Despite widespread warnings that the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic would significantly affect the market, the gossip columns are as hectic as ever.
From Philippe Coutinho to Jadon Sancho to Jack Grealish to Wilfried Zaha, it would appear that many of Europe’s most valuable players still expect to get their moves, and indeed in a buyer’s market perhaps the super-clubs will use this opportunity to spend big.
Here’s a tactical analysis of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’, where they find themselves as the curtain comes down on 2019/20, and what work they need to do in the transfer window.
There are warning signs that Liverpool are slowing down. Over the final 19 league games Jurgen Klopp’s side collected just one more point than Manchester City, and they won only seven of their final 15 matches of 2019/20 in all competitions.
Perhaps we will look back on the club’s decision not to pursue Timo Werner, with the German instead joining Chelsea, on the basis they could not guarantee him first-team football, as a symbolically significant moment.
Liverpool’s loyalty to their first 11 could prove a stumbling block next season, in which a shortened pre-season could make it an even more exhausting year than usual.
There are no major tactical flaws at Liverpool, of course, but they do lack a midfield playmaker in the Philippe Coutinho mould to break the lines – and offer something different off the bench. Signing Thiago Alcantara would certainly help.
As the league’s top goalscorers Man City need only minor upgrades in attacking positions despite Leroy Sane’s sale to Bayern Munich and David Silva’s departure; Pep Guardiola is right to trust Phil Foden to step up, meaning Valencia’s Ferran Torres, to replace Sane, is likely to be the only addition.
City’s major tactical concern is coping with the transition from attack to defence. A serious vulnerability has emerged through the centre of the pitch this season, leading to defeats against strong counter-attacking sides like Wolves, Arsenal, Manchester United, Southampton and Tottenham.
Some intensity has been lost in their pressing thanks to Fernandinho’s fading influence and the occasional passivity of Rodri in the screening role, while clearly Aymeric Laporte needs a stronger centre-back partner.
Kalidou Koulibaly would fit the bill, and if the money is available Guardiola would appreciate left-back Alex Sandro.
Man United’s greatest tactical deficiency is a lack of detailed attacking instruction from the dugout, an issue that has been temporarily solved by Bruno Fernandes’s performances; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer relies on individual creativity over a grand tactical vision in the mould of Klopp or Guardiola. The Norwegian has the defence-first, counter-attacking tactics to win the ‘Big Six’ clashes, but now needs to find a way to flat-track the division’s middle class.
In the absence of better coaching, then, United need to pack the squad with line-breaking attackers. That is why Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish are ideal options and must be pursued aggressively. Any supporters questioning how Solskjaer could fit both of these players into his starting 11 should look at how tired United were in their final two league games. Strength in depth is vital.
In an ideal world United would upgrade on Luke Shaw, but this summer the priority is another centre-back. Victor Lindelof doesn’t have the consistency or technical ability needed to inspire confidence, and with Nathan Ake available at a cut-price Solskjaer can be hopeful of a very successful summer.
Unlike United, Chelsea appear to be strengthening in the wrong areas. Frank Lampard’s first campaign has been defined by tactics that closely align with his own playing style; free-form attacks reliant on spontaneity, with little regard for the wider structure.
Chelsea are incredibly porous, conceding more goals (53) than any other team in the top half of the Premier League because their shape is hopelessly decompressed while in possession. Their high press is disorganised, and without in-depth positional coaching Lampard’s players are expected to improvise in the opposition half, leading to a stretched formation with little screening in midfield or defence. Good counter-attacking teams simply cut through this Chelsea side.
But rather than look at commanding centre-backs who can paper over the cracks – who can bark orders at midfielders and yank the team into a better shape – Lampard has doubled down on the creative side, bringing in Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, and Kai Havertz.
His apparent interest in Declan Rice confirms that Lampard is managing Chelsea as if Premier League tactics haven’t changed over the last decade. Modern attacking football demands ultra-compression between the lines and high pressing from the front; you cannot simply counter-balance a Lampard (Mason Mount) with a Claude Makelele (Rice) anymore. Chelsea’s issues are structural, but nevertheless two new centre-backs – Alessio Romagnoli and Dayot Upamecano, perhaps – would help.
Jose Mourinho has dramatically improved Spurs’ form and tactical organisation since the restart, proving that he always needed a pre-season to implement his vision. Over the last nine games they have shown greater defensive resilience and compression between the lines in a classic Mourinho midblock, before counter-attacking at pace with Harry Kane as the fulcrum.
Lucas Moura, Heung-Min Son, and Steven Bergwijn are ideal wingers for Jose, although Mourinho should look for a target man as backup for Kane (Tottenham were at their lowest when attempting long balls up to Lucas). Spurs also need to replace Christian Eriksen, and traditionally Mourinho teams have benefited from a creative number ten, such a Deco, Mesut Ozil, or Cesc Fabregas. Their pursuit of Philippe Coutinho makes a lot of sense.
Clearly Spurs need to replace the error-prone Serge Aurier at right-back, not least because Mourinho’s risk-averse tactical strategy demands his defenders never make a mistake.
They also need to find Toby Alderweireld a new centre-back partner, and sort out a central midfield that remains in flux under Mourinho. Given his penchant for powerful, Matic-esque midfielders, a deal for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg could prove transformative.
Mikel Arteta’s tactical revolution at Arsenal is worthy of the hype. The complexity and intelligence of their positional play (admittedly in short bursts for now) and the attacking patterns slowly being built are reminiscent of how things looked at Man City during Guardiola’s first year at the club.
However, Arteta will continue to be undermined by fragile defenders and hesitant attackers – unless the club are willing to spend big this summer.
Bukayo Saka’s influence, flitting superbly between the lines of attack and midfield, show the future direction of the club. Arsenal must prioritise signing young, malleable footballers with strong positional instincts, which is why Thomas Partey is top of the list.
Should Arsenal improve the resilience and consistency of their central midfield then they can start to play with greater control of possession. Once they are camped in the opposition half, Saka, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can shine.
Of course, Arsenal could do with at least one commanding centre-back, with Upamecano the ideal choice, but they also need a more subtly creative attacker to compliment the amount of direct dribblers in the squad. Coutinho, who pressed well under Klopp at Liverpool, would probably fit in much better than Ozil.