Without a doubt, one of the key factors that has allowed football to be the most exciting and followed sport around the globe for over a century and a half has been the games adaptability to grow and evolve with the times. Despite this evolution from the Victorian era up until present day 2019, which has seen countless rule changes over 150 years, the nature of football has remained both simple and constant: two teams of 11 players kick a ball around for 90 minutes, and at the end of the game, the team that has fired the ball into the back of their opponents goal the most amount of times win the game.
It’s this simplistic nature of football that has allowed the deployment of tactics, strategy and managerial approach within the game to develop and change drastically since the inception of the Football Association in 1863, staying fresh, new, and most importantly, very exciting and entertaining to watch as a spectator.
As of 2019, the biggest trend in the Premier League and the football world as a whole from a strategical sense is the almost insistence from a vast majority of teams of attempting to play out from the back. To put simply; playing out from the back is the fashion in football as of right now. Managers, as well as the coaches of today, have a style or a philosophy and a belief that represents what they feel is the correct method to play football; win, draw or lose.
This philosophical managerial approach, as well as the rule introduced this season that allows goal kicks to stay within the teams’ penalty area has seen an upturn in playing out for the back. Trying to play nice, free-flowing, attractive on the floor football is nothing new in England. Brian Clough, heavily regarded as one of, if not the best English manager of all time assembled his teams to play football on the floor. However, from a traditional sense, especially so in England, and within the Premier League, physical sides containing big, strong centre-backs that kick the ball long had proved to be a much more accurate reflection of English football up until more recent times.
However, that’s not to say that managerial philosophies or a specific footballing style are a bad thing. You could argue that all the best managers in world football at this moment have a philosophy. Pep Guardiola effectively invented the tiki-taka style of football his current club adopt. This style of football not only saw Barcelona and Spain dominate club and international football in ways few have done before, but Manchester City currently hold every domestic piece of silverware in England. As a result, the two time Champions League winner has undoubtedly been hugely influential in this current trend of playing out from the back, while his biggest rivals, Jurgen Klopp’s, Liverpool play to the beat of their eccentric managers heavy metal style of football, which also focuses on playing out from the back with an incredibly heavy and an almost unrelenting press without the ball. It’s a philosophy and a style that has seen the Reds reach two Champions League finals in a row, taking the European crown in May.
The issue I have is not so much that football coaches have a philosophy, it’s more the lack of compromise from certain managers that ultimately result in their undoing which I find baffling on certain occasions. If a side that typically prefers to play a defensively high line faces off against a side with lightening quick forwards, then the pragmatic and probably most sensible managerial approach would be to drop the defensive line somewhat, allowing less space in behind for the forwards to burst in to. However, in today’s game, managers appear to be unyielding in the way they set up their teams to play football.
Towards the back end of his Arsenal career, despite playing some of, if not the best football in England throughout certain seasons, Arsene Wenger rarely changed his on-the-floor, attack-minded play style. As a result, his sides struggled and very rarely beat their other top competitors since the turn of the decade. Wenger would refuse to deploy his team to counter the strengths of his opposition, a managerial approach effective enough to dispatch of the mid to lower table sides, yet would leave the Gunners lacking against rivals such as Manchester United, City, Chelsea, etc.
On the flip side of this, former England manager Sam Allardyce made his name by playing the long ball, the much more traditional English style of football. Though undoubtedly a success at pretty much every club the man has ever managed, having never been relegated despite taking charge of a number of teams with very limited ability, his style could become easily become quite predictable and unpleasant on the eye. Against teams on a similar or lesser level from a quality perspective, Allardyce’s teams at times struggled to break teams down by just knocking the ball long.
In terms of a balance between philosophy and pragmatism, the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, a manager that continued to win silverware up until he retired, probably managed it the best, striking an incredible balance between philosophy and pragmatism. United fans demand high energy, attacking football and this has been illustrated through the legacy of their illustrious number sevens’ throughout the years. George Best, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Under Ferguson, the United teams were potent and full of venom going forward, however towards the end of Ferguson’s career in the crunch games, the likes of Ji Sung Park, Darren Fletcher or Michael Carrick were always on the team sheet as a defensive method to nullify the attacking dangers of tougher opposition, whilst keeping the play ticking over at a more measured and controlled pace. Sir Alex had a style that demanded a certain mentality from his teams but the Red Devils’ most successful manager of all time also knew when to abandon a strategy or change things up to counter the strength of his opposition if need be.
When Bulgaria faced England during the most recent international break, I believed the Bulgarians had set themselves up correctly with five at the back. However, they conceded needlessly at Wembley by attempting to play out from the back via a goal kick. Kane and Sterling’s press was too much for Bulgaria and they forced the mistake from nothing for the first Three Lions goal. The same can be said for Kosovo, who came to St Mary’s to give the game ago, attempting to match England punch for punch. Though they scored three for their efforts due to sloppy defending from the hosts, England notched five before half time and should have had at least two more in the second half.
Overall, as entertaining and skillful as playing out from the back can be when it is done correctly, sometimes coaches and teams need to be slightly more pragmatic and honest when facing teams that are just as good or better than themselves. There’s nothing wrong with a philosophy, if anything in today’s game it can prove to be a long term blueprint for success. However, every once and in a while, injecting some pragmatism into the team can be the key to a positive result.