In Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End Of History And The Last Man, the philosopher and political economist postulated that history may well be coming to an end. His words weren’t those of a raving soothsayer – he did not claim that everything everywhere would end in an apocalyptic hellfire; quite the opposite. He argued that history, as a social and political evolution, will have reached its final form, unable to move beyond or advance towards anything ‘better’ than Western liberal democracy.
A similar thesis could be applied to football. After 150 years of the game, it may be argued that, in an evolutionary sense, the game has stagnated in recent times. Leagues are often ruled predominantly by the same teams sporting similar formations while smaller sides attempt containment to prevent a crushing wallop into the lower divisions. Arrigo Sacchi, often considered one of football’s last great innovators, has said that it is ‘remarkable’ how little advancement there has been since the development of his 1989 AC Milan European Cup winning side (that won Real Madrid 5-0 on the way to the final).
That though is not strictly true. Since the 90’s an increasing number of teams have let the number 10 drop off the striker to create a five-man midfield. Others, evolving in turn from that change, have then decided to push up their two wingers into advanced positions creating a 4-3-3, like Jose Mourinho did while at Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti repeated towards the end of last season in their 8-0 demolishing of Wigan.
Innovation or Continuation?
However, these changes do share a continuum with the past. In the 1930’s a wonderfully gifted yet wiry Austrian forward named Matthias Sindelar was forced to retreat from his forward position, away from burly centre-halves to collect the ball (Nandor Hidegkuti –England’s Hungarian nemesis – followed in a similar manner). Five-man midfields were also arguably a product of the 1930’s, manufactured by Vittorio Pozzo’s Metodo which, in today’s terms, may be seen as a 2-3-2-3. As for wingers playing up alongside the forward, they’re perhaps as old as the game itself.
Genuine innovation then, given all that has come before, coupled with the current globalization and growing homogeneity of the game, is nearing the impossible. Nevertheless, recent occurrences have shown that ingenuity in football is all but dead.
Inversion the next Innovation?
The unforeseen use of inverted wingers, for example, has shown that it is still possible to take a nuanced view on even one of the oldest traditions of the game. Lionel Messi was probably the man that sparked the idea, turning, as he does, inside from the wing and launching the ball towards goal with his favoured foot in any number of games for Barcelona. Louis van Gaal, evidently inspired, began utilizing Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben on their opposite flank. Roberto Mancini likewise began placing Adam Johnson on the right and Craig Bellamy cutting in from the left. Even Steve Bruce popped Steed Malbranque on his usually adjacent flank.
This subtle change is partly so effective because it goes against the grain of the defenders that attempt to prevent it. Full-backs are often taught relentlessly that they should show the winger inside onto his unfavoured foot and into the congested midfield. Up against an inverted winger, however, the defender is letting the winger turn onto his favoured foot. By a way of response, some managers have attempted to stymie the inverted winger’s progress by employing an inverted full-back.
In an FA Cup game against Manchester City, Tony Pulis fielded Stoke City right-back Andy Wilkinson in a left-back position to stymie Mancini’s inverted wingers. However, somewhat unexpectedly, Mancini fielded Wright-Phillips on the right and consequently Wilkinson looked like a duck out of water.
Meanwhile, in the World Cup right-footed Uruguayan Jose Martin Caceres was positioned on the left to stymie the catalyzing effect of Arjen Robben in the semi-final. To a certain extent this worked and Robben was forced to reposition himself within proximity of Robin Van Persie to get into the game (he eventually scored from the middle with his head). It will be interesting to see whether, in the coming years, inverted full-backs will become as regularly used as their winger counterparts.
Next Stop Chile?
Possibly the most exciting innovation of recent times though has been Marco Bielsa’s Chile. Although the side’s 3-3-1-3 formation isn’t entirely new (Bielsa used the sameapproach as Argentina manager nearly a decade ago) it has certainly yet to win worldwide interest.
What makes Bielsa’s formation so unique is its absolute reliance on player fitness. Had Chile attempted to play like this before the refinement of player nutrition, training and fitness that has taken place in the last two decades, each player would’ve lasted no longer than 45 minutes given the velocity both their defence and attack requires. Anyone who saw them play against Spain would’ve noted how quick they were to close down the Spanish players and how incredibly fast they were at getting a remarkable number of men into the box.
In addition to their pace, phenomenal pressing and attacking proficiency, Chile exemplified more than anyone else the growing universality in players. Players, wherever they found themselves, were unfazed by the task they needed to accomplish and each man was keen to cover for a man who had powered his way up field. Every man was comfortable on the ball and could see a pass or attempt a dribble (a far cry from England’s disappointments).
In a way, they appeared to be a dynasty of Totaalvoetbal, refined and re-mastered. But, at a time when teams are preoccupied with avoiding humiliation, Bielsa’s willing – and arguably successful – departure from that negativity should be heralded as a tantalizing glimpse of what the future of football may behold.
Unfortunately for those of us living in England, it’s highly unlikely that any serious or dramatic changes will occur in the current environment of football celebrity, televised scrutiny or monetary disparity amongst the lower and higher leagues.
This was written on the 26th of July and recently published for www.footballtransfertavern.com