Football is dominated now as it never has been before by a handful of superclubs. For many of them, winning their domestic title has come to be regarded almost as a formality. There are vast imbalances within leagues and that, of course, conditions the tactical approach teams take.
If you expect to win most games comfortably, everything becomes focused on attacking – which can cause problems for the superclubs on the rare occasions they come up against a team at around their level: they forget not merely how to defend, but also how to fight. The standard of defending has declined alarmingly among elite clubs, something that’s not just to do with a shift to a more attacking focus. In the eight seasons of the Champions League from 2009–10, 21 of 104 games in the quarter-finals or later finished with a winning margin of three or more; in the eight seasons before that, there were only eight. Never has a three-goal lead seemed less secure.
The need to generate revenue, meanwhile, has led to an increasing focus on the individual. Perhaps that’s a natural consequence of an era that enjoyed two players as ludicrously gifted as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but it also feels that the nature of the game has changed, that the soap opera culture that funds modern football requires stars and celebrities. Pep Guardiola, at Barcelona at least, when he had an academy that produced players already inculcated with his style, stood in opposition to that; he has found it harder to succeed without spending since.
Yet spending is no guarantee of success. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær Manchester United, while lacking the subtlety to break down massed defences, did one thing very well: they were very dangerous sitting deep and striking at pace on the break. Then, in the summer of 2021, their owners foisted a 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo on the squad. Suddenly, that counterattacking fluency was lost and within three months Solskjær was sacked. Owners are often bewitched by celebrity, and often seem to lack any idea that a team is a complex structure that will function best with the most harmonious, not the most famous, points – something exposed when the Chelsea owner Todd Boehly, having spent the summer of 2022 trying to impose Ronaldo on Thomas Tuchel, sacked his manager and then began talking about some sort of all-star game, as though a random collection of the best players representing such nebulous entities as the North and the South could produce anything resembling high-level football.
The attitude of players, in turn, seems to have changed. It’s hard to quantify, of course, but when Paul Pogba, on joining Manchester United in 2016, spoke less of hoping to win the league or the Champions League than the Ballon d’Or, it felt like a key moment. Players now ask at least as much what a club can do for them as what they can do for the club – and that means their willingness to submit themselves to a tactical system can be limited. That, allied to the constant pressure for results, inhibits experimentation and leads to tactical conservatism.
At the same time, football has never been as systematised as it is now; it’s often how effectively they resolve that contradiction between system and celebrity that determines whether or not a manager at an elite club is successful. The tension can produce positive results: it’s a matter of taste more than anything else, but there were many who preferred the Barcelona side that won the Champions League under Luis Enrique in 2015 to the Guardiola model. Certainly, by having three soloists in Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar, they had greater variety to their attack, more ways of breaking down a packed defence, even if the whole felt less pure, less of an expression of an ideal, than the team of four years earlier. Football entered a distinctly post-Cruyffian age, the influence of those who had played or coached at Barcelona in the late 90s everywhere.
But after 2013, that style was no longer hegemonic. Even when Guardiola’s Bayern and Manchester City sides were dominant in their domestic leagues, they retained a vulnerability that ended up undoing them in the Champions League for several years against Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona for Bayern, and Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon and Real Madrid for City. They were defensively strong, apart from in certain games – when they collapsed. What was significant about the opponents wasn’t just their quality but their style, or at least the style they adopted in the key moments of those games. Bypass the press, attack at pace, and Guardiola’s sides were not just vulnerable but prone to panic. There’s a psychological dimension – does the obsessive focus on the system perhaps deny players the individuality that would allow them, in difficult circumstances, to demonstrate the initiative to yank a game back their way? Do Guardiola’s players, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic claimed, become in some way little more than obedient schoolchildren?
It may be this is always the way after an ideological revolution. Once the first blast of the new way’s radicalism is over, what remains feels necessarily like a compromise. While there is a general sense of the pre-eminence of pressing, there is no side currently dragging football in a direction it feels like everyone else must follow. Jürgen Klopp mitigated his approach, signing Thiago Alcântara, who had played for Guardiola at Barcelona and Bayern, to give his midfield greater control of possession, while Guardiola added greater directness to his City with the signing of Erling Haaland. False 9s are accepted and understood but far from common. The back three returned briefly to fashion, then faded away again. Most, but not all, top sides play with a high line. Goalkeepers now are expected to be able to play with their feet, to be comfortable outside the box. Real Madrid may have won five Champions Leagues between 2014 and 2022, and were obviously hugely talented, but those sides won’t be remembered for any tactical innovation. This second decade of the 21st century feels like a period of retrenchment rather than radicalism.