Andres Iniesta's cameo performance in The Illusionist
Throwing the decent journalism rulebook out of the window (because when has that ever encumbered any of Magic Spongers’ output over the past two-and-a-half years?), we’ll begin with a question. Is passing a tactic? We’ll seek to answer this in the next few paragraphs, but let’s continue with a second question. Is pressing a tactic? We ask because passing and pressing were up there in the dominant themes section of Jonathan Wilson’s ‘The Football Tactical Trends of 2012’ article in the Guardian.
With a pedant’s hat on we’d say that actually, ‘scoring more than them’ is one of the more effective tactics. Or at the very least ‘stopping them scoring’, though the latter can only bear fruit over the course of a knockout competition where penalties come into play as no one wins the league with 38 goalless draws. Passing, though, is perhaps too fundamental to be a tactic; it would be literally impossible to play football without it. ‘Then we’re on semantics’, we hear you say, ‘and this is pointless. You can argue anything with words. ANYTHING. Magic Spongers are idiots’.
Let’s call it ‘possession football’ instead then, if you fancy. You fucking pedants.
Possession football’s greatest exponents are Barcelona, of course, and we don’t need to go into that – this is not a piece about Barcelona. It’s more a piece about Wilson’s piece, or else a small section of Wilson’s piece to be more precise. It's all well and good saying the prominent tactical strides in 2012 – defined as those made by teams that were successful, presumably, are passing and pressing, but the alternative - the "long ball thumping" prevalent in Britain as Wilson puts it - is disingenuous. When has a side EVER won the title in England playing long ball football? Certainly not in our lifetimes (both of us born in 1983).
In the 80s, Liverpool epitomised domestic domination. Between 1981 and 1991, they remarkably didn’t finish outside of the top two. But those sides weren’t launching ball after ball up top to a John Fashanu-esque bruiser, rather Liverpool were sublime in their pomp. An exhilarating mix of pass and move, with individual brilliance added courtesy of John Barnes who was probably the best winger in the world at his peak.
At the end of the decade it was Alex Ferguson’s move to Old Trafford that saw a seismic shifting of the footballing tectonic plates. But only in terms of the identity of the team winning the league every (other) year. Ferguson’s United’s sides have been simply awesome to watch over the years - Giggs, Cantona, Keane, Scholes, Beckham, Kanchelskis, Rooney, Ronaldo et al have played some amazing passing and attacking football. You can’t wallop Ipswich 9-0 if you’ve not had the lion’s share of possession for 90 minutes.
“Long ball thumping" Mr Wilson? Without doubt in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid (and being York City and Macclesfield Town fans respectively, Bushby and MacDonald have had ample first hand experience of this), but the focus of Wilson’s piece wasn’t League 2 or the Conference.
So maybe the focus was the ‘less fashionable’ side: Wimbledon; Bolton; Middlesborough; Leicester; but they only did well in cup competitions in one-off games. We can’t imagine, in 1988’s review of the season, Wimbledon being hailed for their tactical innovation of snarling and ‘being crazy’ as they won the FA Cup. Arguably the only imprints Vinnie Jones left on football were on Paul Gascoigne’s testicles. They didn't win top-flight leagues. Nor did Wimbledon.
To bring us up to date (and away from Gazza’s balls), it's all very well saying Arsenal get bullied on a Tuesday night at Stoke and that Wenger is too stubborn to change his tactical philosophy, but when did Stoke ever qualify for the Champions League 13 seasons running? The difference between the top six Premier League teams – watch, say, when Manchester City play Tottenham; neither are hammering the ball forward at the first opportunity – is not as simplistic as a short/long ball binary. Further afield, it absolutely isn't as straightforward as long ball merchants from Britain vs tiny Spanish super-imps in Europe. Except for Celtic.
“In Germany, possession-based teams in Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund continue to dominate, while both Manchester United and Manchester City seem deliberately to be attempting to play more of a possession game, something that has come at the cost of defensive stability,” Wilson writes. But hasn’t that ALWAYS been the case with those at the top of the Premier League? Chelsea played passing football under Mourinho when winning leagues. City played some great stuff last year, when David Silva was hailed as the new Messiah. And Arsenal, lest anyone forget, have been likened to Barcelona for years. It’s not as if United and City are only now beginning to learn that keeping the ball might be a good idea.
It might also be prescient to mention that the teams that win any league have better players and more money than everyone else. There’s a reason Manchesters United and City, and Barcelona, for instance, score so many late goals. They have spent the previous 85 minutes grinding the opposition down to the point where fatigue gives way to mistakes and have the requisite quality to take advantage. But with similar resources, surely every team would be attempting to develop into a possession-based side? It’s not so much a tactical stride as a widely-accepted ideal.
Athletic Bilbao are mentioned in Wilson’s piece, but as the author acknowledges, the Bielsification of Bilbao worked to only a limited extent. This was never in doubt considering the small pool of talent available to Bielsa due to the club’s cantera policy. Again, passing and pressing = good. We agree. But it only really worked in a cup competiton (which they didn’t win). Over the course of a season, where those with the deeper pockets can rest key players, Bilbao faltered, finishing 10th. If there was a Bielsification of football then one of two things emerged as truisms. One – it can be utterly and ruthlessly efficient, and exhilarating (see Bilbao tearing United apart twice last season). Two – only Barcelona (namely the best side in the world and whose subs bench is always ludicrously talented) can see it out over the course of a season.
The point of the pass being “king” in Wilson’s words, therefore, takes on a duality of meaning. There appear to be levels of possession football. So in England, the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs are all proponents of possession football and all finish the season in the European spots. Then, below that, you have those most desiring of possession football either in transition or without the players to produce it (Liverpool), or short on personnel when injuries occur (Swansea) who are still easy on the eye, but are not in realistic positions to challenge for titles (despite what Brendan Rodgers may have you believe).
When in Europe, though, the pecking order transmutes. The introduction of the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain and Borussia Dortmund in opposition means that the English clubs who play their possession football on English shores, feel obliged to alter their style to a more defensive one to counter more technically proficient opponents. That’s the only difference. If you play Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, you retreat. If you play Kebe, Tabb and Leigertwood, you attack. It is only natural. And we see it time and time again when England enter any summer competition, ever.
When these English sides, who spend the season dominating possession in nearly every game, play a side in Europe they have a decision to make – can we out pass them? In some games, it’s almost a no-brainer. Barcelona – no, of course you can’t. Against, Dortmund or Ajax, say, it's more of a judgment call, though City consistently got that judgment wrong in the Champions’ League group stage and crashed out.
Another example: when United played Barca in the Champions’ League final a few years back, they were completely outclassed. But it's perhaps unsurprising given they were so used to monopolising possession domestically.
The change in fibre of the game – ceding possession consistently – was alien and United were unprepared and embarrassed. When you’re embarrassed, you get desperate and in the end, United were easily beaten. Chelsea, on the other hand, were absolutely ruthlessly professional and ego-free in ceding possession and beating Barcelona in both legs of their semi-finals this year (also see Mourinho's Inter beating Barca in 2010 for defensive discipline and counter-attacking football at its finest).
So sometimes, possession football can be overcome in cup games. But over the course of the season, the team with the best players, the most money and the associated staying power that brings, wins the league – and always by playing possession football. Could Barcelona do it over the course of a season in England? You bet your life they could. And it would be even less of a contest than La Liga.
The pass is therefore king, we’d agree. But it isn’t the sole domain of those at the top of football, nor is a new phenomenon to England’s top sides. And it certainly isn’t as black and white as to say the Spanish artisans are doing a Pied Piper job on the rest of Europe in terms of making everyone pass. They just happen to do it better than everyone else.