing strategy.

Reduction in pressing intensity

One of the big takeaways, particularly from the second half of the year, has been the drop in pressing intensity. Considering the long lay off and heavily congested fixture list for many teams, this has been completely understandable.

Wanting to reduce the stress on the players and conserve their energy whenever possible, coaches have been forced to smartly manage the instances when their teams press.

Only pressing high in certain situations or depending on the game state, it’s been widely recognized that it’s unsustainable for players to maintain their pre lockdown levels of exertion. Notable examples of sides that have reduced their pressing ferocity include Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester, whose PPDA (Passes per defensive action) has dropped considerably.

  • Man City’s PPDA has gone from 10.19 to 12.85
  • Chelsea’s has gone from 10.44 to 12.17
  • Liverpool’s has gone from 9.30 to 11.31
  • Leicester’s has gone from 9.13 to 15.36

Other key examples arise from AS Roma, Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta, who have allowed an extra five, three and four passes per defensive action respectively compared to last term.

With the matches coming thick and fast and teams such as Marcelo Bielsa’s uniquely relentless Leeds United among a handful of teams able to keep up the pressure due to them only playing one match a week, expect this trend to continue throughout this season.

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