In one of those Zeitgeisty moments that happen sometimes, the venerable professor Alan Jacobs cuts through some of the fog that surrounds the Barcification of European football tactics and absolutely nails it:
I’ve written about some of these matters before, but I think I’m getting a clearer picture of what the game of soccer needs. Not more managers who want to play like Barcelona, but a new generation of tacticians who put seriously creative thought into creating an opportunistic, counter-attacking, possession-indifferent style that can be taught to players who haven’t spent fifteen years together and who may not have the skills necessary to play keep-away for ninety minutes.
I read this piece right in the middle of transcribing my interview last week with Jonathan Wilson (it will go up later today), in which he talks about how the traditional sides known for Barcelona-style attack-minded hold-and-press—Valery Lobanovsky’s Dynamo Kiev, Rinus Michel’s Ajax, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan—were only able to manage the approach on average for a maximum of three years.
That’s because Barca’s approach is extremely technically demanding. With Michel’s team in the seventies it required Jong Ajax; Barcelona has La Masia; Sacchi had three of the best European players of their generation in Van Basten, Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. Possession and pressing requires time, planning, and deep financial resources (at least in the modern era). All for a three-year payout.
In some sense we’ve seen this movie before. In 2004, 4-5-1 seemed to be the brief cure-all for smaller sides struggling in Europe, like Porto and Greece. It was touted as a low-rent means for clubs to hold their own against superior opposition, like football’s full-court press. But then sides would play a lone striker at even the hint of opposition superiority, and it was clear opportunities were being missed. Big sides were overly flattered, and fans urged their sides to be more proactive in attack. Anti-football reached its nadir with the 2010 World Cup final, which the normally creative Holland attempted to destroy Spain care of Van Bommel.
Unfortunately, it seems the only answer to negativity is to suddenly wave the Cruyff flag and pursue possession with a Republican Party-esque ideological zeal. What is needed, tactically at least, is some sort of Third Way. Smaller, less financially powerful clubs need a tactical Bill Clinton to find a middle ground between defensive fear and attacking insanity.