Simon Smith looks at how the smaller Premier League clubs have upset the balance this season by signing the right players and assigning the right tactics…
Recent events have got me wondering how the league table would look if Chelsea hadn’t managed to have such a productive summer in the transfer market and get their act together this season. Would Southampton really be the league leaders? The trend in recent seasons has grown from none to one, and then to two, of the big teams each season to struggle. Not necessarily terribly, but to fail to achieve what they ought to, to invite the media crisis circus upon them. This season has reached new crises heights due to the fact that all the big clubs bar Chelsea (and to a lesser extent Manchester City) have failed to get their act together.
Just what is going on at Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United? The answer for all those clubs will be different, so perhaps instead we might muse what Southampton, Swansea and West Ham are doing that these sleeping giants are incapable of.
Tactically, it’s hard to conclude anything concrete: all three of those clubs have reasonably different plans, styles of play and ways the team is set up. What perhaps sets them apart the most is their player recruitment strategy. In a chaotic summer for Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United in particular, these smaller clubs have shown the value of planning signings with the team in mind.
Taking Arsenal for instance, nobody would argue Alexis Sanchez has been anything but a fantastic acquisition. He has been one of the stars of the league season so far, but the team has now effectively been built around him, and the side that led the league at this stage last year has been significantly worse this time around. The 4-1-4-1 formation Wenger has experimented with allows him to field more of his plethora of attacking players, but exposes the neglected defence even more than last season.
The impact Alexis has had on Özil and Ramsey in particular is almost immediately apparent to the casual observer: not that they cannot both be accommodated, but there has been little thought into how they might be. The plan appears to have been thrown out the window with the chequebook.
Likewise the enigma that is Angel di Maria. Converted into an all action ground covering central midfield foil and rampaging wing monster by Carlo Ancelotti, his role in van Gaal’s setup was unclear from the beginning. And like Alexis, there is a nagging feeling ahead of their weekend clash that these were hardly the two signings the clubs needed most. Whoever loses will likely feel rightly aggrieved that they were a couple of defensive signings away from success.
Meanwhile high flying Saints have taken the more bespoke and system based approach to transfers and team selection, and reaped the rewards so far. Tadic and Pelle have certainly played with distinction and deserve credit for their own performances, but how important is the clarity of instruction and the well drilled team ethos in their good starts? Jack Cork has been excellent for them whenever he is given the chance, but the selection problem is one caused by the unwillingness of Koeman to find a way to force him into the team. As an admirer of Cork, I have to say this is a commendable unwillingness. Koeman has his strategy and system: the fluid 4-3-3 allowing Tadic and Mane to come inside, the focal point that Pelle brings to the build up and the craft of Schneiderlin’s distribution are all crucial features of the side that cannot be disrupted by personnel experimentation, and the manager should be applauded for the way the team has been thoughtfully constructed.
One might well ask where Manchester United’s Bertrand is, the unheralded but smart signing now more than adequately filling the gap in the squad. The scattergun method of signing players perfected by Tottenham has been modified into this general rule by most of the large clubs this season: that it is more important to buy class, and worry where to play them later, than to buy for the position you need and compromise on quality.
Real Madrid have long been the absolute epitome of this method. So distasteful would it be for Florentino Perez to have to buy an average player that the squad needs, perhaps the only thing he would dislike more would be for a world class performer to remain at another club. This is why Ancelotti gets my vote for Manager of the Year, for successfully dealing with having his team torpedoed for the second year in succession.
Not that he has had the personnel of the team eviscerated; nearly all of the best players have remained, and with several excellent new additions. No, the rug pulled from under the Italian’s feet has been his plan, the blueprint he tries to integrate these players into, and his job in successfully and continually coming up with new ones to accommodate the glamour signings in the squad has been exceptional.
Exceptional is the most apt word because Ancelotti is an exception – an exception that proves the rule. Chelsea acquired some world-class stars this summer in Fabregas and Costa, but they also secured the two positions they badly needed in a commanding striker and game controlling playmaker. Swansea threw pride to the wind and welcomed back Ki and Siguardson, both fitting seamlessly into the well drilled template of using the space created by either Bony or Gomis to exploit the space with an attractive possession game.
The great tactical revolution that has undermined the big clubs this season hasn’t been a grand revelation, a brilliant adaption of a position or a new way of controlling the game: it’s been to prioritise the team, the overall tactic and strategy, over the individual. And if it continues any longer, I cannot see how Arsenal and Manchester United can hope to finish above Southampton.
Sensationalist you say! I freely admit that Saints’ current form surely cannot continue, but for them to fall out of the top four it looks as if both Arsenal and Manchester United will have to pick up their game. And the only way I see that joint 17 points (which could be more soon given they must play each other now) being overturned is by a reassessment of their own teams and a return to a clearer strategy.
If Southampton finish above either of them at the end of the season through a radical deployment of the strategy of prioritising the team over accommodating individuals, I cannot see how the manager’s position remains tenable. It’s not been remarkable that plucky smaller sides have upset the order this season: it would have been remarkable if they hadn’t.