Why Fluid Football is King (For Now)

In recent years the Premier League has been playing catch-up to leagues like La Liga and the Bundesliga. Spanish and German football has surpassed the English league in terms of tactics and quality.

Entertainment value may win in England, but that’s because often it’s like two amateur boxers slugging it out in the ring, the fans go wild but the quality is sorely lacking. That’s our culture, I think we love the battle more than quality and the detail. And our game has suffered because of it. Spain and Germany have bypassed us because the game is now more intelligent.

A decade ago English football was a dominant player in the European game. Yet we lost our way, quality coaches left, quality players left and were replaced with average players. For some years now our top sides have been poor. And yet we now seem to be on the rise, emerging out of the slump. Yes perhaps the increased money has helped, yet not so much with players but coaches. We have arguably the best array of coaches the league has seen. Ten games in to the season and we appear to have a great campaign ahead. Both in terms of competition and quality.

They say you should judge how well your season is going after 10 games. So as we reach this point, it seems pretty evident that the league is shaping up already with the best sides in the league. The top five contains all of the so called ‘big clubs’, with just Manchester United outside of the commonly held ‘top six’, lying in 8th, five points off Spurs in 5th. Unlike last season with Leicester and even West Ham, and other occasions in the past, there is no surprise side in this top group.

Effectively the top sides have got themselves in gear early and made sure they are part of the leading pack from the start. It makes sense, last season was a disappointing showing for the top sides like Chelsea, Man Utd and Man City. Liverpool were inconsistent and it left Spurs and Arsenal to battle it out for the league. And yet it was Leicester who would win it. And as deserved as it was, an incredible achievement for the club, this was contrasted with the terrible failures of the other clubs. It seemed the top clubs had been exposed, the fear they once imparted into their inferior opponents had been lost. So would this season would be different? The increased money, the arrival of new, top coaches and the desire of the big clubs to make sure they don’t underachieve again. It is why we’ve seen this kind of start from the top sides now.

Because of the increase in quality within the sides and the quality of the coaching and tactical acumen in the league, the league is very tight and close at the top. The top five are separated by five points, the top three have the same points. It’s set to be a fascinating season. But someone will have to underachieve in their ambitions. One of the top six, even eight if you include the ambitions of clubs like Everton and Southampton, and even West Ham, all want to break into that top four. So there will be some big name coaches and sides who fail this year. So what could be the difference between success and failure? Based on what we’ve seen up to now, it appears that fluidity is the key to success.

Defensive football reigns

Leicester won the league last season based on a defensive strategy and utilisation of a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation. A mid to deep defensive block seeking to transition quickly exploiting space behind the opposition with Jamie Vardy’s speed and Riyad Mahrez’s skill and creativity. It was a hard working team, with defined roles and responsibilities, who never sought to try and expand on what they did, or seek to be something different than what they were. We’ve seen this similar approach with Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid in recent seasons, which has brought Champions League final appearances and the league title.

Defensive/transition football has dominated Europe since 2012. The German sides of Bayern and Dortmund played superb transition football, Real Madrid developed their counter attack approach under Mourinho, which Ancelotti took further with a Champions League final win in 2014. Zidane arguably ‘defended’ his way to another Champions League success this past season. After going 1-0 up Madrid effectively sought to shut up shop and defend their lead. Ultimately they won on penalties but that sense of caution was evident. It wasn’t free flowing, expansive football. But it was winning trophies.

Portugalproved this can bring success in a major tournament by winning the Euro’s, playing a very defensive and team oriented strategy to grind their way to the final. Many criticised the approach, but it won. It has led to that word ‘possession’ becoming a contentious issue. Barcelona and Spain made possession seemingly the only route to success, with both club and country dominating football between 2008-2012. Initially there were the protagonists of the possession game. Those seeking to emulate Guardiola’s tactics, to ‘play like Barcelona’. They found out it wasn’t so easy.

In fact it was the antagonists who would overcome the possession game. Beginning with Mourinho, then Klopp, Heynckes, Simeone. These men sought to be the anti-thesis of the possession game, finding a way to counter and nullify rather than try to go head to head. And they found ways to overcome and succeed. It’s an amazing credit to Barcelona that they ushered in a new era based on their success. For one team to have such an influence on the evolution of the game, both at a grassroots/youth level, and in the senior game, is truly incredible. And they did take the game forward in those years; the game became more intelligent, more tactical, almost more strict. For both the attacking phase and the defensive phase. 

So here we are now. We’ve seen 2016 be the year of the ‘underdog’, the defensive approach, transition football. Teams admitting their shortcomings and instead becoming stronger teams, built on organisation, hard work and defending. Yet the Premier League is pointing towards a new trend, moving away from defensive minded approaches and embracing a more attacking intent.

A move towards fluidity

Let’s look at the current top three. All who are embracing fluidity.

You don’t expect anything else from Guardiola. His players have embraced the philosophy he desires and played some fantastic football within that. The way they started the season was very impressive. Perhaps a sense of profligacy has denied them more points in recent games, yet the football is fantastic. It’s intelligent, it’s quick and it’s purposeful.

In the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 type system there is a sense of strict positional play being at hand, this is what Guardiola has embraced in his time as a coach. So it is not necessarily ‘free’, but the movement and interchange of players can at times be poetry in motion. It’s strict tactical attacking football, which within this framework allows for freedom of movement, positional interchange and creativity. When City have played the 3-4-2-1 and effectively had five forwards on the pitch, the fluidity is even greater within this system. And it’s spectacular when it flows. Guardiola’s ideas are still a work in progress, but the signs of there that this will only get better and more efficient.

Of the teams who underperformed last season all have changed manager, except for Arsenal. Coming 2nd should not be seen as a failure when this is the best finish in the league for several years. However it surely felt as though they blew one of their best chances to win the league last season. And fingers were pointed and questions being asked of Wenger once again. Could Arsenal win the league again with him as coach? This blog has lost patience with his approach, tactics and worrying mentality within the team, which can all be apportioned blame at Wenger. However I have to admit that this season I’m seeing something different with Arsenal’s play. And it’s pleasing.

Arsenal are playing with more attacking intent, they are playing faster, the passing and movement is quicker and it’s happening more often within the game. The almost meaningless possession game isn’t as common as it has been in recent years. And a big part of it is the decision to use Alexis as a forward. By taking out a more rigid target man centre forward in Giroud, Arsenal’s play has moved to a whole new level. Alexis’s intelligence in terms of his movement to come short, behind or wide of the defence offers passing options but it also offers space for other players to exploit. We’ve seen more breaking line runs from Ozil (look at the goal he scored versus Watford where a late runinto a centre forward position brought a headed finish). Walcott’s improved scoring has come the space being created by others and him exploiting that space more effectively. It’s much more fluid than it has been in recent seasons, where it’s felt very rigid in terms of it being a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1. We are seeing Arsenal at their best because there are players in the attacking positions who can rotate and understand what this means.

Back in 2012 this was my argument regarding the German national team. Whereas some were highlighting the lack of a definitive centre forward in the side, and stating the need for Mario Gomez to be the no.9 in the side, I was of the opinion thatGomez actually hampered Germany’s tactical progression. With Gomez it was like Arsenal’s problem wth Giroud. Yes both are good goalscorer and good target men, but if you’re ambition was to embrace a more fluid approach in the attack, then Gomez wasn’t the man to make that happen. Klose was a much better option as he was happy to move wide and allow others to drive inside, yet who would follow him after he retired. There was a sense Germany were in crisis without a ‘proper’ centre forward.

The problem was that if you tried to play with fluidity ‘around’ Gomez then you simply don’t exploit the spaces you want to by having to ‘work around’ a rigid forward. A forward’s ablity to move causes nightmares for defenders who don’t know whether to stay with and move out of position, or let him go and provide him with space. And the better the movement between players, the more difficult to defend.

This is the problem we are seeing with Man Utd right now and a reason why they are in 8th, playing catch up. They are too rigid in their play and restricted by Zlatan’s positioning and lack of movement. There’s no doubt that they are being hampered by Zlatan both in terms of his finishing and profligacy in front of goal and his movement. This is a big reason why they haven’t scored a goal in the Premier League for three games. When they didn’t play Zlatan, in the game versus Fernebahce in the Europa League, they scored four goals. The team attacked better in terms of movement, speed and rotation. While Rooney has been the scapegoat for the underperformance of the side this season, perhaps it may actually be Zlatan who is holding this team back? Yes a fantastic forward on his day, one who can do great things, yet when he’s not scoring, is he helping or hindering the team?

Mourinho has always sought a strong target man in his side, and it’s helped him win many trophies. Yet either Zlatan isn’t the right man for him anymore (remember Inter Milan were significantly better after replacing Zlatan with Diego Militio – using a ‘worker’ type forward rather than a more talented, yet selfish individual. Andperhaps there’s a reason Zlatan has never won the Champions League?) or he needs to evolve his tactics.

Leicester won the league not because of a target man but because of Vardy’s speed to run behind – Martial and Rashford both offer that threat. Atletico for all their defensive focus use Greizmann as their attacking focal point, not a big target man. Even the defensive minded sides are moving away from big target men, and embracing a more dynamic, quick forward to lead the line. And it’s working.

And finally let’s look at Liverpool. The best attacking side in the Premier League up to now? I’d say so. But they’ve got the same problem as Man Utd and Arsenal with their respective strikers. Daniel Sturridge is an excellent finisher, one of the best in Europe. Yet it’s clear that Liverpool are better without him in the team. This was evident in the game versus Man Utd last week. For 60 minutes Liverpool looked flat, lacking dynamism, lacking movement and not creating anything because of it. And then Sturridge was replaced at 60 minutes and Liverpool transformed. Like a light switch had been flicked on Liverpool were now playing with energy, dynamism and fluidity. And it was within these moments where they looked at their best and where they tested De Gea.

There’s a chemistry which has been developed with the foursome of Coutinho, Lallana, Mane and Firmino which provides speed, skill, intelligence and fluidity in their play. Klopp said as much when he appeared on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago. The positions of the team are set, in terms of where the players should be, but he was clear to say that different players could take up those positions within the game. It’s simple, positional interchange within a defined tactical framework. Like Guardiola is implementing at City and what he did at Barca and Bayern. It’s like my book Universality discusses, about where the game is heading; a move towards fluidity and positional rotation and a move away from specialists and strict positions.

The more you have players who are adept at playing in different positions, who have intelligence and understanding to rotate, the better the flow and quality of the attacking phase will be. And Liverpool have scored some truly wonderful team goals in recent weeks based on this fluidity.

Why defending is essential – however you do it

The fact that the top three right now contains three sides who are playing the best fluid attacking football may be a coincidence. Chelsea lie just one place behind them and haven’t conceded a goal in the past four games, scoring 11 goals in that time. They are the most in form side in the league. And this is because Conte has moved to a 3-4-2-1 formation. That is an article for another time in terms of this tactic and how he uses it. Although they’ve scored this many goals for me this is a defensive tactic, a reaction after the Arsenal defeat to how poor Chelsea were out of possession and in transition. They appear to have fixed this problem with this formation. And had Conte sorted this out earlier, we may be looking at Chelsea leading the league, and marvelling at the defensive approach he has taken and continuing the narrative that defending is king in the modern game. And it is.

Arsenal are seeking to improve on their overall defensive strategies, which has come a long way from the at times passive and naïve approach between 2007-2013. There is clearly an improvement in recent years which coincides with their cup successes and improved finishes in the league. Yet it is Guardiola and Klopp who both obsess and demand pressing in transition. Barca, Bayern and Dortmund all were fantastic pressing sides and City and Liverpool are no different.

Having a lot of attacking players around the ball allows for quicker transitions if the ball is lost, focusing on denying the opponent a chance to counter attack. So while the fluidity of the attacking play allows for great attacking interplay, it also is there to provide numbers in the defensive transition phase. So when we talk about defending and we seemingly compare an attacking side with a defensive side, this is just wrong.

The best sides in the past decade have been excellent defensive sides. Whether that’s Chelsea, Man Utd, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Atletico, Real Madrid or Bayern. These teams could defend. They had different ways of doing it of course but they did not neglect defending. Those who sought to play like Barca and yet only considered what they did with the ball suffered because of it. The pressing game is what the best attacking coaches defend with.

Pochettino the best at it in recent years for both Southampton and Spurs, and this article has not sought to ignore the work Spurs have done in recent seasons. Truth is Spurs play some excellent fluid football when at their best with the movement of Kane and Alli particularly excellent.

Hard work is key

Success comes from working extremely hard, being focused and being together as a team. These ideas can be put into any system and strategy. And the best coaches get their players to buy-in to their ideas and methods. The modern game requires a lot from players, it is faster and more demanding physically and mentally. Which makes the game of today truly wonderful to watch.

Perhaps 10 games is not enough to truly determine where teams are at. New coaches are still finding out about their players and what the best fit and system is. Perhaps it’s too early to make a true judgement on where this season is truly going, both in terms of where teams will finish and what ‘style’ is best suited for success. It may well be that come May 2017 we have seen the continuation of the defensive era. But right now we appear to be entering a new phase, one which embraces fluidity and attacking football and high pressing.

Who knows, when the ‘business end’ arrives perhaps these coaches may opt to become more defensive, but right now we see a group of coaches who are seeking to play attacking football, but this isn’t about trying ‘to be Barcelona’ anymore, hell even Barcelona don’t play like Barcelona anymore! Enrique has evolved the style to be more direct than patient in possession.

The modern game is not so much about possession anymore, or at least possession for possession sakes, but about quick attacking play. So far we are seeing that this is not only a way to win games, but a way to entertain as well. The most entertaining sides don’t always win the trophies, but at least we can enjoy them along the journey. And so far this Premier League season has been particularly enjoyable, not so much like those two boxers in the right having a slugfest, but we are seeing intelligent entertainment. Long may it continue!

By The Whitehouse Address (@The_W_Address)