possession still king
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
innovative...scottish club side Queen’s Park