In a frenzied year with lots of matches being played almost constantly, managers had to find new solutions to be successful on the pitch. Let’s see the four most defining tactical trends of the year.

As another memorable year comes to a close in the football world, this represents a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect upon some tactical trends from 2021.

Playmaking fullbacks

The way Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold and Manchester City's Joao Cancelo have excelled as playmaking fullbacks for their respective managers in Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola has been a fascinating development.

With both men being exceptional passers and often operating in the half spaces to help their teams gain control while breathing life into attacks, this has given their teams a huge boost.

Possessing such an excellent range of passing, elite vision, coherent reading of the play and superb execution, watching the pair break the lines from deep and carve open defenses to set up chances has been a joy to watch. Indeed, the fact Alexander-Arnold already has 10 assists in all competitions and Cancelo six shows just how effective they've been.

By coming infield to essentially act as an extra midfielder, they've not only been able to cause overloads and issues for defenses on who to mark them but also enjoyed extra time and space to assess their options. Moreover, their indented positioning also ensures they have a fantastic view of the entire field so they can pick out options with clarity.

Alexander-Arnold's Heat Map this season
Cancelo's Heat Map this season

Helped by the intelligent movement and cohesive framework their teams operate in, this has been key towards space being afforded to them too.

Their positioning can also have the benefit of drawing out defenders, which then leaves their sides' many brilliant wide players, such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling isolated to weave their magic in 1v1s on the flanks.

Another highlight of their work has been how their roles help their outfits recirculate the ball quickly due to the close connections with their teammates, thus meaning they can shift the opposition then play through them with slick passes.

By the numbers, their incredible output is aptly depicted in the stats graphic below, where they rank incredibly among all players in the Premier League in many key offensive metrics despite playing in deeper areas.

Cancelo & Alexander-Arnolds stats via Wyscout Rankings

Offering excellent defensive coverage against counterattacks as well, the infield fullbacks have been vital in either counter-pressing to stop transitions, slowing transitions down before they can develop and just generally offering another layer of protection due to their deeper positioning so central areas can be shielded better.

Offering brilliant examples of how the fullback role can be interpreted by two players with incredible skill sets, Klopp and Guardiola certainly deserve credit for their shrewd tactical tweaks to get the best out of their stars.

Three at the back paying dividends

With a host of teams enjoying success playing three at the back or variations of it, including Champions League winners Chelsea, Serie A champions Inter Milan, LaLiga winners Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig under Julian Nagelsmann, Portuguese champions Sporting CP, AS Monaco under Niko Kovac and Italy's Euro winning team (who often tucked in a fullback when attacking to form a three), this way of playing has clearly borne fruit this year.

Although there have been many ways different teams have deployed three at the back systems, many of them retain similar principles, which if done correctly, lead to success.

Using Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea as an example, who typically play in variations of a 3-4-2-1, 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3, and the German's a glowing reference in how to be effective using this strategy.

Organizing his team exceptionally on the defensive end, Tuchel's Blues amazingly only conceded 24 goals in his first 50 games in charge while keeping 31 clean sheets in the process. Transforming Chelsea into a stopping machine in less than 12 months, he deserves tremendous credit for instilling his demands so quickly.

Forming the foundation of their success is their back three that turns into a five when defending deeper as the wingbacks fall back, who are then supported by the two holding midfielders ahead of them. Giving them a strong base to protect central areas and all masters at regaining possession, winning duels and knowing when to shift across, drop back, push out, track runners or support colleagues, they've got the fundamentals spot on.

Chelsea's 5-2-3 defensive scheme

Pressing from the front regularly too, the way they've strategically harried opponents and set traps to recover possession centrally or in wide areas has been key in limiting opposition build-up. Positioned so they have access, can use their cover shadows to block pass lanes and sharp to respond to triggers, Chelsea have been successful in this area.

Maintaining compactness, protecting central areas and knowing when to press, opponents have certainly found it hard to breach their rearguard to generate quality chances.

In terms of their offensive plans, Chelsea have been extremely impressive too, with them able to hurt opponents in a variety of ways. To start with, the marauding wingbacks are a valuable asset, for they persistently charge upfield to add width and depth to attacks and stretch defenses. Moreover, how the wingbacks rotate with their nearby midfielders or attackers to underlap or occupy infield areas in the half spaces has added to their menace.

Blessed with many gifted attackers in the form of Romelu Lukaku, Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi, they have a plethora of options to play in the striking or attacking mid roles.

Very good at finding space between the lines, making space for runners in behind, forming overloads wide and in midfield and dragging defenders out of shape, Chelsea are always posing questions of their adversaries.

Mount smartly dropping to find space between the lines as the center-backs are pinned

Preferring to build out from the back whenever possible, the three center-backs will usually split to stretch the opposition first line of pressure and open passing lanes. Typically joined by Jorginho who helps give them numerical and positional superiority, plus speed up their circulation, they can then bypass the press or make room for the outside central defenders to embark on trademark dribbles.

Jorginho drops to form a 3v2 as the center-backs split

The duo in midfield has been key for them to establish control and assert their dominance with their passing and movement to support offensive passages all over the pitch. Furthermore, the way the likes of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, N'Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lure out pressers to make room for the attackers to receive between the lines has been notable too.

The pivot has also helped Chelsea be stable when opponents hit them on the counter, for they ideally situate themselves near the back three to stop counters through counter-pressing, their positioning or by using their awareness to apply interceptions.

So in tune with one another and knowing precisely what Tuchel demands of them on both sides of the ball, this well-oiled machine has offered a brilliant example as to how effective a back three can be when executed right.

False 9s and fluid frontlines

2022 has definitely been a year of false 9s and fluid frontlines, with many teams favoring this approach. Whether due to the absence of a proper center-forward or to maximize the threat of their nimble, technical or fast attacking options, this approach has been a weapon for many.

While the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Barcelona, AC Milan and more at times have been exponents of this approach, Manchester City have been the most interesting case to focus on implementing this method.

Being without legendary City striker Sergio Aguero, who left for Barcelona, in combination with using Gabriel Jesus as a winger and Ferran Torres being injured, Guardiola's opted for the false 9 approach. It's paid dividends too, with the likes of Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Sterling all enjoying spells in this role both this season and last.

"When you don’t have a real striker, you have to be aware of having players in the box. Our game is quite flexible. It doesn’t matter who it is, this is when you get the goals," Gundogan insisted.

"Players like me, who play an offensive midfield role, approach into the opponent's box to get in more scoring situations. That is probably the reason why I was able to score more goals last season than ever, this season it is quite similar."

Constantly causing headaches for opposition central defenders whether to follow them when they drop deep or stay in shape, City have used their false 9 to either create openings for runners to exploit in behind when the markers track them or overload midfield when they don't.

Foden dropping deep to form a 3v2 as a false 9

Considering they come short behind the opposition midfield, this means they can not only evade cover shadows to open passing lanes but also receive in advantageous positions between the lines centrally or in the half spaces to animate and connect attacks.

Persistently altering defenders' reference points and never letting them settle into a rhythm of how best to stop them, opponents have found City an elusive proposition indeed.

Moreover, how Guardiola has expertly coached his players to cohesively and strategically rotate positions with one another has compounded issues for markers by placing even more doubt and confusion into rearguards.

Man City's shape against PSG with a false 9

Extremely difficult to deal with due to them forever swapping roles and not staying in fixed areas, City have successfully destabilized defenses by firstly unbalancing them and then penetrating them.

Their efficient dovetailing extends to when they use opposite movements, where one player will drop towards the ball (typically bringing their man with them) while the other surges in behind to take advantage of the newly generated space.

In terms of statistics, the fact City rank so highly in many compartments illustrates what a force they are going forward with their sophisticated approach.

Manchester City stats via Wyscout Rankings

Masters of manipulating defenses and wreaking havoc with their thoughtful movement, the false 9 looks here to stay at City, with the execution of this tactic serving as a further testament to Guardiola's managerial genius.

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