PWhat was perhaps most striking this season from a tactical point of view was the degree of consistency. Money can skew games and there always remains the possibility of a brilliant player turning theory on its head with something brilliant, but for those clubs who have some idea of an underlying philosophy of play it’s pretty clear what that looks like: a high offside line, a coordinated press and the ability to retain possession when needed.
There was a tendency to portray Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp as opposite poles, one focused on keeping the ball and the other on winning it back. That’s not unreasonable, even though the two have become closer in recent seasons. Perhaps most importantly, no one really questions the axis by which they are judged. The age of attrition, from Greece winning the Euros, from José Mourinho, Rafa Benítez and Alex Ferguson in the Carlos Queiroz years, seems long gone.
Football changed in 2008, and not just because Guardiola was appointed Barcelona manager at the time. Up until then, only once had there been more than three goals per game in the Champions League knockout stages; since then, the average has fallen below three only once.
Several factors came together. Improvements in pitch, kit and ball technology had for some time made first touch a given at the highest level. The liberalization of the offside law has pushed back defensive lines. The intimidating tackle had been largely eliminated. That meant there was more space, allowing tiny technical midfielders who may have previously been sidelined to flourish to flourish.
Suddenly it became possible for the bigger teams, which got relatively bigger than ever, to exercise more control over the games than ever before, worrying about manipulating space, Guardiola juego de posición, instead of having to scrap for midfield survival. This in turn led to considerable unease when big teams met and you couldn’t get the ball. One of the reasons the Manchester United players lost discipline in the 2009 Champions League final was the humiliation felt at “only” having around 40% possession.
The following year, Mourinho’s Internazionale showed that it was possible to win (or at least lose close enough to win overall) with just 19% possession. Leaning back, holding position, allowing the opponent to have the ball but only 30 yards or more from goal became a viable way to combat possession sides. Soccer started to look like handball at times. But there was another avenue, and that was Klopp’s, who disliked the passivity of bunkering and hoped no one pinged a long shot into the top corner or suddenly dribbled past three players to score. This consisted of pressing hard and up in a coordinated manner, looking for turnovers and quick transitions.
Guardiola’s teams pressed, but not with quite the same intensity or with the same direct focus on the counterattack. They would break if the opportunity arose, but if they didn’t, Guardiola was perfectly happy his sides would reset and start the process all over again, which he said could take 15 passes. Guardiola was about control and Klopp was about chaos.
However, with Guardiola’s Champions League hopes regularly dashed by opponents playing at the break, he had to adapt to counter the break. Partially there seems to be a clear intention to always keep five field players behind the ball, but there is also more one counter press, which in turn increased City’s threat on the counter. Klopp, meanwhile, in the face of accumulated physical and mental fatigue from constant heavy metal football, has taken steps to take greater control of games, which was one of the reasons behind his signing of Thiago Alcântara, perhaps the most iconic Guardiola player in existence .
Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte, Stefano Pioli, Xavi, Julian Nagelsmann, Thomas Frank, Brendan Rodgers, Gian Piero Gasperini – the vast majority of modern managers fall somewhere in the same spectrum. Exceptions are rare among top clubs and are more likely the result of a fascination with celebrities, often coupled with grotesque mismanagement. Even had he had more authority, Ralf Rangnick would have struggled with a side accommodating Cristiano Ronaldo, whose destabilizing presence at Juventus is one reason they have returned to the familiar comforts of Max Allegri.
Real Madrid have been a good example of how great players can suddenly turn games that seem to be going against them, but Paris Saint-Germain is the most interesting example of the celebrity culture that requires acquiring a luxury front three occupation of a fierce industrial midfield that speaks against fluency. The only real philosophical outlier is Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid, although with each passing season there’s a growing sense that this is a retro project with diminishing returns.
It’s rare in the modern game that the lines are so clear. Guardiola implemented a style of play that took advantage of changing conditions, Klopp found a way to counter that, Guardiola reacted and what followed is a synthesis of that counterpressing and juego de posición.