Adrian Clarke's Talking Tactics: The return of the art of dribbling | Barclays Premier League

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Sunday 15 June 2014

Talking Tactics: The return of the art of dribbling

Adrian Clarke looks at how running at opponents increased in the Barclays Premier League

  • Chelsea's Eden Hazard led the way with 132 completed dribbles in the 2013/14 season

  • Liverpool's Luis Suarez was second in the successful dribbling stakes with an impressive 93

  • The Reds' Raheem Sterling was third in the charts last season with 92 completed dribbles

  • Everton's Ross Barkley tormented defences with 82 successful runs with the ball last term

Professional football evolves organically year on year. No two seasons are ever the same. With that in mind, what changes did we witness during the thrilling 2013/14 Barclays Premier League campaign? One of the key trends that caught the eye of our tactics expert Adrian Clarke was the revival of the art of dribbling.

More dribbling, less crossing

Occasionally one stat will leap off the page and smack you right between the eyes. Last season's "dribbles completed" did just that.

Rising from 5,139 to 6,561 in the space of 12 months we witnessed the rebirth of midfielders and forwards being encouraged to commit defenders with the ball at their feet.

Leading the way with this positivity was an in-form and confident Eden Hazard. During his second season as a Chelsea player the Belgian more than doubled his tally of successful dribbles from 62 to 132.

The emergence of two confident young English talents also contributed. Sitting third and fourth in the table just behind Luis Suarez (93), Raheem Sterling (92) and Ross Barkley (82) tormented opponents with a carefree zest that seemed to be symptomatic of the attitudes expressed right across the division.

The rise of dribbling
Season 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14
Completed dribbles 4,958 5,439 4,937 5,139 6,561

Why such a sudden upturn?

It is difficult to say with complete certainty but with two or three attacking midfielders selected by coaches for most contests, and counter-attacking becoming a popular approach, the matches seemed better set up for players who like to run with the ball.

Fewer "old-fashioned" centre-forwards were named in starting line-ups too. As English football becomes more technical with each season, it seems smaller, mobile strikers are coming to the fore.

As a consequence, physical strikers have to be adept with the ball at their feet nowadays too. The likes of Olivier Giroud, Wilfried Bony, Romelu Lukaku, Rickie Lambert and Emmanuel Adebayor do not stand inside the box waiting for aerial balls to be fired towards them; they contribute in all areas.

These factors also partly explain the sharp drop in crosses reaching their intended targets last term.

To provide an indication of how crossing, and heading, has become less prevalent, see below a table comparing the Barclays Premier League last season with a decade ago.

Crossing and heading over last decade
Season 2003/04 2013/14
Crosses 15,954 11,605
Crosses per match 41.98 30.54
Crossing accuracy 29.40% 19.26%
Headers at goal per match 4.35 3.88

Tactical variety

Until Roberto Martinez deployed three at the back as Wigan Athletic manager in 2012/13, the sight of central defensive trios had become a rare one in English football. Last season, they almost became commonplace.

Whether Martinez provided inspiration to his counterparts is unclear, but a host of Barclays Premier League managers did experiment with similar systems, achieving varying degrees of success.

While Steve Bruce's Hull City were perhaps the most suited (using it in more than half their matches) Liverpool were the highest-profile exponents. However, after a five-match spell in which they scored and conceded more goals than previously, Brendan Rodgers dispensed with it on the back of a poor first-half showing against Arsenal. Throughout a memorable campaign the Reds manager continually tweaked his system and formation though.

Liverpool formation tweaks 2013/14

  • Last season Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers experimented with three at the back

  • After a poor display at Arsenal he reverted to a four-man defence

  • Rodgers still continued to tweak with the formation also using the diamond in midfield

Some managers, including Jose Mourinho, went 3-5-2 sporadically for short spells during matches using it as a mechanism to change the course of a contest. Rather than seeing it as a defensive move, the Chelsea manager made it an attacking ploy. It proved effective against Norwich City and Cardiff City in October, but less fruitful at Everton the month before.

It was hard to pigeon-hole any club or manager to a particular system in 2013/14 and that was refreshing. Most clubs dabbled with two up front at some stage, with a horses-for-courses approach to tactics becoming the norm. Like never before, there were radical match-by-match switches in approach from the men in the dugout.

Rodgers, Tim Sherwood, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Paul Lambert, Gus Poyet and Felix Magath were all coaches who would frequently alter formations from one match to another in a bid to outfox their opponents.

More selective pressing

There was a spell when it seemed every club was trying to mimic the high-tempo pressing game made famous by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, but that eased off a little in the Barclays Premier League last season.

While most managers still wanted their players to close opponents down if there was the opportunity to pinch the ball, the general outlook was to avoid pressing as a matter of course and waiting for selective opportunities to pounce instead.

For fear of being bypassed high up the pitch a lot of teams allowed their rivals to have the ball until they advanced over the halfway line. Then, as the ball was passed into a midfielder, the hassling and harassment would begin in earnest. Conserving the front players’ energy and crowding the more dangerous midfielders in tight, congested areas, it was a common ploy.

Arsenal memorably found themselves on the receiving end of this tactic in away matches at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, which led to disastrous consequences. Knocked out of their stride by an aggressive Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, and again by Nemanja Matic and David Luiz at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal lost key tackles and allowed many interceptions to be made in and around the centre of the pitch. Heavy defeats ensued.

Arsenal lost the midfield battles at Anfield and Stamford Bridge

This is a tactic I expect to see repeated and developed next season. Managers at the top seven Barclays Premier League clubs will likely adopt this type of approach.

Final thought

Last season passing was at its highest-ever level, defenders were dribbled past more often, and when it came to shooting we saw a record amount of accuracy too. If those areas of the game continue to be focused upon by managers we will be in for another highly entertaining campaign in 2014/15.

What trends will emerge next season? This summer’s FIFA World Cup is sure to throw up fresh influences, so keep your eye on the action.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke takes a look at the revival of the art of dribbling in the Barclays Premier League last season
  • Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley led the stats
  • Clarke looks at how Brendan Rodger's tactical tweaks reaped rewards for Liverpool