Watching Bayern Munich on Tuesday night at Old Trafford was a rare footballing treat. The fluidity of movement, the crispness of the passing, the sweeper keeper are all key components which make the Pep Guardiola ethos as easy on the eye as any the game has seen, at least in the modern era. However, like many a famous catwalk model, despite the almost flawless appearance such a style can at times be fragile beneath the surface. For all their sharp passing and interchanging of positions Bayern struggled to break down David Moyes’ for once organised and defensively cohesive United side.
In theory dominating possession increases the chance of winning as more chances should fall your way to stick the ball between the posts. The great caveat however lies when possession is used not as a weapon to beat the opposition but as a stick to fend them off. United may have finished against Bayern with just 26% possession – the lowest recorded by a home team in the Champions League this season – yet over the course of the 90 mins they created more clear goal scoring opportunities on the counter attack…that is if you class the ball falling to Danny Welbeck in front of goal as a goal scoring opportunity.
The impact Guardiola’s system has had on the game – with Spain, Barcelona, Bayern and ‘Barca-lite’ outfits such as Swansea reaping the rewards of the possession based ideology on various levels – offers backing for its proponents. But it is not for everyone.
Germany and Bayern legend Franz Beckenbauer complained earlier this year that, “In the end, we’ll be unwatchable like Barca. They’ll be passing it backwards on the goal-line. [My vision] is different. If I have the chance to shoot from distance, especially in front of a crowded defence, I’d take it. It’s the most efficient way.”
For me, the problem doesn’t lie with the likes of Bayern who are great exponents. My gripe is with sides who, like moths to a light, have thoughtlessly flown towards the possession-based Land of Narnia without considering whether they are capable of making the journey in the first place. Tika-takas’ outstanding success at national and elite level ensured the whole ideology of the game slowly altered and not always for the greater good.
To dominate the game coaches have become obsessed with players being more competent across a range of positions. It seems everyone on the pitch has slowly edged towards the middle of the park, where the battle for possession is at its most ferocious. Number 9′s have become False 9′s, no.10s drop deeper than ever before, wingers have inverted and full backs now play as where winger once roamed. Herein lies the problem – one Bayern experienced on Tuesday and teams such as Arsenal have often suffered at the hands of.
Players on the whole are becoming Jacks of all the Trades but the masters of none of them. Certain players in certain roles that necessitate a degree of specialism to be performed correctly; such as that of the poacher, target man or holding midfielder; can help to transform a team. Unfortunately such exponents are now frowned upon with much the disdain reserved for those who have exposed themselves in public or enjoyed a Kit-Kat Chunky instead of a protein shake after a gym session.
Bayern were crying out for a true goal poacher on Tuesday with no interest in anything but putting the ball in the net. Yet such a player has been banished as they don’t help boost the passing stats by hanging about up top. For years Arsenal have required a holding midfielder in the Makelele role yet such a water-carrier betrays Wenger’s passion for aesthetically pleasing football.
The words of Paul Scholes should make Wenger think twice but likely will fall on death ears, “The Artetas, the Cazorlas, Rosickys, and Ozil as well, although I know he’s not played for a bit, it seems like they go on the pitch with no discipline. It’s almost as if they say: ‘You four, five midfielders, go out there do what you want. Try and score a goal, a few little nice one-twos, a bit of tippy-tappy football. Don’t bother running back’.”
Such specialist roles are now seen as luxury and have been replaced by a more practical alternative, with modern players often ticking more than one box. For instance, many of the games top players who play as no.9′s such as Luis Suarez, Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero or Zlatan Ibrahimovic have also played or can play out wide or in the hole.
One position where the change has been truly noticeable of late is that of what once truly epitomised the luxury player, the playmaker. Playmakers of the past such as Del Piero and Rivaldo offered a great goal threat and only really looked to impact upon the game in the final third be that by way of assist or goal. Defending was left to the men behind them.
By contrast, their modern counterparts such as Oscar at Chelsea or even Wayne Rooney have become almost as worried about what is going on behind them in a defensive aspect as about what they can do in front of them to break down the opposition. They may be a more hardworking and diligent performer capable of filling in as a central midfielder or out wide when required but the true effectiveness of a player in that role has been reduced as a result of the positional blurring of the lines.
Gary Neville talked of Manchester United suffering from an ‘identity crisis’ at the moment. Yet I would go as far as to tar the whole game with that brush. Too many teams are on a quest for possession domination, the mythical holy grail that cures all ailments and wins trophies. Much like Gollum’s attempts to recover the Ring in the famous trilogy such efforts are surely in vain and can only end in tears.
Differing styles and identities are what make the game great and ethos such as that of Guardiola all the more appreciable. Watching Andy Carroll chest a 40 yard pass out of the air on Monday night to set up a goal after himself bulleting home a header was a welcome change of scene from seeing teams such as Sunderland attempting to pass their way into the goal when their players struggle to pass the length of their arm in the first place. There is more than one way to skin a cat and more football clubs must realise this. As the saying goes, “If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking”.