In an evolutionary process, one progression leads to another and the lessons learned from the previous step become the primary building blocks for the next. Sometimes this evolution is more of a revolution occurring in cycles where past ideas, albeit with slight adjustments, are brought back to counter the current ones.
In football, it is often the clubs and nations at the pinnacle who must constantly strive for progression in order to maintain their edge over rivals. If the successful teams stand still, they risk others being able to bridge the gap either by revolution – developing a system which counters the strengths of the current one – or by themselves evolving and making improvements on the successful system. This is something which is happening exponentially faster due to increasingly detailed analysis spurred by a rising access to technology and information.
The latest global evolutionary trend is for possession-based football but with an emphasis on verticality. These seeds were planted by Marcelo Bielsa during his time with the Chilean national team and have begun to bear fruit in the past 18 months.
Clinging onto coattails
The recent success of Barcelona and Spanish football saw a glut of copycat styles and a shift back towards a possession-based style. But these copycat formulas fuelled the next stages of the evolution of football’s tactical cycle.
Due to Barcelona and Spain’s success, and the shift back towards possession-based philosophies, some overzealous imitators took the idea of ‘possession’ far too literally. Some games descended into boring contests as teams were happy to keep the ball for as long as possible, with little attacking intent, to the detriment of exciting, offensive football. The term ‘tiki-taka’ is actually a derogatory term in Spain – used to describe a team who has possession but goes nowhere with it. “I hate just passing the ball around for the sake of it, that [kind of] tiki-taka,” said Pep Guardiola, who is often associated with the style.
The argument in favour of possession football is that the patient build up increased the likelihood of selecting successful passing options in the final third. If a side was able to increase their success rate in the final third, they would be able to create attacking chances which had a higher chance of being converted into goals. It was said to be a quality over quantity approach promoting the use of skilful, intelligent players as opposed to the ‘low percentage play’ of overly direct football which encouraged the use of more athletically gifted individuals.
But in order to successfully play this style of football, there needs to be players who are technically gifted and creative. If the build up was too slow and the opposition was allowed to get back in numbers, teams without the right mix of players found the emphasis on creativity hard to overcome and the frequency of chances created would diminish.
For some fans the perceived ineptitude to create frequent chances to score, especially when coupled with ample possession, saw a divide begin to occur in the global football community. On one side, there were those who obsessed over with passing and keeping the ball as a form of artistic entertainment. On the other side were those who wanted evolution and/or revolution.
This was a trend which occurred in Australia. The extremely successful and entertaining style of Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar side lead to a myriad of copycats. Coaches all over the country expressed their desire to ‘play out from the back’ and to play an ‘attractive, possession-based game’. But this movement towards a possession-based game fuelled both a revolution and the next stages of the evolution of football in this country. Tony Popovic’s Western Sydney Wanderers and Graham Arnold’s Central Coast Mariners both took advantage of the opposition’s desire to play out from the back, implementing styles and structures which emphasised defensive solidity, regaining possession in good areas and attacking swiftly while the opposition was still in defensive transition.
Misinterpretation and Confusion
Possession-based football was intended to be a way to move the ball forward skilfully and to ultimately create better quality goal scoring chances, but some took keeping the ball to unnecessary extremes. A very common misunderstanding of the purpose of possession football has even plagued some junior leagues around Australia after FFA’s National Curriculum was released. Fast build up play was often substituted for gaining more control, even when a quick counter attack was possible.
Another common misunderstanding is the assumption that using a particular shape or formation automatically means that one has implemented a particular strategy.
The 1-4-3-3 formation increasingly became a marker for a team playing ‘good football’. Anybody using the ‘outdated’ 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 was automatically perceived as being defensive, direct or counter attacking, and not in line with modern football values.
In truth the formation or shape can and should be altered to suit the players at a coach’s disposal and should allow the team to effectively carry out the playing style and strategy.
In other words, while the structure is provisional, the approach is concrete. Both Brendan Rodgers and Pep Guardiola constantly altered their formations last season but rarely changed their strategic approach or philosophy. This season they have led the trend back to predominantly narrow structures to fit in with the world’s newest preferred method of play.
Verticality: Bielsa’s balancing act
The seeds for the latest global trend were planted by Marcelo Bielsa in Chile and really began to bear fruit in the last 18 months, culminating in the entertaining displays from some countries at the 2014 World Cup. The event, coupled with the UEFA Champions League, is the most visible platform for new trends to be showcased and to then take root around the world.
The newest approach by those at the top end of the game aims to provide a suitable balance between the opposing poles of possession and direct play. ‘Verticality’, the preferred style of most of the exciting teams in Brazil has spilled over into the new domestic club season and sees a proactive, possession based game being used as a means to swiftly penetrate and attack with devastating speed.
Key features of the possession based game such as a commanding mentality coupled with controlled build up, ball circulation and a propensity to control a game become very important building blocks in a vertical style of play. These are then coupled with aspects of the direct game such as pace and aggressive attacking intent to create a more balanced and entertaining approach.
Verticality mixes elements of direct and possession play, making it more attack-minded than the dominant style of recent years with a much greater emphasis on moving the ball forward in a controlled manner. Passing sideways too often, a frustrating feature of some teams playing ‘tiki taka’, is discouraged. The ball should only be played sideways to move the opposition out of their defensive structure and open up new space to then play forwards. If there is space to play a penetrating forward pass, then you play a forward pass.
Passing the ball forwards through an opponent’s defensive ‘line’ helps to eliminate several potential opponents in minimal time during build up and ensures that the attacking team has possession in a more advanced position, forcing the opponent back and ensuring territorial dominance.
Building up from the back in this style is similar to a surgeon making a first incision with a scalpel. The penetrating blow is precise and quick and cuts open the opponent. This requires intelligence and a high degree of skill from those in possession and is not simply a forward kick delivered anywhere into the attacking half in the hope of a teammate reaching it.
A handful of brave outliers around the world began emulating the vertical style of Bielsa’s Chilean national side, but they remained in the minority. In the A-League’s evolution, Postecoglou’s Melbourne Victory project planted the seeds of verticality in the minds of coaches. Emphasising playing out from the back as a means of drawing the opposition forward, Victory used crisp, forward passes and clever movement to cut open the opposition and to exploit the spaces left in behind. This is something that Postecoglou has taken with him and implemented at national team level with the Socceroos.
The watershed moment in world football was Bayern Munich’s 7-0 demolition of Barcelona in the semi finals of the UEFA Champions League in May 2013. Barcelona had been the epitome of ‘tiki-taka’, and coupled with the success of Borussia Dortmund in the same season, verticality became the new vogue. Led by Jupp Heynckes and Jurgen Klopp, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were ruthless and powerfully sliced through their opponents at high speed.
In the 2013-14 season, English Premier League title rivals Liverpool and Manchester City often preferred to quickly pass forward instead of looking to immediately keep the ball and gain control, a variation especially from Brendan Rodgers’ approach seen at Swansea. In April, we also saw Bayern Munich, coached by the so-called ‘tiki-taka master’ Pep Guardiola, carved apart by an incisive, vertical Real Madrid who would be crowned the champions of Europe.
What to look for
The main difference to be aware of is that rather than keeping the ball for possession’s sake, teams will look for a forward pass quickly and try to attack with speed, especially in transitional moments against a disorganised opponent.
These forward passes are not aimless balls played in the hope of forcing a reaction from an attacking teammate who is powerful enough to reach the ball before the opposition. Instead they are usually played into teammate’s feet until the team reaches the final third.
The reliance on passing the ball forwards quickly and precisely will also see narrow structures used more. There is already evidence of this at Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side and at Barcelona under the guidance of Luis Enrique, who employs a narrow front three. There are multiple teams either deploying a back three or a midfield diamond with two designated strikers. This narrow concentration of players gives players building up from the back or deep in midfield a greater number of options directly ahead of them.
Width and variation is created more by fullbacks or an attacker peeling wide rather than traditional wingers. The ball is only played wide to switch the point of attack or to shift an opponent out of position and away from a team’s preferred vertical line of pass. Players who start wide at the top end of formations will increasingly float central and become vertical options.
Football’s latest widespread trend will see a team’s structure become more flexible and adaptable depending on the situation or players available. However, the intent to pass forwards quickly will continue to stand out. If the World Cup sets the example and if more coaches choose to go with the trend, the next few seasons will be exciting. Entertaining teams in one of the world’s largest entertainment businesses will be a joy to behold.