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The Third Wave

August 9, 2017

 

 

The new Premier League season is almost upon us. 2015/16 was the year of the surprise with Leicester becoming Champions. Last season saw Antonio Conte’s Chelsea win the Premier League at a canter. What will we find in 2017/18? It’s sure to be interesting finding out but its Antonio Conte and his Chelsea team which has been so fascinating. Their achievement represents the third wave of the Premier League as he succeeded in a way no one else had done until last season’s title winning campaign.

To understand the third wave we need to look at the past to the first and second ones. The first wave of change to perforate through the Premier League came when Arsene Wenger took over Arsenal in the Nineties. At that time footballers in England didn’t live well and the Premier League was generally an English League. Wenger changed all that. He recruited amazing foreign players that shifted the game forward. They were athletes as well as being footballers.

The way he changed Arsenal forced the rest of the Premier League to follow in his footsteps. Players became more professional; diets changed and generally everyone became more athletic. It was an amazing time and it really pushed English football on a more professional path both on and off the pitch. It’s strange looking back at that first wave now with Wenger still here. Now he seems almost old fashioned and the thought of him winning a Premier League seems a long way off. Yet when he came here he won the Premier League and he set English football on a revolutionary path from where it was at that time. It’s amazing that he’s still going but it’s also testament to how much he loves English football even if he’s nowhere near the manager he was all those years ago.

Fast forward on to 2004 when the second wave of change arrived in the Premier League. We’d just had the invincible Arsenal season when Jose Mourinho took over Chelsea and boy did he knock Wenger off his perch. Mourinho killed Wenger’s invincibles system with Claude Makele playing as a defensive midfielder but he did far more than that. He and his young vibrant Chelsea team pushed the Premier League onto new places. At this time in 2004, Mourinho was probably the best manager in the world. He came to a Premier League that was now much more athletically professional after the First Wave Wenger introduced. Jose introduced the tactical revolution which built on what was in the Premier League.

The Mourinho Chelsea team then was dominant and he injected another level of tactical sophistication which pushed them on in both the Premier League and the Champions League. His teams never felt beaten and it wasn’t unusual for them to play two or three systems in a game. They seemed to be so adept at slightly altering their tactics to get the wins they needed and at the time it felt light years ahead of anything else we’d seen in the league. Mourinho injected a new kind of dynamism to the tactics that were being played at that time and with that strong young team it was revolutionary.

He was aided by the fact that this was the era of great English defenders. Every top club had a marquee English centre back that would walk into the England Senior team of 2017. Chelsea under Mourinho drove forward and had Abramovich not interfered with things they probably would’ve won more. The Premier League thus became a much more tactical league than it had been in the Nineties when everyone tended to play 4-4-2 (bar a brief spell where a lot of team played 3-5-2 around 1995-97). Premier League players became more tactically sophisticated on top of the increased professionalism Wenger brought in although the league still retained its rather unpredictable identity it still has today.

The next radical time post Mourinho joining Chelsea had to be Leicester winning the league so unpredictably in 2015/16 but this wasn’t a big shift. A season on from that amazing triumph, it feels more like an amazing one off than a great trend setter but the next great shift or the third wave of change came with Conte joining Chelsea and winning the Premier League with a back three.

Conte became the first manager since the fifties to win the English League with a three man defence. What was so surprising was how dominant Chelsea were after they started playing the 3-4-3. Few teams seemed to do anything much against them and they won the Premier League at a canter. Of course Chelsea were a good team anyway having won the league in 2014/15 but the reason this Conte team was so good were because of the step forward in tactics.

As soon as Chelsea started playing a back three the critics were out saying it wouldn’t work but it worked all too well. It’s shifted the Premier League to another level tactically and it’s going to be generally interesting to see how teams approach 2017/18. It’s really opened up the back three as a positive defensive concept that now can win the title and we’ll see more teams playing this way or reverting between a back 3/back 4. It really did blow the league open tactically quite radically but it’s going to take some time before we know if it’s just a flash in the pan or something deeper.

The new Premier League season is about to begin. At this stage no one knows what it will bring but the third wave of radical change that saw Antonio Conte’s back three win the title will be influencing teams as this season starts. Will a team playing a back three win the title this season? You never do know but at least now, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did.

 

 

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