Why the 'big six' seem most impacted by unique challenges of pandemic football

Jurgen Klopp Manager of Liverpool during the English Premier League match between Crystal Palace v L

Jurgen Klopp - it is noticeable that Liverpool, in particular, are suffering the most. - Credit: Dan Weir/PPAUK

The effect the pandemic is having on the 'big six' in the Premier League... are they going backward. Why?

Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea  - there are various reasons for each club's difficulties.

But the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic underpins all six cases, with a congested fixture list leading to fatigue, injuries, and squad rotation on a scale never before seen in the English top-flight.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the elite clubs who have suffered the most during the pandemic.

Has playing behind closed doors created a more level playing field with a lack of crowd pressure?

Or have the coaches at the very top level struggled to adapt their systems and game plans to overcome this very difficult and different period?    

As the quality of football and players gets better towards the top of the football pyramid, so too does its complexity- and the more fine-tuned the system, the more vulnerable it is to collapse.  

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You would expect the bigger clubs would be able to find ways to outplay equally-exhausted opponents but the tactical and technical chasm between the riches clubs and the rest means the likes of Tottenham Hotspurs, Arsenal, and even Liverpool are unable to adapt.

They are used to working in complex tessellations, pressing and passing in a detailed system that allows them to pull apart defensive opponents. 

By contrast, the mid-tier clubs who are more analogue in their tactics can continue to sit back and soak up pressure. Their tactics are largely unaffected by the pandemic.

The compressed schedule of the 2020-21 season has affected and hurt the big clubs in two ways.

Firstly, there is less/ no time in the week to work on tactics which means the detailed preparation of the teams is gone, making life much simpler for those outside the elite.

In recent seasons/ years, pre-set attacking moves were being coached and implemented at the 'big six' in order to prise apart deep defences.

Those have diminished this season with several of the top six suffering.

All teams have tired players, of course, even when you factor in European football, the 'big six' ought to have the squad depth to cope with fatigue and injuries better than the other 14 Premier League clubs.

But again this is about the fine-tuning of detailed tactics and the precise level of high-powered performance needed when you are expected to hold at least 65-75 per cent possession.

When the smaller clubs are tired, their compact off-the-ball/ defensive shape remains largely unaltered.

When the bigger clubs are tired, their high energy pressing system collapses and the game plan is hugely affected and undermined.

It is noticeable that Liverpool, in particular, are suffering the most. They are pressing considerably less, doing deliberately in order to reserve/conserve energy in an attempt to survive this most challenging of campaigns.

The problem is, without pressing, their possession game becomes too easy to read and they leave themselves exposed to the counterattack. 

In the modern game, organised pressing is essential to attack, defence, and transition.

Without the high press, the 'big six' are finding it hard to win the ball consistently in dangerous areas, and therefore are not counter-pressing into space in the final third – which formed a key attacking strategy for the likes of Klopp, Arteta, and Lampard - when at Chelsea.

The other problem is they are not able to pen teams in with aggressive pressing trapping their opponents in their own half, forcing them into making mistakes.

Without it, the 'big six' are taking part in a more even territorial contest, hence unexpected draws and defeats against mid-table opposition.

Without a coherent press forcing the other team to scramble the ball clear, they are able to get their head up and pick out passes over the top of the defence which has caused many of the big club's problems this season having adopted a high defensive line tactic.  

If pressing drops, the entire system breaks down. If there is little time to coach the automatisms, possession becomes stale.

Put these two things together and it’s easy to see why the Premier League table is more congested and why it is the 'big six' who seem most impacted by the unique challenges of pandemic football.

There are, of course, other factors to take into account at each club.

Liverpool, unlike Manchester City, have been unlucky with injuries which has affected their overall game plan and results.

The congested fixture list has not helped and notably has hurt the bigger clubs in the Premier League more than the smaller ones, results have become very unpredictable with Leicester City, West Ham. Everton and Aston Villa climbing into or around the top six, which means it could turn out to be the wildest season in Premier League history. 

Keep doing the right things – there is a light at the end of the tunnel at last.