So in the end, the final of Europe’s elite club competition, was decided by two goalkeeping errors. Real Madrid v Liverpool may not have been the festival of attacking football many were expecting, but it seemed inevitable, once Mohamed Salah went off with injury, that Real Madrid would run away to victory. That, in part, has been the story of the Champions League this season; “that the escalating economic stratification of the game over the last decade,” writes Miguel Delaney, “has created a situation whereby a few ‘super clubs’ have been virtually guaranteed places in the semi-finals. One of them has been Madrid, along with Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Madrid have not failed to reach the last four since 2009.”
The other, probably ethereal, has been how attacking it has become. The disparity between the top clubs and the rest is obvious during the group stages, but that now extends to the latter stages. As Jonathan Wilson notes, “in the past eight seasons, 21 of 104 games in the quarter-finals or later have finished with a winning margin of three or more; in the eight seasons before that there were only eight. Of the six games played at that stage so far this season, four have been won by three goals or more.”
The most extraordinary of those knockout encounters was how Roma flipped the script and eliminated one of those giants, Barcelona, by reversing a 4-1 first-leg deficit, to win 3-0 in the second-leg on away goals. Juventus nearly managed the same, losing in the end 4-3 on aggregate to Real Madrid, after having scored all three of their goals in the second-leg.
Quite the reason for this phenomenon has been attributed by Simon Kuper for ESPN to “storming”, a clunky term which he has coined, which both describes the high-pressing deployed by those clubs, and attacking the opponent’s goal with speed. Both need not be related.
Indeed, it is true players are running more now and that goals following a quick turnover – 20% of goals in last season’s Champions League can be described as counter-attacks – have increased, however, it is hard to say if pressing, or more precisely, gegenpressing, has had that profound of an effect on modern teams’ approach.
Certainly, only Liverpool of the 8 quarter-finalists can be described as a pressing team, and yet there rise to challengers this season can be attributed in part to Jurgen Klopp reigning in that side of their game. On the other hand, it has been clear in the knockout stages of the Champions League, of the importance of not just creating fast attacks, but of chaos, disorder, and using that to ride the momentum to kill teams. As Unai Emery reveals in an interview to Marti Perarnau, it was the failure to change the conditions of the tie which saw PSG start 3-1 down in the second-leg of the last-16 to Real Madrid, to succumb meekly 5-1 on aggregate. “We needed the match to be crazy,” he says, “but we didn’t manage. Maybe because I started players who would help us control play, instead of accelerate the rhythm of the match.”
Fabio Capello, in the 2016-17 UEFA Technical Report, notes an evolution away from the “Barcelona possession-style that set the trends a few years ago” because without the same quality, “it’s easier to control” (Emery). “I would say that, now,” says Capello, “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 back quickly and mount direct collective attacks, entering the penalty area quickly.” Certainly this helps explain Liverpool’s success, as they tend to position three forwards up the pitch to exploit those spaces behind.
As such, in respects to Capello’s observation, you could say what we are experiencing, is a come-down effect from the Pep Guardiola approach to possession, as much we are to pressing from the front. It’s true, teams are closing down higher now, but perhaps, as we saw with Liverpool in the final, it’s not easy to carry it all through a game, let alone a season, but rather to use it in moments, and without good attackers to make it effective. Actually, this was the observation made in the UEFA Technical Report in 2014/15, saying Liverpool struggle to “turn regained possession into clear chances”. Thing have changed this season with the addition of Salah, yet Liverpool’s reliance on making the strategy effective was apparent once he went off.
If anything, what is clear is that teams are still trying to play out from the back, probably even disproportionately so. The best formation for this style of football, as Emery points out, is the 4-1-4-1 and it’s notable, that majority of the teams in the final 16 of the Champions League favour a variant of this sort of shape when they build up. What’s different from the Guardiola dictum is that the coaches are eschewing the positional discipline that the Manchester City trainer espouses, for greater pace or individuality.
Real Madrid are the best example of that even if they deviate, at first glance, most from the 4-1-4-1 shape. Their football is predicated on the base that Casemiro, even if he isn’t your typical pivote, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric provide. You can see when they build up, the clear pattern they create, with the full-backs pushing up, and the two interiors moving into the halfspaces. As Quique Setién, the Real Betis coach says, “Real Madrid are a team who are a little anarchic. 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.
“That anarchic nature is more a general point, though. Madrid’s players are carried along by the football itself, what they feel in each moment; they’re not guided by tactical rigour or a specific structure. What defines Madrid is their individual ability, how they associate with each other intuitively. Look at players like Benzema, who drifts to the wings and combines, or the full-backs, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal: when Carvajal goes up he doesn’t look to see if the other full-back is deep and that open approach often compromises them defensively.”
“In the middle there’s more control. Modric and Kroos understand each other well, their positioning and passing is excellent. With Casemiro, they are the only players who maintain a certain order.”
In the last few years, we have seen a reaction to possession football, a counter-trend, as characterised by Leicester City and Atletico Madrid. With this approach, the teams tend to play in a 4-4-2, which Emery considers the best to stop teams that look to pass out, as it prevents “the opponent from getting between the lines.” It is a different style of press to the system he prefers, the 4-1-4-1, which he says is more in line with “Bielsa’s style, Guardiola’s style. It’s a more aggressive idea, which exposes you more. When you lose the ball, you win it back as quickly as possible. Anywhere the ball may be, the team has to position themselves to press and win it back. If play stops, everyone goes back to their position. If the ball is in play, we press, all while remaining organised tactically.
“Those are my two outlooks from a defensive point of view. If the ball is in play, you press. If play stops, you reposition yourself. For me, the 4-1-4-1 is the system which facilitates that type of pressing. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning. It’s less aggressive, but is more difficult to get past.”
Of course, Emery will join Arsenal trying to impose this style – a style which he believes puts him closer in line to Guardiola, Bielsa, than Mourinho, Benitez. As such, his appointment seems more encouraging now than it first was; a chance to prove that he belongs to the elite, and in joining Guardiola and Klopp in the Prenier League, it’s the chance to marry the two styles – possession and pressing – that many coaches have failed to put together convincingly.
Indeed, that’s the other side Pep effect that we’re still fully yet to realise. That teams have been grappling with the idea so long of playing out from the back effectively, that they haven’t really paid enough attention to pressing properly from the front. Modern football should allow teams to do it better and if this season’s Champions League is anything to go by, perhaps we’ll see it more, if at elite club level at least. As Fabio Capello once claimed, we’re in the midst of the third phase of modern football’s evolution; “The Dutch system, AC Milan with [Arrigo] Sacchi and then myself, and then [Pep] Guardiola’s Barcelona.” Before adding each came “twenty years apart.” We’re only halfway through the Pep era.