We have now had three gameweeks in the new Premier League season, and have had a chance to look closely at all teams involved. There are a few that have looked better than others, and who are likely to compete for the title as the season goes on, but two of those have looked slightly ahead of their competitors, showing extra quality. This article will look at the tactics behind Chelsea and Manchester City’s good start to the season, as well as why the others around them are perhaps lacking in areas at this stage of the season.
Manchester City have looked seriously impressive so far this season, with good ball movement one key feature of their game. This has always been the case with them, ever since Pep Guardiola took over in 2016, and it makes their general play look effortless. They constantly look to pass the ball around the pitch, trying to manipulate their opponents and create space, which requires a good range of passing and positional awareness. Since he has come in, Guardiola has asked his players to always be ready for the next pass, with at least three different options available every time the ball is played into a new player, meaning the ball is never slowed down and opponents aren’t allowed to close it down.
They also plan their tactics depending on their opponents. Against Norwich, they took advantage of the Canaries’ high defensive line to get players in behind, whilst they used the space Arsenal left open to play through them and into the spaces. This shows their adaptability, and that is often reflected during games; when ground passes are cut off, they play aerially, and are precise with those passes too. Therefore, they can change if things are not going their way, and that comes down to good recruitment, ensuring they have different qualities in the squad.
They score goals from all over the pitch, and it is often the case that Germany’s Ilkay Gundogan and Spain’s Rodri will get in and around the box from midfield, chipping in with goals and taking some of the pressure off the forwards. This season, to increase their creativity, Guardiola has made a slight formational tweak in his starting XI, moving Spain winger Ferran Torres into a central attacking role and Brazil striker Gabriel Jesus out wide. With those two constantly moving around, opponents find it harder to keep them out, which could be what gives them an edge this season.
They did lose their first game of the season, against Tottenham, and have shown some signs of weakness, such as when Arsenal got tight and went player-to-player in the early stages of their last game. However, they are still a dangerous team to underestimate, and any spaces left open by opponents will be punished.
Chelsea are undergoing their first full season under Thomas Tuchel, and he has made some tactical changes to their overall structure. It was noticeable against Liverpool that they moved the ball out of tight spaces through players forming triangles and passing the ball into the forwards as quickly as possible. As a result, the Reds were on the back foot as soon as they lost possession, and this is something we can expect to see plenty of from Chelsea as the season goes on.
Another change Tuchel has made is to use wing-backs, with Reece James and Marcos Alonso given license to get forward and support the attacks, often forming a five-player attacking line. This was something Chelsea used under Antonio Conte, and they won the Premier League title with that formation, so we know it works for them. By pushing James and Alonso high up the pitch, it allows the wide attackers to cut inside and work closely with the striker, providing the wing-backs with more targets in the central channel. As a result, we will likely see more from Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech, among others, this season, whereas they struggled to make an impact for the majority of last season.
Chelsea had good squad depth last season, but they missed a consistent goalscorer at the top of the pitch. Germany’s Timo Werner arrived with plenty of promise, having lit up the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig in the previous season, but he never really convinced for the majority of the season (he did show some form towards the end, after Tuchel’s arrival, as was hoped). This summer, the Blues re-signed Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan, and he has already added given them what they needed. Against Arsenal, he had a good game, leading the line well and finding gaps in their back line, getting on the end of balls coming into the box. Having him as a dominant presence in the final third will bring others into the game, transforming Chelsea into a dangerous attacking team this season.
Other teams in contention
Whilst Manchester City and Chelsea are the two teams looking to be out in front, there are others who are competing with them, as mentioned.
The former champions had a difficult transfer window, not adding as many players as fans would have liked. However, they still have a good front three, whilst Portugal’s Diogo Jota has been in good early form and Harvey Elliott has impressed. However, they looked a little off the pace against Chelsea, and their squad depth is still questionable.
A reason for their struggles last season was that, when Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino or Sadio Mane were missing, their forward line missed something. Japan forward Takumi Minamino is a player with a future at the club, showing some good form on loan at Southampton last season, but still needs time to adjust to Liverpool’s style of play. However, with Xherdan Shaqiri gone and Divock Origi likely to follow him out of the door, we suddenly see how Liverpool are missing options, which could hold them back.
Out of those competing at the top, West Ham are the most well-rounded. Like Manchester City, they have goals all over the team, with Czech Republic midfielder Tomas Soucek always involved in their good play, whilst Michail Antonio has become one of the division’s most reliable goalscorers. Since David Moyes returned, midfielder Pablo Fornals has also been reinvogorated, having looked like a flop after his arrival in the summer of 2019, and their recruitment this summer was also excellent, adding even more quality to the squad. However, their draw with Crystal Palace in the last game showed that they perhaps don’t yet have the ability to close games out, and that could hold them back compared to their competitors.
Leicester have lots of good attacking players, but their biggest problem at the moment is in defence. Wesley Fofana, who impressed last season, is out until at least 2022 with an injury suffered in pre-season, whilst Turkey’s Caglar Soyuncu has looked shaky and made mistakes against both West Ham and Norwich. These defensive frailties have allowed teams to win possession too easily in dangerous areas of the pitch, and this is something the Foxes need to address in this international break.
The main question with them this season is whether they can finish the job and seal a place in the top four, as, in both of the last two seasons, they have fallen away in the penultimate weeks of the season, missing out on the Champions League. A general lack of overall depth in key positions may cause them to have issues with this again, but we will have to wait and see if this is the case.
There have been some really good signs so far from last season’s runners-up, especially in their opener against Leeds, but they looked a little disjointed in the final third in their most recent game against Wolves, and also struggled to keep a dangerous Southampton side under control in the week before that. We saw when Liverpool and Manchester City scrapped for the title in 2018/2019 that even one lost point can make the difference, and it looks at the moment like Manchester United are lacking a little bit of quality in a few areas.
The return of Cristiano Ronaldo will give them more in the final third, and combining him with players like Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes could give the Red Devils an added level of creativity in attack. It is still early on in the season, but Manchester United will need to work hard to keep up with those above them in the table.
This article has looked at why Chelsea and Manchester City appear to be a step ahead of their top four rivals, both in terms of squad quality and tactics. We know that both Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel set their teams up in a particular way, and their tactics suit the Premier League, in terms of excitement and effectiveness. Whilst other teams are up there, some are lacking where Chelsea and Manchester City are strong, and that could be what counts them out when the season comes to an end.