Manchester City‘s Bernardo Silva recalled the moment that transformed his perception of the game. “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 international was talking about his manager’s radical plan to deploy him, one of the world’s best attacking midfielders, as a left-back against Aston Villa in February in a crucial game as they tried to chase down Premier League leaders Arsenal. The first question: why?
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“Over the last few years, left-back has been a position for midfielders,” Silva explained to ESPN, as if stating something perfectly obvious. “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 would be very tough because I’m not a quick player, so I have to protect my back at the same time as checking the line so I don’t play everyone onside. With the ball, Pep wanted me to do the buildup next to the holding midfielder. I wasn’t expecting him to ask me to play there, but I saw it as a big challenge and I like to be in those positions where you learn.”
City 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. “When I arrived at City I didn’t know what this was, so it was difficult 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’m not the same player that I was nine, 10 years ago when I started in professional football,” Silva added. “At City, playing in different positions makes you understand what you need to do in different areas of the pitch, doing what each position demands.”
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 players that understand the game and enjoy the way Pep wants to play,” said Silva, who joined City from Monaco in 2017.
And when you bring together like-minded souls, you create tactical symbiosis. “I love to talk tactics with [City and Portugal defender] Ruben Dias,” Silva said. “He gets the offensive point of view and I’m very interested in the defensive side of the game so we complete each other in the conversations we have. I’ve learned a lot 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.
“When I first started out as a trainee at Wimbledon, it was 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 back up the winger. You usually had two midfielders, one was attacking and one was defensive, but they’d still play flat. There were 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 way of playing was under Tony Mowbray at West Brom,” he says. “He worked on midfield shape and certain movements he wanted the wingers to make. We started watching videos of the opposition. Rather than just relying on our better players to make something happen, we had a structure that we all 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.
“Everyone wants to be Pep Guardiola,” he says. “Even in League One there’s a snobbery about lumping it up the pitch. If I’m on a bench I’ll watch a team try and play out from the back. The keeper will pass to the centre-half and he’ll hit the big striker. What have you gained from that? It looks like you want to try and play out, yes, but as soon as the centre-half came under any pressure he went long.”
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 played centre-half under Silva, but I could tell you where our left-back, centre-forward and right-winger should be in every scenario because it was drilled into us,” he says. “Plan A was our foundation, but if the opposition switched to a front three we knew what to do because we’d worked on plan B on Thursday and Friday.”
Davies adds that these tactical sessions would then spark conversations among the players. “If I’m the right-sided centre back and we’ve highlighted their left winger in a few clips, I might say to whoever is playing right-back, ‘If he breaks and he’s quicker than me and you’re high up the pitch, I’ll delay him and keep him on the outside, so you need to recover in a straight line as quickly as possible.'”
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.
“When I was younger, I never watched a game and thought, ‘They’re an excellent pressing team’, it was more like, ‘Arsenal won 4-0, did you see Thierry Henry’s goal?’ I didn’t care about tactics,” he says. “Whereas now I’ll be analysing Man City and thinking, ‘Pep’s playing Bernardo Silva at left-back because he’s going to be a third midfielder.'”
A deeper level of tactical understanding
Former Tottenham Hotspur academy player Matt Wells has always been an outlier, thanks to his “bizarre” 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 have to be sensitive with your tactical work, especially in this country, because the more creative players can find it monotonous,” he says. “Over the years, ‘tactical work’ has just been delivered in the form of offensive/defensive shape, unopposed for large chunks of the session, which probably isn’t too engaging. It needs to be clear and impactful, but if you design it well, it can also be enjoyable.”
With five days to prepare for a game, Wells uses the first three days to look at tactical outcomes, “based around us and our identity.” 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 always listen to the players before a game,” he says. “That’s a really good barometer of where you are as a team. If you want them to be aggressive and press high and you can hear them saying things like, ‘Don’t go if you feel you can’t’ or ‘Let’s just be compact’ that’s an instant red 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.”
Young players raised on this level of tactical input might naturally engage with this style of coaching more readily, but how do senior pros caught between eras respond 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 players this isn’t just an opportunity to learn and improve, it’s an opportunity to explore ideas. “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 diet of tactics and analysis
The desire to achieve this level of strategic mastery is now being bred into players from a young age in the academy. Liverpool striker Layton Stewart has been prolific for the under-21s this season and this owes much to his passion for learning. On top of training sessions and video analysis, the 20-year-old has access to performance-related data.
“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 great Liverpool strikers Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, started to learn about the first team’s tactical system at U14 level to ensure he was “on their wavelength” when he joined in training sessions. Then, it was about engaging with the senior pros to learn the tricks of the trade. As a striker, understanding the press has been essential, with Roberto Firmino offering invaluable insight.
“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 are going to press, it’s about stopping the defender from doing what they want. You can force them onto their weaker foot or and keep them moving one way so they can’t come across you.”
Unlike Davies, 18 years his senior, Stewart was raised on tactical information, fuelling a natural interest in the subject. “You have to be switched on tactically if you want to succeed in this environment,” he says. “If you don’t, it puts you at a disadvantage and if you end up playing in the Football League, lads are playing to pay their mortgage so you’re going to get in trouble if you lose your man at a set piece.”
Win the UCL or win the World Cup? Bernardo Silva plays You Have To Answer
Bernardo Silva picks between Portuguese icons and Manchester City teammates in You Have To Answer.
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 through the roof and tactics are vital to dictating the flow of the game, but one thing will never change: the game is decided in both boxes,” he says. “The team that wins is the one that performs best in the opposition’s box and did a great job defending their 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 knows that the game is evolving so he doesn’t let the other teams adapt to us. Every year he tries to create something different,” says Silva.
“I always thought if you’re doing well, you keep doing those things and you keep winning. But he proves me wrong every season because we do well and he changes, so we keep doing even better.”