A decade or so ago, football was facing a crisis of style. Physicality and pace, it seemed, were taking over. Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson admitted looking at Arsenal’s midfield and realising there was an overwhelming need to add muscle to his ball players.
The result was a series of viscerally thrilling encounters that featured bust-ups in the tunnel, pizza being thrown, the hounding of Jose Antonio Reyes and not a whole lot of football. The Argentinian columnist Hugo Asch, a man in love with the ideal of the cerebral playmaker, lamented that “midfielders are multi-function and forwards are a blend of tanks and Formula One cars”.
Back then it seemed we were moving into an age in which all players had to be 6ft tall and 14st of solid muscle, and that gym work was going to be as important as training with the ball. Yet the shortlist for World Soccer’s player of 2012 – while it features one player of extraordinary physique in Cristiano Ronaldo – contained four nominees who are 5ft 7in: Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Eden Hazard. With Manchester City’s main source of creativity, David Silva, the same height, this is the age of the little genius.
So what has changed? To an extent these things are cyclical. Worries about too great an emphasis being placed on speed and physicality are almost as old as football itself.
“To say that a player lacks pace is tantamount to utter condemnation of him in the eyes in the majority of followers in the game,” wrote West Bromwich Albion winger AC Jephcott in a column in the Sheffield Telegraph and Star Sports Special in 1914. The result was that “craft and cleverness, in tactics and in ball control, seem to be relegated to a secondary place”.
After England’s 6-3 defeat by Hungary in 1953, the Austrian journalist Willy Meisl blamed their decline on an overemphasis on pace, while in the early 1980s West Germany’s full-back Hans-Pieter Briegel, a former decathlete, was hailed as the shape of footballers to come.
The lawmakers must also takesome credit. The offside law has been gradually liberalised since 1992, but it was the 2005 change – which radically altered the interpretation of what it meant to be involved in play – that has made the biggest difference.
There are only around half as many offside decisions in the Premier League today as there were a decade ago. As a result, playing an offside trap as a default, in the way Arsenal perfected under George Graham, simply isn’t possible any more.
That in turn has made teams defend deeper, which has stretched the effective playing area. Rather than defences pushing up to play
30-40 yards or so from their own goal, squeezing the effective playing area to 30-40 yards, most now sit 20-30 yards out, increasing the effective playing area to 50-60 yards. That means players are further apart, which means less contact, which in turn means smaller players are far less likely to be bullied off the ball.
At the same time there has been a clampdown on excessive physicality. Any lunge can bring a red card, while tackles that a decade ago would have been regarded as part of the game now draw a yellow. The number of tackles per game in the Premier League have fallen every season since 2006-07, while fouls have dropped by almost 25 per cent in the past decade. At the same time, the number of yellow cards per game has remained constant at around three.
The overall impact has been to encourage open, passing football. Generally speaking, across Europe, the number of goals per game has gone up in the past decade and last season the knockout stage of the Champions League yielded more than three goals per game for the first time. With the occasional exception, at the highest level most teams seek to outpass the opposition. Defending has become about winning possession back high up the pitch rather than looking to pack men behind the ball.
Again it is in England where the trend is most striking, with Ferguson dismissing the whole notion of holding midfielders and Manchester City selling Nigel De Jong and breaking up the successful Vincent Kompany-Joleon Lescott defensive pairing in search of a more possession-based approach. This is the “Bielsafication” of football.
Even as Marcelo Bielsa’s own Athletic Bilbao fall apart, and the fatigue that so often afflicts his sides undermining the Argentinian title challenge of the Bielsa-like Newell’s Old Boys, his more moderate disciples are shaping the game.
At Barcelona, Tito Vilanova continues the approach of Pep Guardiola, who famously sat late into the night with Bielsa discussing stylistic issues before taking over as coach at Camp Nou. The miracles Diego Simeone has wrought at Atletico Madrid have Bielsa’s principles at their core. Jorge Sampaoli, having won three consecutive Chilean titles and a Sudamericana Cup at Universidad de Chile, has now taken the national team job. And then there are those such as Jurgen Klopp and Andre Villas-Boas who have no direct link to Bielsa but live by a similar philosophy.
As Chelsea proved last season, it is still possible to back the defence and look to endure, but that has become an increasingly rare way of operating – at club level at least.
While Bielsa won Olympic gold with Argentina in 2004 and was hugely popular as coach of Chile, the process of Bielsafication, it seems, is almost entirely a club phenomenon. With the systematised approach familiar at club level taking time to impose at national level, international coaches – who are limited for time – still tend to adopt a more cautious approach.
By Jonathan Wilson