Bernardo Silva at left-back? How Premier League stars turned techniques nerds


Manchester Metropolis‘s Bernardo Silva recalled the second that reworked his notion of the sport. “Pep Guardiola called me to his office and he said: ‘This is what I’m thinking, are you prepared to do it?’ And I said, ‘I’ll do my best.'”

The Portugal worldwide was speaking about his supervisor’s radical plan to deploy him, one of many world’s greatest attacking midfielders, as a left-back towards Aston Villa in February in an important sport as they tried to chase down Premier League leaders Arsenal. The primary query: why?

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“Over the last few years, left-back has been a position for midfielders,” Silva defined to ESPN, as if stating one thing completely apparent. “Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko both played there and would come in the middle with the ball, and without the ball they would defend a bit wider against wingers.

“Defensively I knew it will be very robust as a result of I am not a fast participant, so I’ve to guard my again concurrently checking the road so I do not play everybody onside. With the ball, Pep wished me to do the buildup subsequent to the holding midfielder. I wasn’t anticipating him to ask me to play there, however I noticed it as an enormous problem and I prefer to be in these positions the place you study.”

Metropolis beat Villa 3-1. Silva remained at left-back for the win by the same scoreline at Arsenal, which sent City to the top of the table above their title rivals. He then played the position again in the 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest, but still managed to pop up with a goal to put City ahead: a strike from a central area on the edge of the box — exactly the sort of position he would have taken up if he had started in midfield.

Could you imagine former Manchester United playmaker Paul Scholes being asked to play at left-back, but still expected to have his regular impact on a game? England couldn’t even figure out how to play him in midfield alongside Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.

But this is the era of the data-driven athlete. Football cyborgs, powered by TI (tactical intelligence), capable of performing tasks that require expertise in analysis: understanding team shape, arranging and manoeuvring players during a high-tempo match and linking formation to a particular style of play. British football’s “up and at ’em” approach has been revolutionised. Roughing up the opposition and relying on your best players to decide the game won’t cut it anymore.

What has driven this change and how has it shaped the way players think about the game? Premier League stars past, present and future give insight into the mind of the tactics-obsessed footballer.

Everyone wants to be like Pep

Silva, 28, thought he knew football until he met Pep. “Once I arrived at Metropolis I did not know what this was, so it was tough for me,” Silva admitted. By “this” he meant Guardiola’s fanatical understanding of the game: his intensity, his tactical plans, his demanding training sessions. All of these combine to push players to the limits of their physical and cognitive capabilities.

“I am not the identical participant that I used to be 9, 10 years in the past after I began in skilled soccer,” Silva added. “At Metropolis, enjoying in several positions makes you perceive what you should do in several areas of the pitch, doing what every place calls for.”

To play this game of freewheeling chess requires smart recruitment. An innate interest in strategy and learning are prerequisites for any new recruit. “The sporting director [Txiki Begiristain] selects gamers that perceive the sport and revel in the way in which Pep desires to play,” said Silva, who joined City from Monaco in 2017.

And when you bring together like-minded souls, you create tactical symbiosis. “I like to speak techniques with [City and Portugal defender] Ruben Dias,” Silva said. “He will get the offensive viewpoint and I am very within the defensive aspect of the sport so we full one another within the conversations we now have. I’ve realized quite a bit from him.”

Silva and Dias each stroking their chin as they theorise about the intricacies of the modern game on the Etihad Campus is a different world from the one Derby County defender Curtis Davies entered as a teenager in 2000.

“Once I first began out as a trainee at Wimbledon, it was quite a lot of 4-4-2,” said the 38-year-old, who made 172 Premier League appearances for West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Hull City. “Defenders defended and full-backs would again up the winger. You often had two midfielders, one was attacking and one was defensive, however they’d nonetheless play flat. There have been no false full-backs, double pivots and inverted wingers.”

Davies is describing simpler times when the continental influence on the Premier League felt like fries with mayonnaise; an interesting concept even though the British were happy with their ketchup and brown sauce. English football still valued speed, strength and aggression over ball mastery and tactics until foreign managers, like Arsene Wenger, began to revolutionise the game with new ideas on everything from tactics to diet, fitness and professionalism. It wasn’t until 2006 — fully 10 years after Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal — that Davies started to see a shift in tactical work.

“My first introduction to a structured manner of enjoying was underneath Tony Mowbray at West Brom,” he says. “He labored on midfield form and sure actions he wished the wingers to make. We began watching movies of the opposition. Moderately than simply counting on our higher gamers to make one thing occur, we had a construction that all of us contributed to.”

Davies returned to the Premier League with Aston Villa in 2007 and spent almost a decade playing in the top flight before dropping back down to the Championship with Derby, now in League One. Whether it’s the third tier or the Premier League, he’s witnessed the ripple effect of foreign coaching, technology and the introduction of the backpass rule in 1992.

“Everybody desires to be Pep Guardiola,” he says. “Even in League One there is a snobbery about lumping it up the pitch. If I am on a bench I will watch a crew attempt to play out from the again. The keeper will move to the centre-half and he’ll hit the massive striker. What have you ever gained from that? It seems to be such as you need to attempt to play out, sure, however as quickly because the centre-half got here underneath any stress he went lengthy.”

Video analysis has been a key driver behind the growth in tactical work, with coaches studying the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. The information shared during Marco Silva’s tactical sessions at Hull City in 2017 are still hardwired in Davies’ operating system.

“I performed centre-half underneath Silva, however I might let you know the place our left-back, centre-forward and right-winger ought to be in each state of affairs as a result of it was drilled into us,” he says. “Plan A was our basis, but when the opposition switched to a entrance three we knew what to do as a result of we would labored on plan B on Thursday and Friday.”

Davies adds that these tactical sessions would then spark conversations among the players. “If I am the right-sided centre again and we have highlighted their left winger in a couple of clips, I’d say to whoever is enjoying right-back, ‘If he breaks and he is faster than me and also you’re excessive up the pitch, I will delay him and hold him on the skin, so you should recuperate in a straight line as shortly as attainable.'”

This explosion of tactical theory has altered the way Davies watches football. It’s no longer possible to switch off and relax; instead, his brain will automatically dissect team shape and patterns of play.

“Once I was youthful, I by no means watched a sport and thought, ‘They’re a wonderful urgent crew’, it was extra like, ‘Arsenal gained 4-0, did you see Thierry Henry’s aim?’ I did not care about techniques,” he says. “Whereas now I will be analysing Man Metropolis and considering, ‘Pep’s enjoying Bernardo Silva at left-back as a result of he will be a 3rd midfielder.'”

A deeper level of tactical understanding

Former Tottenham Hotspur academy player Matt Wells has always been an outlier, thanks to his “weird” fascination with strategy and tactics from a young age. Injury curtailed his playing career at the age of 20, and so he turned to coaching. After helping Scott Parker mastermind Premier League promotions with both Fulham (in 2020) and AFC Bournemouth (2022), he’s now working alongside Ryan Mason at Spurs as his acting assistant head coach.

For Wells, a self-confessed disciple of Guardiola and admirer of others like Brighton & Hove Albion‘s Roberto De Zerbi and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, how players talk and feel about tactics is often shaped by the curriculum and teaching methods.

“You need to be delicate together with your tactical work, particularly on this nation, as a result of the extra inventive gamers can discover it monotonous,” he says. “Through the years, ‘tactical work’ has simply been delivered within the type of offensive/defensive form, unopposed for big chunks of the session, which most likely is not too partaking. It must be clear and impactful, however should you design it effectively, it can be pleasing.”

With five days to prepare for a game, Wells uses the first three days to look at tactical outcomes, “based mostly round us and our id.” Then, in those final two days, he analyses the opponent and how they might set up. All of this is delivered through video analysis and on-pitch coaching. Finally, he hovers around the players on matchday, tuning into their conversations.

“I all the time take heed to the gamers earlier than a sport,” he says. “That is a very good barometer of the place you’re as a crew. If you’d like them to be aggressive and press excessive and you may hear them saying issues like, ‘Do not go should you really feel you may’t’ or ‘Let’s simply be compact’ that is an instantaneous crimson flag. “That tells you there’s a fair discrepancy between what you want and what you’re about to see. On the flip side, if they’re mirroring your tactical messages in the buildup that’s a good sign they’re living the playing philosophy.”

Younger gamers raised on this degree of tactical enter may naturally interact with this type of teaching extra readily, however how do senior execs caught between eras reply to dossiers and PowerPoints?

“The large majority are really receptive,” says Wells. “They appreciate the investment and thinking ‘I’m getting one-to-one video sessions, they’re coaching me individually and as part of a unit, out on the pitch they’re giving me options of what to do with the ball and they’re telling me the things that are going to happen in the next game, and they’re actually happening.'”

For some gamers this is not simply a possibility to study and enhance, it is a possibility to discover concepts. “The Dutch players I’ve coached don’t just want to know what we are doing, but why we are doing it that way,” says Wells. “I used to enjoy chatting with Ryan Babel at Fulham. He asked a lot of questions during my first tactical session. He wanted to debate and discuss, and these little interactions would lead to a much deeper level of understanding.”

Raised on a weight loss program of techniques and evaluation

The will to realize this degree of strategic mastery is now being bred into gamers from a younger age within the academy. Liverpool striker Layton Stewart has been prolific for the under-21s this season and this owes a lot to his ardour for studying. On high of coaching classes and video evaluation, the 20-year-old has entry to performance-related information.

“We have an app called Hudl or we can text our analysis guy,” he says. “I ask about defenders I’m going to face and how they play. For example, if I come to feet and then run, I’ll want to know if he’ll follow me or stay. I get sent the relevant clips so when it comes to the game I know how I can get around him.”

Stewart, who has been likened to nice Liverpool strikers Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, began to study concerning the first crew’s tactical system at U14 degree to make sure he was “on their wavelength” when he joined in coaching classes. Then, it was about partaking with the senior execs to study the tips of the commerce. As a striker, understanding the press has been important, with Roberto Firmino providing invaluable perception.

“He’s given me different ideas of how I can press the centre-half,” explains Stewart. “For example, if the ball is in play and you drop back you shouldn’t press the centre-half because he can play you out of the game, but if you’re chasing a long ball over the top that’s a great opportunity to win the ball back.

“Then, if you will press, it is about stopping the defender from doing what they need. You’ll be able to drive them onto their weaker foot or and hold them shifting a technique to allow them to’t come throughout you.”

Unlike Davies, 18 years his senior, Stewart was raised on tactical information, fuelling a natural interest in the subject. “You need to be switched on tactically if you wish to succeed on this atmosphere,” he says. “When you do not, it places you at an obstacle and if you find yourself enjoying within the Soccer League, lads are enjoying to pay their mortgage so you are going to get in bother should you lose your man at a set piece.”



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Before the advent of data, teams often relied on their best players to impose their will upon the game. Now, tactics aren’t the defining influence on the outcome of a match, but as Wells explains, they are the catalyst.

“The complexity has gone by means of the roof and techniques are very important to dictating the move of the sport, however one factor won’t ever change: the sport is set in each packing containers,” he says. “The crew that wins is the one which performs greatest within the opposition’s field and did an amazing job defending their very own.”

Those decisive moments are decided by the best players, an enduring truth throughout the history of football. Tactics have just changed how teams move up the pitch and get the ball into the final third. And as you might expect, no team today does this better than Guardiola’s City, recently crowned Premier League champions for a third year running and close to winning the Treble this season.

Eventually data analysts will crunch the numbers on these attacking manoeuvres and identify patterns for their coach to nullify. This will, in turn, drive tactical innovation as teams that play on the front foot try to solve the complex interaction of space and time. New frontiers will be breached as the likes of Guardiola and Bernardo Silva unravel the endless tactical combinations within this beautiful game of chaos.

“Pep is aware of that the sport is evolving so he would not let the opposite groups adapt to us. Yearly he tries to create one thing totally different,” says Silva.

“I all the time thought should you’re doing effectively, you retain doing these issues and you retain successful. However he proves me improper each season as a result of we do effectively and he modifies, so we hold doing even higher.”

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