As we approach the end of the year, we look back at some of the most interesting tactical trends seen in the last twelve months.
As another fascinating year draws to a close in the football world, this represents a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect upon some of the key tactical trends from 2023.
Box Midfield Very Popular
The more prevalent use of the box midfield has certainly been a major talking point this year, with a host of high-profile managers implementing the tactic such as Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, Xavi, Roberto De Zerbi, Jurgen Klopp and many more.
With coaches desperate for midfield supremacy, the box has offered them a great solution to generate numerical and positional superiorities to control matches, breathe life into attacks, exploit space between the lines while the forwards pin markers and generate room for the frontline.
Seeing as the players are positioned in close proximity, this lends itself to quick, snappy combinations to outfox and maneuver opponents too while still leaving decent cover in case of a turnover due to the two holders supporting the advanced dual 10s.
Depending on the team, it's intriguing to see how different coaches might choose to use central defenders and full-backs to join forces with midfielders and forwards to form this structure, which places doubt in the minds of defenders individually and opponents collectively on how best to deal with threats.
As a result, space wide can generally be accessed courtesy of defensive units edging infield to cope with the heavy central presence. The tactic can also be conducive for midfield rotations with the players being so near to one another to further compound issues for marking schemes.
Typically used in a 3-2-4-1 or a 3-2-2-3 animation, that can be skewed into diamond and asymmetrical shapes to cause extra disruption, it's usually been the coaches that love dominating possession and have players of a high technical level to execute their demands that opt for the box.
It's important to note that the box can also be a fine defensive asset, as the centrally compact midfield can get at targets swiftly to counter-press and regain the ball high in advantageous areas to attack again.
Despite the success of this system being so reliant on the quality of personnel at a manager's disposal, there's no doubting what a weapon it can be when implemented correctly, as demonstrated by a host of world-class tacticians at the highest level.
De Zerbi’s Sole of the Foot Strategy
Roberto De Zerbi has taken the Premier League by storm with his swashbuckling brand of attacking football since taking over at Brighton & Hove Albion last year. Although much of the focus has rightfully been on his side's fearless approach, one aspect of his philosophy that's heavily caught the eye has been how his players frequently put the sole of their boot on the ball.
This subsequently had many wondering why his troops were doing this, as it's not something that's overly commonplace in football across the globe.
Eager for his team to draw out pressers and to provoke a response in order to create space between opposition lines within their pressing structure, this is the intention behind this strategy.
As a result, this method allows Brighton to lure out markers, who leave spaces behind, before then carving through blocks to exploit openings and weaknesses that arise.
By creating the conditions to manufacture space centrally, wide and in the half spaces, the Seagulls have then been able to find colleagues directly, via third-man combinations, and via the up-back-through principle.
So good at increasing space, occupying the attention of defenders and attacking rapidly to ultimately expose opponents centrally through the forwards or wide through the wingers, the catalyst for this is so often this initial baiting to attract harriers.
Real Sociedad Pressing Monsters
Imanol Aguacil's enormously exciting Real Sociedad continue to flex their muscles with their energetic pressing and all-round intensity without possession.
Always keen to win the ball back high both in high pressing situations and through their determined counter-pressing when they lose the ball, it's a joy to watch them get at opponents in a coordinated, fierce manner even though they give away a plethora of fouls (which crucially stops attacks swiftly before they can develop).
A well-oiled machine who are all on the same page, it's little wonder they stack up so highly in a host of defensive statistics over the last season and a half.
Indeed, by the numbers comparing their data from this season so far and last campaign, it’s clear how effective and combative they are, for they rank extremely highly among Europe’s top five leagues for PPDA, challenge intensity, fouls and yellow cards. It’s particularly interesting that they top the list for PPDA and fouls from last season and this term to date, plus are right up there in terms of challenge intensity and yellow cards - as shown in the table below.
Unquestionably one of the best-coached teams on the continent under Alguacil, the way the multifaceted La Real supplement their exceptional work in possession with their assertiveness without it has ensured they're one of the toughest teams to face off against in Europe.
Alexander-Arnold’s Tweaked Role for Liverpool
Klopp's decision to modify Trent Alexander-Arnold's role has been a real game-changer for both the player and Liverpool as a whole.
Devising a formula where he can maximize the strengths of the technically gifted Englishman and somewhat minimize his weaknesses, deploying him in this post has proven an inspired decision and emphatically paid off.
Bringing the best out of him by instructing him to venture infield into midfield, has meant he's been able to use his tremendous playmaking skills and outstanding vision from more dangerous central locations to wreak havoc.
Able to make full use of his passing wizardry over a range of distances, Alexander-Arnold has masterfully switched play, broken the lines with penetrative passes, combined intricately in close quarters and launched precise through balls in behind.
Not only has it given the Reds another dimension going forward due to his reading of the play and creativity, but it's also given them some additional control to dictate midfield zones while allowing Mohamed Salah to be isolated out wide.
Extremely in tune with Klopp's tactical framework, it also warrants mentioning how he still mixes things up by performing rotations with his colleagues to cause extra conundrums for their foes.
Even though there are many positives attached to this, some negatives have come about from his defensive shortcomings, where he can be exposed for his less successful ball-winning qualities, a propensity to commit errors and issues dealing with 1v1s.
All things considered, however, the upside outweighs the downside more often than not, for he brings so much to the table from this station, which has regularly been illustrated by the success of him and Liverpool this campaign.