Press and possess is the method of many leading teams but Didier Deschamps’ side in Russia and Real Madrid before them picked up the biggest prizes playing in their own manner
The same basics everywhere: it would be easy to believe that football in 2018 was about the victory of press and possess. Manchester City do it, Liverpool do it, Tottenham do it, Chelsea do it, Arsenal do it, Barcelona do it, Juventus do it, Napoli do it, Bayern Munich do it, Borussia Dortmund do it, even Paris Saint-Germain have been showing signs of doing it under Thomas Tuchel. Manchester United didn’t do it and José Mourinho was sacked after a grim opening to the season in which his ideas had seemed increasingly outmoded.
And yet the two biggest competitions of the year were won by teams that did not play in that way. Try to find a pattern based on France winning the World Cup and Real Madrid winning the Champions League and the only conclusions likely to be drawn are that you have has a better chance of winning if a) you have has Raphaël Varane in the team; b) your coach won the World Cup with France in 1998 and has an alliterative name.
Part of the reason the best World Cup in years was so much fun was that it did not conform to expectation. The pattern in recent international tournaments has been for stodgy football as coaches, with limited time to work with their squads, end up focusing on defensive shape and neglect attacking coherence, but that was not the case in Russia.
France were out of step with the general attacking mood, their performances at times only slightly less boring than Didier Deschamps’ press conferences. Yet even they found themselves embroiled in 4-3 and 4-2 thrillers, and it was a French right-back who scored the goal of the tournament on a forward surge. None of it made much sense.
Real Madrid’s success in the Champions League was equally difficult to fit into an overall tactical narrative. Their success was rooted less in any great strategic plan than in winning the moments. Cristiano Ronaldo kept scoring decisive goals, Sergio Ramos kept making decisive interventions, Zinedine Zidane kept making vital substitutions and opposing goalkeepers kept making dreadful mistakes. That is not a blueprint for anybody else to follow; it is not even a blueprint for winning La Liga.
But almost everywhere else press-and-possess dominated. There are variations, of course; Pep Guardiola’s football is not the same as Jürgen Klopp’s. But the underlying principles are the same: press hard to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible, try to attack with a swift counterand, if that is not possible, maintain possession until it is.
For the top sides that is not especially surprising. Why would they be good at defending? They do not need to do it very often. As the economic disparity between the top and bottom of leagues has grown, so matches have become increasingly one-sided. That is apparent even in the Premier League, which has so far avoided the sort of crushing domination enjoyed by a Bayern, a Juve, a PSG or the Barça-Madrid duopoly.
A snapshot of the mismatches is given by possession stats. In the first three seasons that Opta collected data, between 2003‑04 and 2005‑06, there were only three games in which one team had 70% or more of the ball. That figure rose gradually to 36 in 2016-17. Last season there were 63. This season there had been 30 by Christmas – which is to say on course for 63 again.
The overwhelming reason for that is obvious: if one side have much better players, they can keep the ball far more easily. The trend then becomes exponential: where once there was a stigma about not having the ball for long periods, weaker sides have come to believe that the best way for them to compete is to maintain defensive shape and play without the ball. As their attacking ambitions become more limited, so the priority for players at the back in the stronger team becomes less defending than initiating attacks.
Which is all fine and logical until those players come up against a stronger team and actually have to start defending. That is why Manchester City last season had, statistically, the best defence in the Premier League but at the same time let in three goals in quick succession against Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United. They are hard to get at but once one has got at them, they are very getatable.
That pattern, repeated across Europe, is why so many games in the latter stages of the Champions League last season were so dramatic.
It is great for the viewer but it also means there is an opportunity for a team that can successfully pair the attacking dynamism that has become standard for elite teams with defensive solidity. Liverpool have been notably more cautious this season, while City played with unexpected reserve in their 0-0 draw at Anfield.
That perhaps is where football is heading. It seems implausible that the present frenzy will endure and the future is probably a more pragmatic variant of press-and-possess.