Top level Premier League football has changed during the past couple of seasons. It wasn’t long ago that everyone appeared obsessed with possession play and high-ball retention statistics were considered essential to creating a winning side.
That attitude has changed significantly in the past couple of seasons, not simply because of the re-emergence of counterattacking football, epitomised by last season’s title winners Leicester City, but also because managers have placed a greater emphasis upon pressing. And while pressing isn’t quite an opposing concept to possession — the whole idea is to regain possession quickly, which is why a manager like Pep Guardiola stresses the importance of pressing — it requires a certain set of characteristics, and is largely based around physicality.
More than anything else, pressing is tiring. It’s about constant dynamic movement high up the pitch: one man sprinting toward his direct opponent, others sprinting to shut down passing options, midfielders sprinting into covering positions. It’s dynamic, it’s aggressive, it requires constant running at high speed. And then, if possession is turned over, players are often expected to sprint forward into space at transitions, too. Premier League football has never been more tiring.
That, inevitably, benefits teams who have been afforded more rest before league fixtures, and it’s notable that two of the most impressive Premier League performers this season have been Liverpool and Chelsea, two teams free from European commitments. Without midweek European games, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte can call upon considerably fresher players. And while the benefits of not playing in Europe have been obvious for many years now, it’s extremely rare for the Premier League to have two title challengers not playing in Europe whatsoever.
Conte, in particular, knows the value of not playing in European competition. His first title with Juventus, in 2011-12, was won when the team had a very rare campaign not in Europe, having finished seventh the previous season, not even making the Europa League. While Juve did participate in the Coppa Italia, reaching the final where they lost to Napoli, that only meant five extra games during the course of the entire campaign, including the final, which was after the end of the league campaign anyway.
It clearly benefited Juve in the league. Serie A is not, in general, as fast-paced as the Premier League or other major European leagues, but Juve were noticeably energetic, while Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio produced a consistent stream of highly energetic performances to protect Andrea Pirlo in the deep-lying midfield role. It also helped Juventus tactically: Conte had all week to prepare his players for the specific task of the weekend league fixture, whereas those competing in Europe sometimes only have a single day of training to formulate appropriate tactics. For a keen tactician like Conte, that was particularly vital. Juventus were physically, mentally, technically and tactically the best team in Serie A, an extremely rare combination — and it meant they ended the league season undefeated, a truly outstanding achievement. It was, in part, because they had little else to concentrate upon that season.
The tactical aspect of the increased preparation time certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. Top level Premier League matches have never before been so complex, with Klopp’s approach particularly fascinating. To Klopp, pressing — or counterpressing — is not simply about running hard high up the pitch, it’s considerably more strategic. If Klopp deduces that one member of the opposition defence is particularly poor in possession, he’ll ask his players to press in a way that specifically invites the opposition to pass toward him.
But a tactic like this takes time on the training ground to master — it’s about making the right runs, at the right angles and covering the pitch evenly. It’s not simply a case of Klopp saying “press the others and leave the right-back free,” but more a case of him devising specific training exercises that encourage Liverpool to play in that manner. Again, with more time on the training ground, the more cohesive Liverpool will be.
Last season’s title winners Leicester were another good example of the benefits of a free midweek. The extra rest proved crucial in the classic two areas. First, they were noticeably fresh and capable of an extremely high number of sprints, both in terms of closing down the opposition and when charging forward into attack.
Second, they were clearly the most well-drilled team in the division, and their tactics were considerably more variable than many suggested. In the crucial 3-1 victory at Manchester City, which seemingly proved their title credentials, Leicester surprised their opponents by pressing high up the pitch in the early stages, one of the first times they took that approach all season.
Again, the luxury of a week outlining the strategy clearly benefited Claudio Ranieri. This season, with the Champions League seemingly Leicester’s main focus, performances have suffered.
Liverpool in 2013-14 were nearly a similar example: Brendan Rodgers’ side could afford to concentrate solely on the Premier League having missed out on European football, and during the spring — when title contenders were still competing in the Champions League — they looked like both the freshest and the most tactically astute side in the division. They should have won the league.
Of course, the benefit only ever lasts a single season. If not playing in Europe provides a genuinely significant boost, the relevant side will finish in the top places and be competing in the Champions League or Europa League the following campaign. That often means a manager is forced to vary his game plan, perhaps by introducing a less physically demanding game, varying his tactics less, or by utilising more of a squad rotation system.
Klopp and Conte, however, don’t need to worry about that for the time being. No European football for the entire 2016-17 is their trump card, and it’s probably the only time during their Premier League careers they’ll have that benefit.