The nature and order of things in football is often described as being “cyclical” – that is to imply that trends, after an indefinite period of time, will return to a state of normalcy. Take for example the recent dominance of Spanish teams in Europe and the subsequent lack of involvement in the latter stages by English clubs; Gary Neville says that “it works in cycles. You cannot always be at the top. Maybe we are having a period where we are in a little bit of a dip. But it may change around completely next year or the year after.” Similarly, Luis Enrique cautions that Barcelona’s success won’t last forever; that it’s the “obvious reality.” Arsene Wenger on the other hand, talked about finishing as being “cyclical”, which actually correlates with analytics which argues that conversion rates for teams tend to level off after a while.
Wenger also used the term to talk about the one of the other big talking points in football lately: the success of “efficiency” based football as espoused by Leicester City and Atletico Madrid. It has people questioning whether there is a paradigm shift away from possession football, and while Wenger argues that there is a lull in its effectiveness recently, he says that “over a longer period, possession will still dominate.”
The trend towards sitting deep and hitting teams on the counter is all the more surprising considering that three years ago, Fabio Capello claimed that we were in the midst of the third phase of modern football’s evolution; the era of “tiki-taka”. Speaking at a coaching conference in Dubai, he listed the three influential teams: “The Dutch system, AC Milan with [Arrigo] Sacchi and then myself, and then [Pep] Guardiola’s Barcelona.” Before adding “those are the three fundamental phases of football evolution, which came 20 years apart.”
That Atletico and Leicester City have managed to split this era, which by Capello’s dictum is only eight years in, with a markedly different type of football, might be less to do with a paradigm shift, and more as a reaction to Barcelona, and more pertinently, Guardiola, taking possession to the farthest extreme. The most famous example of radical possession meeting hyper-defence was in 2010 when Inter Milan met Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and accrued only 19% of the ball, albeit with 10-men. Jose Mourinho afterwards said he didn’t want his team to have the ball.
Indeed, it’s notable that since then, when teams have faced Guardiola sides, they’ve not try to match possession with possession because they’ve found that it’s not possible; Barcelona/Bayern Munich are far superior in terms of execution and talent. Instead, they’ve had to find a compromise between their normal way and playing with just enough ambition to steal a goal. When Atletico beat both sides in this year’s Champions League, it’s probably the first time a team has done so with “efficiency-based football” (that’s what we’re going to call it now) as their default style. Previously, Bayern Munich under Juup Heynckes demolished Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2013 but they’re perhaps the only side who were comfortable switching between having the ball, and “parking the bus.”
Indeed, part of the success of that Bayern Munich side which won the treble in that same year, was the simple fact that they had better (the best) players. As Roman Grill, Philip Lahm’s agent tells Martin Pernanau in Pep Confidential; “the players were coming up with the tactical solutions themselves on the pitch.” That’s the thing with systems: it’s the presence of star individuals, rather than tactics or coaches, which have the biggest transformative effect on a side’s fortune. Netherlands and Ajax had Johan Cruyff; AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi had Marco van Basten; Barcelona have Lionel Messi; whilst the Invincibles were heavily reliant on Thierry Henry. Even heavily defensive sides like Inter Milan’s Catenaccio team of the ‘60s under Helenio Herrera were indebted to the powerful running of Giacinto Facchetti at wing-back, and Sandro Mazzola at no.10. Even Claudio Ranieri has admitted that his side wouldn’t have achieved the same level of success last season were it not for the goalscoring contributions of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.
Atletico are perhaps different because they play with the characteristics of their coach, Diego Simeone, and it’s arguable that they wouldn’t have achieved what they have without the demands he places on the team. He asks his players, beyond the tactical plan that they have, to run harder than everyone else and it’s this intensity that is probably the defining factor of this era, and what links his Atletico side to Guardiola’s teams.
To understand this, first we must go back. As it’s been said, football goes in cycles: in the early-to-mid-2000s, physicality reigned, allowing enforcers and destroyers to proliferate in the midfield and pushing deep-lying playmakers such as Pep Guardiola out of the game. It was about “specialisation and individuals”, scorned legendary AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi, and not about the team. Sooner though, Guardiola returned, this time as coach, to revolutionise the game, dominating with his Barcelona side through a technical proficiency which showed-up teams who played with destroyers. Possession was king although they had one other factor (beyond an infectious coach and the best player in the world) that denied other clubs from copying – superior fitness levels.
Now, with the advancement of sports science, and with teams really testing the limits of competitive advantage, we’re probably seeing the final push in terms of fitness and conditioning that has seen Leicester City and Atletico propelled to the forefront.
Wenger, however, believes things will level off and once more, possession will dominate. At the moment, though, the game has become broadly transition-based; in the midfield of most teams, you will see players who are capable of switching between going forwards and backwards easily. These players might not be the most imposing physically. Indeed, they might be former no.10s, usually small, scuttling, scurrying types, but because of their nimble footwork and glide on the ball, have been pushed back into a deeper role so that defence can be turned into attack in the blink of an eye.
N’Golo Kante sums up this trend although it’s his fitness levels that has amazed. The joke last season was that he was two players rolled into one but it’s this standard that he saw in the team’s first few training session to eschew the “Italian tactics” and only ask that “they all ran hard.” Guardiola espouses something similar in Pep Confidential when he says that “we enjoy our work when we play well and we run and run and run. In order to enjoy our best play, we need to run a lot.”
When Guardiola faced Simeone in the Champions League semi-final, however, there was probably no difference between how hard the teams ran. Instead, what might have been crucial is what part of the pitch they ran.
Actually, both Guardiola and Simeone are very similar in that they like to squeeze the pitch and make it smaller, except both do it at different ends of the pitch. Like Dutch Total Football and the AC Milan sides of the ‘90s were influenced by the changes of the offside law, so have Atletico, with the current, hazy interpretation possibly forcing them to play so deep in their own half, instead of squeezing the pitch towards the opposition goal. Barcelona also initially benefited because as teams dropped deeper, it opened a large space in the centre which they used to dominate. However, with the advantaged gained from controlling the centre diminishing, the space behind is now the key. The issue is how you exploit it.
(That might explain Arsenal’s pursuit of Jamie Vardy. By having someone with extreme pace forcing opponents’ back, it allows Arsenal to take control of the centre. Which in turn then, paradoxically might draw teams back out to allow Arsenal feed the striker in behind. Curiously, at the end of last season, though he didn’t use him in those matches, Wenger said Walcott was better suited when teams defend deep and Arsenal control games).
The history of football is the manipulation of space, and Jerome Boateng realised in the Champions League semi-final when he tried to catch the opponent off-guard with a long pass from the back. However, the ball was snuffed out and Atletico were able to go down other end of the pitch to kill Bayern Munich off. That one play summed up the contrast in tactics – philosophies – between the teams because in the end, Atletico only needed 27% of the ball to win the game.
In the final, things were reversed somewhat with Atletico having 52% possession but they weren’t able to play the role of the aggressors convincingly. That’s why Wenger says of Leicester City that “you cannot last like that. If they win a title like that, you have to say well done and respect…..It shows that if it is done well it can be very successful. But over a longer period, possession will still dominate.”