Jonathan Wil­son

pos­ses­sion still king

World Soccer - - Contents -

Af­ter the early World Cup ex­its of Ger­many and Spain, some crit­ics were hail­ing the death of pos­ses­sion football. And when you con­sider the four sides that reg­is­tered the high­est pos­ses­sion stats at the tour­na­ment – Spain, Ger­many, Ar­gentina and Saudi Ara­bia – it doesn’t look great for those who seek to dom­i­nate the ball. The win­ners, France, were as low as 18th.

But if pos­ses­sion football has been so ir­re­vo­ca­bly ex­posed, how is it that Manch­ester City won last sea­son’s Premier League with a record 66.4 per cent pos­ses­sion? That Barcelona won La Liga with 60 per cent? That Bay­ern Mu­nich won the Bun­desliga with 62.4 per cent? That Napoli, with 60.1 per cent, pushed Ju­ven­tus harder in Serie A than the cham­pi­ons have been pushed for many years?

Tac­ti­cal is­sues are rarely as straight­for­ward as they seem. Just be­cause the two pre­vi­ous World Cup win­ners – who both pri­ori­tised styles of football based around hav­ing the ball – had dis­ap­point­ing tour­na­ments this sum­mer does not mean that all styles based around hav­ing the ball are fin­ished. There are a lot of is­sues and as­sump­tions that need un­pack­ing, and per­haps fore­most is the idea that the World Cup is much of a gauge of any­thing in terms of tac­ti­cal evo­lu­tion.

Once it was a show­case, with Brazil’s suc­cess at the 1958 fi­nals alert­ing the world to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the back four. In 1974 “To­tal Football” be­came a glob­ally ap­pre­ci­ated phe­nom­e­non as Hol­land lost in the Fi­nal, then Ar­gentina’s vic­tory in 1986 helped pop­u­larise the back three. But all of this was be­fore the glob­al­i­sa­tion of a sport in which ev­ery­body can ef­fec­tively watch ev­ery­thing from every­where, and be­fore most of the game’s great­est tal­ent, both play­ing and coach­ing, was con­cen­trated in a hand­ful of coun­tries in west­ern Europe.

What 1958 did was demon­strate to the world what Vila Nova, Fla­mengo and Sao Paulo had been do­ing in Brazil for four or five years. By 1974, Ajax had won the Euro­pean Cup three times. Ar­gentina in 1986 con­firmed the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a for­ma­tion that Ciro Blaze­vic at Dinamo Zagreb, among oth­ers, had al­ready at­tempted.

Tac­ti­cal evo­lu­tion has al­ways been led by clubs be­cause that’s where play­ers spend most time to­gether. Even the one de­vel­op­ment that can be at­trib­uted to a na­tional side, Scot­land’s in­ven­tion of pass­ing in 1872, was largely be­cause all their play­ers were drawn from the coun­try’s one club side at the time, Queen’s Park.

What is true is that pos­ses­sion football has moved on since the time Spain won three tour­na­ments in a row. “In 2008, 2010 and 2012 we had the play­ers we had and we played at a level and in a style that no­body had done be­fore,” says Fer­nando Hierro, who coached the side in Rus­sia. “Now we’re in 2018 and many things have changed. Other teams are play­ing with a [de­fen­sive] line of five, which had been forgotten. There are also a lot of di­rect balls and quick tran­si­tions. Ev­ery­thing is chang­ing.”

The point about the back five is an in­di­ca­tion of how teams have grad­u­ally de­vel­oped strate­gies to frus­trate sides who play in a way in­spired by Pep Guardi­ola’s Barcelona and Vi­cente Del Bosque’s Spain. It was some­thing Xavi high­lighted at the Euros two years ago when pre­dict­ing the prob­lems Spain would have in the last 16 against Italy and their 3-5-2 set-up.

“When Italy want to bring the ball up, they have three at the back and two on the wings, for a to­tal of five po­ten­tial re­ceivers of the ball,” said Xavi.

“Press­ing the way that Spain like to do be­comes re­ally dif­fi­cult. And play­ing with two strik­ers makes things dif­fi­cult for us up front, too, be­cause both of our cen­tral de­fend­ers are en­gaged and one of the full-backs, Juan­fran or Jordi Alba, has to push up to close on [An­to­nio] Can­dreva or [Alessan­dro] Florenzi. It leaves us with a three-man

“In 2008, 2010 and 2012 we played at a level and in a style that no­body had done be­fore. Now we’re in 2018 and many things have changed” Fer­nando Hierro, Spain’s coach in Rus­sia

de­fence. It forces us to change our sys­tem to adapt to the op­po­nent, which just makes it all more com­pli­cated.”

When Rus­sia met Spain at this year’s World Cup, Stanislav Cherch­esov had his side op­er­ate in a 3-5-2, even though it meant leav­ing out Denis Ch­ery­shev, who had been their most dan­ger­ous cre­ative player in the tour­na­ment. Spain ended up frus­trated, con­stantly pass­ing side­ways and get­ting nowhere.

The di­rect­ness of which Hierro spoke is best ex­em­pli­fied by a week in 2013 in which two Ger­man sides play­ing rapid counter-at­tack­ing football – Borus­sia Dort­mund and Bay­ern Mu­nich – beat two more leisurely Span­ish sides – Real Madrid and Barcelona – in the semi­fi­nals of the Cham­pi­ons League. That was the mo­ment Barca’s post-Cruyf­fian style ceased to be hege­monic and be­came merely one dom­i­nant style among many.

In that sense, per­haps the World Cup did per­form its func­tion of shin­ing a light on wider trends, but teams have been com­ing up with al­ter­na­tives to Barca’s rad­i­cal pos­ses­sion for a decade now. But did these coun­ter­mea­sures con­trib­ute to the down­fall of Ger­many and Spain, whose styles of football are, af­ter all, while pos­ses­sion-based, quite dif­fer­ent?

Per­haps, more fun­da­men­tally, they both just played badly. Ger­many were un­der­mined by di­vi­sions in the squad and coach Joachim Low’s strug­gle to achieve the right bal­ance be­tween attack and de­fence. Spain, mean­while, were un­done by the loss of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tour­na­ment, with in­terim re­place­ment Hierro thrust into an al­most im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion.

Some teams fail be­cause their tac­tics are out­moded; oth­ers fail for more pro­saic rea­sons to do with at­ti­tude, ex­ter­nal cir­cum­stance and prepa­ra­tion.

Frus­trated...Spain’s Jordi Alba can find no way through against Rus­sia

Stopped...Bay­ern Mu­nich (in red) got the bet­ter of Barcelona in 2013


in­no­va­­tish club side Queen’s Park

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