Chelsea highlights a transition in the modern game.
Although it has been revealed it may not be possible for Roman Abramovich to lure Pep Guardiola to Stamford Bridge during his year-long sabbatical from the world of football, it is clear what the Russian owner’s vision for Chelsea football club is. He wants attacking football as close to the style of Barcelona as possible, and he is not alone in his hunt for a more expansive brand of play.
Consider Chelsea’s signings over the past few seasons. The team has transformed from a collective of hard-working, strong, tall, and stable players to one of flair, excitement and goal-scoring potential. Mourinho’s power-based midfield of Ballack, Essien and Lampard has grown into a short and speedy opposite, with the likes of Ramires, Oscar, Mata and Hazard becoming the dominant elements.
Furthermore, the Blues’ defence has become much more concerned with scoring goals, as defensive reliability has become a second preference to ability to play the ball. The signings of Gary Cahill and David Luiz are evidence for that, and both are expected to contribute to Chelsea’s goal tally.
Luiz especially, is an example of how what is expected of a defender has changed. His defensive qualities have come under question to the extent that pundits often debate over whether the Brazilian should even be employed as a centre-back, but there is no doubt he is a natural footballer.
Luiz often shows the flair and ball control of a midfielder when wandering up the pitch, dismissing his duties as a part of his team’s backline. Similarly, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen has been described as a “goal-scoring centre-back”, but the Belgian has statistically made the most errors this season.
It does seem that scoring goals is on everybody’s mind. Sir Alex Ferguson now has three strikers in van Persie, Rooney and Hernandez who he believes are capable of scoring 20 goals this campaign. Following losing out on the Premier League title on goal difference last season, Fergie’s desire for goals is understandable, but in defence United have suffered some blowback – more often than not, the Red Devils have conceded first this season. Last weekend, they came unstuck against Norwich who recorded a surprise 1-0 win as the Man United defence failed to deal with a Canaries cross.
On the other side of Manchester, Roberto Mancini started the season attempting to play a 3-5-2 system, trying to get as many forward-thinking players on the pitch as possible. The new tactic appears to be on the most part now scrapped by Mancini following some poor defensive performances in the Champions League.
The fact that City and Chelsea have both struggled in Europe this season is no coincidence, it’s the repercussions for the attacking intent that’s washed over the Premier League. Being more assertive going forward may work against rank-and-file English teams, but Europe’s elite can easily capitalise on lapses in concentration in defence and gaps left behind an attack-oriented midfield.
The goals per game ratio has increased year upon year in the Premier League, with goalless draws becoming more of a rarity. But, has the lust for goals from fans and owners undermined their own success as they struggle to find the balance between attacking football and defensive stability? Certainly it seems Roberto Di Matteo has paid the price for Chelsea’s adaption to playing a more open style of football. Similarly, Brendan Rodgers has tried to install his brand of passing play at Liverpool that made him a popular and successful Swansea manager, but it is yet to make the Merseyside club an effective outfit as they struggle to make it into the top half of the Premier League.
Possession football is the hotly desired fad, but in many ways it is at polar opposites with the direct, fast-paced, physical nature of the Premier League. This year, teams such as Stoke, Norwich and West Ham pride themselves on a sturdy defence and the ability of their front-men to cause havoc against defenders who aren’t up for the challenge.
West Ham especially is a valuable case study. Despite initial criticism from fans about the boring style of football Sam Allardyce employs, it has certainly produced results. The Hammers are flying high in 7th place, just four points off a Champions League position.
The transition towards ball-playing, often speedy defenders, who are perhaps lacking in metal, plays into the hands of the more aggressive and physical teams. Their ability to take advantage of set pieces also undermines the notion that attacking football is the key to success.
Of course, like any football fan, I would love to see expansive football, but it does destabilise teams. Obviously, every club would like to play like Barcelona – they will go down in the history books as the greatest club team of all time – but there is a reason they can’t. The transition desired by the likes of Abramovich to such a style could take years; it takes the adaptation of the whole culture of a club.
And even then, it is no guarantee of success. Barcelona finished second in La Liga last year, beaten to the title by a Real Madrid team playing typically sturdy football under Jose Mourinho. Furthermore, it was not long ago that Celtic recorded their famous 2-1 victory against the Catalans as they paid dearly for two defensive errors.
Clubs need to find a balance. Expansive possession football as a philosophy is very idealist. When carried out effectively it is deadly to its opponents, but it does not ensure trophies or even victories.
I fear the culture of foreign owners in Premier League who view clubs as something they can mould into a desired image, mixed with the constant pressure for results, will claim more casualties than Roberto Di Matteo by the end of the season.