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Systems, space and the tactical influence they have had on conventional roles in the Premier League

The influence that foreign managers in the Premier League have had on tactics over the last number of years has led to a dramatic increase in what is required of a player in a positional sense.

Merely being able to fill one role on the pitch isn’t enough anymore as managers require players to be able to perform in more than one defined role depending on the opponent or change of situation in-game.

The increase in popularity of the 4-4-3 formation over the last number of years has had a major influence on how conventional positions on a football pitch are used. Previously it had been 4-4-2, the nearly unanimous default position for most teams in the Premier League, as it was associated with a solidness and a simplicity that most British managers trusted in.

The same can be said for most of the positions on the pitch at the time. A goalkeepers job was to stop the ball going into the net first and foremost, full backs were there to defend and centre forwards to score goals. A player had a singular job to do and not a lot else outside of his remit.

Fast forward to present day and 4-4-2 had long since been in decline. The influence foreign managers have had on the Premier League and a willingness from those at the top of the English game to try and copy the popular trends from Spain and Germany has seen the newer more flexible 4-3-3 formation take it’s place as the number one way to set up a team tactically. Much more adaptable than it’s predecessor, it can be quickly amended depending on how a game is going.

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The importance the newer generation of managers have put on space and how it is used and controlled is also another huge factor that has shaped how tactics have shifted over time. The Dutch started it with total football and Johan Cruyff and his disciples, the likes of Pep Guardiola, have amended it and modernised it for what it has become today – one of the most important tactical aspects on the pitch. The core principle of total football, every outfielder on the pitch being able to step into his teammate’s position with ease when required to fill the space, has shaped how modern players are coached at the top level.

It’s these type of tactical shifts that has seen the way we look at conventional roles on the pitch differently. Players nowadays must be able to play more than just their own position, but numerous ones. Modern day coaches focus more on improving their system of play rather than the individual roles of a player. The more a player can adapt the more valuable he becomes to that system.

A full back is required to be just as skilled at crossing a ball as he is at defending one. It’s no longer a case of a one on one battle with the opposing winger to see who comes out on top. Full backs are now an integral part of the attacking side of the game. Liverpool for example, use Trent Alexander-Arnold as one of their main attacking outlets down the right side. Matt Doherty has been earning rave reviews for Wolves this season, the majority of the plaudits have come due to his attacking play.

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Goalkeepers are now required by top teams to be good with their feet and play as a sweeper when needed. The increase in the amount a keeper passes the ball has skyrocketed in the last few years due to teams starting play from the back instead of launching the ball long. It’s the same situation in the attacking line as strikers are now the first line of defence as teams press the play high up the pitch.

In midfield it’s generally expected that you can play anywhere across the middle. Utility players like Fabinho and James Milner for Liverpool, midfielders by trade, are the type that have become invaluable assets to their manager for their ability to play multiple positions in both defence and midfield. Both players have helped Jurgen Klopp out of potentially sticky situations by filling in at right back and at centre half respectively.

Strikers are now the first line of defence for teams that press high up the pitch and aren’t simply there to just score goals anymore. There was no such thing as a 9 ½ up until a few years ago and the thought of playing without a conventional centre forward would have been seen ludicrous, but these are just some of the changes that have happened upfront.

When Guardiola arrived at Man City, the rumour was that he was going to get rid of Sergio Aguero because he didn’t think he was tactically aware enough to play his style of Football. This never came to pass but it did highlight how managers are looking for players that can do much more than what was once expected of them. Maurizio Sarri has opted to play Eden Hazard up front at times instead of a more natural centre forward like Olivier Giroud who doesn’t fit into the Italian’s system of play. He’s not the first manager to play without a conventional striker and he won’t be the last.

As tactics become even more complex and nuanced, we can expect to see new roles appear and old ones disappear. Who knows, maybe down the line specialised positions will become a thing of the past and players will simply be trained in either attack or defence with the goal to be able to play in any position required.