Simon Smith reflects on some of the tactical trends from last season…
The summer of speculation is fully underway as gossip, exclusives, breaking nonsense and rumours replace the reflections team of the year lists and player reviews. It can only mean one thing: enough time has passed for us to properly look at the last year from a few steps back and assess a season that wasn’t quite.
In entertainment terms that is. In tactical terms, quietly and under the radar, there were some big changes taking place. Perhaps the biggest season in four or five years in terms of the changes to playing style at the highest level, 2012-13 won’t be remembered as a classic but certainly will be remembered as the year tiki taka lost its sheen. The event of the season for the purist must surely be Bayern Munich’s demolition of the much heralded Barcelona in the Champion’s League, an outcome some had predicted but executed in so brutal and total a manner as to surprise world football in general. The death of tiki taka was the talk of the internet, but it was clearly premature. What we can say with more clarity is that the dominance of tiki taka is over, and even if nothing as coherent and successful has come along to replace it, the one system hegemony of the Xaviesta era is probably over now.
Bayern’s brilliance in the European Cup best depicts this, because they were such an adaptable side. On the Catalonia-Cattermole spectrum, Bayern did not attempt what Madrid and other rivals had been doing for years, of trying to be the anti-Barca and outmuscle them, conceding all possession and abandoning any creativity in favour of speed and clinicism. Equally they didn’t commit the obvious folly of trying to beat them at their own game. Bayern played the classic The Price is Right strategy of bidding one pound less than the other player. Heynckes positioned his team ideologically well into the possession dominance end of the scale, but just slightly more direct than Barca. The real genius of this was the marrying of passing precision with a raw physicality that allowed them to best either hard and scrappy teams (for all my respect for them, I do mean Juve here) or indeed slicker passers (of which Bayern’s half of the draw was clearly bereft if I have to resort to including Arsenal as my example here).
Javi Martinez was probably the most interesting player of the season in a tactical sense, because he exemplified the duality of Bayern’s approach. Excellent in distribution, calm in possession and surprisingly creative, his tough tackling and physical presence was aligned to a technical ability beyond most players who label themselves as purely creative. This is his game and he had been performing it for several seasons now, but it was 2012-13 that thrust him onto the world’s attention in Europe’s best side, and so inevitably it was this last season that he gained real recognition. His partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger outshone Busquets and Xavi not because they were more physical and not because they were more technical, but because they were almost as technical while being infinitely more physical.
As such 2013 was the year that “philosophy” of football took a little more of a backseat. Of course Hynckes has an approach, and of course Guardiola will bring his concrete ideas and unique brand of possession football with him, but it will be more adaptable, with more physical players than before. A harmony of different players and styles will be most likely be a common feature of the next couple of seasons, and I for one am intrigued to see how it develops.
If midfielders are getting bigger, defenders are getting smaller. Last season was the year of the mobile centre back, something of a continental trend at the likes of Barcelona in the past, but now a real institution in the Premier League as well. Laurent Koscielny, a much maligned player in his first season, has steadily improved over the last two years and has just come out of his best campaign yet; the first to give him critical acclaim outside of N5. Compare how he interprets the role of the smaller centre back to Arsenal’s last little man, Thomas Vermaelen, and the evolution of the position is clear. Instead of the big man staying back while the quick player snaps into tackles, the smaller centre back is adapting his game to read the opposition’s play better. Essentially, defenders are becoming midfielders.
This is particularly important given the continuation of the popularity of the attacking full back. The back two has had several years now to acclimatise to plugging the gaps left by the negligence of full backs, and 2013 might be looked back on as the year that they started to manage it. Poor defending has been something of an institution of the Premier League for two seasons now, but on the evidence of Nastasic and Luiz this season, a case could be made for it having now reached a plateau. The Brazilian in particular encapsulates the change in centre back styles: After years of snap decisions and rash challenges, he has modified his method while retaining his mobility simply by moving a little further back. Still prone to take the ball out of defence like Sideshow Beckenbauer, his last ditch fire fighting should be noted as a major reason for Brazil’s Confederations Cup triumph. If it all seemed a bit rash, which at times like his penalty giveaway against Uruguay it really was, it has to be remembered that his success came from thinking more clearly and choosing his moments.
Part of this shift must be recognized to be the prominence of the all round forward. If we have had a few years of false ninary, 2012-13 announced the big man’s return with a bang, and it must be said, with an unconventional style. Sadly for Andy Carroll it was not the lumbering power player that grabbed the headlines but a quicker, leaner, sharper striker: Lewandowski, Benteke, Lukaku, Mandzukic and Falcao successfully married strength in the air with speed off it to provide a solution to one of the real weaknesses of the 4-2-3-1. Recently it had been looking as if the formation was in decline, with defenders playing to the attacker’s weaknesses (either by staying high so his aerial threat was nullified, or straying deep so his pace could be checked). The downside of having one striker is that they must be well rounded, and the prominence of the last season’s complete physical specimens will surely eek out another few seasons of the world’s favourite formation.
Consequently against the absolutely most adaptable forwards, physical monsters who defy assumption of speed and strength as mutually exclusive and boasting a deft touch to match, there is nowhere that the defensive line can be considered safe. As a result, exhilarating battles of nerve have been a feature of the 2012-13 season in which the mobile centre back and the number 9 are locked in a mind game over when to stay and when to go. Of course centre back versus striker is not a new battle, but compare the way it is played in the top competitive matches to Lucio vs Drogba in 2010 and the change clear.
These are all general observations and none really define how the season unfolded in England or across Europe. The passing playmaker still has the last laugh, Messi is still the best, and skill continues to best strength. But can we say this with as much certainty as we could a year ago? Maybe not, and arguably this is for the good of the game. Football as a sport remains very much in the shadow of Bielsa, but it has moved out of the shadow of Guardiola. His expertise and Spain’s class remain unquestioned, but the invincibility of all three is gone, encouraging coaches and players alike to explore ideas and styles they had abandoned previously. Even Barca have began to look in the mirror, buying Neymar as a massive vanity purchase instead of promoting more La Masia talent, and scouring Europe for a better centre back than Alex Song. Perhaps 2012-13 wasn’t the year of change we had hoped it might be, but it was a start.