As we near the end of the 2015-16 domestic season, we might profitably ask what the biggest surprises of the season have been. Obviously Leicester City’s Premier League title is the biggest shock, but it’s hard to learn too much from the Foxes ascent. They won a high number of 1-0 fixtures, they played a very small squad for most the year and avoided injury problems, and they enjoyed a particularly lucky run of results early in the season. While the Foxes richly deserve their title, it’s unlikely that other teams will be able to regularly replicate their results, even if they should learn something from Leicester’s overall approach.
- Atletico Madrid was in the La Liga title race until week 37 and is competing in their second Champions League final in three seasons.
- Tottenham Hotspur, a team that couldn’t have reasonably complained about an 8th or 9th place finish last season, will finish 2nd or 3rd this season and qualify directly for the Champions League group stage next season.
Though there are significant differences between the two clubs, one point unites all three and especially Atletico and Tottenham. Both clubs rely on multiple key players who can play multiple roles at an elite level. This is a key quality for second-tier clubs that want to compete with the financial giants of the game because having multiple versatile players can both help a club manage injuries more effectively and make in-game tactical tweaks.
Simeone’s flexibility is under-rated.
Though many tend to think of Diego Simeone as basically coming from the same general tactical philosophy as Jose Mourinho, that’s not entirely accurate. Yes, Simeone’s classic shape at Atletico has been a narrow, low block 4-4-2. But he’s also used 4-3-3 on occasions or, perhaps more accurately, 4-1-4-1. Since the arrival of Augusto Fernandez from Celta Vigo in January, Atletico has settled into a comfortable arrangement where they use two basic systems in which nine of the outfield players stay the same (Juanfran, Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez, Felipe Luis, Koke, Gabi, Saul, Antoine Griezmann, and Fernando Torres) and the 10th player is either Augusto or Yannick Carrasco.
When the 10th outfield player is Augusto, the Atletico XI looks like the classic Simeone system. They play a 4-4-2 with two narrow wide midfielders doing much of the creative work while two central midfielders shield the back line:
That said, this system has at times struggled for goals this season. Neither Koke nor Saul offer the sort of routine rampaging runs forward that made Arda Turan such an asset to Simeone’s men on the wing. (Turan did, in some ways, anticipate how Leicester City would use Riyad Mahrez this season.) The result of this is that the system could struggle to manufacture goals if the direct counter-attacking moves were cut off by the opposition. If a more sustained attacking move was required to unlock the defense, Atletico often lacked the resources to do it as they missed that line-breaking ability of Turan.
To deal with this problem, Simeone sometimes turned to a 4-1-4-1 shape in which Augusto was dropped and replaced by Yannick Carrasco. In this system, the team would line up more like this:
In this system Augusto is dropped and replaced by Carrasco, which leads to a massive reshuffling of the Atletico midfield. First, Gabi drops slightly deeper and basically sits between the two banks of four. (Note: In some cases Gabi or even Saul or Koke are dropped to the bench for Carrasco and Augusto plays this sitting midfielder role.) Then Koke and Saul are both pushed even more narrow, which both players are comfortable doing. Then Griezmann drops off to one wing with Carrasco taking the opposite. Fernando Torres then plays alone up top.
The most recent example of Atletico shifting to this approach to great effect is the first leg of their quarterfinal tie with Barcelona. I wrote about the shift for Into the Calderon here but the short version is that moving from 4-4-2 to 4-1-4-1 not only made them more stable defensively, it also boosted their attack by putting two pacey runners on the wings rather than two tidy, creative midfielders. It also allowed Koke and Saul to get on the ball more regularly and to possess it in more threatening positions, which is how Atletico go their opener against Barcelona.
The key to their being able to make this change, however, is easy to overlook: Atletico typically has five outfield players on the field at the same time who are all comfortable playing in multiple midfield or attacking roles:
- Antoine Griezmann can play as a striker or on either wing.
- Yannick Carrasco can play on either wing.
- Augusto can play in a midfield two or as a lone holding midfielder.
- Koke, Saul, and even Gabi can play anywhere across a midfield four or at the base of a three man midfield.
This, incidentally, is perhaps also why some players come to the Calderon and struggle mightily. Mario Mandzukic is the most obvious example, but Luciano Vietto has had a difficult debut season in Madrid as well. But neither of these players offer the sort of all-around versatility that Simeone wants to have from his players.
Tottenham are perhaps even more dependent on versatile players.
At this point there is no doubt about Mauricio Pochettino’s first XI. It’s this:
While this shape is, theoretically, some kind of 4-2-3-1, that label quickly breaks down if you want Pochettino’s Spurs for any length of time.
- First, the fullbacks are the primary supplier of width and so they often behave more like wingbacks.
- Second, Vertonghen, Dier, and Alderweireld all move in odd ways. Vertonghen and Alderweireld spread wider than the typical centerbacks when the team is building up from the back while the former center half Dier drops into the middle, a la Sergio Busquets under Pep Guardiola. Alderweireld will also be given plenty of freedom to drift forward and almost play as a deep-lying playmaker.
- Dele Alli is a vertical runner when off the ball, but is also comfortable dropping off to receive the ball and play short through balls down the channels.
- Erik Lamela stays on the wing when out of possession but often dribbles inside and, like Alli, looks for the through ball to Kane.
- Christian Eriksen drifts all over the attacking third but will also sometimes drop off into midfield and form a midfield three with Dembele and Dier.
- Finally, Harry Kane was often classed as more number 10 than number 9 as a youth team player and that is reflected in his willingness to drop very deep or drift wide to receive the ball. Many forget that Kane made his breakthrough into the first team while often playing as a left wing under Tim Sherwood. He also would regularly play as a number 10 with Clinton N’Jie playing as the striker early in the season when Pochettino sent the Cameroon striker on as a late sub.
So while Atletico usually have half their outfield players able to play in multiple roles, you can argue that every outfield member of the Spurs first XI save the fullbacks can play multiple roles.
- Vertonghen and Alderweireld can play as fullbacks or centerbacks.
- Dier can play as a holding midfielder or center back.
- Lamela can play anywhere across the front three.
- Kane can play as a striker, number 10, or winger.
- Eriksen can, much like Koke or Saul, play any midfield position, as can Dembele and, arguably, Alli.
This versatility makes Spurs an even more interesting item than Atletico. In the first place, it has helped to conceal one of Tottenham’s biggest problems this season which is that Spurs are actually a very shallow team. There is no credible backup to Dembele and Dier in midfield and Son-Heung Min is the only trustworthy backup to both the attacking three players and Kane. But thanks to the flexibility of Dembele, Eriksen, and Alli especially the team has been able to handle what few injuries and suspensions they’ve dealt with this season.
It’s difficult to say if more clubs will try to build squads similar to Tottenham and Atletico’s. After all, one could easily point to Leicester City as the counter to this narrative: If you have a really brilliant tactical system and the right player to execute every rigidly defined role in it, who needs universality? Leicester won the Premier League playing a very rigid 4-4-2.
That said, it’s probable that if Leicester had been managing a European campaign as well they would not have been able to ride the same XI so hard from August to May. If teams are going to play 55+ competitive matches in a season they need a different sort of squad than teams that play 43 competitive fixtures, as Leicester did this season. If you are going to have a longer campaign, it may be hard to find like-for-like replacements for 11 rigidly defined roles in a team. In that case, you are almost certainly more likely to find 15-17 high-quality players who can work together if you make slight tactical adjustments as needed. And in that scenario, having a few versatile players can be a priceless asset during a long, difficult campaign.