The evolution of football tactics in the last 15-20 years has been so rapid that some would even say that we’ve reached an end point. When Jonathan Wilson first published in his book on the history of football tactics, ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, in 2008, he argued that “globalisation is blurring national styles, but tradition is strong enough that they remain distinguishable”.
In recent years, however, that distinction has undeniably begun to blur as a consensus has gradually taken shape amongst the tactical world. Ahead of EURO 2020, Michael Cox argued that “now everyone is competing to see who is best at roughly the same brand of football”.
In football, just as in many other fields, variety had given way to efficiency:
What’s causing all these logos to look the same? pic.twitter.com/DgnNfOV20v
— David Perell (@david_perell) July 9, 2022
Football was simply too disorganised before, and the last couple of decades has been a race to see who could organise the game in the most rational way possible. First we had to control spaces without the ball, in order to stop the mavericks and artists that might have ran the game before. Then we learnt to control spaces while having the ball; in an almost dialectical response to the ordered defences that came before, we had to create even more ordered attacks to overcome them. And most recently tactics have evolved to control everything in between – the transitions – so that structure and order could be found even in the moments of disorder when teams were changing between their attacking and defensive shapes.
If this meant that we lost a bit of the style and artistry that had come before, then so be it. It simply isn’t worth risking the possibility of chaos. It’s no longer enough for a player like Mesut Özil or Juan Román Riquelme to work their magic in just one of these phases of play; if they didn’t fit into the system when defending, they simply can no longer play at all. Through its search for total control, modern football had finally succumbed to the post-Enlightenment urge for rationality above all else. Or to paraphrase Nietzsche, the #10 is dead and we have killed it.
Juan Román Riquelme – what a stunning footballer.
— 90s Footballers (@90sPlayers) June 28, 2023
The result of this is a more homogenous game. And no doubt, many of the changes have been beneficial. For instance, teams were so severely underutilising players like full-backs in previous eras that they were essentially attacking with fewer players, and now that we’ve figured out how to attack with more players involved, the average goals per game in a football match has shot up. These recent evolutions have undeniably been an overall positive for the game; if we compare 2023 to 1993, the attacking play is better, quicker and more exciting.
Much like the 3-point revolution in the NBA, these developments in football have undoubtedly exposed some of the glaring inefficiencies that existed before. Just as every team shoots more 3-pointers in the NBA now, the improvement in attacking play in football has been so vast that every team must now encompass them at least to some extent.
The problem, however, is that many of the tactical advances in recent years have been driven by one coach and by extension, one philosophy. Pep Guardiola has been so good at showing us new ways of using the same 11 players on the football pitch, and it has been so successful. First came the false nine, then we had inverted full-backs, and most recently he’s re-shaped the possibilities of a centre back with John Stones stepping into midfield. And most remarkably, he’s managed to have almost continual success whilst making such rapid and drastic evolutions to his game model.
The byproduct of this is that people have equivocated the end-result of victories and trophies with Pep Guardiola’s particular means of arriving at that success. Or rather, there is now a tendency to see everything on a football pitch through Pep Guardiola’s positional play philosophy (through no fault of his own), using his teams and his matches as the reference point to which everything else is compared. This is the lens through which football is increasingly viewed and played; the more a coach can make his team resemble a Pep Guardiola side, the better they are.
For example, simply the idea of playing out from the back was ultimately thrust into the football consciousness by Pep Guardiola. Although it might have taken a while to become almost universally accepted, eventually its advantages won out on the pitch and now it almost goes without saying that the best teams must be able to build-up from their Goalkeeper. This is undeniably a good thing; after all, learning to keep the ball for longer periods is one reason attacking play has improved in recent years.
The problem is that Guardiola’s dominating presence in this debate has meant that the end has become conflated with the means. When people finally realised that playing out from the back was good, they thought that the only way to achieve that was Pep Guardiola’s way, for it was he who showed them the light in the first place. Or in other words, there are certain tactical advantages and there is positional play, and people have started to believe that the only way to reach the former is through the latter. This has become particularly prevalent at youth and grassroots level where watered-down regurgitations of Guardiola’s style are ubiquitous, as we teach the next generation the ‘right way to play’, showing them exactly how Guardiola arrives at certain advantages on the pitch through positioning, rotations, and patterns.
Of course, this is a generalisation and exaggeration, and certainly there remain distinctions between teams and matches at the top level, but referring back to comments on national styles in the first paragraph, it is indisputable that the field of European football has narrowed somewhat towards some ever-present similarities.
The key principle or philosophy underpinning these similarities is structure achieved through positioning and spacing. Different coaches may allow their players varying degrees of freedom within the structure, but the structure is always there. It allows the 11 players on a football pitch to occupy the relatively large playing field in the most rational way, essentially controlling as much space as possible in any one moment by spacing the players apart at optimal lengths.
Even coaches who have very recently challenged Guardiola’s initial paradigms – most notably Roberto De Zerbi and the way he puts his two central midfielders very close together in build-up, a direct contradiction of previous commonly accepted knowledge with regards to spacing – ultimately base their new ideas upon a positional framework, and compensate for their spatial shortcomings in certain areas with superiority in other dimensions such as timing.
Positioning and structure have seemingly so conclusively won the tactical debate that if Francis Fukuyama was a fan of the sport, he might be inclined to question if this was the end of (football) history. Tactics have been solved, all teams look roughly the same, and now the sport can tackle other frontiers.
But in Rio de Janeiro, aptly under the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, a second coming of sorts for positional freedom, fluidity and spontaneity within football is slowly blossoming. In the football cathedral of the Maracanã, Fernando Diniz and Fluminense are giving us something of a rebirth of total football, where freedom doesn’t exist simply within a structure but is the structure itself.
Diniz has referred to his style as ‘anti-positional’ and in some aspects the product on the pitch is indeed the anthesis to Guardiola’s rational occupation of space – whereas Thierry Henry once described how Guardiola substituted him because he kept coming inside from the left wing instead of holding the width in order to create space for his team mates, Fluminense’s left winger can often be found all the way over on the right wing, co-existing with the right winger in the same area of space.
This general concept of freely associating around the ball pervades through all phases of Fluminense’s play, from build-up to chance creation and everything in between. From a positional perspective, something like this may be considered a ‘waste’. If you have more players than necessary in one area of space, you inevitably lose the ability to control an area of space somewhere else. But Fluminense and Diniz continually reject this notion as both an instrumental and intrinsic value.
Purely in terms of efficiency, Fluminense are happy to prioritise the space around the ball whilst sacrificing spaces further away as they simply believe it is a better way to attack. It is a different interpretation of how to create the same fundamental advantages that positional play seeks. Why use the ball-far winger to stretch the opposition defence or be ready for a switch in play when they could create superiorities closer to the ball to allow progression?
The end goal is still the same – whether that be finding the free man in space between two players, or creating space for another team mate through third man patterns – but whereas positional play uses the system to provide players with these situations through the occupation of space across the pitch (‘players stay in their positions, the ball comes to them’), Diniz’s game model returns the emphasis back to the players to identify and create opportunities themselves (‘players go to the ball’).
The individual player’s interpretation of the game is prioritised but that’s not to say that certain macro-structures never exist. For example, Fluminense’s full-back often comes inside into an inverted position, giving Fluminense the same advantages in these situations as when Manchester City do it. Indeed, this way of using full-backs will surely become almost universal in the same way overlapping full backs did because to not do so would be to completely underutilise their potential. The difference worth analysing, however, is the means through which these situations arise and then develop, which leads us onto the more philosophical perspective.
Relationism foregoes the chess-like strategy of using players to ‘pin’ the opponent to “open up spaces on other parts of the pitch”.
Instead, localised communication and timing are utilised to progress via emergent structures and bespoke, artisanal combinations.
— Jamie Hamilton (@stirling_j) May 23, 2023
Diniz has previously explained that his preference for giving more freedom to his players ultimately stems from his own negative experiences as a player himself, where he felt that he “wasn’t seen as a person” but rather as someone that simply had to produce within the system. This fundamental difference in perspective explains a lot about the differences between his philosophy and that of someone like Guardiola. Whereas the latter may believe that imposing certain structures and positions on individual players is justified by the subsequent superior functioning of the collective, Diniz rejects this idea of treating players as cogs in a machine.
One of the best illustrations of this contradiction came through Mikel Arteta’s kitchen analogy of positional play: “If I am in the kitchen and I know the glasses are always in this cupboard, I get my glass of water more quickly.” Just as an organised kitchen avoids hours wasted searching for the right crockery, an organised football team with players repeatedly occupying the same spaces in the same situations will undoubtedly find each other more efficiently. It is so convincing, so rational – and naturally we are convinced by reason – that almost everyone has adopted some variation of this concept.
But what if football is more than the organisation of a kitchen? What if finding an item of kitchenware more quickly – or whatever the equivalent may be – isn’t the end goal of football? Or what if the players themselves are worth something more being glasses of water in the right place at the right time?
Naturally, football is determined by results and therefore efficiency must play a role, but the most seemingly rational explanation may not always be the best. Guardiola’s ordered ‘positionalism’ has convincingly made its case; now we must consider Diniz’s antithesis.
Now that I have presented Fluminense as this novel style of playing football, you might look at certain situations I analyse in subsequent parts of this series and feel indifference. Maybe some of them won’t look so different to what you normally see in European football, so what is all the fuss about? Inevitably, this will be at least partly true because football is football and the basic tactical advantages footballers seek to gain at an individual and unit level are universal, such as finding a free player behind opponents. And I also think some of the team level tactics that we have seen recently will become universal too, like the inverted full-backs discussed a few paragraphs ago.
The key difference, however, lies in the means through which Fluminense arrive at these ends, and this has widespread implications on the future of football. Therefore, it’s important not to view this discussion as a false dichotomy but rather opposing ends of a spectrum. It is true that there will be coaches who take less extreme versions of these ideas, but it is worth exploring Diniz’s fundamental views on football which are so intrinsically contradictory to Guardiola’s, a powerful challenge against the status quo. On this basis, it is important to note that at no point am I proposing a return to the past, but rather advocating a different outlook into the future.
Since every style has its limitations and sacrifices, if everyone played the same way then these aspects would simply be lost from the game. This is why players like Ozil and Riquelme don’t survive in the European game as we know it today – they simply don’t fit into the sport when looking at it from the dominant positional paradigm. But football does not solely have to be viewed through this particular lens. If other coaches and philosophies can show us different paths to arrive at those same fundamental advantages that have undoubtedly helped to create better attacking football in recent years, we might find a place for those lost misfits within our game again. And that variety and inclusivity can only be good for the overall health of football.
To be continued…