Liverpool had less than two months to enjoy their first league title in 30 years before the 2020-21 season began. Without any buildup, they were immediately thrown up against the momentum of Marcelo Bielsa’s newly-promoted Leeds for what was the most anticipated game of the Premier League’s opening weekend. The clash of styles, featuring two of the most direct, highest energy pressing sides coming in with minimal preseason training, exceeded our expectations with five first half goals before Liverpool’s late 4-3 win. In explaining why his side gave up the goals, Jurgenn Klopp pointed to how his backline were playing for “England, Scotland, and Holland four days ago.” As teams integrate players on the fly due to the shortened turnaround, success for this upcoming Premier League season may not be as much about hitting the beautiful highs as it will be about staying together and organized enough to get through 38 match days over the next eight months.
Also getting an early start to his mind games, Jose Mourinho blamed a packed schedule before the season even began. Mourinho described Tottenham potentially playing nine matches in 22 days from mid-September into early October as “not human” while also worrying about the psychological effects of his side potentially getting knocked out of the Europa League and the Carabao Cup to start the season. Even Klopp complained about how Liverpool have to “go to a different country to play, and two days [they] play again.” If there ever was a year to de-prioritize tangential league cups, it would be now.
“I would like to know...who makes a team play Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday, Tuesday again, Thursday again, Sunday again,” questioned Mourinho, while also inadvertently describing our feeling of Groundhog’s Day since March.
The frenetic schedule is considered something of a reward for the resumption of matches as full footballing normalcy returns in small stages. With 100,000 jobs depending on match-day events, and every month without attending supporters costing the league $130 million, the Premier League looked to skip over a plan that would have allowed 1,000 supporters to return in exchange for a more substantial plan. Liverpool are looking to return 12,500 socially-distanced supporters to Anfield for their October 24th match against Sheffield United.
We’ve concluded that this past season and this current season should be analyzed as two parts of one continuous timeline. Klopp described last season’s title as the most difficult in league history, before saying that this upcoming season will be even harder. Liverpool reportedly pulled out of several transfers due to a lack of resources, though Klopp predicted that a lack of transfers would be an advantage this season due to the need for cohesion. Aiming at one obvious but unnamed club, he said that “you cannot bring in the 11 best players in the world and just hope a week later they play the best football.”
Playing along with cohesiveness, Liverpool’s title displayed how firmly we are in the pressing age of the Premier League. That tactic, along with direct attacking play, are only augmented by the rise of analytics. The foundational idea is how a majority of goals are scored within 12 seconds of a team winning the ball. These off-ball innovations are even resonating in the Championship, with Barnsley adding new wrinkles off pressing goal kicks, throw-ins, and any sequence where opposition have the ball in their own half (their manager Gerhard Struber began his career in the Red Bull empire at Salzburg, and they are part-owned by the Oakland A’s Billy Beane; anything less than extreme innovations would be a disappointment).
The pressing and directness only further empowers the league’s story of physicality as its defining feature, and the one variable that could throw off otherwise world-class players. After his Chelsea debut, Werner seemingly complimented Brighton when saying that he had never played against “so tall, so…big, massive defenders,” before adding how much he enjoyed the amount of space he had to complete his runs. Carlo Ancelotti also downplayed the angle when discussing James Rodriguez’s debut, saying that he would have signed Usain Bolt were he worried about Rodriguez’s ability to translate his game (Rodriguez did remark that the Premier League was “a bit physical at this stage” back in 2014).
If the relationship between pressing and possession resembles a carefully calibrated ballet, it’s up to possession to evolve. Both styles can complement each other, though the imbalance has swung towards focusing on play without the ball. Pep Guardiola and his coaching tree of Mikel Arteta are in a unique position as the two highest profile managers upholding, and advancing, a style from a previous era. Arteta has especially been fearless in developing a pattern of playing out from the back, drawing an opposition press into the middle of the field before finding an outlet ball from wide.
Even Guardiola could not escape the impact of Manchester City’s failures without the ball in losing the league by 18 points. Sure, City lead the league with 102 goals, yet they also gave up 17 more than Liverpool. It wasn’t in the lack of creating turnovers leading to immediate goal-scoring opportunities but more in a decrease of tactical fouls once they lost possession. Guardiola admitted that City gave up more counter-attacking chances than usual last season.
Regardless of whether a team relies upon long balls or 30-pass sequences for goals, an intense counterpress is table stakes in the modern age, and certainly in the Premier League. The direct confrontation between the two dominant styles of the 2010s is the promise of a league attracting the brightest managers in the world. Yet without a proper offseason of reflection and a lack of transfer funds to implement new ideas, along with an increase in analytics, the tactical momentum is only going one way.
“For some clubs, it is less important how uncertain the future is. Owned by countries, owned by oligarchs, that’s the truth. We are a different kind of club...we cannot change it overnight and say ‘Now we want to spend like Chelsea,’” said Klopp in going out of his way to explicitly dig into Frank Lampard’s Chelsea.
It was supposed to be a quiet transfer window due to the lack of income, according to analysts. While some clubs, like Liverpool, followed through and dotted the margins, Chelsea have thus far spent $245 million on all sorts of players, from essential pieces to luxury playmakers. The spending further accelerated the rivalry between Klopp and Lampard, which went public during a post-lockdown match last season in which Lampard told Klopp to “f---- off.” Lampard fired back by poking holes in Klopp’s fairy tale with Liverpool, saying how every team at this level spends money regardless of narratives of Moneyball and analytics.
“There’s no point in doing the maths too much with it, we all know Liverpool have spent at a high level,” Lampard jabbed back.
Never one to pass up an opportunity, Mourinho piled on against Lampard in saying how Tottenham are “not a club of oligarchs and that belong to other countries.” You could spend years unraveling the morality scoreboard between the three managers. Their public disagreement shows how even amongst (or especially amongst) top-level managers, there are still levels within how they view each other, from paying one’s dues in building a long-term squad versus short-term new money fixes.
But with the Premier League filled with clubs receiving billion dollar valuations while splitting revenue from billion dollar television deals, there is some sort of willingness and acceptance in just being there. And what we thought would be a “strangeness” in playing ghost matches ultimately further embedded teams with resources. Last season’s finish of Liverpool, City, United, and Chelsea featured four of the league’s five highest revenue generating clubs as a pure expression of power. Without any real offseason break, momentum should reinforce those four sides, in some order, again this season.