Barcelona have shown during the last decade that they are one of the best sides in world football. Their performances have led to suggestions that they are the best side ever to have played the game, and their performance against Santos in the 2011 Club World Cup even suggested to Brazil that the beautiful game has been borrowed from its home in South America.
As is often the case when a team is massively successful, others will attempt to replicate them. It’s a natural thought process, in that if a system is working so well for one team, other managers and chairmen will come to the conclusion that it will work for their own.
A good example of a club who adapted well to this latest wave of passing and possession football is Borussia Dortmund.
After their Bundesliga triumph in 2002 the club started to decline as their results and performances became less and less impressive both on the pitch, and on the balance sheet. Their financial problems weren’t necessarily a direct result of their on field activities, but the exit from the Champions League didn’t help, and lead to the familiar football financial problem of a club counting its Champions League chickens before they’d hatched. To cut a long story short, they almost went bankrupt and players had to take pay cuts.
Dortmund used its existing strengths to help cover up any weaknesses, and the two outstanding strengths Dortmund had were its massive 80,000 capacity stadium and the loyal fan base contained within. The Westfalenstadoin was renamed Signal Iduna Park in 2006, as a sponsor came in to provide much needed revenue, and the club decided to give the fans the rewards on the pitch – with an exciting brand of football under a new forward thinking manager in Jurgen Klopp – appointed in 2008.
Dortmund are able to play Barcelona style possession football when they want to, and if their opposition let them. When they’re playing those teams which they should be beating, they’ll set up with a high line and look to dominate possession by controlling the ball in midfield and letting the opposition do all the running. However, their style is often considered slightly more direct than that of the patient, probing approach used by Barca, which can often rely on one of their world class players to pull off an incisive pass threaded through the eye of a needle, or a moment of inspiration from Messi.
Rather than attempting the impossible by being a carbon copy of Barcelona, Dortmund will look at their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the qualities of their own players, before setting out their plans for a game. If they’re playing against a strong opponent they’re equally as competent at absorbing pressure before springing a counter attack, as they are at keeping the ball once they win it back.
All of this has meant that some of the most entertaining matches in recent years have involved Borussia Dortmund and their exploits in the Champions League, a competition in which they are now regulars again. Despite their failure to qualify from the group stages in 2011 their games against Arsenal were great entertainment for football fans around the world, as two similar philosophies came up against each other.
The current 2012/13 Champions League season saw Dortmund come into their own, with impressive performances in the toughest group in the competition against the likes of Real Madrid, and Manchester City. Their mixture of controlled possession play, and ruthless direct counter attacking, has shown that good team play and a sound tactical philosophy can defeat a team which has simply had money thrown at it and not much else. They finished unbeaten at the top of their group, having defeated both Manchester City and Real Madrid at home, picking up well deserved draws at the Bernabeu and the City of Manchester Stadium.
Many teams have tried to replicate the Barca model and failed. Barcelona have been building this project over decades since they themselves borrowed elements of the successful philosophy of total football from Ajax, embodied by their signing of Johan Cruyff. Cruyff would go on to manage the club and, along with Josep Lluis Nunez, help to create their now legendary youth academy – La Masia. The aim was to make Barcelona self sufficient, and not reliant on the uncertainties and inadequacies of any outside financial bodies.
Roman Abramovic came into football under the impression that money could buy him anything. Aiming to emulate Barca at his club of choice – Chelsea – he’s spent millions on failed youth academies and players, the most prominent of these being the lucrative contract he gave to the Dutchman Frank Arnesen, whose expensive youth academy project produced talents such as….? Several seasons and mangers later, Chelsea have the European Cup Abramovic always wanted, but won it playing in a style he despised, which saw his Champions League winning manager sacked at the first opportunity.
Luckily for Abramovic, the pragmatism he hated so much has probably saved the club from a huge dip in fortunes, as the only way they qualified for this season’s Champions League was because they are the current holders. A team in outside of Europe’s premier competition would have surely been unable to attract world class players such as Eden hazard, and Oscar, with other players such as Juan Mata, Ramires and David Luiz not likely to hang around at a Europa League side.
This tendency to emulate a successful team could have a positive knock on effect within English football as a whole, the teams throughout the football league, and the coaching of players in this country. England at a national level has been behind the times almost from the moment they invented the rules and laws of association football. Other nations have come along and adapted the game by transferring various aspects of their lifestyle, culture, and environment, into the way they play the game. There are no better examples of this than Brazil, but even closer to home the teams in Northern England and particularly Scotland were the first to adapt to a team based passing style of play.
At club level England has always produced good sides who can compete at the highest level in Europe, but we can now see the effects of modern possession football filtering down the leagues, and could even end up at amateur youth level where the fixation with winning games could now be replaced by a desire to develop players. Coaches will see the benefits of player development as a career path, rather than the amount of youth cups they won with their over sized, prematurely physically developed, but technically limited players. It’s no longer about the stronger side winning the match, but the side who played the best football progressing as a team.
Sides promoted to the Premiership are now just as likely to play a passing game as they are to batten down the hatches and lump it to an overpriced target man in an attempt to stay in the league. This trend could have been started by Ian Holloway’s Blackpool, but it has been attempted by an increasing number of teams since. The most effective of these was Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea City side who achieved an 11th place finish in their first season in the top flight, just ahead of Paul Lambert’s Norwich City, who were very much the Dortmund to Swansea’s Barcelona. We now see sides within the Championship and below playing a possession based game, with sides like Gus Poyet’s Brighton looking more like a side in the bottom half of La Liga, rather than the top half of the English second tier.
From Sampaoli to Samão
This latest shift in the tactics, style, and philosophies of football is great for fans all around the world, especially as football around the globe is now more accessible than ever thanks to the internet. Coaches like Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola have set a blueprint for team management and development, with managers such as Jorge Sampaoli and Diego Simeone following suit with adaptations of their own. Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert may have seen a slight dip in their fortunes since leaving Swansea and Norwich respectively, but both set up using sound tactical systems which should, in theory, set their clubs up for a more long term, self sufficient way of operating, even if they aren’t there to see the rewards. Dare i say, even Sam Allardyce has bowed slightly to West Ham fans demands for slicker looking football in the West Ham style, but Samão was never as dedicated to his long ball, kick and rush tactics, as some fans and journalists would have you believe anyway.
This article was originally published on Back Page Football