Premier League's tactical trends of 2015-16 include the return of the 4-4-2
The Premier League isn't regarded as the most tactically fascinating division in Europe but it produced one of the most incredible tactical stories imaginable, with Leicester City winning the League with an approach largely based around not having possession. Claudio Ranieri's approach inevitably dominates the tactical trends of 2015-16.
Emphasis upon organisation without possession
Five years ago, the majority of Premier League sides were attempting to dominate possession, inspired by the tiki-taka revolution led by Barcelona and Spain. Over the past couple of seasons, however, there's been a backlash and in 2015-16, the two most organised, tactically disciplined teams excelled because of their ability without possession.
Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur played in entirely different ways without the ball. Leicester sat deep with their centre-backs positioned close to the edge of their own box, soaking up pressure before winning the ball and counter-attacking quickly. Only Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion averaged less possession; only the latter recorded a lower pass completion rate for the season overall.
Claudio Ranieri's side excelled at winning the ball: they made the highest number of interceptions in the league and the joint-highest number of tackles, alongside Liverpool. N'Golo Kante, their inspirational midfielder, was the Premier League's best individual in both methods of winning possession.
On the other hand, Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham recorded the third-highest share of possession in the league. But they weren't predominantly ball-hoarders, and their possession share is largely because they excelled at regaining the ball (they made the third-highest number of tackles) rather than keeping it (they had only the seventh-best pass completion rate).
Spurs pushed up high, with the centre-backs close to the halfway line while the forwards and midfielders worked extremely hard to press intensely. In a sense it was the complete opposite approach to Leicester, but there was still a huge emphasis upon organisation, remaining compact and working as a unit. You won't find many gaps between the lines in either side.
The highest-profile managerial casualties, meanwhile, were dismissed largely because of their inability to organise their sides when not in possession. Brendan Rodgers was sacked in early October: Liverpool had scored in their most recent seven matches but hadn't kept a clean sheet in their last nine. Under Jurgen Klopp, their pressing improved immediately.
Across Stanley Park, Roberto Martinez was fired seven months later for similar reasons: Everton scored plenty of goals, but only the bottom five conceded more. Everton couldn't afford to indulge Martinez any longer; they were simply leaking too many goals.
Even previous champions Chelsea were awful defensively, their players seemingly losing faith in Jose Mourinho and playing like a disorganised rabble for long periods. They were soundly beaten by structured sides like Klopp's Liverpool, Ronald Koeman's Southampton and Alan Pardew's Crystal Palace as opponents found oceans of space between the lines.
Guus Hiddink patched things up in part by playing John Obi Mikel to solidly patrol the space in front of the defence. It was that kind of season: more than anything else, we judged teams by their ability without the ball.
4-4-2 (but not as we know it)
The biggest overachievers of the campaign were unquestionably champions Leicester City. Another team who punched above their weight, however, was Watford.
Quique Sanchez Flores' side did endure a difficult end to the campaign, eventually resulting in the Spaniard's dismissal, but it's worth remembering that bookmakers suggested they'd finish bottom of the Premier League; they were the only side rated at 10,000-1 before the start of the campaign. By Boxing Day, they were in sixth place and their overall performance still deserves to be commended.
Leicester and Watford had something in common: they played two-striker partnerships, at least on paper. With Shinji Okazaki backing up Jamie Vardy and Troy Deeney playing the link role behind Odion Ighalo, these two underdogs were proving you could play two up front in the modern era. Realistically, though, things were more complex than that. Both Okazaki and Deeney played extremely deep without possession, dropping back into the midfield zone to ensure their teammates were able to sit deep and protect the defence.
Indeed, it wasn't unusual to see both teams put two strikers behind the ball, with Ighalo dropping back to join Deeney behind the ball at Watford. Vardy also retreated into a midfield role during the opening weeks although his incredible scoring run convinced Ranieri to deploy him in a more advanced zone, through which he could collect long diagonals in behind the opposition.
Okazaki, though, wasn't really playing the role of a striker. He was mainly noticeable for his tremendous work rate without possession, and for making useful decoy runs in the final third. Ultimately, he scored five goals and didn't manage a single assist - in terms of his positioning and his contribution in the final third, he wasn't really a forward.
Deeney's role was different. He played off Ighalo but the fact he won 235 aerial duels, more than any other player in the division, suggested there was something of the traditional "target man" about him. He assisted Ighalo seven times, the joint-most frequent scoring combination in the division, alongside Dele Alli teeing up Harry Kane and Mesut Ozil finding Olivier Giroud.
All of those partnerships share a common theme: essentially, they involve No. 10s finding No. 9s but again, Watford's forwards played so deep that it was more like 4-4-2-0 than 4-4-2. And if that sounds a stupid way of notating the shape, consider that 4-4-1-1 is a commonly-used football formation. For Watford, the main striker was dropping back alongside the deeper player. If it's 4-4-2, it's an ultra-compact, Atletico Madrid-style 4-4-2 rather than 4-4-2 as we knew it.
Intriguingly, Deeney was particularly complimentary earlier in the season about the work rate of Leicester's forwards. "I am not surprised to find out that Okazaki is the most substituted player in the Premier League this season, because he runs himself into the ground every time," he told the BBC. "It would be easy for the likes of Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to say 'we are too good for this' but they don't."
Leicester would supposedly like to recruit Deeney ahead of next season partly because he knows how to play this "false" 4-4-2 system.
Decline of the three-man defence
For the majority of the 21st century, the Premier League has shunned a three-man backline in preference for a more traditional defensive quartet. Whether 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, the four-man defence has been the default. Over the past few years, however, the three-man defence made a brief resurgence.
Roberto Martinez used it effectively, albeit inconsistently, to upset bigger clubs as manager of Wigan. His use of that system was a major reason Wigan defied the odds to lift the FA Cup in 2013. Steve Bruce's Hull City also used three at the back on their way to Wembley the following campaign, going 2-0 up against Arsenal before losing 3-2 in extra time. Brendan Rodgers used a dynamic 3-4-3 effectively in 2014-15 during Liverpool's brightest spell of the campaign, while Louis van Gaal attempted to use a three-man defence during his first half-season at Manchester United, with mixed success before switching to a four.
This season, few managers have experimented with that shape. Southampton had the most success with the three-man defence, recording a run of five clean sheets early in 2016, although their final three matches with that shape were all defeats and Ronald Koeman quickly switched back to the 4-2-3-1. Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce had a brief spell shortly after taking charge with a 5-3-2 although, again, he scrapped the system after consecutive defeats.
Even Rodgers' three-man defence wasn't nearly as successful as last season, with Klopp quickly switching to a back four. It feels like managers use a back three primarily to freshen things up and surprise opponents before they suss out the system.
On the final day of the campaign, only one team started with a three-man back line: bottom-placed Aston Villa, hardly a ringing endorsement. Later that day, Tottenham switched to a back three when 2-1 behind against 10-man Newcastle and ended up being thrashed 5-1.
It's still a perfectly viable system, of course, as the likes of Juventus and Bayern Munich have demonstrated this season. In the Premier League, though, few teams have used it with consistent success.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.