RABBIL SIKDAR charts the success and failure of possession football
FIVE years ago, before a Champions League tie with Arsenal, Xavi Hernandez spoke happily about how the “reference point for world football right now is Barcelona.”
And it seemed destined that the world would kneel to Spanish football in every sense — unable to stop the juggernaut that was Barcelona and in awe of the style that embodied their success.
Now those days seem a long time ago. Counter-attacking football is once again fashionable: speed preferred over skill, energy over creativity. As the Spanish influence covered the world like a gloom, a revolt that began in Germany has spread everywhere.
Things are cyclical in football and this was the era of tiki-taka. What it meant to be a midfielder was redefined, with technique, first touch, vision and creativity elevated over strength and tackling. Teams chose finesse over fitness.
Possession stats became relevant. Proactive football began leading the way and when it was done right it was near impossible to stop.
Formations changed and 4-3-3 became pivotal. Teams like Arsenal and Liverpool adopted it. Control in midfield was essential and games became increasingly defined by a proactive possession-based team seeking to create space and a reactive counter-attacking opponent looking to exploit it.
The issue for many of these teams of course was that this was a style that Barcelona had developed through their youth system for decades. The seeds had been sown by Rinus Michels in the 1970s and developed over the years by Johan Cruyff. It created occasional successes for the club but the system of Total Football was only truly perfected by Frank Rijkaard and then Pep Guardiola.
There were nuances in how the two managers defined their style. Rijkaard’s team appreciated a more direct style that emphasised individual flair brought about by the likes of Ronaldinho and Deco. Guardiola’s team were immensely disciplined and aggressive, pure teamwork being at the heart of their success.
A crucial feature that had been vital to their results was the high pressure, winning the ball quickly and attacking. As the Guardiola era progressed, Barcelona became increasingly possession-based. This was partially a result of teams choosing to sit extremely deep and force Barcelona to bide their time — but also overlooked was that the direct running, trickery and speed of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o was not replaced.
David Villa is one of the most clinical strikers of modern history, and a personal favourite, but not known for speed and flair. It’s no surprise that when Barcelona sought to find that direct option it was by signing Alexis Sanchez.
But success brings with it those wishing to chop you down. For Barcelona and Guardiola that was Jose Mourinho. The master of counter-attacking football, he offered the world a glimpse of how and how not to play against possession football.
When Inter Milan played Barcelona in the semi-final they beat them courtesy of a first-leg display of high pressing while in the second leg they simply manned their lines. Barcelona got through once — but crucially not twice.
When Mourinho lost 5-0 in the first-leg meeting in 2010, his team defended with a high line and paid the price. They couldn’t get close to Messi or disrupt the interplay between Xavi and Iniesta. But crucially, they couldn’t stop the defenders from bringing the ball out of play or putting pressure on Sergio Busquets. It’s no surprise that Mourinho’s future clashes with Barcelona were far tighter. Madrid often pressed Barcelona’s midfield and closed off space. Barcelona lost the Spanish Cup final to Real Madrid and, in the 2013-14 season, struggled to touch them.
The template in beating Barcelona had been laid out by Mourinho’s sides and it wasn’t one or the other but a careful mix of everything: high pressure, deep defending, compact lines and pressing Busquets. The aim wasn’t to match Barcelona for possession or to accept their fate simply. It was to sterilise the possession effectively.
In 2013, that’s what AC Milan and Bayern Munich did to Barcelona. Pressing high, retreating deep when they lost the ball.
That was also the year by which tiki-taka was giving way to counter-attacking football. Though Bayern were a largely proactive side, their devastating counter-attacking against Barcelona showed a way to defeat tiki-taka.
Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund were a revelation with their high pressing and quick transitions, even if this owed itself partially to Guardiola. 2014 was even more brutal for the believers of Total Football and tiki-taka. Bayern lost to Madrid, the latter sitting extremely deep at home but breaking quickly through Ronaldo and Bale.
The World Cup saw Spain unable to cope with the pressing energy of the counter-attacking teams such as Chile. The midfield was never given time and the attack was never given space. Euro 2016 has seen possession football continue to suffer.
Reactive teams have continued to defend intelligently, pressing efficiently and defending deep. France uncomfortably sat deep against Germany in the semi-final and shut out space largely well, carving out a 2-0 win. Italy and Wales perfected this against Spain and Belgium, particularly with the 3-5-2 formation that became a 5-3-2 when defending. The three defenders silenced the one striker usually employed by the proactive team; wing backs attack and defend, providing options in attack and cover in defence. This formation allowed the reactive teams to press high but then defend in numbers when required.
In the final we saw a repeat essentially of the Euro 2004 final: the hosts stunned by a superbly organised defensive team.
And even Ronaldo in tears. But Portugal were crowned European champions for the first time. Their success was not in competing for the ball but for space and for engineering quick transitions.
Euro 2016 has been the confirmation of the trend. Teams are now far more prepared to accept less than 50 per cent of the ball, to sit deeper, wait with patience just as possession-based teams once had to. The emotions have changed too.
Before teams defended in desperation against proactive teams. Now they wait in confidence and calmness, knowing they’ll have an opportunity if they remain disciplined.
Proactive teams are now acutely aware of what awaits them if they advance with the ball and lose it. Mourinho broke this down as the team with the ball is more likely to commit mistakes. Possession therefore today is a risk as much as it is a blessing.
This is the era of the high-pressing, counter-attacking football inspired by the likes of Klopp and the deep compact blocs envisioned by Mourinho.
The art of possession football has been in decline for a while. It’s not dead — no style is ever completely out of fashion.