Premier League tactical tie-breaker: Imagining a new way to decide the title race – The Athletic

By Ahmed WalidMar 13, 2024

Towards the end of the 1995-96 season, contingency plans were made for a play-off game to decide whether Manchester United or Newcastle United would be crowned as Premier League champions.

Two possible dates in the May were booked at Wembley and some tickets were printed, but an Eric Cantona-inspired Manchester United ultimately won the title by four points.

For some, a play-off (or series of them, as happens in American sports) would be a dream scenario to end a neck-to-neck title race, but the current Premier League regulations significantly decrease the probability of that happening. In a situation where the clubs fighting for the title are level on points, goal difference and goals scored after 38 games each, head-to-head records are taken into consideration.

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This season, the Premier League has an exciting three-way title race, and based on the head-to-head results between Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, a play-off isn’t possible. The mini-table just for matches involving those clubs has Arsenal top with seven points, Liverpool second with three and City last with two — even a win for Pep Guardiola’s side in their upcoming home game against Arsenal on Sunday, March 31 wouldn’t be enough to give them the advantage.

However, The Athletic has decided to ignore that, get creative and think of an alternative way to resolve the 2024-24 Premier League if all three clubs end level.

Welcome, then, to our tactical tie-breaker — the ultimate way to decide a league.

In our hypothetical version of a play-off, victory isn’t decided based on 90-minute games, but on goals scored in a specific phase of play of each team’s choice.

Arsenal, Liverpool and City will therefore have 10 attempts from a certain game scenario, providing us with six mini-contests. The winner is the team with the most goals after the six encounters have concluded.

After consultation with their staff and players, managers Mikel Arteta, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola chose the following phases:

  • Arsenal: set pieces
  • Liverpool: counter-attacks
  • City: final-third attacks

In terms of how the 10 attempts will start and finish, Arsenal’s choice is the easiest to explain. Arteta’s side will have 10 attempts from either corners or indirect free kicks that are outside the width of the penalty area. There will not be a second phase for the set piece — the attempt will end once the ball is cleared, collected by the goalkeeper or goes out of play.

As for Liverpool, their counter-attack attempts will start with all 20 outfield players in Liverpool’s half, the ball in a random position but in Liverpool’s possession, and the opponents having a maximum of three players by the halfway line. Klopp’s side will only have 15 seconds to finish each attempt, which automatically ends if they have a shot or the other team get possession of the ball.

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City’s mini-game, meanwhile, requires them to break down a low block. They will start each attempt with their centre-backs in possession on the halfway line and all 20 outfield players in opposition territory. Considering City’s patient style of play in the final third, it would be unfair to apply a time limit, so each attempt will end if they have a shot or the opponents are in clear possession.

Arsenal: set pieces

The importance of set pieces in the Premier League has been growing in the last couple of seasons, and Arsenal have ridden that wave to their current position at the top of the table.

Since the arrival of specialist set-piece coach Nicolas Jover from City in the summer of 2021, Arsenal’s effectiveness in dead-ball situations has improved — particularly when they have a corner. In addition, the physical profile of their 2024-24 squad and those players’ aerial ability make Arsenal’s choice all the more logical.

“The height is really important on set plays,” said Arteta last December. “The takers are getting better and better. There is the understanding of where to attack, in relation to what the opponent does.

“Big credit to the coaches for all the work they have done, and big credit to the players as well for buying into that and understanding how crucial this is in the game.”

(Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

This season, Arsenal have scored 19 times from non-penalty set pieces in the Premier League. The significance of those goals is also in how they have been changing the game state and forcing the opponents to be more proactive. While in drawing positions, Arsenal have scored 11 times from set pieces in the Premier League — which then allows them to attack bigger spaces when the opposing team open up as they chase an equaliser.

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Looking at the goals scored per 100 set pieces for the 2024-24 Premier League — which creates a fair and level playing field across the division, as one of the 20 clubs might have more set-piece opportunities than another — Arsenal’s rate of 7.1 is second only to Everton (8.3).

Arsenal have undoubtedly been the set-piece masters between the three teams at the top of the league table this season, but by excluding the second phase things become trickier for Arteta and company who, based on Jover’s recommendation, decide that all of their attempts in their mini-game will be corners.

Liverpool: counter-attacks

At a time in football when most teams in the world want to control games by holding onto the ball and lessening the probability of triggering counter-attacks, Liverpool have decided to revert to their transitional nature and encourage end-to-end matches.

It is a double-edged sword, because as Guardiola has said before, “If you make your attack quick, they will attack quicker.”

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And looking at the number of direct attacks — which are defined as possessions which start in a team’s own territory and result in either a shot or a touch inside the opposition penalty area within 15 seconds — Liverpool have conceded this season, their rate of 3.3 per game is indeed second-most in the Premier League. In that sense, they are vulnerable.

But when you consider the profile of this set of Liverpool players, it’s a risk worth taking; Virgil van Dijk’s ability to defend space, the pace of Ibrahima Konate and goalkeeper Alisson’s ability in one-v-one situations are important attributes when defending transitions.

In a washing machine of a football match, you would definitely put your money on the men from Anfield. The pace and dribbling ability of Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez, Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz make Liverpool the ultimate threat when they have won the ball back and are attacking space.

(Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Their rate of 4.3 direct attacks per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season is the club’s highest since 2018-19.

So it is no surprise that in our hypothetical tie-breaker, Liverpool have chosen their 10 attempts to be counter-attacking situations — trying to create numerous attacking transitions has been the bread and butter of this version of Klopp’s side.

It’s what they do best, and in this tie-breaker scenario, it gives them a shot at winning a second league title under the German.

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Manchester City: final-third attacks

Death, taxes and City breaking down a defensive block — the certainties in life.

In our hypothetical attack-vs-defence situation, City don’t have to worry about conceding chances on the transition, but that doesn’t mean that they will be going in all guns blazing, because they will need to maintain possession until the perfect moment arrives and they can find a gap in the opponent’s defensive set-up.

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The questions facing Guardiola and his staff will be mainly about who is going to feature in City’s team: is it going to be Jeremy Doku with his directness and dribbling ability or Jack Grealish to provide control and a greater chance of retaining possession? Surely, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are going to start as the No 10s to provide the perfect mix of patience, know-how and unpredictability.

(Michael Regan/Getty Images)

However, Guardiola has reminded us on many occasions that his choices — players or tactics — also depend on how the opponent sets up. “The people say, ‘How you want to play?’ Tell me how is the opponent going to defend me, or attack me,” said the City manager last season.

Whether it’s by creating an overload in the last line of attack, utilising the runs of John Stones and Rodri to disrupt the opponent’s defensive shape, or attacking in a lopsided manner, City have multiple solutions in the final third — and that’s not even accounting for a moment of individual brilliance from Phil Foden, Erling Haaland or De Bruyne.

Of course, phases of play in football aren’t siloed off — how you set up in possession affects your out-of-possession thinking. But watching these three finely-balanced clubs try to dominate the others in their preferred in-game scenario would be highly entertaining, and a much more exciting way of ending a closely-fought season than the mundanity of head-to-head records.

Only one question remains: which of them would come out on top?

GO DEEPER

The Premier League title race: Every fixture analysed

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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