Premier League Logo
Talking Tactics

Season trends: Counter-attacks on the rise

Adrian Clarke 8 Jun 2022
Harrison and James, Leeds

Adrian Clarke on the continuing decline of patient build-up play in favour of fast transitions

Adrian Clarke identifies tactical trends from the 2021/22 Premier League season.

Major drop in sustained possession

Long periods of sustained possession dropped by a significant margin in 2021/22.  

An average of 906.9 passes per match was the lowest in four years; a dramatic shift from last season’s record-breaking 945 passes a match.  

Springing attacks from fast transitions and counter-attacks took on greater importance, with several head coaches moving away from patient build-up play.  

Everton, under Rafael Benitez and Frank Lampard, underwent a seismic tactical change of direction from the Carlo Ancelotti era.  

The Toffees made just 167 sequences of 10 or more passes, compared to 406 under the Italian last term.  

Southampton, Manchester United, Leeds United, Arsenal and Chelsea were all party to a major downturn in the number of passing moves they strung together too.  

Those clubs allowed opponents to enjoy a little more possession, with the intention of hurting them from turnovers.  

Overall, there were 852 fewer sequences of 10 or more passes in 2021/22, compared with last season.  

No. of 10+ pass sequences compared
  20/21 21/22
Everton 406 167
Southampton 383 259
Man Utd 562 439
Leeds 344 230
Arsenal 574 482
Chelsea 778 710

The only Premier League team to swim against the tide of this trend were Crystal Palace under Patrick Vieira.  

He was determined to implement a more possession-based strategy, and was successful in this regard.  

His Eagles side made 161 extra sequences of 10 or more passes, which was a 75.2 per cent climb from the previous season.  

Edouard scores v Spurs

Premier League teams are finding it harder to pin opponents back inside their defensive third.  

A combination of factors has created this change, which has been trending in the same direction for the past five seasons.  

Passes into final third compared
Season Passes into final third
2016/17 106,993
2017/18 106,302
2018/19 101,737
2019/20 99,656
2020/21 98,770
2021/22 98,360

In a largely encouraging move from an entertainment perspective, fewer sides are adopting cautious low defensive blocks.  

Instead, many head coaches, from sides in the top and bottom half of the table, are seeking to press aggressively inside the middle and final third. 

An influx of quality footballers signing for clubs outside of the traditional top six is also providing managers with the confidence to play on the front foot where possible.  

Some of the leading sides can sometimes be laborious when trying to break down packed defences.  

So, from their perspective it has been less important to probe away for lengthy spells around the opposition box.  

With so many goals stemming from turnovers and transitions there is less emphasis on keeping the ball for prolonged periods.  

Going direct 

Unsurprisingly we did witness a growth in the number of fast, direct attacks that Premier League teams produced in 2021/22.  

It was only a 7.9 per cent rise (1,133 to 1,273) but it is big enough, alongside the possession figures, to point towards a clear change in strategic approach across the division. 

No. of direct attacks compared
  20/21 21/22
Liverpool 72 94
Leeds 74 91
Chelsea 59 76
Leicester 57 71
Aston Villa 95 71

Liverpool, Leeds and Aston Villa continued to spring plenty of fast attacks, just as they had the season before.  

At Stamford Bridge, Thomas Tuchel added a fresh strand to his Chelsea gameplans by mixing up possession play with an improved counter-attacking arm.  

The Blues ranked third for the most build-up attacks and direct attacks, outlining a more balanced approach.

Lukaku goal v Leeds

With so many mobile and quick forwards playing for clubs throughout the Premier League, an increasing number of head coaches are looking to exploit spaces left in behind rival defences.  

Players with pace find it tougher to excel when build-ups are patient, so this at least in part helps to explain the trends we have seen this term.  

Next: High pressing providing big rewards

Also in this series

Part 1: Top five drive the glut of goals
Part 2: Home wins rise with return of fans
Part 3: Corners a growing threat
Part 4: Favoured formation emerges
Part 6: Fouls fall as pressing increases

Latest News

More News: Latest News

Latest Videos

More Videos: Latest Videos