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The Structure of Elite Teams

To finish 3rd in any given Premier League season is some feat. For Liverpool FC to have had so many injures, players missing the majority of the season & others forced into roles unfamiliar, is even more so commendable.

When COVID-19 hit the UK some 16 months ago, Liverpool sat at the top table as arguably the greatest team on the planet. Fast forward to now, and the seasons close has resulted in sheer relief at achieving a top 4 Premier League finish.

What some people fail to understand, is the enormity that singular world class players can have on any teams system. Losing Virgil Van Dijk for the season was a major blow, which was intensified by the loss of Joe Gomez some weeks later. The in and out availability before Joel Matip finally succumbed to a campaign ending injury, left a huge whole in the teams ability to function.

When the team was operating at such a high level, and with main all pieces purring, it was that form what led to 26 wins from 27 at one point last season. Anfield was a fortress, elite players were maintaining astonishing levels, and their recent success & dominance of the league looked set to continue. The success was built upon a well oiled machine, that sat on the shoulders of a VVD controlled defense. Fabinho would sit and control all components of the midfield, with utter confidence behind, and the attack would flourish. The system and the structure was sound, until key components were missing, and then it wasn’t.

When the current season ended this weekend past, that brought Liverpool’s three season points tally to the exact number Manchester City have compiled over the same period. This should give some context, given Liverpool’s absolute mid season collapse this season. With the levels that were present in seasons prior, and within this final 10 game spell, it shows how much a reliable defensive shape is needed for all other components to gel.

Leicester, who have played superbly until the final few weeks, felt the massive impact of James Justin’s & Jonny Evans injuries had on their own league campaign. With the midfield & forward players often available (as Liverpool’s had been), it was the structure and control which was lost that so effected them in the run in.

Chelsea can be proud of their impending Champions League final and cup runs, but their loss & under par performance in the FA Cup final shows all is still not right there. A final day defeat to Aston Villa can be accepted given this weeks final & Leicesters fall from top 4, but it also indicates the lack of structure with Ngolo Kante absent, and a defense unsure of its best starting personnel. With no dominating figure or set structure within their backline, the  lates king side of the team often flatters to deceive.

The structure of any elite side is great in theory, with Mikel Arteta proof, as his very inconsistent team struggles to deliver Arteta’s philosophy. The players needed to adapt to any given style the manager requires is vital, and needs more than good ideas.

Thomas Tuchel is an elite manager with a great body of work prior to landing at the Bridge. This is the reason he replaced the vastly under-qualified Frank Lampard mid season, and why his work must be appreciated, with its efficiency. Tuchel has done a solid job in attaining top 4 & two finals in his half season in charge. With players in no way suited to any one system, or time to integrate a new way, Tuchel has engineered a solidity in order to overcome. With a 3-4-3 system carried over, the ability to overload in defense makes sense, with the strongest point probably in the middle of the park. Mason Mount has shone, Ngolo Kante has been vibrant, and both Jorginho and Kovacic are very good players that can help control matches. The defensive work of the team is sound, but the fluidity further up field jacking.

The structure going forward gets a little loose in terms of preferred personnel. With three forward spots up for grabs, it would be surprising to find any two Chelsea fans name their ideal starting trio. With Jorginho leading the Premier League scoring charts for them (all penalties), it points to a sense of square pegs and round holes, even after a busy summers dealings.

Whether it be any zone of the pitch, front or back, it is often the middle engine room that is required to get the team running, when form is questionable. Elite teams win, in whatever fashion & by whatever means. Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho & many others were there to win games & trophies, and achieved this first and foremost. The greatest coaches trust their methods, and even when frustrating to the eye, sometimes the road to success may be bumpy. The trophy lift, celebrations and winning nature of football can make even the most drab football worth it, it simply takes time.

In this season, we have seen Liverpool’s revival coincide with the unleashed abilities of Thiago Alcantara. The reinstatement of Fabinho allowed Thiago to orchestrate the reds run of form in the last 10 games, and he has been the best player by some distance as a result. Overcoming a 10 point deficit (at game week 28), to finish clear of Leicester is remarkable, but understandable.

With the Foxes unable to regroup through their own defensive injuries, much as Liverpool had, it was the reds who found that strategy to overcome. A midfield that dominates games can often overcome deficiencies in other parts of the team, in short spells. With a season of disruption behind them, Liverpool can look to returning players to the group and add what is needed to compete next term. Leicester require depth, and a little more quality within their squad to break into the top 6 long term, as their failures lie in not be able to sustain.

Chelsea head into a Champions League final as massive underdogs. Thomas Tuchel will have to make decisions in how to combat the juggernaut that is Pep’s Manchester City in order to succeed. With an eye watering 200m + spent in the summer, it should be easy to point out the forward starters, however the structure needs to be set for Chelsea to really compete. Kai Havertz is an amazing talent, Christian Pulisic is a brilliant forward and both should be drafted in to add brilliance and explosion to the team. A misfiring Timo Werner may miss out, with an unremarkable campaign behind him.

The structure within the middle of the park will be key to Chelsea discovering a front line swagger, so often missing. Mo Salah has been sensational this year, but Roberto Firmino & Sadio Mane have only found their form after Thiago began to make the team purr. The changes became less and less, and the team was able to find its short term way of finding form. With so many defenders missing, this way of thinking on the front foot, gave impetuses to the whole team to win once more. Man Cit be able to cement their place atop the league, again, and their strong defensive structure is no coincidence. Ruben Dias, John Stones & Rodri have given the rest of the team license to attack.

Given Chelsea’s lack of truly outstanding players this term, it may be on Kai Havertz or Mason Mount to finally orchestrate Chelsea’s attacking threat. The system is their to be found, the manager is well qualified to pick the team, but it may take that one player to push the blues to glory once more.

Finals can make careers and leave memories of both jubilation & heartbreak. If Chelsea are to achieve the improbable, I feel it will take one of Mount or Havertz to make that blue structure shine, and deliver that converted trophy lift.

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