For possession’s sake: the decline of sterile domination

For possession’s sake: the decline of sterile domination

IN JUNE 2008, PEP GUARDIOLA BECAME MANAGER OF FC BARCELONA. In the same month, Spain became champions of Europe when they defeated Germany by a goal to nil in Vienna.

What followed was a period of domination that bordered on revolution. Spain and Barcelona weren’t just winning, they were doing so in a style which was considered the right way to play, using players who relied on technique as opposed to brute strength.

The style had found a home in Catalonia, and by extension Spain, but its roots were far reaching. It drew on the ideas of individuals from Argentina to the Netherlands, and those of teams from Chile to England.

Its success was down to a combination of influences, styles, people and planning. The idea had been coming since the club’s La Masia academy was set up by Johan Cruyff in 1979. It borrowed ideas from Ajax’s famed academies but added a Catalan twist, rather than attempting to create a carbon copy.

Once the results arrived on the pitch, in the form of one of the greatest sides to play the game, everyone wanted to copy it – to carbon copy it – but most failed. Billionaire owners wanted their clubs to be Barcelona, ploughing money into youth academies, technical directors, first team stars and high profile staff.

Chelsea hired Frank Arnesen to recreate La Masia at their Cobham training ground, but this expensive experiment yielded little in the way of results, i.e. first team players from their own academy.

In 2012 Chelsea finished 6th in the Premier League and were on the verge of dropping out of the Champions League because of this. However, a return to a pragmatic approach on the pitch saw them scrap their way to a vital, era-defining Champions League win, meaning they qualified for the next season’s tournament as the defending champions. Failure to qualify for Europe’s lucrative competition would have been unthinkable, especially with FFP looming.

Richard Williams, writing in The Guardian, described the Chelsea performance in their semi-final victory against Barcelona as “like a pianist using only the lower half of the keyboard” – but in truth they barely stretched beyond one octave.

Abramovich had flirted with an idyllic and ultimately fictitious idea of perfect football, only to come back to pragmatism in its most extreme form when the future of the club was on the line.

Elsewhere, forward thinking managers at clubs with more sensible plans for self-sufficiency were reading the Barcelona blueprint and re-writing it to match their own resources.

Dortmund had gone from the murky depths of near-bankruptcy in 2005 to the height of a Champions League final appearance at Wembley in 2013. This recovery was down to a new strategy, which played to the club’s strengths both on and off the pitch.

They mobilised the passionate fan base in their 80,000 capacity stadium by implementing an exciting brand of attacking football under Jürgen Klopp, whose Mainz side had attracted numerous admirers. Klopp was appointed in 2008, and he combined possession play with a directness in the opposition half which was reliant on the speed of the attack.

Klopp’s tactics retained certain hallmarks throughout his tenure, but they also evolved and weren’t reliant on any one method or any one player. His team could keep the ball when needed, but they also played well without the ball, using a combination of intense pressing and swift counter attacks to infiltrate the opposition defence.

Veljko Paunović’s Serbia under-20s recently won the 2015 under-20 World Cup playing in a similar style. They won the final against Brazil by combining the precocious individual talents of players such as Andrija Živković, with a team ethic, which allowed them to flourish as a unit.

Brazil, on the other hand, have been infatuated with Barca model in recent times, but unable or unwilling to try and implement it properly. The success of Spain in the World Cup and Barcelona in Club World Cup, awoke the five-time World Cup winners to the fact that they’re no longer the home of the beautiful game, and haven’t been for many decades.

After Barcelona’s 4-0 drubbing of Santos in the 2011 Club World Cup, Tim Vickery of BBC and ESPN noted Guardiola’s comments that “[Barcelona] treated the ball the way his grandfathers told him that Brazil used to do.”

Brazil attempted to implement something resembling this style under Mano Menezes, but a combination of a lack of patience and pre-World Cup panic led to his dismissal. They returned to Luiz Felipe Scolari, and a vague, amorphous football identity that relied on myths of the past rather than future promise.

According to their right-back Dani Alves, Brazil had the opportunity to hire Guardiola prior to the World Cup, but shied away from their dream manager due to the fact he wasn’t Brazilian.

“Pep said he wanted to make Brazil a World Cup champion and had an entire strategy to make us a world champion,” said Alves, in an interview with ESPN Brasil.

“They didn’t want it, because they said that they didn’t know if Brazil would accept a foreign coach.

“Pep is the best coach in the world, the greatest sports manager I’ve ever seen. He revolutionised football, revolutionised a team and we had the chance to have him with us.”

Though Pep Guardiola may have revolutionised a team, his model requires world-class players, players to keep possession, and one once in a generation player to make things happen against tight, packed defences.

Brazil might have at least one of these components in the shape of Neymar, but a lot of teams don’t have many, if any, world-class players, and will struggle to put together a team of footballers to play using this model. Yet still they persist with it. Many coaches or managers appear to set their sides up using a style which is perceived to be accepted, in fashion, or thought to be the proper way to play the game – when there is no such thing.

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3460Luis Suárez added a whole new dimension to the Barcelona attack

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On a weekly basis there are matches taking place where teams are being hindered, not helped, by their quest to play football “the right way”.

They also concentrate too much on the possession part of Barcelona’s model. Passing, recycling the ball, and dominating possession are all well and good, but what really made Barcelona so exceptional was world class dribbling in the final third, and Lionel Messi.

Current Valencia manager, TV commentator and football analyst Gary Neville was interviewed by Graham Hunter early in 2015, and in this exchange he spoke of the Barcelona model needing a Messi to succeed:

“I think the Barcelona philosophy … is unique to them. And don’t get me wrong there are parts of their game which you’d love to have in aspects of your game.” said the former Manchester United and England right-back.

“The pressing from the front they did under Pep … well of course I want teams that are going to press from the front. But the endless possession, the constant possession … I believe in possession, but I don’t believe in constant possession.

“I like the more rounded team that is, if you like, the Bayern Munich team of Heynckes and the Barcelona team of Pep, the first year, for me were rounded football teams.

“Whereas I think the Barcelona team that then evolved through Pep that beat United in the final at Wembley, that was almost like football that I don’t think can be recreated. And I think, actually, relies on Messi to be successful.”

Under Luis Enrique, even Barcelona have adopted a slightly more direct style. They’ve moved on from the constant possession, or “sterile domination” as Arsene Wenger called it, but the underlying characteristics are still there – especially the dribbling.

In the shape of Neymar, Messi, and Luis Suárez, they have three of the best dribblers in the world, and three of the best footballers in the world. This South American trident is the attacking force at the front line of a pass and move operation trained at La Masia. Take one of these components away and the Barcelona machine wouldn’t function.

Now, once again, teams around the continent are taking hints from a Barcelona model as they utilise multiple dribblers playing either side of or behind a main striker. From Ajax to Manchester City, and from Dortmund to FC Dallas – the dribblers are out in full force.

A report released at the recent UEFA Elite Club Coaches Forum in Nyon highlighted an increase in counter-attacking football that relies on dribbling, and direct but accurate forward passing. The continent’s top managers also echoed the idea that possession for possession’s sake was the wrong way to go about the game.

UEFA technical director Ioan Lupescu commented in an interview with The Independent that, “Possession is only important for the majority of them [the managers] if you have progression, if you have penetration, if you have a final act at the end.”

Sir Alex Ferguson, who attends the annual forum in his role as a UEFA coaching ambassador, believes that a lot of the possession-hogging build-up play we see in football is becoming too “pedantic”.

“We are seeing possession of the ball now too much in teams’ own half of the pitch and it is not as entertaining for the fans.” said the former Manchester United manager.

“The first pass forward – an accurate pass forward, which allows players to sprint forward in support of the ball – is important.”

The report looked at Barcelona’s aforementioned South American attacking trident, concentrating on their counter-attacking and ability to drive their team forward. It singled out Luis Suárez and Ivan Rakitić – both relative newcomers to the side who weren’t schooled at La Masia – as key players in the new-look Barcelona.

On Suárez, the report noted that he “gave depth to the attack with aggressive running that added purpose to his side’s offensive play and avoided any temptation to indulge in sterile possession.”

UEFA technical observer Ginés Meléndez spoke of Rakitić’s importance when it comes to releasing the front three:

“Barcelona have added counter-attacking to their dictionary, with three arrows up front and Ivan Rakitić looking for fast transitions rather than controlled possession when they win the ball in the defensive third.”

These observations are all based on UEFA competitions from the 2014-15 season, so are already out of date. Forward-thinking clubs will already by trying to work out where to go next in order to gain an advantage on the pitch through their tactics.

The 2015-16 report could see more of the same counter-attacking trends, but eventually there will be another noticeable trait amongst some of the more successful teams.

This could be a system which exploits space behind wide attackers, with wing-backs forcing the opposition’s attacking wingers to defend, as the two positions resume their age-old game of cat and mouse. Or, it could be that centre backs begin to step out of defence with the ball more regularly to nullify man-marking in midfield, or bypass a high press on the midfielders.

The return of a central sweeper could negate the need for a defensive midfielder, allowing teams to attack from the back by evading a high press on the centre-backs and full-backs. It would also benefit teams that don’t boast a goalkeeper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet, as his sweeper duties would now be performed by an outfield player.

The line between defensive midfielder and ball-playing centre-back could become increasingly blurred, with the likes of Sergio Busquets, another Barcelona example, already showing the way.

Whatever the next trend is, the teams that adapt and evolve into a new style will reap the bigger rewards. Those who try to copy an existing system directly might see fleeting but not sustained success, and will be forever playing catch-up.

Football clubs at all levels, and more importantly their coaches, need to abandon the idea that the right way to play is defined by a team or set of circumstances other than their own.

By James Nalton. Follow @JDNalton

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