Shifting sands in football tactics and the rise of the counter attack

This season, both Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho have accused Chelsea of solely relying on the power of their counter attack to win games.

Wenger went as far as to say Chelsea’s style is a turn off for fans and that sport should encourage and reward teams who take the initiative.

In some games this season, Arsenal have had 70% ball possession and still managed to lose. Chelsea, by comparison, averaged 54% of possession and this season they developed an aptitude to pick teams off on the counter attack.

Wenger is right to a certain extent. Ten years ago, teams strategically battled to take the initiative and control games by dominating possession. The rise of tiki-taka football was underpinned by the success of the Vincente Del Bosque’s Spanish national team and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Many teams began to emulate their playing style and the trend of dominant possession based football surged. Sir Alex Ferguson said of Barcelona:

They get you on that carousel and make you dizzy with their passing.

For a time, it seemed there was no way to stop them. In 2010, Jose Mourinho masterminded a plan to halt Barcelona. He instructed his Inter Milan side to let the Spaniards have the ball and respond reactively by pressing high up the pitch and attacking quickly on the break.

Claudio Ranieri engineered a similar tactic to lead Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2016.

Leicester averaged just 45% possession in 2015-16, and their pass succession rate finished at 71% – the second lowest in the league.

Leicester’s defensive strength complemented by their searing pace going forward was too much for opposition teams to handle.

The intensity of Leicester’s high pressing prevented them from being turned into a punching bag. A reason for their low passing success rate is they played lots of long, diagonal balls for players like Jamie Vardy to chase.

With this strategy, Leicester set up knowing they will regularly give possession away.

On their way to La Decima in 2014, Real Madrid found the right balance between defence, attack and possession. In their semi-final against Bayern Munich they had only 31% of the ball.

Their solid defence and swashbuckling athleticism going forward, coupled with utterly ruthless finishing, brought them a 4-0 victory over the Germans.

This type of reactive play is becoming more and more prevalent. Intense pressing, high lines, physical, vertically attacking football is a trend now seen in all countries at all levels.

With Leicester last season, and Chelsea this season, organised defences who press high up the pitch with intensity whilst waiting for an opportunity to pour forward are here for the foreseeable future. And of course this means more goals will be scored.

In the Premier League ten years ago, there was an average 2.45 goals per game. In the 2009-10 season, this average shifted to consistently sit between 2.77 and 2.81 for the next four seasons, 2014-15 was a particularly low scoring year.

The reactive counter attacking trend of the last two seasons has seen a dramatic rise in goals. The overall average in the history of the 20-team Premier League is 2.64 goals per game.

This season’s average of 2.80 goals per game means it is the second highest scoring Premier League season since the league reduced to 20 teams.

This initial rise in 2009 was born out of teams trying replicate the style of Barcelona’s 2009 stylistic heroes. Open, possession based football that took the initiative.

The 2009 season saw Manchester United and Liverpool both play some of the most exciting attacking football this country has ever seen.

In the following season Chelsea scored 103 league goals – a Premier League record. It was also a time when the interpretation of the offside rule changed to benefit attackers and effectively eradicated defenders stepping up to catch attackers offside as any form of viable defensive tactic.

This also meant play developed further up the field and gave midfielders a lot more space than they previously enjoyed.

Teams all over the country started to want the ball, take the initiative and develop an attack. Swansea City were dubbed “Swanselona” for their determination to control the ball, pass it and attack.

Even the MK Dons, under Karl Robinson, started to cultivate a possession based philosophy in the lower tiers of English football.

This season and last season has seen the rejuvenation of the pressing back line and an increased focus on physicality in the midfield. It is no surprise that for two seasons running N’Golo Kante has risen to the top of best Premier League players lists; and why Cristiano Ronaldo has won recent Balloon D’Or awards. Both embody physique, athleticism, pace, and for Ronaldo, ruthless finishing.

But all this does not mean possession football is dead. The purists will be frothing at the mouth just at the thought. Guardiola will try to continue the development of his philosophy – and perhaps his resolute attitude in maintaining this strategy could be Manchester City’s downfall.

Historically, Guardiola has enjoyed success with the style of football he encourages – but every now and then his sides have been victims of ruthless counter attacking opponents.

Inter Milan beat Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate in 2010; Real Madrid beat Bayern 4-0 in 2014; and Chelsea beat Manchester City 3-1 in December and 2-1 in March.

Passing the ball out from the back is now a growing trend, but one filled with danger.

John Stones’ mistake against Southampton highlighting that it takes a special centre back to also be a playmaker.

The role of the goalkeeper has changed dramatically too. Guardiola offloaded Joe Hart because of his inability to distribute at a level he saw satisfactory.

Instead he opted for Claudio Bravo, a goalkeeper who can play out from the back, but finds shot stopping to be his major weakness.

In this respect Guardiola’s insistence on style over functionality has failed the team this season.

Ultimately, for all his celebrated tactical innovations, Pep Guardiola’s school of thought in developing a proactive, high pressing, passing team with smaller players predominantly built from midfielders, has further evolved without him.

A lot of coverage has been given to the use of the 3-4-3 formation this season. But the numerical notation of how a side sets up tells you little about the way they actually play.

The 3-4-3 has not been the major reason for Chelsea’s success this season – it has been their tactical philosophy.

All we know at this point is that a shift to high pressing, vertical football, combined with athleticism and physicality is here to stay for now. And it will surely evolve again in the future.

The Author

Simon Bolger

Writer for a number of websites about football history and tactical trends. Twitter: @stoppagetimes

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