For very long time, so-called small teams used to apply an ultra-defensive approach when facing technically superior opponents, sitting deep in their half and tightening spaces available for their rivals. As they couldn’t compete on technical level, they HAD TO find a different way to avoid a heavy defeat and hopefully bring a point home.
While good teams were playing possession-based football, moving the ball around searching for a little pocket to slip the sphere between the lines, smaller teams were pressing, tackling and kicking the ball away, hoping for a good opportunity on the break.
Things however seem to have changed of late. While teams in the past basically had no other options as they usually had only one or two quality players available, nowadays technically gifted teams also choose the same approach, and this is bad for football. I must admit I always had a soft spot for the resilience, passion and solidarity that some of those teams could display, however I think that some managers are pushing the concept of teamwork a bit too far and sacrifice their players’ talents in the name of a good result.
It’s no coincidence that we just witnessed such a boring EURO 2016 tournament, teams were too busy making life difficult for their opponents to actually play football. Games were often decided by a defensive mistake, a dubious decision from the referee or a moment of individual brilliance, rather than a proper team move. Germany was among the few teams who actually tried to play possession football and found life very difficult against Italy and France, with both teams happy to concede possession and invite pressure; the Mannschäft needed penalties to defeat the Italians and finally succumbed to the hosts through a penalty and a defensive mistake, despite virtually dominating the game. Very few teams seemed to have a clear idea of how they should play, many preferred to let their opponents make the first move and then react. It’s a very passive approach and, when both teams decide to do the same, the game is inevitably locked.
The huge success recorded by the likes of Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Leicester City, combined with Portugal winning in France, will push more managers to adopt the same strategy so it’s going to be interesting to see how Arsène Wenger will setup the team, next year. As the majority of us knows far too well, the Arsenal have been dangerously inclined to get frustrated by well-organized opponents and very often suffered infuriating defeats after dominating games from the first to the last minute; with more and more teams adopting this style, are the Gunners in danger of seeing their quest for a title becoming even harder?
Too loyal to his principles to change the setup of the team and too much of an aesthete to surrender to the ugliness of modern football, Arsène Wenger seems very unlikely to drop the team’s tiki-taka style in favour of a more direct, rough approach – it remains to be seen what the results of his stubbornness will be. The fact that fellow manager Pep Guardiola will play the same game with Manchester City is a very small consolation as Manchester United under José Mourinho, Chelsea under Antonio Conte, Jürgen Klopp under Liverpool and the vast majority of the remaining teams will play the old-fashioned kick-and-run football throughout the Premier League season, not to mention our potential rivals in the Champions League.
Will Arsène Wenger and Pep Guardiola have the final laugh over the passive football promoted by their colleagues and rivals? It’s a huge gamble to take, a very bold call from a manager that has often surprised everyone with his choices –some of which definitely backfired in a very spectacular way.
Should possession-football prevail, Manchester City looks better equipped to win the league compared to us, although Pep Guardiola will surely need time to transmit his philosophy to a new group of players; this means that Arsène Wenger’s mission is twice more complicated, going into next season: first defeat ultra-defensive football through a game made of possession and intricate moves, then defeat the master of this game, Pep Guardiola and his quality-ridden team.