The game of football has changed. And where once we’d be talking about exploding down the wings to hurl in deep crosses to a target-men, we’d now be talking about patient football and controlling possession. A cursory glance of some of the top sides in world football makes me wonder what happened to that “destroyer” in midfield. Tall and strong his physical presence breaks up play in midfield, that dogged general doesn’t exist in sides like Barcelona and even Manchester United. Xavi and Iniesta are small diminutive players whose skill on the ball and determination carve out chances for their sides.
More goals are being scored now in the premier league than at any time in its history. The Champion’s League yielded 3.03 goals per game last season, over in the domestic leagues of France, England, Spain, Germany and Italy more goals are now being scored this season. The average number of goals scored per game in England has been on the rise in the last 10 years. If the current rate of goals per game stays the same we will probably see the best return since 1967-8. In large part this is due to several factors:
- Better shot conversion rate – down to skill and tactics
- Average passes per game is going up indicating that sides are playing more possession based football
- Crossing numbers are down
- Final third passes are down, indicating a more direct style in the final third
- Defenders are passing from the back, controlled possession from the rear
- Higher pressing in the final third
- Offside rule has increased the playing area on the pitch
- Tackles are down an average of 38.74%/season compared to 47.5% in 2006 in large part due to the harder rules against tackles from behind
Across Europe more teams are passing the ball and preferring to control possession. When they lose the ball they press higher up the pitch to win the ball back, but they do not commit as many fouls, preferring instead to close down channels of passing. The attitude of managers also points towards the fact that the “destroyer” isn’t as important as the “playmaker”. Whereas in the past diminutive players were almost extinct, now more and more teams are snapping up talented technically gifted players.
Controlled possession demands that defenders remain calm under pressure, hence Brendan Rogers insistence that Liverpool play from the back under all circumstances where possible. This means that more and more teams adopt a shorter passing style where teams of players need to be within 10 yards of each other so that a pass can be made. This would suggest that formations and systems require narrower shapes. Barcelona plays a narrow formation. When Liverpool started the season they played a more direct style of football, but their opening day match against West Brom clearly showed a side struggling to come to terms with making effective use of the ball. Defenders were too far apart; since then Liverpool have become tighter and their results too have showed some improvement.
In Football Manager, its very possible to emulate this kind of football. Stop thinking that narrow means defensive and the notion that short passing is only for the technically competent teams is complete nonsense. You can play a short passing game, and you can mix this up with direct passing, in the final third to get the effect of a team that builds up slow at the back and attacks with venom.