Modern football and the art of adaptability

By Muyiwa Adagunodo

All things, concepts, inventions, jobs and ultimately humans, in the parenthesis of the world always need to evolve. The world is constantly evolving, thus, to not evolve is not only to be stagnant, it is to be behind. In this particular race, football is not left out as we have seen over the years constant improvement in this game, which on the flip side is millions of people’s jobs worldwide. In the top, top jobs all over the world, workers are never put in straight jacket conditions where the use of their initiative is suppressed. In fact, the use of initiative and having problem solving skills are the hallmarks of these top jobs. In this vein, football as a job is also not exempted as we have seen football players (who in the economic cycle are employees of clubs) develop attributes and master skills which have even become sort of like a niche and are iconic to some of these players. In this method of arbitration and scrutiny, we do not expect football managers and coaches to be left behind because fundamentally, as much as they are employees of these clubs, they are also responsible for the performances for the other employees (the players). It’s like the human resources wing of a company; except these managers are also in the forefront of questions as regards the performance of these employees and these human resource aspect of football is where our focus will be through this analysis.

The need of managers to evolve and develop problem solving skills on the pitch has never really been a problem for modern football. The problem comes when the anticipated problematic scenario, whose approach has been created and recreated in training sessions, it’s strong points analyzed, counter measures deployed and solutions obtained from a series of deliberate brainstorming and accidental inventions does not take place in the manner expected. Here, adaptation, application and channeling their determination and never say die attitude into the players are things that get managers over the line of particular tests. In these circumstances, some managers have excelled over the years and made names for themselves in football while others who constantly want their style reverenced even in the face of adversity, constantly churn out what, in the end becomes something of a generic content week in week out, and because of the severe lack of outside the box ideas, it becomes almost like prison food. It’s like memorizing for an exam and after passing the exam, you cannot score well in the applicative scenarios. This eventually yields little or no result because in football, as much as some cubs have an upper hand in terms of quality of players and footballing methods and ideas, determination and a willingness to grind on all fours will always be able to counter react stand-alone quality.

In football, different clubs have different philosophies (some don’t have any) and different managers have varying systems of play (again, some don’t have any). Contrary to many beliefs, including mine up until a while ago, a philosophy in football is all encompassing. A philosophy is not the way of playing (system) but the system of play is a part of a philosophy. A manager can have a philosophy, so also do most clubs. Most clubs have palpable philosophies and usually hire managers that have a system to fit in with that philosophy and auxiliary staff which fit that philosophy. Like I said earlier, some clubs and managers do not have philosophies and this is not totally a bad thing. For instance, a manager like Jose Mourinho doesn’t have a clearly defined philosophy and he was an apprentice under a manager with philosophies obvious to the world in Louis Van Gaal. For instance when Mourinho was asked in his recent feature on Bein Sports whether possession is important, he was pretty vocal in his statements that possession only creates an illusion of control… “it depends, so many times you win matches and you’re more dangerous than your opponent without the ball, it depends on the strategy”, and this is in stark contrast with Louis Van Gaal’s ideals. We need to realize that it is all well and good having a philosophy and subsequent style of play, but that philosophy, like all strong metals must be malleable when tested through fires and this includes the style of play. I don’t think the various philosophies of managers decade in decade out is very important, I think what is important to have as a manager is a philosophy of winning. This is not just a philosophy that has a system of play that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye; I think a philosophy of winning requires varying systems of play. I don’t want this write up to be a means to the end of discussing clubs and manager philosophies because this encapsulates player relations, the system of play, training methods, scouting network, evaluation of players and evaluation of you as manager etcetera. I want this piece to focus on managerial systems of play, varying applications and adaptations and the need to tweak or set aside this system in the face of various adversities they face in the course of a 38 match-day season and even in cup competitions. Mourinho was further asked what gives him more satisfaction, winning with possession or grinding out a result. His reply was “winning the game”.

Football just like humans, evolves and any playing system that is not ready to evolve, any manager that isn’t willing to adapt and any team not willing to apply itself to situations in which it finds itself will all be left behind. What is modern football? Modern football involves pass completion, movement off the ball, scoring goals and entertaining while winning the game. The ultimate goal, regardless of any aesthetics, is still to win football matches and if the so called relegation managers like Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis and Roy Hodgson can be criticized for not being able to win matches with a pass completion rate of 87%, then the managers (popularly known as hipster managers) who pride themselves on drawing shapes and patterns on the pitch must also be criticized when these methods fail. Now, I dare not say that systems aren’t important or that trying to make winning almost more assured (by creating a theory of winning) is a bad thing, no, absolutely not. Creating a system of play fundamentally makes everyone’s job on the pitch easier. It’s just that most times, these systems, like I said earlier, in some games become generic and they are almost too easy to defend against for the opposition. It is in these types of instances that I am trying to advocate a system that can be bent, a system that when things get tough, there is a plan B and the plan B won’t necessarily be to buy 50 million pound full backs. Let’s be serious, most teams don’t have 50 million to spend on full backs, so in that scenario, what does such manager do? And let’s not forget, he’s also under pressure to get his system going on fine by at the latest, the start of his second season in charge. But he has to also win games in his first season. He now has a conundrum on his hands, win games by hook or crook, or try to teach the old dogs he met at the club his new tricks.

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So firstly, what is the purpose of creating a system of play? What is the ultimate goal of playing a certain way and using certain types of players? Basically, a system of play is a means to an end. When the system is becoming the End, then something is wrong somewhere and there needs to be a re-evaluation of the manager’s philosophy. The ultimate goal of playing is to win football matches and the ultimate goal of winning football matches is to win silverware, though we may argue that some clubs have significantly lesser objectives and that’s okay. But with regards to the managers of top clubs in Europe, making play aesthetically easier on the eye cannot be accepted as the only goal of their system of play. Diego Simeone, coach of Atletico Madrid said after the defeat to Girona in the Copa Del Rey, “today we played well but we lost, what I want is to win”. We should add here that there are managers who play a certain style just to please themselves mostly. Peter Bosz in Borussia Dortmund played a system that predominantly put the players in compromising and uncomfortable positions but as long as the system was complied with, he was fine even though his team was leaking goals like water. Interestingly, Mauricio Sarri also said after the 6-0 defeat to Man city “My target is to play my football, not to change”. As regards this, one can take lessons from Gary Neville’s time at Valencia where his work came down like a pack of cards because he opted to adjust to the scenario of losing too many games and his players lost belief in his abilities. There is a really fine balance between adjusting to the players you have on ground, and adjusting to the scenario at hand. Also, managers create a system of play to leave back a legacy when they are out of the game because sometimes, you just want to be remembered for doing something different, for evolving the game. But taking a stem from the goal of playing football matches, I’m inclined to say that the ultimate goal of having a system is to creating an easy access for the players to win football matches.

Further, one might ask that in modern football, is there a real need for a system? Wait, I’ll explain. One might be forgiven for saying that Ferguson’s united weren’t for the most part involved in modern football and if we take for instance modern football to start in June 2006, then Sir Alex’s United were involved in modern football for 7 years. This United didn’t have a distinct style of proactive play and one might say they were very reliant on devastating counter attacking football but in every difficult scenario, they always found a way, even in ‘Fergie time’. Sir Alex’s system of play could be said to be to win at all cost. However, as much as Sir Alex might have gotten away with not having a distinct system, we are at an age where players need to believe in a cause and that if the manager doesn’t have a system, people, including his players, may feel he is tactically inadequate. Also a system while amplifying the strength of your players may even hide their weaknesses. In Guardiola’s system in Barcelona, his team didn’t do much defending in their third of the pitch so what might be their defensive frailties were masked in the system. And his first year in England, his famous words “we don’t train the tackles” would come back to bite hard several times. Jose in his catenaccio system had a defend-first mentality so when he had forwards that didn’t really score many goals, he mostly didn’t need more than one to win a game. But on the flip side, having a system could also make the manager rigid, particularly in key moments of the season. I feel like I should also mention that not having a system basically cost Sir Alex his last two UEFA Champions League finals.

So on the basis of the above, is it possible to have a system that always wins football matches and essentially, silverware? A system that not only looks good on the eye as a plan A but also wants to win at all cost as a plan B. The very popular systems in modern football right now, how many of these managers have consistently won with it? Having a distinct football system has its pros and cons. It’s okay to say that having a system helps the team to achieve consistency, that’s true. But we should be careful when we throw about the word consistency, a consistency in style of play does not necessarily equal a consistency in results (Re Arsenal under Unai Emery, Guardiola in his first season in the premier league, Qique Setien in Real Betis etc). Again, any form of synchronization is never a bad thing for football teams. Xavi said in ‘Take the ball, pass the ball’ that the Barcelona players know where the ball is going 3-4 passes in advance. Synchronization brings about a fluidity which then creates an identity over time and when perfected, it results inevitably into football domination. But when we look through the verso of this open book, having a system has made some managers tactically lethargic. For instance, Sarri in Chelsea when confronted with difficult scenarios happened to not be able to tactically maneuver his way to getting all three points especially in the games against Tottenham, Southampton, Arsenal, Bournemouth and  Man city in the league. A system ought to be flexible to allow for breathing space and allow an exhibition of individual and extempore brilliance. Most of these managers fear that a change in an area of the system may collapse the program totally (as per Gary Neville). When Antonio Conte arrived in England, he opted for the 4-3-3 as against his more familiar 3-5-2 because of the core of players at Chelsea, then we saw after a couple of sketchy results, he was able to adapt it to be defensively solid and still have three attackers up top. Change isn’t always a bad idea as he won 13 straight games after the switch and then going on to win the title.

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So what are the qualities of a good football system? I think top of the list should be the fact that your players have to be comfortable in the system, after all, it’s supposed to accentuate their strengths and hide their weaknesses. In Emery’s current system at Arsenal which involves playing from the back and a high press at the top of the pitch, most of the Arsenal defenders aren’t comfortable defending 1v1 or defending in the wide areas. By contrast, Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system at Chelsea made all 10 outfield players comfortable both in possession of the ball and vice versa. Even made forgotten players like Victor Moses very relevant while also being able to cover Alonso’s defensive frailties as against Sarri who essentially places the collective over the individual. With a good system, at least 9/11 players have to feel at home with it. While being comfortable however, the players must not lose discipline and this is another quality that makes a good system. Positional, mental and emotional discipline, special awareness and a willingness to work for the overall benefit of the team should not be lacking. When this is non-existent, there’s a gap between player quality and consistent results. Further, a good system of play has to be efficient. It has to have its own mark, to be able to win games on its own with little or without a requirement of individual brilliance from the players. Even when the players are not absolutely fantastic, the system has to be there for them. Managers like Lucien Favre, Julian Nagelsmann and Marcelo Bielsa consistently rely on efficient systems to get results. A proper system has to be adaptable. It must be able to make the players apply themselves when a difficult situation arises. With Pep Guardiola’s adapted tiki-taka, he says he takes the first 10 minutes of a game to study how the opposition plans to play and then adapts his system to counter the opposition. In the game against Liverpool at the Etihad, he played on the counter, against Man United, he opted for a possession based approach and against teams like Burnley, he usually has a direct approach to play.

So is it okay to criticize managers whose system isn’t achieving a consistency of results or even managers who pride the system over results? Do most managers who require systems have an in-game Plan B of a sort to get out of trouble? Jurgen Klopp may be on his way to a Title this season but we have already seen that his team may be lacking a plan B and might rely principally on the front 3. We usually saw Sir Alex deploy Javier Hernandez to such devastating effect he was referred to as Sir Alex’s plan B. In the latter years of Wenger at Arsenal, he used Olivier Giroud as a very effective plan B. But how about managers like Mauricio Sarri and Marcelo Bielsa who never really have a plan B? Or managers that cannot bring on individuals as plan B? We should note at this point, that a manager can have a plan B formation within the same system of play and that winning games doesn’t have to be done one way and the most popular systems right now, how many of these managers have consistently won silverware with their systems? As we all know, the end of a thing justifies the means and I feel a manager like Mourinho may have come under undue criticisms of his style if the ultimate goal is to win football matches and silverware. Thus, a movement towards more of strategy rather than philosophy is probably best. However, as we have seen from Pep’s City in the last one and half seasons, a combination of both can be really devastating. But we should also realize that time is an important factor in judging a manager and his system of play, as well as personnel. Primarily, the job description of every manager is to win football matches and I think any system which the manager employs to do that, as long as his players are comfortable within such system and it’s consistent in achieving results, is a good system.

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