Watching Bayern Munich perform live a couple of years ago 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.
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. The outstanding success at both international and elite club level of “tika-taka” altered coaches’ perspective of how the game should be played.
Coaches have become obsessed with players being more competent across a range of positions to help dominate ball retention stats. 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 have become False 10’s deep in midfield, wingers have stopped playing wide and full backs now hug the touchline where the winger once lived. 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 – providing balance and cutting edge when it matters. Unfortunately, such exponents are becoming as scarce as hen’s teeth.
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 a luxury and have been replaced by a more practical alternative, with modern players often ticking more than one box.
The change has been truly noticeable of late at no. 10, where the luxury player “enganche” has become a thing of the past. Teams in years gone by would accept poor work rate and a distaste for all things defending from their playmaker as they knew he’d come alive in the final third when it mattered. 10’s 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 has talked of Manchester United suffering from an ‘identity crisis’ over the last couple of seasons. 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.
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 watching from behind the sofa as teams such as Sunderland attempt to thread the ball through the eye of the needle when hitting a barn door proves an arduous task.
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”.