In football’s third age, old certainties have melted away and nothing is as it seems | Football tactics

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Bournemouth kicked off. They had gained a certain notoriety for their kick-offs last season, scoring, for instance, in the 10th second at Arsenal following a bluff in which they loaded the left side and then attacked down the right. This time, at Old Trafford, the kick‑off was far more straightforward, knocked back and, as two men charged down the right, the ball was swept out to that flank. It was overhit. Neither of the chasers had any real chance of getting there and Sergio Reguilón, the Manchester United left-back, let it go out for a goal-kick.

The instinct was to think it a waste, to wonder why Bournemouth had given the ball away so cheaply. Given the care they had taken over their kick-offs last season, why so careless? It seemed an odd omission for a coach as respected and apparently meticulous as Andoni Iraola to have abandoned a ploy worked on by Gary O’Neil. Then United took the goal-kick, faffed with a short touch to André Onana followed by mild panic (that was not a timewasting tactic against Liverpool last week; that’s just what they always do), and wandered into the Bournemouth press, immediately coming under pressure.

And that’s when the truth dawned: giving away the goal‑kick was a deliberate tactic – or at least was factored in; had Antoine Semenyo beaten Reguilón to the ball to set up a crossing opportunity, that was also good – because an opposition goal-kick has come to represent a chance, at least when the opposition is as uneasy at playing out from the back as United. This is football’s third age, in which the old certainties have melted away and nothing is quite as it seems.

For more than a century, football was a game of territory. Goalkeepers kicked it long. When a defender won the ball, their first thought was to belt it clear. Kick-offs tended to involve the ball being punted into the corner for a winger to chase, with the strong possibility of forcing the opposition to take a throw-in in a dangerous area. You didn’t have to be a long-ball fundamentalist in the manner of Charles Reep or Charles Hughes to reason that the further the ball was from your own goal, the safer you were.

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The mindset was so ingrained that it was only in 2019 that the stipulation a goal-kick must leave the area before being touched by another player was lifted. Hardly anybody played out from the back, so the fact that it made it far easier to press if the team taking the kick had to wait for the ball to leave the box to touch it for a second time hadn’t occurred to anybody.

The language of football reflects that, much of the terminology drawn from older forms of warfare: teams are “camped” in their opponents’ half, they “lay siege” to their goal, while defenders “dig in’, often in “rearguard actions”. The Sky commentator Gary Weaver is obsessed by castles. Everything is couched in the terms of defending or seizing territory.

There were exceptions, but they were rare and controversial. Herbert Chapman was experimenting with counterattacking from being appointed player-manager of Northampton in 1907. When he won the FA Cup with Huddersfield in 1922, he was censured by the FA in a vague letter that expressed a hope that “there will not be any similar conduct in any future final tie”. Karl Rappan developed a form of sweeper system with Servette in the 40s then, in the 50s and 60s, came the golden age of catenaccio in Italy.

But from the mid-60s, two other types of football were emerging. Valeriy Lobanovskyi developed pressing in Kyiv. In West Germany possession football took hold. And in the Netherlands the two were combined in Total Football. This was a classic case of dialectical development: the elite Italian sides liked to play without the ball so their challengers had to work out how to play better with the ball.

André Onana, who struggles with playing out from the back with this Manchester United defence, comes under pressure from Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke.
André Onana, who struggles with playing out from the back with this Manchester United defence, comes under pressure from Solanke. Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images

As pitches and equipment improved so that first touches could be taken for granted, and as the increasingly stratified economics of the game concentrated talent, the best possession sides, such as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, would regularly have 75% of the ball. This was the Cruyffian variation on “if the ball’s in their half they can’t hurt us”; “if we have the ball, they can’t score”.

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Football had become a game not of territory but of possession. Short goal-kicks are now the default because having the ball 100 yards from the opposition goal is deemed more valuable than not having it 30 yards from the opposition goal.

The past decade has largely been a reaction to the extreme domination of possession prompted by the Guardiola model, and has largely involved pressing harder or more efficiently. If they want the ball, we have to work out better ways of winning it back. The clashes between Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have been regular manifestations of that dynamic. Both have themselves evolved, Guardiola becoming more direct, and Klopp turning down the heavy‑metal football to something a little more possession-based.

What is happening now feels harder to categorise (which may just be to say that it is new). The old divide of territory versus possession is no longer adequate. Evolution is never purely cyclical: it’s not the case that each revolution brings us back to where we were because there is knowledge of what went before – the model is not circular but helical.

We are familiar with pressing, and that becomes a new field of conflict, especially as data analysis increases its sophistication. Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton try to provoke the press to draw opponents forward to hit the space that leaves. On Monday, Enzo Maresca’s Leicester scored a goal that is becoming increasingly familiar, with a counterattack from a Birmingham corner. Bournemouth’s Iraola recognises that giving the opposition a goal‑kick is an opportunity to recover possession and spring a transition. Teams taking set plays now find themselves in possession, and yet somehow vulnerable as a result.

Strength is weakness and weakness strength. After territory and possession, football’s third age is a confusing, topsy-turvy place. Data has taken us through the looking glass, where nothing is quite what it seems.

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