After eight years in England, I am really pleased to see how many teams in the Premier League are little by little changing their style of play. Despite some opinions to the contrary, the arrival of foreign managers has benefited English football. These days not many question, for example, Manchester City’s zonal marking in corners or the necessary rotations carried out this season to ensure that English players could reach the European Cup with fresh legs. Furthermore, as time goes by we can see how the game is starting to be analysed taking into account aspects like team formation instead of just the performance of individual players.
One of the players from my time at Liverpool FC, who has played in various Premier League teams and is still playing in England, commented about a manager that he’s had: “he trains very similar to the way we used to with you, always with the ball”.
It seems that slowly there begins to be another vision of football and there is even talk of adopting the Spanish model for the youth system. The FA has reacted to this situation although it is going to be a hard task. Amongst other changes The FA is also trying to improve the structure of Football Academies, which is going to be positive. From my personal experience as player and coach in Spain for more than 30 years I would say that two basic things would help: first, youth system coaches’ formation; second, the under 21 competition system.
After analysing the statistics from the different leagues provided by Opta, especially the ones which refer to the Premier League, it appears systematically that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal has been the team that has always maintained a style of football based on ball possession, even though now that style of play is beginning to spread.
These days it is interesting to see how, after the success of Barcelona and the national Spanish team, there have been followers that have compared themselves to the Catalan team in many aspects of the game but may not realise that Barcelona is what it is because they have spent many years playing in the same way, the same style and, above all, because Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Piqué, Dani Alves and the rest have converted Barcelona into a distinctive team because of their particular style of play and the great quality they have as individuals.
Even so, these statistics make for some interesting points. For example, significantly in the Premier League there have been more passes made in total (351,867) than in La Liga (340,416), and in addition the Premier League has more than seven teams that have exceeded the 20,000 passes although in comparison they still remain far from the statistics illustrated by Barcelona who exceed 29,000 passes in total. But neither Real Madrid nor Valencia have reached those 20.000 passes despite finishing first and third in the Spanish league which shows how the rest of the clubs in La Liga as a whole, do make more passes than teams in the Premier League as a whole.
When talking about style, keeping the ball, possession..., we could also analyse in which part of the pitch the ball is kept. Some of the teams with higher ball possession in the Premier League play a lot in their own half and also with their goalkeeper -which could be a good solution in some situations. The problem is also that their passing success rate in the opposite half is below 80%, far from the 87% shown by Barcelona. This reminds me of what used to happen in Spain 15 years ago with the famous “tiqui-taca”.
The origin of this term, curiously, has negative connotations. Some years ago the Spanish league had public opinion divided between those that defended this type of passing play, generally short passing, and those that defended direct play, as playing long balls was considered more practical.
Coaches like Maguregui or Javier Clemente criticised this type of play (tiqui-taca) because -said in their favour- in those times many teams liked to keep passing the ball without progressing or creating chances. It was all about keeping the ball and waiting for the right moment to find the space and break the defence. It was named in some cases the “windscreen wiper game” because the ball went from one side to the other like a windscreen wiper, without reaching the opposition’s goal. One famous coach and defender of this type of play, “style” over result, told a journalist in answer to the question if he would prefer to win playing badly or lose playing well, that he would prefer to lose playing well. A few days later he was asked to come out and rectify these words, but the debate had already begun.
At Barcelona, Messi, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta and company have given lustre to the famous “tiqui-taca” and with the arrival of Luis Aragonés to the national team, this group of players and this style of play began to shine and fascinate the world. Del Bosque and Guardiola achieved even greater triumphs with that style of play and above all with that group of players. Now many want to follow that style because it is fashionable, it’s beautiful and on top of that it wins titles. It’s a shame that there is, for example, just one Xavi Hernandez.
So what next for the Premier League? The statistics shown by Opta tell us that in the Premier League the number of total passes made each season is increasing, surpassing more than 320,000, 330,000 and 350,000 respectively in each one of the last three seasons. The number of goals has also quickly increased over 1,050 each year although last season the number of total shots at goal decreased. But what could be worrying is the idea of “we are like Barcelona”, which could lead to errors similar to those that were committed in Spain. The percentage of passes in the opposite half has decreased from 65% in 09/10 season to 61% last season. Copying a style and system does not always guarantee success. Many of us like Barcelona’s style of play, but they can achieve it thanks to their individual quality and years of hard work. We shouldn’t forget that there are many ways of playing well and winning.