Playing from the back football, possession, tiki-taka and all that stuff that some managers embrace and others run from. Yes, today’s discussion, in football, is no longer about the beautiful game against something like the cattenaccio – or something more common these days like parking the bus -, nowadays the duality is between possession football or counter-attack football, which aesthetically is something so difficult to discuss like deciding who is better: Ronaldo or Messi? Some managers, as said before, embrace the style recreated by Pep Guardiola at Nou Camp more than a decade ago, and with that, some of them, feel like they win every game. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t win every game, but they tend to create some sort of scapegoat when they lose. So it’s common to hear some managers say that we were the best team, with more possession, more chances, we dominated the field and game as well the ball. But unfortunely…
Again, don’t get me wrong. Having the ball most of the time can be a great asset to a football team, but that, alone, is not going to make you win every game, not even, sometimes, make you more closer to winning the game that you are playing (and that you really need to win). This was the effect of that brilliant Pep Guardiola’s side at Barcelona: it made everyone think that that kind of style will triumph every time, everywhere. And if it doesn’t… there must be some kind of error, some kind of mistake with the game, with the world, with the universe.
And that’s why we need to be aware when we analyze a game based on a judgement value between aesthetics, or between a style that we consider more evolved than another. And this brings me to Swansea City, to Graham Potter’s philosophy, and to their brilliant goal against the Cityzens last Saturday.
So everyone knows by now that the swans philosophy is based on the same premises that the ones that Pep impose long ago on his Barça, Bayern and City sides. Years ago, Swansea City achieved success with this approach and the signing of Potter is meant to follow these steps. And for me, really, that signing was one of the best decisions that the board could make. But seeing the swans play makes us wonder: why the hell are they so close to the bottom on the Championship? And seeing that beautiful play that created that astonishing Celina’s goal, makes us wonder even more.
Here we begin to see that the introduction to this text was not a waste of time. Tiki-taka’s football evolved, and lots of managers tried to recreate the style, but for the vast majority is all about possession. If in the end they have more possession than the opponent they will have the scapegoat, the excuses that prompts them to continue not finding solutions to the teams problems. And from my perspective, Graham Potter doesn’t have that tendency (because his team knows where to play and prepares itself well for the moment when it loses the ball) but, again, there’s something missing. And looking at that brilliant goal we might find out what it is.
You see, nowadays, it’s not difficult to have more possession than most opponents. With the zonal marking most teams concentrate their defense in the center, leaving space in the wings. And once the ball goes to the sides, they close that space, and the middle, leaving the other wing unoccupied. So, it’s easy to create an astonishing 70% possession playing on our half or through the spaces that the other team leave unoccupied – which is the same of saying that you will play where they want you to play. And that’s the difference for the most sides that try to recreate Barcelona 08-13 football, and the original. Because the original would play where it wants to play, creating gaps on your defense to explore them and not to just brag about having more possession or whatever. Because if Pep Guardiola’s side goes to the wings, the player who has the ball will have the option to pass the ball to a player on the same side, will have two or more options to go through the middle, will have another two or more options on the other side, and can always find someone else on the back to maintain possession, starting again the play. But most teams will not go through the middle, because it’s more difficult to maintain the ball there, and if you’re not Iniesta, Messi, Xavi, Silva or De Bruyne, in such a closed space, you’re putting your team at a risk that most managers (even the ones that always brag about possession) would not want to take. But for you to have possession you have to take that risk, because otherwise you’ll just go around and around the opponent without really hurting him.
Now, for Graham Potter and for Swansea City that’s not entirely the case. And I can say for certain that the swans are one of the most dangerous team playing from the back in the world of football. The personality, the fearless way and, most importantly, the spaces that they find through the middle, makes them – along with Man City – one of the best on that field. And that brilliant goal proves it. But the thing that is a bit awkward is that Swansea City plays through the center close to their box, but rarely does it in the opponents half. I’m not saying that they don’t do it, but when the space closes they tend to find the easiest solution to maintaining possession – which is going where the other team wants you to go (around, and around…). And I say it’s awkward because being you one of the best teams in the world playing from the back (and again, believe me: they are – if you look at most of the teams that brag about possession you will see them kicking the ball when the pressure starts to be an issue), if you are so great doing it close to your box, as I was saying, I don’t see why you don’t force it more often when you are closer to the opponents box. Because sometimes the possession football it’s a curse that turns against you, and that is not the kind of spell that Potter wants on his team. Maintain the ball and waiting for the opponent to get it and score happens a lot in the possession football world, but Graham Potter’s philosophy is good enough to force a little more and put his players one on one with the opposition keepers more often. Because with that kind of squad (full of technique but lacking killer instinct) you will not score many times playing by the wings and crossing the ball).