Managers all set for showdown in Premier League tactical battlefield

"It is going to be interesting." Pep Guardiola was probably guilty of understatement.

The new Manchester City manager had been asked how he envisaged the English Premier League's tactical battles going this season. The strategist supreme named several rivals he admires, but singled out one for particular praise.

"Antonio Conte is a master tactician, a great signing for Chelsea," he said.

Conte was Euro 2016's cleverest schemer, taking an Italian team with a paucity of talent to wins over Spain and Belgium.

Guardiola has been the most inventive, innovative tactician in elite football in recent years.

Their arrival has prompted thoughts the summit clashes may be determined in the dug-out. They could be won and lost with the aid of video analysis.

Sometimes the finest managers can treat football like chess and cancel each other out - think of the three 0-0 draws and six 1-0 wins Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Rafael Benitez's Liverpool contested a decade ago - but, in all probability, not now. Not with the Galacticos of the technical area.


  • 4-2-3-1

    • Jose Mourinho (Manchester United)

    • Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)

    • Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool): 4-1-4-1 is his alternate.

  • 4-4-2

    • Claudio Ranieri (Leicester City)

    • Antonio Conte (Chelsea): He says it is a 4-2-4.

Admittedly, it will be intriguing to see if Mourinho revives his Real Madrid policy of fielding three defensive midfielders against Guardiola's Barcelona in a bid to stifle the Spaniard's passing game.

In general, however, the Portuguese is set to play 4-2-3-1. He accepts Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic lack the pace to play on the counter-attack, so is looking for a possession-based game but, unlike Louis van Gaal's sterile side, with a presence in the final third.

Guardiola is inextricably linked with a passing game, even if he objects to the term tiki-taka. A great experimenter has already used midfielder Fernandinho at centre-back and trialled a back-three but, after signing two wingers, is likely to play 4-2-3-1.

If the emphasis is on keeping the ball, that may change in certain fixtures. He showed a willingness to be more direct at Bayern Munich to bypass Borussia Dortmund's pressing game.

Perhaps there will be a repeat when City face Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp. The German's devotion to his beloved gegenpressing is both entrenched and in fashion.

The dominant theme of 2015-16 was pace, whether with the pressing of Mauricio Pochettino and Klopp or the speed of Leicester's counter-attacking. Opponents know in advance how Liverpool and Tottenham will play, and the difficulty is countering it.

It will be instructive which approach Conte adopts. The Italian has prospered with both the Azzurri and Juventus playing 3-5-2.

At Chelsea, however, he has opted for an attacking 4-4-2 which he is describing as 4-2-4.

There are reasons to suggest it may not last. Conte has specialised in creating angles in midfield with the aid of a third central midfielder.

As it is, he will find himself outnumbered there by Guardiola, Mourinho and, probably, Klopp, who is alternating between 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1.

But Conte possesses an advantage in the presence of N'Golo Kante. "He played as two men last season," said Claudio Ranieri, who has to determine if his own 4-4-2 can work without the Frenchman.

The energetic midfielder was the most influential player tactically last season, shifting the English game back towards 4-4-2.

Perhaps he will continue the retro feel. Or maybe Guardiola's ideas will be prevalent as possession trumps pace among the priorities. Interesting? It should be fascinating.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline 'Managers all set for showdown in Premier League tactical battlefield'. Print Edition | Subscribe