After a fascinating off-season, featuring a number of high-profile transfers, the Premier League returns this weekend.
Below, Goal runs through the most interesting tactical questions posed by all of the comings and goings in England.
1) Ndombele & Lo Celso reinvigorate Spurs
Tanguy Ndombele could prove to be the signing of the summer. Tottenham’s principal weakness throughout the 2018-19 season was stodginess in central midfield that occasionally made them laboured and directionless in tight games, contributing significantly to their 13 league defeats. Finally, Mauricio Pochettino has a midfielder to up the tempo.
Ndombele’s most eye-catching quality is his ability to weave through a congested midfield. Like Mousa Dembele in his pomp, his dribbling creates space and breaks the lines unexpectedly, turning a harmless situation into a counter-attacking one.
While Eric Dier, Moussa Sissoko, and Harry Winks are too sideways in their passing (particularly against weaker opponents), Ndombele will forcefully release Tottenham’s quicker players into space, improving the output of Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli, Lucas Moura, and Harry Kane.
Signing Giovani Lo Celso, a more advanced version of Christian Eriksen, would also make the club more entertaining; often Dele’s runs ahead of Kane created a disconnect between Spurs’ midfield and attack, something Lo Celso would certainly fix.
However, Spurs’ problems last season were also due to a downturn in form from Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier. Pochettino’s tactics rely on overlapping full-backs to stretch the pitch and receive long diagonal passes, but in 2018-19 Spurs often had to rely on unlocking defences centrally.
Trippier has left, meaning Serge Aurier will have to step up, while Rose looks set to be replaced by the talented, though naive, Ryan Sessegnon. Spurs might have downgraded in the full-back positions.
2) A quietly worrying summer for Man Utd?
Manchester United have signed a centre-back, bought one of the most promising right-backs in the world, added a talented young winger, and have seemingly held onto Paul Pogba, prompting both Pep Guardiola and Rio Ferdinand to predict United will be in the title race this season. But scratch the surface, and from a tactical perspective Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team are in trouble.
The run of form following Solskjaer’s appointment saved United from a truly disastrous campaign, given that outside this sequence they won 34 points from 26 league matches.
Even leaving aside the fact United rode their luck in this period (winning eight ‘unexpected points’ based on their Opta expected goals (xG) tally, which measures the quality of a shot based on several variables), their form relied primarily on Ander Herrera and Pogba. The former has left the club and the latter wants out.
Herrera’s ability to sew the lines together and maintain high-tempo possession football was crucial during that run, when Solskjaer’s use of scurrying inside forwards created overloads between Jesse Lingard and Pogba.
United have failed to replace Herrera while Pogba is highly unlikely to play well when he’s unhappy, meaning the tactically inept United of April and May – when they slumped to eight points from nine matches – remains their default setting.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, and Daniel James won’t change the static and ageing midfield, or repair the rupture between midfield and attack that saw the goals dry up towards the end of the season.
3) Pepe gives Arsenal much-needed incision
Last season Arsenal fans complained that there was no discernible tactical plan under Unai Emery. His Sevilla team looked to draw opponents onto them by passing out from the back before suddenly switching gears and creating counter-attacking situations with quick vertical passing, but Arsenal often looked laboured on the ball. The arrival of Nicolas Pepe should help change that.
Pepe’s trickery and directness from the wing represents a major upgrade on Alex Iwobi, meaning Arsenal can finally play with the incisiveness that defined Emery’s three-time Europa League winners.
Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi are improving all the time and should, with time, be the right midfielders to evade the opposition press and initiate these quick breakaways, while an attacking trio of Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Alexandre Lacazette could make up for the loss of Aaron Ramsey.
However, tactical coherence may still elude Emery unless Arsenal sign one or two centre-backs over the next few days. Unforced errors, poor positioning, and inconsistent passing under pressure mean Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis will undermine Emery’s attempts to play surging attacking football.
4) West Ham could be top-six challengers
Last season was the perfect transitional year for Manuel Pellegrini at West Ham. Moving from an open 4-2-3-1 formation to a more robust counter-attacking 4-3-3, the club enjoyed a steady upward trajectory that included discovering Declan Rice as a defensive midfielder, Ryan Fredericks emerging as a solid right-back, and Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena forging a strong partnership in central defence.
The 1-0 victory over Tottenham in April, followed by two further wins against Southampton and Watford, showed West Ham would be ready to challenge for the top six if they could only sign a more subtle playmaker and a goalscoring striker. In Pablo Fornals and Sebastien Haller, West Ham have exceeded expectations.
Fornals is a superb attacking midfielder, best known for his eye-of-the-needle through-balls at Villarreal. His technical skill on the counter-attack should mean West Ham rely less frequently on the out-ball to Felipe Anderson, instead working more artfully through midfield.
Anderson and Manuel Lanzini will benefit from Fornals’ vision, ending the Hammers’ reliance on Mark Noble for long diagonals into the wide men and ensuring much greater variety in their attacking play.
The sale of Marko Arnautovic is a blessing in disguise. Haller, who amassed 24 goals and assists in 25 Bundesliga games last season, is a clinical finisher and will work much harder than the Austrian ever did. With Lanzini, Anderson, Fornels, and Andriy Yarmolenko to feed him, Haller should easily surpass the 10 league goals Arnautovic scored in 2018-19.
5) Villa will be entertaining to watch
It is very difficult to predict how Aston Villa will do this season. They have bought sensibly and well this summer but it won’t be easy integrating 12 new players at once.
In signing Douglas Luiz from Manchester City, Villa have built a midfield trio with John McGinn and Jack Grealish that is arguably of Big Six quality, and yet Dean Smith’s attack-minded tactics could prove naive for a newly-promoted side.
Villa’s late surge in the Championship table last season was defined by possession dominance and very attacking line-ups, with box-to-box player Conor Hourihane the most defensive midfielder selected throughout the run.
Smith has already promised to play on the front foot in the Premier League, and since Luiz is yet to get a work permit Villa don’t appear to have the defensive screen necessary at this level.
Tyrone Mings and Bjorn Engels is a good (though inexperienced) centre-back pairing, but with Hourihane in front and Matt Targett and Frederic Guilbert the full-backs bombing forward, do Villa really have the defensive quality to play progressive possession football?
Whether taking the division by storm or falling apart at the back, one thing is for sure: Villa matches will be entertaining this season.