Premier League Tactics Corner – Round 3


In this week’s edition of Premier League Tactics Corner, we analyze Diego Costa’s movement and pressing, as well as Stoke City’s defensive tactics against Manchester City.

Chelsea’s Costa

Costa does three things really well. He presses, he uses his speed, and he finishes. He’s as old school as center forwards come and as simple as a combination of Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish soccer coaches make them.

There’s not much to preface analyzing Costa’s style, besides noting that he won’t be slaloming through five or six players. Instead of being fancy, he’ll simply run by one or two and let the ball do the work for him. Below, he opens up his Premier League account against Burnley with this simple finish.


The Spaniard has to be aware of where he is after the initial ball pops off the frame. Some forwards would have crashed the net, but Costa decides to read the play. What analysts don’t say about players is how smart they are. Experience is one thing, but being an intelligent footballer, especially off the ball, is something special.

Chelsea’s No. 19 is a bulldog too. He’s not afraid to lunge at the ball and poke it by the goalkeeper as he did against Leicester City. If this isn’t poaching, then I don’t know what is.


However, Costa scares defenses most when he wreaks havoc 30 to 40 yards from goal, when the ball is in midfield. He prefers quick attacks and working with smart players like Cesc Fabregas who can slide him through. To set the tone against Everton, he did this:


Runs like that are exactly what Chelsea was missing last season and they suit the Blues’ style as well. Jose Mourinho’s squad had the power of Nemanja Matic and finesse of Eden Hazard in midfield, but the strike force could not latch onto or read the killer balls players of that quality can provide. The former Atletico Madrid man can get onto the end of those balls and beat defensive lines.

That is why Costa and Spain make for an odd couple. While Costa can hold up play well, he’s so dangerous when he breaks down a defense with a powerful run. However, Spain does not play that way. Costa likes to breakdown high lines with speed, while La Roja wants to pass its way through it. Spain wanted to play with a true striker though, and it only worked when they played vertical football in the attacking third.


Above, Costa earns a penalty kick that gave his country a 1-0 lead over the Netherlands. Xavi spots his run through the Oranje’s defense, so that the Chelsea man can get into the box. Spain was able to get Costa in over the top a few more times in this match, and it was in that context that the Spanish threatened the opposition most.

On the less sexy side of the ball, Costa is a workhorse. He is constantly closing down defenses and goalkeepers. As the first line of defense, he reads the ball and notices when his teammates force the opposition into uncomfortable spaces. Against Burnley, he notices that Chelsea have pressured a backpass to the keeper. As soon as the Burnley player makes that decision, Costa sprints to intercept the ball, which has a lack of pace on it.


He gets carded for flopping to finish the play, but you get the point. If Costa continues to press, poach, and power his way past Premier League teams, he is sure to be a fan favorite at the Bridge.

Classic Stoke

There weren’t any long throw-ins from Rory Delap in Saturday’s shock when Mark Hughes’ Stoke City upset Manchester City, but the match did feature a lot of stout, top-class defensive work. Many label it easy to park the bus, but to blank the Premier League champions, who return a unit that scored 102 league goals last season, is impressive.

A lot of rotating occurs within the back eight outfield players. At the 12:37 mark in this match, NBC Sports flashed the possession numbers up on the screen, with Manchester City having 90% of the ball. For the first 10 minutes or so, City look to break Stoke down with short passes. Then, they looked to go through the air. Fernando plays a long ball below, but to no avail. The Potters have strong defenders, so they are content to deal with as many long balls as an opposing team is willing to send their way.


But let’s get a look at the shapes the defense creates. Stoke always wants to isolate players. Attackers with the smarts and skills of Samir Nasri and David Silva are going to look for pockets, but when they find them the defense needs to cut them off and close them down immediately – or in the best-case scenario, force the threats out wide or away from the pockets of space. Think of this as defensive geometry. A few years ago, passing in triangles was all the rage. Stoke defend by sticking players in squares and triangles.

Exhibit A: Stevan Jovetic gets on the ball here and doesn’t have any runners headed into the channels. The problem is, when he looks to pressure relief behind him, a Stoke defender is there to close him down and stop the play.


Another example occurs when the Potters are trying to keep the match scoreless headed into the break.

In the middle of the screen, Silva has space to exploit, but is surrounded by four Stoke defenders who can instantly close him down. With pressure on Nasri already in place, it forces Nasri to abort Silva’s move and take the ball away from goal.


Later in the move, Silva is pressured to play through Jovetic, who makes a good run, which is tracked by Phil Bardsley who steps out from right back and follows the runner after spotting the danger. Jovetic manages to get the ball to Bacary Sagna on the wing after being ushered away from goal. Sagna follows by putting in a tame cross from the right back to Silva, who fouls Glenn Whelan.


To be fair to City, that is exactly the type of play necessary to break down a team like Stoke. Working the channels creates danger and puts the back four at sixes and sevens. Long balls, crosses, and pot-shots are exactly the type of moves that Stoke wants from a team like City, not only because they are easy to deal with, but also because they frustrate the opposition.

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