The 2010s were the most dynamic and refreshing tactical era in European football. It featured Jose Mourinho's modern catenaccio system with Inter Milan in 2009-10 and Pep Guardiola's beautiful Barcelona of 2010-2012, for starters (both those examples stood at two ends of the philosophical spectrum and are hence excluded from this list). Tactical trends have evolved and elevated technical ability.
With that in mind, we look at five teams and their coaches who came up with refreshing tactics during the 2010s.
#5 Thomas Tuchel | Borussia Dortmund
German football philosophy is responsible for the modern high-pressing and counterattacking game. Jurgen Klopp’s approach is focused on doubling up on a ball carrier and pouncing the opponent. Meanwhile, Thomas Tuchel’s idea was a combination of tactics - Spanish position play and German precision in organization.
The zenith of Tuchel’s ability as a coach came in the Champions League final against mentor Pep Guardiola last season, playing a fluid attacking 3-4-3. The genesis of Tuchel’s use of the tactic started at Borussia Dortmund, where he experimented with a lopsided 3-1-4-2 structure, admittedly to mixed success.
He used the breakneck speed of Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang and Ousmane Dembele as out-and-out attackers. The 3-1-4-2 attack (which morphed into 3-2-4-1) relied on tactically-aligned player positions in the “half spaces”. Julian Weigl acted as playmaker and Ilkay Gundogan or Shinji Kagawa as aggressive number eights.
Of specific interest is the use of Gonzalo Castro and Dembele as wingbacks. Dembele, in particular, was an extremely aggressive option (like Callum Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea) to pin an opposing team fullback down.
Dortmund lined-up on paper as a 3-1-4-2, but due to the asymmetry of their midfield, spent more time in a 3-2-4-1 shape, with Castro acting deeper and Dembele higher up. The likes of Marco Reus, Christian Pulisic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were given free roles within their halfspaces. The tactic worked to overload such a space, with an onrushing wingback, wide midfielder and centreback.
#4 Luis Enrique | Barcelona
Luis Enrique’s Barcelona was a more direct and intuitively attacking team than Pep Guardiola’s vision of juego de posición (positional play), introducing a more vertical transitional play. Whilst he almost consistently favored a 4-3-3 formation like Pep, there were instances where Enrique chose an aggressive 3-4-3 diamond system which resembled Johan Cruyff’s idea of total football.
Using the 6-1 thrashing of Sporting Gijon and the remarkable comeback against PSG as a reference, in the three-on-the-back system, caution was thrown to the wind. Barcelona employed a new tactic. played with a midfield diamond of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets on each tip, with Sergi Roberto and Andres Iniesta flanking the latter. With essentially four in midfield, cover against nippy counterattacks was provided, as well as freeing up the wingers as out-and-out attackers.
The dilemma of trying to get the most out of the famous “MSN” trio, saw the mercurial Neymar Jr given a free wing role with the industrious Rafinha to compliment. Messi and Suarez would play in tandem with each other and occupy spaces between the lines by smart exchanges to release each other in free roles.
The system not only brought the best out of Messi’s playmaking ability but also patched over Barcelona’s defensive issues. The tactic allowed for a more compact defensive structure. This caused Barcelona to attack with an uncharacteristically frantic tempo. They would move the ball from centreback to winger and pin the opposition fullback - a necessary evolution of the increasingly stagnant passing play.
#3 Maurizio Sarri | Napoli
“Our players had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent, and their own teammates. Every movement had to happen in relation to these reference points. Each player had to decide which of these reference points should determine his movements.” - Arrigo Sacchi
As per the great Arrigo Sacchi, the idea of a great tactical system is to control and adapt to reference points. His spiritual successor was Maurizio Sarri, who, through his own tactical “Sarriball” system, introduced an emphasis on rotation and verticality with Napoli.
Napoli put emphasis on inviting pressure and playing from the back. Their tactic revolved around first finding a free man in midfield, be it the deep-lying Jorginho, the tempestuous Allan or the bombarding Marek Hamsik. They would then launch direct defense-splitting passes to Gonzalo Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon.
The tactic involved quickly transitioning the ball to the far-side player in zig-zag patterns, creating triangles and passing into on rushing players. Higuain, for his part, went on to bag 36 goals in the 2015-16 Serie A campaign, breaking a near century-old goalscoring record.
#2 Pep Guardiola | Manchester City
Pep Guardiola’s decade was spent pursuing excellence and complete dominance on the pitch. At Bayern, his flirtation with a back-three formation and attempts to fit in wingers on the extreme end of the touchline meant he pioneered the role of the “inverted fullback”.
Manchester City employed the perfect tactic to defensively curb counterattacks, and to overload the midfield when playing out of the back. Their trademark has been to allow Kyle Walker, Oleksandr Zinchenko or Joao Cancelo a space in the midfield beside the holding midfield player. Often resembling a 3-2-2-3 formation, the fullback on the inside complicated opposition marking patterns. That left Gundogan or Kevin De Bruyne with loads of free space in the opposition's final third.
Another degree to the overload is the “false nine” that Pep plays to allow his wingers to nip in behind free spaces.
All these moving parts led to a soaked and congested center of the pitch in an attempt to create space to run into in the opposition penalty box. The likes of Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez thrived on it. On paper, the formation looked like a ludicrous 2-3-5 that saw Manchester City converge on a ball-winner within seconds after a misplaced pass.
#1 Antonio Conte | Chelsea
After starting out with a four at the back system, Antonio Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation after being humiliated 3-0 against Arsenal during the 2016-17 campaign.
The formation stuck and Chelsea went on an 11-game unbeaten run which marked the turning point in the march to Chelsea’s title-winning campaign.
A perfect example of fine tuning a tactic to fit personnel, every aspect of the 3-4-3 seemed to compliment Conte’s players' strengths and cover weaknesses. In defense, the often “calamitous” David Luiz played with a sense of assurance and calm as he was given the time and space to act as a deep-lying playmaker.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s right-sided role was the perfect combination of his abilities as a very modern defender. Meanwhile, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso made an odd wingback pairing. They shredded and stretched opposition cover as a double pivot of Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante covered the three centrebacks.
The biggest beneficiaries were without a doubt Eden Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa, all of whom were given attacking roles with limited defensive liability. Hazard was a standout player with his mesmerizing swerving runs, playing off Costa’s rugged ability as a single striker. So dominant was the system that teams such as Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal ended up replicating the tactic to their own benefit, making back threes “fashionable” again.