The cones have been laid down across the manicured training fields of England since early last month, the ProZone statistics have been analysed to the third decimal point and the whiteboards have more arrows upon them than an old-fashioned prison uniform. This weekend the plotting stops as the tactical plans of 20 coaching cabals are finally tested amid the fires of the Premiership crucible.
What can we expect? What has been learnt both from last season's campaign, and the World Cup, so often the progenitor of new ploys? The Premiership managers' club welcomes three new recruits in the old fox Neil Warnock, bright young thing Adrian Boothroyd and rookie Gareth Southgate. Returning to the élite are another trio, Steve Coppell, Martin O'Neill and Iain Dowie.
All of these men are sure to add fresh ideas to the new season's intrigue but the focus, and perhaps the most interesting developments, will come from the old guard, men with the Premiership or Champions' League trophies, or both, already on their CV: Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benitez.
Mourinho has to determine a way to integrate Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard into a midfield already underpinned by Claude Makelele. He must also develop an approach which brings the best from Andrei Shevchenko without disenchanting too many of his attacking thoroughbreds.
Ferguson has to fill the still gaping void left by Roy Keane and now compensate for the 20-plus goals Ruud van Nistelrooy had guaranteed while Wenger has Tomas Rosicky to fit into a midfield which ought to be built around Cesc Fabregas for the next decade and, post-Bergkamp, seeks the right partner for Thierry Henry.
Benitez, after some serious investment, needs to find the right blend for his new pace attack, and accommodate his clutch of central midfielders. Mourinho and Benitez ought also to respond to the nagging complaint that their teams can, on too many occasions, be as difficult to watch as they are to play.
Most of all, the quartet have to gain an edge over each other. Chelsea may be the overwhelming favourites to retain their Premiership title but Arsenal, Liverpool and United, given favourable circumstances and smart management, have the capability to catch them.
Which brings us to the World Cup. The quadrennial jamboree has long influenced the club game, for good and ill. Brazil in 1958, England in 1966 and the Dutch in 1974 each left a lasting imprint. The tournament influence is less seismic these days, as greater television coverage means there are fewer surprises, but trends can be discerned and patterns copied.
The technical study group of the game's world governing body, Fifa , hosted by Holger Osiek, who was assistant to Franz Beckenbauer when Germany won the 1990 World Cup, and Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager, identified some developments in Germany. One can be sure Mourinho and his rivals did the same. To start with, the study group noted that 28 out of the 32 teams in the competition used a back four, and only two of the dissenters (Mexico and Australia) reached the last 16, with neither progressing to the quarter-finals. That pattern will be followed by most of the Premiership, if not necessarily Steve McClaren's England.
There is a reason for the demise of the sweeper, and a consequence, said Roxburgh. Teams are defending deeper, in part to guard against the uncertainties provoked by the new interpretations of the offside law. He added: "These back fours have invariably been protected by a screening midfield player, in several cases two. This 4-2-3-1 formation, with a square central defensive block of four, is very difficult to penetrate.
Prime examples were the top three: Italy (with Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo in central midfield); France (Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele); and Germany (Torsten Frings and Michael Ballack).
Ballack played a much more restricted role than usual, with Germany attacking on the flanks. Vieira did get forward, but the French attack primarily came down the wings and through Zinedine Zidane. Pirlo, noted Osiek, was a different type of anchorman. "This player was simply the Hoover, who tidied up attacks; now he is more skilful, someone who gets involved in launching attacks. Players like Pirlo and Michael Essien get actively involved in the build-up play," Osiek argued.
With teams defending deeper, counter-attacking becomes more prevalent, and more important. "There are more opportunities as teams are drawn towards you," Roxburgh said "and a greater need to take them before the opposition can re-form their own deep defence. The turnover speed becomes crucial. That doesn't mean long ball all the time, but teams have to be ready to react to the availability of space." Witness Chelsea's eagerness to play the early ball in the Community Shield.
The only other way to get through these defences, he added, was through skilful high- tempo passing, as played by Argentina and Brazil, or set pieces. Since Arsenal are the only Premiership team who can hope to emulate the South Americans' ability to play through crowded areas, expect an even greater emphasis on set pieces. In particular, Osiek said, "set plays from the left flank, taken by a right-footer". He added: "With so much spin on the ball, and everyone moving towards the goal, the slightest contact can take it into the goal. It is very difficult for goalkeepers." Exhibit A being England's goal (an own goal) against Paraguay.
One final lesson of the summer was the increasing prevalence of lone strikers, from Luca Toni and Thierry Henry to Peter Crouch and Pauleta. This followed last season's Premiership fashion for 4-5-1, generally played with negative intent, sometimes as a 4-1-4-1.
While it is understandable that a middling Premiership side will seek to play this way when visiting one of the top four, it is less forgivable when at home against another mid-table side. The supporters of Fulham and Charlton are among those who have complained loudly when forced to watch it.
One leading Premiership manager, West Ham's Alan Pardew, believes the best way to combat 4-5-1 is to attack and he intends to do so this season. Before Dean Ashton's injury he was contemplating fielding Ashton, Carlton Cole and Marlon Harewood in partnership. More common may be Mourinho's probable starting policy of a 4-3-3 ,in which the third striker is a winger able to play on both flanks, initially Arjen Robben, possibly Joe Cole when he returns from injury. This, once a common formation in Scotland, would enable him to incorporate Ballack, Lampard and Makelele.
Liverpool, on the evidence of their opening European tie and the Charity Shield, are more likely to play 4-3-3, with two wide men and a central striker, as Chelsea did when Mourinho first came to this country. The emphasis is on pace, Benitez having added Craig Bellamy, Jermaine Pennant and Mark Gonzalez to his squad in the summer.
At Arsenal, Wenger will be hoping to maintain another trend which was evident in Germany: the attacking full-back. Ashley Cole seems certain to depart, but on the other flank Emmanuel Eboué should make as big an impact as the likes of Philipp Lahm and Gianluca Zambrotta did in the World Cup.
All these approaches indicate a sense of adventure, which appeared to have dimmed in the last Premiership campaign but was evident among the better teams in Germany. "I liked the way so many coaches went there with aggressive and, in many cases, very good football on their minds," said John Giles, a former League champion with Leeds United, who was in Germany for Irish television. "You can work on defence, that's about methods and technique and it has to be done. But more important is the way you think about football, what you want from it, and the World Cup was remarkable for the number of coaches who showed a brilliant attitude in trying to get the best out of their teams. Jürgen Klinsmann was one great example, so of course was Marcello Lippi. The one coach whose work you had to deplore at the finish was Jose Pekerman. He went against the trend and, from a winning position against Germany, he shut up shop."
One can only hope, as Premiership clubs struggle to fill their grounds, that this is one summer lesson which has been absorbed by championship contenders and relegation favourites alike.Reuse content