EPL's new tactical masters are proving giant killers

Jose Mourinho once said that winning the Serie A title was one of his most treasured achievements because of the tactical expertise required to be successful in Italy, today that statement could be just as true for the English Premier League.

Flores and Ranieri

Source: Getty Images

This season in particular has produced another leap in the tactical evolution of the world’s most popular domestic league.

Rather than coming from the clubs at the top, this season’s tactical innovation has come from an unexpected group, most notably Leicester City, Watford and West Ham, who are now surprisingly at the top or near to it.

These three clubs have ignored the advice of many English media pundits that they need to sign managers with Premier League experience to do well.

It should be noted that every manager to be shown the door so far this season – Brendan Rodgers, Tim Sherwood, Dick Advocaat, Garry Monk and Jose Mourinho – came into the season with top division experience.

While Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri does have a history in the league, it’s been more than a decade since he last worked in England.

Yet has tactical acumen, honed in the cutthroat world of Italian football, is as sharp as ever.

In Italy, the opponent is studied with great detail and their weaknesses are then ruthlessly exploited on matchday.

At Leicester, Ranieri (who was widely tipped to be the first manager sacked) has found a group of players who are willing to employ his tactical plan to perfection every week.

In the aftermath of Chelsea’s defeat to the Foxes, Mourinho said he warned his players about the incisive movements of Leicester’s attack, but without a plan to stop those movements such warnings are futile.

For Mourinho, it ultimately proved fatal.

For many in England the appointment of Quique Sanchez Flores by Watford was a high-risk move for a newly promoted club. "Sign a manager with a history of avoiding relegation" was the mantra.

Instead, Watford looked at the Hugh Laurie doppelganger's achievements at Valencia and Atletico Madrid, where he won the UEFA Europa League.

Sanchez Flores is another manager that works hard on exploiting opponents’ weaknesses and designs clinical counter attacks to take advantage of them. The result was evident last weekend in Watford’s crushing of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Slaven Bilic was well known to West Ham fans from his playing days at Upton Park, but there may have been some fears about his ability to manage a club that had stabilised itself in the EPL in recent seasons under Sam Allardyce.

In his first game in charge Bilic would have blown those concerns away after outsmarting Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Since then there have been victories over Liverpool and Manchester City.

Bilic and Sanchez Flores may not always promote the most exciting football in the world, but their tactical designs are proving extremely difficult for the top clubs to deal with.

At Crystal Palace Alan Pardew is employing a similar, explosive counter attack strategy to great effect.

The fascinating thing for the Premier League is the extra diversity this has added to the league’s increasingly variant tactical approaches.

There’s West Brom’s deep, disciplined defensive and direct approach under Tony Pulis. Curiously the manager who made an art of this tactic at Stoke gets rather defensive when criticised for playing long balls.

There’s Ronald Koeman’s balanced approach at Southampton, Eddie Howe’s possession-first strategy at Bournemouth and let’s not forget Stoke’s new-found open, creative style under Mark Hughes.

This variance in strategies across the league has added to the workload of the managers at the top clubs, particularly those that are competing in Europe.

Just imagine working on a tactical setup for a tough UEFA Champions League clash and then facing an equally difficult and completely different opponent, that has been working on your weaknesses all week, three days later.

This is now the reality for the Premier League's top managers and it would have played some part in the sacking of Mourinho and Rodgers, with Louis van Gaal now teetering on the brink.

If Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa do, as rumoured, move to England, the EPL could be set for an even greater tactical shakeup. 

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4 min read
Published 23 December 2015 at 1:03am
By Vitor Sobral