Goals galore, incredibly long matches and a flurry of red cards: the Premier League has already thrown up some early statistical patterns.

But what about the way teams have been playing? Beneath the numbers, tactical trends are emerging after just four rounds of the season.

Six years ago, before Pep Guardiola won his first Premier League title and Manchester City became the dominant force in English football, three at the back was in vogue. Antonio Conte had shifted Chelsea to a wingback system early in 2016-2017 which was the catalyst for his side romping to the title with a 93-point haul.

By the end of that season, all but three teams had mimicked Conte’s formation at least once. Now, back fours are the norm once again. According to Opta, six different starting formations have been used this season, the most popular of which has been the 4-2-3-1 (27 times).

Formations, though, are just shorthand tools and teams with the same set-up on paper can play in myriad ways. Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, said his team used 36 different structures against Fulham in their 2-2 home draw and 43 against City in the Community Shield.

Players interchanging positions is nothing new but there are patterns that are discernibly similar across the league. The most obvious is the full back “inverting” (moving infield to a central-midfield position).

At Arsenal, the left back Oleksandr Zinchenko has continued playing infield this season, as did Jurrien Timber and Thomas Partey before they were injured. Timber is a centre back and Partey a defensive midfielder but both have occupied a full-back position this campaign. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ange Postecoglou’s full backs at Tottenham Hotspur are also playing a similar infield role to Zinchenko.

Chilwell has been playing as a winger for Chelsea under Pochettino

Chilwell has been playing as a winger for Chelsea under Pochettino


Another trend that is continuing this campaign is for City’s centre backs to move infield, with Manuel Akanji fulfilling this role in John Stones’s absence. Mauricio Pochettino, the Chelsea head coach, has emulated Guardiola by using Levi Colwill as a left back and even going a step further by deploying Ben Chilwell as a winger.

Whether Pochettino’s decision to use his defenders in such creative ways is a product of contingency — Christopher Nkunku is injured and Mykhailo Mudryk out of form — or a consequence of Marcelo Bielsa’s influence on his thinking may take a little longer to determine.

One of last season’s most obvious trends was the emergence of the midfield box of four. Arteta set the trend in the first half of the season and it was not long until Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp took inspiration. Arsenal used a 3-2-2-3 shape with four midfielders set out at the four corners of a “box”, while Guardiola used a slightly different 3-2-4-1. This season, Klopp and Guardiola have stuck with the box shape but Arteta has instead used a 3-1-3-3 shape (the midfield shape changing from a 2-2 to a 1-3) with Partey moving from right back to defensive midfield.

The change in shape does not end there. When Arsenal wish to attack down one side, Declan Rice drops deep next to Partey to recreate the 2-2 box, although this time the two deepest players are the centre backs, and the far-side full back moves towards the wing.

Brighton the team to copy

After several successful years at Barcelona, Guardiola moved to Bayern Munich and the Bundesliga where his tiki-taka pressing style was introduced to the “heavy metal” gegenpress (or counter-press, when a team immediately presses after losing possession) of Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.

It was not long before teams across Europe copied the gegenpressing blueprint to respond to the growing number of tiki-taka teams inspired by Guardiola.

Roberto De Zerbi’s so-called “relationist” play (where players position themselves relative to the ball rather than seeking to occupy certain zones across the pitch), is anathema to pressing football.

De Zerbi, the Brighton & Hove Albion head coach, encourages and dares opposing teams to press and baits them with a player who stands atop the ball, drawing the team forward and creating space to play into via a slick passing sequence.

It is little surprise that managers have started copying De Zerbi’s ideas: a goalkeeper or defender waiting for an opponent to press has become something of a regular feature in matches this season.

De Zerbi sets up Brighton to lure an opponent into pressing them

De Zerbi sets up Brighton to lure an opponent into pressing them


It was striking to see Chelsea’s Colwill, who was developed by De Zerbi while on loan at Brighton last season, baiting the Liverpool forwards’ press on the opening weekend of the season.

City have also taken inspiration from De Zerbi: the goalkeeper Ederson is playing a little further forward and more provocatively this season. When he has the ball, the Brazil international steps up between his centre backs and encourages opponents to press him.

Whether this tactic necessitates a rethink or evolution of pressing tactics, in the same way tiki-taka changed, may be something that bears out over the season.

United change tact up top and at the back

In The Times’ tactical preview to the season, Manchester United were defined as a counterattacking team that tended to sit in a mid-block. While they have stuck to these principles, United are engaging their opponents higher up the field, but Erik ten Hag’s team’s new-found enthusiasm for pressing is not matched in effectiveness. Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham and Nottingham Forest played through United’s press, isolating and exposing the lone defensive midfielder, Casemiro, on the break.

The problems United have found is that the space between the deepest defender and the forward line is too great, and that Casemiro is left with too much to defend.

In addition, the man-to-man press United used against Wolves, for example, can be manipulated by teams that are willing to break from a set structure and drag their opponents around the pitch to create passing routes forward.

However, one area that United have changed and are more effective in is playing out from the goalkeeper: André Onana has sought to instigate possession more regularly than David De Gea.

Last season, the average length of United’s goal kicks was 47.1 yards (the sixth-longest in the league), while this season that figure has fallen to 32.9 yards (the fifth-shortest).

Sharp shooters at a premium

The Everton manager, Sean Dyche, has at times looked utterly exasperated and bewildered by his team’s inability to take their chances this season.

He has good reason to be, too. Expected goals — a measure of chance quality calculated according to the position a shot is taken — shows that Everton have created chances worth at least seven goals, yet they have only scored twice.

Chelsea and Manchester United find themselves in a similar position, and it is little surprise that all three clubs purchased new strikers (Beto, Rasmus Hojlund and Nkunku) this summer to capitalise on the chances created.

Converting chances is the problem for those teams but struggling to finish opportunities is always preferable to struggling to create any. Burnley and Sheffield United have created chances worth less than three expected goals.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Brighton have scored three more goals than their expected tally, while Tottenham and City have scored 2.7 and 2.4 goals more than expected respectively.

With sharpshooters such as Erling Haaland, Evan Ferguson and Son Heung-min, these teams can expect to score more than their expected goals tally, because their forwards are clinical.

The beneficiaries of lower-than-average finishing have been West Ham, Liverpool, Sheffield United and Tottenham, all of whom have conceded two goals fewer than expected.

Burnley, meanwhile, have faced 6.7 expected goals, which is the eleventh-highest figure in the league. However, they have conceded 11 goals — the most in the top flight. Vincent Kompany, the Burnley manager, may consider his team a little unlucky, and that already playing against City and Tottenham is important context.

But a word of warning to Brighton: while De Zerbi’s side have not conceded a lot of goals, when they do give up chances, they tend to be high-quality ones.