One of the feel-good stories of the 2018/19 season was Ajax’s surprise Champions League run, and that was backed up by Netherlands excellent showing in the UEFA Nations League. Indeed, if Dutch football is on the up again, then that is embodied by midfielder, Frenkie De Jong, who was integral in both teams’ success. The 22 year-old has just signed for Barcelona, making the same move that a number of his peers have made before him, by going from Amsterdam to Catalunya, and he is expected to eventually fill the iconic number 6 position. That’s quite some backing and it should put De Jong at the forefront of how top level football is played in the next few years.
Certainly, last season, he already showed why he is the future with his style of play which is reminiscent of playing a small sided game on a larger pitch. Firstly, he takes the ball anywhere. In a 5-a-side game, you are expected to receive the ball inside your box and try to play out because the concept of “going long” doesn’t really exist. And De Jong does that, dribbling even, in his own area as the last man. In a sense, he’s Franz Beckenbauer reincarnate, though as former Ajax midfielder Arie Haan says, “he is a better version…you might laugh, but people must interpret that properly. What I really mean is that he also has speed and passes easily. That’s an enormous weapon.”
Secondly, he always seems to make the right decisions, or rather, a certain kind of decision. Because for him, it’s about finding the free-man, therefore he will rarely switch the play – something which some may count as a weakness, though, it further serves to highlight how he views the game, almost, as lots of small-sided games in one – but instead, look to zip the ball through to someone between-the-lines to find a team-mate on the turn. “His biggest quality?” explains Holland coach, Ronald Koeman. “In a lot of situations he has the ability to postpone the decision when in possession, and then to give a pass from which everyone thinks: ‘Hell yeah, excellent thinking, that’s how simple it can be’. His view of the game is exceptional.” Team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum expands by adding: “De Jong is always able to create space because he is a) always available and b) with his actions he creates a lot of situations: he forces opponents to choose, they have to come out of position, lose their marker, which can automatically make space or give us a free man.”
That hints at point number three of what makes De Jong so thoroughly modern because football, right now, is about how well you receive the ball than just being able to play it per se (because everyone knows how to play it by now). As Marc Overmars, Ajax’s Sporting Director says, “Frenkie de Jong was a small, skinny lad with spindly legs five years ago. No one paid attention to him, but something struck me about when he receives the ball – that is still his biggest quality. [editor: I would argue, maybe the most important quality now]. I knew he was the one we had to get, and I didn’t give up.”
That sense of daring that De Jong has, and the courage to give and take the ball anywhere, has been cultivated from a young age at academy level in Holland where playing out, and opening the pitch for passing lanes, is in the DNA. However, that style has been adopted by many countries now and indeed, watching this summer’s Nations League or Under-21 European Championship, you would have barely noticed any difference between how one country plays from another – it’s just that one does it better than the other, as England found out in their 3-1 defeat to the Dutch. (Faced by the man-marking of Holland, England, with a central midfield not as nimble and agile as their opponents, struggled to get their way around the trap. Holland, on the other hand, led by De Jong, always came to the ball with more time on the pitch).
Of course, it’s been a while since international football set the trends for how the game should be played, and as such, it is in club level, where you will see more variety. Still, the possession style, or building out from the back, is now the standard, the platform that forms the rest of how you play. As Stewart Robson said in commentary for AFCON 2019 recently, “practicing a pattern of play lays the groundwork for the rest of your game to work”. 10-15 years ago, in the age of the 4-2-3-1, just before, or at the cusp of when Pep Guardiola was making his mark perhaps, shape would have been the first thing that coaches built their team around. A little later on, when possession was the vogue, the real tactical battle would broadly about who had the numerical superiority in the midfield. Fast-forward a little more recently, and for a while we had a mini obsession with the 3-4-3. Teams facing that formation, – initially Antonio Conte’s Chelsea – rarely had an answer so as such felt compelled to match up, leading often to a stalemate.
These days there tends to be more of a variety in systems used and the willingness to use the back three in all its different guises, i.e. 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2, is probably the best example of that.
Indeed, one of the reasons why the back three is back in vogue is because the centre-backs already form a natural line across the pitch to build from. Commonly, this has been done by asking the holding midfielder to drop in between the centre-backs in order to form a de facto back three but with teams pressing higher nowadays, it has become more of a risk to split the defence. That’s why it has become important goalkeepers to be technical because they can then take some of the responsibility of building up and opening the pitch away from the midfielder, and thus the team become more fool-proof to the press.
Centre-backs are more comfortable at passing out now, so much so that the best defenders now look to actively draw the press as David Luiz did in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Manchester City earlier this season. This also means that coaches can take more of a gamble higher up the pitch and use their attacking players in different ways to allow them the freedom to cause damage. For example, Unai Emery has realised that the only real way he could partner Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together, and field Mesut Ozil in the same-line up, was to use a back three. He started the season deploying a 4-2-3-1, but over-emphasis on building out from the back led to stuttering, and mostly dull football – not to mention that the team kept on leaking a high number of chances. With the back three, fortunes didn’t dramatically transform, but they did momentarily allow the team to play out with more security.
The dominating theme then, of modern elite-level football it seems, is still about possession and playing out. When Zinedine Zidane took over Real Madrid the first time round and began his mini-dynasty, he said he looked to focus first, on getting a good technical base and then building the rest of the team around that. Speaking to UEFA.com, he said: “Knowing that my players had the necessary skill set, I felt an obligation to strengthen our identity as a possession-based team – not possession for possession’s sake, but possession for the purposes of attacking our opponents. At the same time, having possession is no guarantee of victory!” His team shape, at first glance, seemed a little anarchic. He tended to favour a diamond formation which then morphed into a sort-of 4-4-2 to allow Ronaldo to get forward to devastating effect, but as former Real Betis coach, Quique Setién observed, that positional freedom was granted by the base behind – which is broadly the kind of set up that most teams use – a “1-2” in the middle with overlapping full-backs. “Real Madrid are a team who are a little anarchic,” said Setien. “They don’t have a permanent shape: although they will play with four at the back and with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the middle, the way they set up from there can change.”
The biggest match in club football, this year’s Champions League final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, showed then, how possession still has a disproportionately large influence on a team’s approach. In truth, though it must be said, the game was largely a dull one with Liverpool prevailing 1-0 after a goal scored in the first two-minutes. As such, the rest of the game was about how Spurs would react and it turned out, given their semi-final heroics, in an unexpectedly calm and meticulous manner.
They were determined, in the face of the Liverpool block in front of them, not to be hurried because Mauricio Pochettino had laid-out a gameplan, and it would be foolish, to have practiced to for two weeks prior, to abandon it so early. Therefore Spurs looked to play out – painstakingly at times – and that marginalised one of their key players, Christian Eriksen, because the focus was on how they could draw Liverpool’s press deep and then spring attacks behind.
However, Liverpool were rarely ever tempted. Spurs did hold possession well – with Harry Winks in particular taking the ball in extremely tight areas – but were hamstrung as mentioned before, by (purposely it seems, as he was used deeper in the second-half) ignoring Eriksen from the build-up, and as such lacking risk takers on the ball. It turned out in the end, that Spurs’ most penetrating passer was Toby Alderwiereld, who after drawing Liverpool towards them, would try to go long – either to one of the three attackers stationed up the pitch – with freedom – or to the full-backs who pushed really high adding depth to attacks.
Indeed, going direct, it seems has become more of a viable tactic in these big games where teams are expected to press higher, as we saw actually, when Arsenal played Tottenham in a 1-1 draw in March. In that game, the pass accuracy was 64% to Arsenal whilst Spurs had 77%. In the Champions League final, it was roughly the same, with Liverpool, like Arsenal acting as the more defensive side, having 64% pass accuracy, and Spurs with 80%. Liverpool, though, did not press in their typically aggressive fashion. They instead, as Louis van Gaal touches on in this interview with the Guardian looked to “provoke space”. That is, he says “not pressing immediately but to come a little back, not parking the bus, but to the middle line and then the defenders halfway in our own half. Only with AZ did I do that before, also because of the lower level of my players, and of course I adapt to the quality of my players. You have to see it. Because I didn’t have the best quality of players, they could not perform the system to attack. For example, when Liverpool have to attack constantly, they have a problem, more a problem than, for example, Manchester City.
“I saw as Manchester United manager that the quality of the players of City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal was better. So what can I do? We were attacking. We were not defending and we were looking for tactical solutions adapted to the level of our players…I have tried [to provoke space] because of the speed of [Anthony] Martial and [Marcus] Rashford…and that was new in England. I think six months ago [Jürgen] Klopp has also seen the light because in former days he was always pressing.”
Liverpool, then, in the final dropped back a bit and looked to exploit the spaces behind. Of course, that was in many ways conditioned by the early goal although in any case, they have this season, reigned their pressing in somewhat and looked to increasingly use the skill and pace of Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah. Even in the absence of the latter in the semi-final against Barcelona they were able to use the tactic to storm to a 4-3 aggregate comeback – just as did Tottenham in the same stage versus Ajax. Certainly, to have that counter-punching ability has been the key feature of recent knockout games because, as Van Gaal touches on, it’s so hard to “attack constantly” – that is to use possession as a means to push opponents back. As such, this is probably the most effective compromise – to use, pacy, direct players, but behind them is still the technical base that allows the team to get the ball there. Fabio Capello in the 2016/17 UEFA Technical Report: “We are certainly seeing an evolution in that the teams who opt for the Barcelona possession-based style that set the trends a few years ago, now seem to be running into difficulties. This is normal. Any successful model – the elements implemented by Arrigo Sacchi, Johan Cruyff or Pep Guardiola, for example – is analysed in depth. I would say that, now, the trend is that if you win the ball you immediately run at the opponents while they are out of balance and can be surprised. The key is to win the ball quickly and then mount direct collective attacks, entering the penalty area quickly.”
Certainly, Klopp realises that instead you have to have more rounded, but possession is still a big part of the game. He says last season that the team learnt “to control more games.” That is because “a lot of teams saw that we were good at counter-pressing and realised they were overplaying. If the team gives us the opportunity to do it we will still be there with the counter-press. But very often it is not possible.”
Liverpool have then, complemented their ability to press, with also being very good on the ball. They are probably the modern example of the complete team – the rightful heir to Arrigo Sacchi’s dominant Milan team of the early ’90s. That hints at where football is at the moment; at a high physical peak thereby exposing technique – the base that everything revolves around. As such, players, and teams, have to show they have a dab hand at everything: to pass the ball well, yes, although we have moved on from that idea simply; to be able to receive the ball in tight areas, dribble, and then to be devastating in front of goal. If players must be “universalists” as Sacchi says, then teams must be a whole galaxy.
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) May 9, 2019