April 4, 2017
Even great foreign players take time to settle in the Premier League but they’re certainly capable of making an instant impact. If Antonio Conte lifts the title as expected this season, he will be only the ninth foreign boss to win the Premier League — and five of them will have triumphed in their first full campaign in England.
None of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti or Manuel Pellegrini had ever worked in England before yet each man immediately took the league by storm. You could, slightly tenuously, argue that Sir Alex Ferguson makes this list — his first success in 1992-93 was his first Premier League campaign, although of course not his first campaign in the English top flight — while it’s worth remembering that Claudio Ranieri had been away from England for over a decade before his astonishing success with Leicester.
The other two managers, incidentally, are Kenny Dalglish and Roberto Mancini, who took charge of Blackburn and Manchester City when they weren’t anything like title contenders anyway. Clubs searching for a new manager often state they’re looking for “Premier League experience,” but history suggests that appointing someone with absolutely no Premier League experience can be much more effective at the top.
These managers’ successes have been precisely because they’re outsiders. The Premier League has always been slow to innovate in a tactical sense, and its backwardness has often surprised incoming managers. In the mid-1990s, Wenger noted how many Premier League teams were using systems that were obsolete elsewhere, Mourinho changed things dramatically with his 4-3-3 and Ancelotti experienced great initial success with a midfield diamond.
Pellegrini is the only exception, as someone who largely continued with the work of his predecessor, Mancini. Ranieri wasn’t technically experiencing his first Premier League season when he joined Leicester, but he also provided something new by playing counter-attacking football and disregarding possession at a time when ball retention was all the rage.
Sure enough, Conte has provided an innovation of his own: the 3-4-3 formation that has transformed Chelsea’s campaign. That shape isn’t entirely new to English football, as Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United and, going back a little further, Roberto Martinez’s Wigan have all deployed that system with varying degrees of success. It is, nevertheless, very much a foreign system for most Premier League sides, who often appeared entirely perplexed about how to cope against Chelsea.
At time it has felt like Conte’s 3-4-3 has encountered greater problems against other 3-4-3s — against Tottenham, for example, when Chelsea’s 100 percent record with that formation came to an end — than against four-man defences. And therefore Chelsea’s advantage from that system is quickly becoming equally obsolete.
In January, there was a weekend when eight of the 20 sides played a three-man defence, a craze that has largely stemmed from trying to recreate Chelsea’s system. That shows how individual managers can change the entire league: Wenger and Mourinho both found their innovations copied. Indeed, it increasingly seems that opponents have finally “worked out” Conte’s 3-4-3. In Chelsea’s first six games with that system they kept six clean sheets, but they now haven’t kept one in their last seven matches.
Conte nevertheless stole a march on his rivals by implementing a system no-one else was accustomed to, which must frustrate Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, who Conte faces at Stamford Bridge this week. Their reverse meeting was arguably the most tactically fascinating game of the Premier League season, with Guardiola deploying a bizarre 3-2-4-1 system in order to counteract Chelsea’s 3-4-3. Although Chelsea eventually ran out 3-1 winners, Manchester City dominated for long periods and would surely have won the game had Kevin De Bruyne not inexplicably missed an open goal at 1-0.
Part of Guardiola’s problem, though, is that he’s been a victim of his own success at Barcelona, where their incredible dominance meant Premier League rivals attempted to transfer the Guardiola template onto their own sides. We had the possession play, the false nines and, a little later, the intense pressing. Guardiola has therefore arrived in a division already accustomed to his “tricks” and he’s been forced to use more obscure tactics to stay ahead, so far without success.
Guardiola, of course, is football’s ultimate innovator and has notably tried to introduce the concept of inverted full-backs, free to drift into central midfield roles, to surprise opponents. It’s a tactic he used successfully with Bayern Munich thanks to the brilliance of Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, but has proven less successful with less intelligent players at City. Guardiola has also used Claudio Bravo as a very exaggerated sweeper-keeper, often more like a centre-back, but has been left disappointed by his traditional goalkeeping skills and ultimately dropped him.
While converting more attacking players into defenders isn’t a new concept in Premier League terms — Kevin Keegan and Arsene Wenger determinedly did the same thing for almost their entire back four in the mid-1990s and early-2000s respectively — it’s still been amazing to see attacking full-back Aleksandar Kolarov deployed at centre-back and, at the weekend, outside-right Jesus Navas used at right-back. These experiments, however, haven’t been entirely successful.
Therefore, Guardiola is still searching for his key innovation, the particular quality that will steal a march upon his rivals and lead City to Premier League glory.
It’s arguable that Jurgen Klopp has experienced something similar at Liverpool. His popularity at Dortmund meant that “gegenpressing” became a revered concept within the Premier League before his arrival, even if few teams perfected it. Had Klopp arrived in the Premier League in, say, 2010 when barely anyone pressed properly, that approach might have taken the league by storm. But as English football becomes increasingly aware of foreign tactical practices and replicates those shifts a couple of years later (rather than being completely blind to them, as was true in previous years) it becomes harder to innovate with something new, or even something different.
The struggles experienced by Guardiola and Klopp only serve to underline Conte’s remarkable performance this season. But the managerial greats often claim that retaining a title is harder than winning it: only Ferguson and Mourinho have done so in the Premier League. In part, that’s because other managers’ innovations have quickly been copied by the rest of the league, and, significantly, Conte is increasingly shifting away from the 3-4-3 and using 3-5-2 instead.
These days, the rate of tactical progress is remarkably quick and it’s never been tougher to stay ahead of the game.