Alright, it took me a while to dig this, but it finally came to me in the middle of the night. I wrote most of this at 3 AM last night with my pregnant wife sleeping in the next room, so please excuse any errors in spelling or grammar.
The following are all statements about professional football that are, to varying degrees, true, but that are also deceptive when taken in their entirety:
(a) The team with more talent will control more possession of the ball in a majority of the matches that are played.
(b) The team that controls more possession of the ball will create more good chances to score in a majority of matches.
(c) The that that creates more good chances to score will win the match a majority of the time.
All of those statements are true, when taken in the aggregate, with respect to the entire world of football. However, the "majorities" described in each of those statements are far from 100 percent. In other words, in any given match, it's no big surprise if the more talented team doesn't control most of the ball, it's no big surprise if the team controlling most of the ball doesn't create more chances, and it's no big surprise if the team with more good chances fails to win. Taken together, these responses mean that having the more talented team is far from any guarantee of winning a given match; each of those 3 steps might lead to a greater likelihood, but (in general) a breakdown can occur at each point that will prevent the linear flow of having more talent --> controlling more of the ball--> creating more good scoring chances --> winning the match.
The challenge that's created, then, for managers of big teams (those that have the talent advantage in most matches) is fundamentally different than the challenge facing most managers. A guy who manages a weak team, or even just a decent one, is trying to win tactical battles, but a guy in charge of a winning, talented team has to do that and also put into place a longer-term strategic plan to ensure that, while the team with the most talent doesn't necessarily win, his team will. This plan must either bypass one of the three steps described above on the way to winning the match, or must crank up the likelihood of each occurring as close to 100 percent as possible.
There are infinite ways that the manager of a top club could try to do this. But the way I see it, they fall into three main categories:
(1) Deliberately avoid trying to control more possession, and focus on playing defense and setting up lightning-strike counter-attacks
Made most famous by Napoli's side of the last couple years, and by Borussia Monchengladbach's squad last season. [I won't include Mourinho's Inter side or Chelsea in last year's CL - those were teams that basically just wanted to defend and kill the ball. They didn't go into every match with an explicit plan to release their forwards on a counter-attack. But Dortmund has an element of this strategy, or at least they can when they want to.] In a way, this strategy is diabolically clever, because it completely bypasses the first step in the above progression of steps (gradually decreasing in likelihood) between "having more talent" and "winning the match." The team can mostly ignore concerns with winning the ball in the middle of the field, preventing build-up passes, etc - the only focus is "defend, steal the ball and break the other way with it."
Oh, so the team with more talent MIGHT usually control more of the ball? We don't care - we don't even WANT to control more of the ball. We want the opponents to have time to set up their attack, because our attack doesn't take any time to set up. We want the other team's middies and FBs to push forward, because it makes it even easier for us to nail them on the counter.
This strategy can make for exciting matches, and it can certainly work out very well - see the results that Napoli has created over the past couple years, or that BMG had under Favre last season. There are serious drawbacks to the plan, though: first, you need to have the right kind of personnel to pull it off. Napoli's strategy is great, but it would never have worked if they didn't have Cavani to turn loose on the opponents' keepers. And you can see that BMG hasn't been the same since they lost Reus.
Anyway, regardless of personnel, you can only run this kind of strategy if you're absolutely ruthless with your chances. Even if a team is talented and has the counter-attack strategy down to perfection, how many good chances do they average per game? Four or five? Certainly not more than six. Plus, another drawback is that, if BOTH teams want to play this style, you end up with incredibly boring matches, with neither team seizing the initiative.
In short, Strategy 1 is an intriguing response to the problem identified at the beginning - the non-universality of talent leading to possession, possession leading to chances, and chances leading to goals. It eliminates any need or desire to achieve the first step, and focuses only on the second two. But the limits of the strategy have become apparent over the past few months, and anyway it's hard to imagine a team like Bayern sitting back and only waiting to counter. Most opponents would be happy to hang back themselves and play for scoreless draws.
(2) Set out to control more possession, and focus on constantly being aggressive and attacking
Strategy 2 is a straightforward attempt to climb the mountain posed by the initial formula described above. The more talented team doesn't always control most of the possession, but we're going to try to do so. The team controlling possession doesn't always create more chances, but we're going to be aggressive and creative to ensure that we do. The team with more good chances doesn't always score more, but we think we will. In a way, this isn't really a distinct "strategy" of its own, but instead an acceptance of the general flow of the game and an attempt to win the "square" way.
This is pretty much what Bayern has been doing (mostly successfully) in the Jupp Heynckes era. Last season, we heard the guys say things like "we always had more possession, but now, we're doing more - we're constantly attacking, pressuring, and looking to attack the defense." Some element of this strategy is what most big clubs look to do. Manchester United has always been known to play this way. They usually control a majority of possession, but Sir Alex has been known to criticize his team when they dominate possession but don't do enough to unlock opposing defenses. Basically, Strategy 2 says "controlling possession is important, but it's not enough. We need to push forward, make runs, and punish the defenders for any mistakes."
Sometimes this is combined with a high defensive line, in an attempt to shorten the field and crank up the pressure even further. A high line can be an important part of an ball-control-aggressive-attack strategy, but it's not necessary. What's necessary is that players are committed to every step of the progression between having a talent advantage and winning the match: winning loose balls and controlling play, pressing forward and making good passes to create chances, and incisively taking those chances when they become available.
This strategy (again, if you can even call it that) can obviously work. Juventus went undefeated last season and leads Serie A again this year; if you look at their numbers, you see the same thing at play. They see a majority of the ball in every match (usually between 53 and 60 percent), and they're very committed to doing something with it - they routinely out-shoot their opponents by a wide margin. Bayern's success so far this season is similar. We're winning the battle for possession, but that's not all we're doing. We don't give defenses a chance to rest against us, we almost always have more shots on goal than our opponents, and even our midfielders and fullbacks find themselves getting forward and getting involved with the offense.
But Strategy 2 has drawbacks as well. First of all, the more aggressive you are in attacking the goal, the more likely you are to give the other side a chance to counter. Consider the second 'Gladbach game last season (the one in January). Bayern controlled 67 percent of the ball and constantly sought to be assertive and create pressure, while BMG just sat back and waited for a chance to cut us open. The more we tried to crank up the pressure and be aggressive with our offense, the more we continued to bang our heads against the wall and leave the fort unguarded. Plus, there is no clear line between dominating possession and the next step, creating more chances on goal. And, if opponents are trying to park the bus and go all-defense, there might not even be a clear line between creating more chances and scoring more often.
To summarize, this "square" strategy of trying to conquer each step in the initial formula one at a time is what most super-talented teams try to do. But, as has been shown over the last few years (especially in the Champions League) no amount of aggression and attacking spirit can assure you of a win, even if you're the more talented team. As discussed above, controlling the ball doesn't always mean you get more chances, and this is especially true if the opponent knows how to defend your tactics.
(3) Focus only on controlling the ball, to the exclusion of being aggressive and attacking
The way of Pep's squads at Barca. I've been mulling this over a lot lately, even before the news that Guardiola was on his way here. In its way, this strategy is just as subversive and unusual as Napoli's decision to forgo trying to win the battle for possession. Pep's Barcelona teams focused ONLY on controlling possession, to the point that you sometimes felt like "yeah, great, but when are you actually going to do something with it?"
If you've watched Barca play, you know how it works: the game runs through the midfielders, who set up a series of interlocking passing triangles (or sometimes diamonds) and work the ball from player to player. At any given moment, the player with the ball isn't even necessarily trying to move it towards the goal or to set up a scoring chance (you can see now how this differs from the way Bayern has been playing recently). Instead, the thought is only for the next pass: "the ball is coming to me, I have multiple passing targets, they can't take away all of them, that defender is converging on Xavi - bam, flip it over to Busquets." Then, before the ball even gets to Busquets, he's thinking the same thing - "the defenders slid over to cover Iniesta after he passed it, there are still two guys marking Alves - bam, now they left Xavi open, knock it over to him." All of these thoughts take place in a fraction of a second, and it's made easier by the fact that there's no pressure to be attacking the goal. In fact, they aren't really even "attacking" anything. The only aim is to find a guy the defense leaves open, get him the ball, then move into a spot where you can get open yourself. Above all, they're always trying to keep the ball moving and prevent the opponents from getting a touch.
This strategy works for the following reasons:
- the opposing teams gets exhausted from chasing the ball
- sometimes, the opponents also get mesmerized, or even just lulled to sleep, by the constant lateral and short-distance passing; when they do, Barcelona is great at exploiting any openings they leave
- (this is important) Barcelona is excellent at working the ball into a threatening position, then immediately back out of it. That sounds weird, but it works. Messi is incredibly good at this: getting open near the edge of the box, taking a pass, and when the defenders converge (because they have to - it's Messi, with the ball, near the edge of the box), he touches it back out to one of the midfielders or across to one of the wings. But now, that player is looking at a different situation, with a defensive structure that has been broken down.
Now, there are drawbacks here, too, and reasons this couldn't work for everyone. First of all, eventually you're going to have to do something with the ball if you want to win. And that's why it works for Barca. When you have Leo Messi waiting to pounce, the strategy of "first wear out the defense and break down their formation" makes a lot more sense. And secondly, sometimes you run into a defense that refuses to chase (that's what led to a few dropped points for Barca in Li Liga last season - opponents would sit back and say "pass it sideways all you want, we'll be here when you decide to attack the goal").
The biggest problem with this strategy, though, is that it can't be employed halfway. You either have to go the square way - win the ball and then look to create a scoring chance with a pass or dribble - or you have to go the Barca way - focus only on maintaining possession and working your passing system. And everything, from your training and film study, to your formations, to the starting XI selected, to even your personnel moves, will have to flow from that decision
And that will be the challenge for Pep Guardiola as his career at Bayern unfolds. Will he try to bring the Barca system to Munich? Doing so would require many Bayern players to recreate their skill sets in entirely new ways. And it could take months or even years. Or will he try to work with the skills and proclivities of the guys as they are? Doing so would basically mean turning his back on the strategy he developed at Barcelona, one that revolutionized the football world. But the point is (yes, it took me a while to get there) that there can't be a compromise. If we're going to go out there and look to set up an intricate possession-based system of passing angles, that has to be the goal from the first day of training. There can be no such thing as "keep playing the Bayern way, but also bring a little bit of that Barca magic." That would make no more sense than Napoli saying "we're going to keep playing our counter-attack game, but also try to control 70 percent of the possession in every match," or an NFL team saying "we're going to be a smash-mouth running team, but also throw the ball 60 times a game." Either we continue to do what we've been doing, or we stop doing what we've been doing and start doing what Pep has been doing.
I just went through and fixed various formatting and spelling errors, but the gist of the whole thing is still as it was when it shocked me awake last night. So if it makes no sense, feel free to dismiss it as the ramblings of a 32-year-old man who spends far too much time thinking about a kid's game. Thanks for reading.