Former Bayern Munich manager and current Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, speaking after Bavarian side’s 5-1 triumph over Arsenal last season, was famously said:
What I want, my desire, is to have one hundred percent possession.
Bayern Munich had enjoyed sixty nine percent of possession in that game as goals from Robert Lewandowki, Thomas Muller, David Alaba and Arjen Robben gave Arsenal nightmares that probably suggested the extent of damage that possession football can usually do.
As the Gunners trailed off without a trace on familiar territory, the delighted Guardiola had several reasons to hold his head high. After all, his ideology of winning football matches with a certain swagger and panache had worked out soundly.
The manner in which Guardiola’s side dictated the game was reminiscent of what the man has stood for throughout his career – keeping the ball at their feet and making sure that the control never slipped from their grasp.
While the performance was a one that Pep usually loves to be proud of, signs of his style becoming outdated were glaringly visible much before Leicester City proved non-believers wrong by winning the Premier League title last season.
Bayern Munich’s 4-1 loss at the hands of Dieter Hecking’s Wolfsburg had shown glimpses of what was yet to come for possession football.
Bayern enjoyed nearly seventy percent of possession, but ‘Die Wolfe’ looked like bagging a goal everytime they moved forward. While Guardiola’s men controlled the tempo of the game, Wolfsburg had a greater say in the larger deciding factor of the footballing concept.
Bayern had sixteen shots on target, as compared to Wolfsburg’s thirteen, but their struggles in front of goals existed. It was pragmatism against profound aestheticism.
Leicester City’s title win last season was enough to hammer what may well be the final nail in the coffin for possession football.
Claudio Ranieri’s men reliance on nicking lose balls higher up the pitch and launching counter-attacks with the help of fleet footed players wasn’t a new invention.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, which is known for playing a low-block 4-4-2 formation, is a side that probably pioneered the style, which sees them pack the midfield with numbers and play with a compact shape to deny the opposition any space in central areas.
The inventive style was a major reason for their La Lig title win in 2014 and has taken them close to winning the Champions League twice, only to be denied by Real Madrid on both attempts.
Much before the Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho rivalry at Barcelona and Real Madrid intensified into what was a battle of two differing ideals, cultures and playing style, the current Manchester United had already brought the element of pragmatism into the way his sides play.
Mourinho’s teams won’t dominate possession, but will make sure that the opposition don’t score. These sides wait for the right moment to force the team in possession to commit an error, which allows them to move forward with pace and freedom.
As soon as the opposition will lose possession, Mourinho’s sides will take full advantage of it.
And football has become more about doing the off-ball bit more efficiently than doing things on the ball that allowed a side to exert one’s control over the game.
A side may well control a game by having seventy percent of possession, but it all evaporates into nothing once they commit a mistake.
Leicester average possession percentage last season was 42.3 percent, which is clearly indicative of their abilities off the ball.
The Foxes ended up winning the Premier League title with it, while Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, whose average possession stats stood at 58.2 percent, finished fifth and missed out on a Champions League qualification spot.
In last season’s table for average possession, Leicester ranked 18th, while Manchester United ranked 1st. West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland, who had average possession of 36.9 percent and 40 percent respectively, survived the relegation battles successfully.
The erosion of possession football’s abilities would be further clarified by how direct Barcelona’s style has now become.
Under Pep, the style depended more on almost passing the ball into the back of the net. The Catalans had more than sixty-five percent possession in every game they played, just to make sure that the opposition could never impose themselves over the game and also to win the game beautifully.
Under Luis Enrique, the style has become more direct than it was earlier. The amount of passes they take to build up play have reduced and the directness of the likes of Neymar and Leo Messi is used to perfection.
In fact, Messi’s usage itself suggests how Barcelona’s age-old traditional of playing attractive, possession based football has changed.
Guardiola used the Argentine as a player who operated between the lines and carried the ball from the midfield to the attack. The false nine role that he donned during that time allowed him to drop into slightly deeper areas and get on the ball.
As things stand, Messi’s involvement in advanced areas has increased.
Against Guardiola’s Manchester City at the Nou Camp, the game acquired the form of a competition pertaining to who pressed the opposition better rather than who had more possession of the ball than the other.
Claudio Bravo’s failures throughout the game saw the former Barcelona man see red, as it were the Catalans who pressed the Man City back four in a more intense fashion.
While Guardiola’s adorance for his style is well documented, his former club had some inspiration to draw from City’s Premier League rivals Tottenham.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men ran out 2-0 winners at White Hart Lane in what was a fantastic performance from last season’s 3rd placed side.
The pressing was almost man-to-man, that stifled City out before they could build from the back and carry the ball forward to the midfielders.
An own goal from Aleks Kolarov and a Dele Alli was enough to bury Guardiola, whose preferred style hasn’t quite clicked in the Premier League so far.
Be it their draws against Southampton and Everton, or their lucky win over Manchester United, City haven’t looked like the side that Guardiola wants his teams to look like.
Arsene Wenger once said:
It’s the first year in the Premier League where possession doesn’t give you as much. I keep my philosophy, but I’m also an observer and I go through the stats of every game at the moment. I am trying to understand; is it something new, is something happening that was not going on before?
While this new phenomenon is becoming increasingly apparent, stats that compare the current situation to the past ones make it even more clearer.
Back in the 2007-08 season, the number of Premier League wins by teams with less than forty percent possession stood at nineteen, and last season the same stat touched fifty two percent possession, which is more than twice of the 2007-08 records.
In the Bundesliga, the number of managers who have reaped success with the high-pressing system or the counter-attacking system is increasing.
After Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, sides like Bayer Leverkusen, who are managed by former Red Bull Salzburg manager Roger Schmidt, have proved that the counter-pressing or the gegenpressing style is the need of the hour.
Leverkusen have become a regular in the Bundesliga top four under Schmidt, while managers like Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann and RB Leipzig’s Ralph Hassenhuttl have followed the norm.While Bayern Munich continue to impose their dominance in the Bundesliga, their success and the recent slump isn’t down to the fact that their average possession stands at 64.7 percent.
The Bavarians are still unbeaten in the league and teams tend to sit deep when confronting them, just to make sure that they play on the break. And sides like Eintracht Frankfurt, Koln and Hoffenheim have done that successfully.
Euro 2016 probably closed the chapter of possession football, which teams have found really difficult to adhere to.
Italy ended up beating former Champions Spain 2-0, despite having only forty percent possession and the victory came in a trademark smash and grab manner. The Italian defence stood firm, thanks to Antonio Conte’s usage of his favored 3-5-2 formation.
It wasn’t just Italy, but sides like Hungary and Iceland achieved similar feats without possession, getting numbers behind the ball and always looking to make quick transitions once they get the ball.
The new Champions, Portugal, never played the kind of football that can be dubbed ‘pretty’. It was a perfect example of how modern-day football has shaped up to be.
If you try playing attractive football by having sixty percent of possession, the opposition will never back away from sitting deep and denying you the opportunity to break through.
Fernando Santos’ sides were arguably the most defensively solid team in the tournament and knew how to go about their job discreetly.
And this isn’t something which has ever happened before. A style that has mesmerised many over the years by throwing up instances of football, which many described as being beautiful, has now paved way for a style that is increasingly being appreciated by many.
It certainly isn’t pretty for those who were profound believers in the approach to the game which is now fading.
As Billy Joe Armstrong rightly says in Green Day’s’ 21 Guns’, “Nothing’s ever built to last”, and the demise of football is on the verge of completion.
And there exists very little for anyone to stop the decline as a new era in football tactics beckons.