“Football changes. Possession of the ball is no longer a must. The teams were more concerned with playing in smaller spaces, in staying compact and getting into the opposition half as quickly as possible.” So said Brazil’s former World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira in a recent reflection on this summer’s edition of the global showpiece in Russia. That verdict, given in a FIFA.com interview, applies just as readily to the elite club game where the evidence of the past 12 months in the Champions League had already underlined the shift away from possession football and towards punishing opposition defences with swift transitions.
If one statistic alone from the 2017/18 Champions League highlights this trend it is that 51 per cent of goals came as a result of ball-winning in the attacking third, whereas only 12 per cent of goals originated from moves begun in the defensive third. It is a statistic taken from UEFA’s technical report into last term’s campaign, a report which offers plenty of food for thought looking ahead to the new season – and one which highlights the place of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the tactical vanguard.
This is a football, says UEFA’s report, “based on everybody pushing forward with or without the ball and exerting aggressive high pressure after ball losses and, in the process, making it difficult for opponents to counterattack with clarity. Liverpool’s modus operandi provided a prime example of effective, high-intensity, collective pressing by a compact block.”
Liverpool scored a competition-record 47 times en route to finishing runners-up in Kyiv in May and UEFA’s study emphasises the sheer speed of the attacks that blew so many teams away: in their scoring moves, Klopp’s men averaged 2.56 passes in the space of 7.68 seconds, when the competition average for 2017/18 was 4.03 passes per goal over 12.26 seconds.
As a member of UEFA’s technical observers’ group at the final in Kyiv, David Moyes offers an explanation in the report of the tactical structure behind the Reds’ success – a modern twist on the 4-3-3 system. “We tend to think of the Dutch 4-3-3 with wingers and wide players,” he says. “I think that Liverpool’s 4-3-3 is completely different. Apart from the two full-backs, nearly all the players concentrate their efforts into a central area – as if we extended the outside lines of the penalty boxes from end to end. At first, it seems quite easy to coach against it. But the Liverpool system allows them to press very easily with their three forwards. This covers your defensive players very quickly, whether you’re playing with a back four or a back three. Also, on the counterattack, they’re extremely fast – they have fast individual dribblers. They’re all happy to run in behind without the ball and not always receive it to feet. I think Liverpool summed up a lot of modern-day trends.”
To illustrate this speed, the report notes that over the course of last season, “Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané averaged 53 high-intensity sprints per match; Mohamed Salah 46.” Moreover it was Salah who recorded the season’s fastest sprint overall, 33.8km/h during the home leg of the quarter-final against Manchester City. Incidentally, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford (33.5km/h) and City’s Kyle Walker (33.3km/h) were next on that list, with two other Liverpool players, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andrew Robertson also both in top ten (32.6km/h each). In the age-defying James Milner, meanwhile, Liverpool had the player who covered most distance per match in last season’s Champions League – 142.6 metres per minute according to the UEFA metric, which translates as 12.84km over 90 minutes.
Liverpool’s approach mirrors a much wider trend, of course, and overall, UEFA’s statistics show how the percentage of goalscoring moves beginning in the last third of the pitch rose from 43 per cent in 2015/16 to 51 per cent last term. The report notes: “As an argument in favour of the dividends to be obtained from high pressing, 96 of the 323 open-play goals (compared with 69 in the previous season) had their origin in latching on to a loose ball or a loose pass by an opponent.” It goes on to ask whether the trend of building from the back “is now being undermined by the tendency towards aggressive high pressing”.
According Thomas Schaaf, the former Werder Bremen coach who is a prominent voice on UEFA’s team of technical observers, “teams have developed strategies to play against possession football and to make themselves dangerous against opponents like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain. Liverpool gave us a good example of a team equipped to try to suffocate the opponent’s build-up play.” Something that City – who had the highest possession average last season (62 per cent) – know only too well from a painful quarter-final night at Anfield.
UEFA’s report also seeks to make sense of some of the more madcap results of last season’s competition – a campaign, remember, where three-goal deficits suddenly felt quite flimsy, starting with Roma’s quarter-final triumph over Barcelona where the Italian side overturned a 4-1 away loss with a stunning 3-0 home success. Real Madrid – beaten 3-1 at home by Juventus after a 3-0 win in Turin – and Liverpool, losing 4-2 at Roma when defending their 5-2 semi-final first-leg lead, both had scares when similarly strongly placed.
“Theories about teams becoming mentally better equipped to deal with adverse situations can be supported by other matches, such as the comeback from 2-0 down that earned Roma a 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Or the fightback that salvaged an identical result for Sevilla after trailing 3-0 at half-time at home to Liverpool,” says the report which also cites Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 comeback draw at Juventus. Christian Chivu, the former Internazionale defender, adds: “Credit to Mauricio Pochettino because it’s about how we manage the players, how we take pressure off them and how we give them the right motivation.” It is also about removing the handbrake and it seems fair to suggest the trend for less risk-averse football is changing the way knockout football is played.
For a start, taking the lead in European ties is no longer such a guarantee of success. In 2015/16 there were only 15 wins for teams conceding first. In 2016/17 the figure was 17. The upward trend was continued in 2017/18, when 20 of the 99 games that produced results in the Champions League were won by the team breached first. The same applied to the Europa League where, from group stage to final, there were 57 wins in 2017/18 for the team conceding first; in 2012/13 the equivalent number was just 17.
Teams are no longer scoring and then shutting up shop – and they are also taking a positive approach away from home. There is a suggestion from one coach quoted in the Champions League report that the last defensive-minded team to win the competition were José Mourinho’s Inter in 2010. Another of the technical observers, Mixu Paatelainen, the former Dundee United, Aberdeen and Bolton Wanderers striker now coaching Latvia, notes that “there was a dynamic approach from every team – home and away”. He saw the same “dynamic approach” replicated at the World Cup , and its impact on the Champions League was evident in the notable rise in away victories. Indeed the knockout rounds actually witnessed more wins on the road (12) than in teams’ home stadiums (10). Of the goals scored from the round of 16 onwards only 52% were by the home side.
A similar, if softer, trajectory is visible in the Europa League where between the round of 32 and semi-finals of last season’s competition there were 31 home wins and 17 away wins; the equivalent number of away victories 30 years ago was nine. This has led to a debate over the usefulness, and indeed, fairness of the away-goals rule. Arsène Wenger has called for its scrapping in the past and at this month’s UEFA Elite Coaches’ Forum in Nyon, at which Wenger was present, the coaches present asked UEFA to undertake a review of the rule in its club competitions.
Pros and cons of the attacking full-back
Another reason for the rise in goals, according to UEFA, is that the role of the attacking full-back has created a defensive susceptibility in the wide areas. With the leading teams playing increasingly without wingers – the report cites Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry as “an exception to the general rule” – the onus is on the full-backs to provide width in the final third. As a consequence, says Thomas Schaaf, “the attacking full-backs carry a risk element so they have to be taught how to stay compact and to deal with shifts of play. I saw quite a few goals during the season where a player started wide to receive in the space behind the full-back and then cut in to score.”
Whether the demise of the winger means trickery is on the slide – in an era with such an emphasis on speed and springing forward in numbers – is another point for debate. One thought-provoking statistic is that where in 2016/17, solo runs accounted for 11 goals in the Champions League knockout rounds, last season that figure slipped to two.
And finally, for all the focus on attacking football, here are a couple of statistics that highlight that Man City and Liverpool, the English clubs most fancied by the bookmakers to make an impact this coming season, did not do too badly defensively last term. Klopp’s Liverpool had the most efficient defence in terms of shots on target conceded – an average of just three per game – while Pep Guardiola’s City conceded the fewest overall shots on goal against in the competition (8.5 per game).