The history of football tactics is defined by innovators. Managers who specialize in tactical theory and find ways to reinvent the beautiful game are forever engraved in the minds of supporters. It is the era of the philosopher in football, as systems based on ideas of the correct way to play are dominant in Europe’s top leagues. This dogmatic belief in one’s own philosophy is often the tragic flaw of managers who enjoy tremendous spells of success. FC Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola has a special stake to the claim of the most innovative mind in football history. However Die Roten now more than ever are an ideal fit for the versatile pragmatist Carlo Ancelotti.
The idea that is oftentimes ignored nowadays and as a result has plagued teams needing restructuring is the tragic flaw of lacking the ability to adapt. More importantly the recognition that a system has run its course at a particular club and the need to change to the strengths and capabilities of its players is a necessary adjustment that many otherwise great managers cannot make. The clubs who are quick to realize this flaw enjoy the shortest periods of instability in between periods of success.
The Spanish Cerebral Innovator
Building on foundations laid by Johan Cruyff and Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola is largely accredited with transforming fluid, possession based football into calculated, penetrative build-up. Guardiola’s rendition emphasized hypnotic quick passes over short distances ahead of sudden bursts involving quick interchange. The term Tiki Taka was coined and the Spanish trainer earned larger than life status for the era-defining system he had instilled into his Barcelona team.
During his spell at Barcelona (2008-2012), the Spaniard’s brand of football was unparalleled and infinitely dominant. His possession based game drained the life out of its opponents while keeping the ball was also used as the primary means of defence. By keeping the ball in the opponent’s end, the Catalans were able to disguise their otherwise vulnerable defence. A majority of goals conceded during this time were via swift counter attacks and lost aerial duels. In attack, while facing ultra-defensive or high pressing sides, Lionel Messi and his cohorts seemed out of ideas and were reluctant to play more direct.
It was when Guardiola was brought to the Bavarian club that a system that had thrived since the early 2000s began to see its fall. The criticisms of Guardiola’s approach to the game while he was the manager of the Catalan side remained ever-present. Like the few famous losses the Blaugrana suffered in his reign, the weaknesses were exposed and put on full display for all to see.
Pep Guardiola Battles his Hubris
Guardiola inherited a Bayern squad possessing immense quality and began to monopolize their domestic league with consistent, dominant performances. However they struggled against sides who sat deep and compact defensively, as well as against Europe’s elite. This was evidence to the proposition that a philosophy that had been carefully nurtured through La Masia at early ages wasn’t second nature at Munich even though the squad was world-class.
The Rekordmeisters had just won the unprecedented German treble, yet it was won by playing Jupp Heynckes’ high octane, direct football. This style suited Bayern who possessed an extraordinary amount of talent and pace. In Guardiola’s first season, though, the Bavarians seemed to suffer from a self-imposed reservation of capabilities.
A real struggle against the tragic flaw that prevented the legendary Spanish coach was the subject of criticism when his largely unchanged European champions dramatically lost to Real Madrid in the 2013/2014 UEFA Champion’s League semi-final by an aggregate score of 5-0. It was those stubborn qualities of Pep that prevented him from abandoning his ideals in order to win this game. His philosophy, and its execution on the pitch, eclipsed the need to appear in the Final. The perfectionist’s hamartia, however, caused this great Bayern side to be hurt on the counter attack and thrashed, ironically, by his eventual replacement Coach Carlo Ancelotti of Real Madrid.
This ability to change has plagued Pep throughout his career. The concept of abandoning his ideals is his dark passenger and is a hump he can only overcome through experience. Similar circumstances caused Bayern Munich to lose to his former club; Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals last May. Holding on to a 0-0 scoreline in the Camp Nou late into the game irritated Pep. He urged his side to push forward and score an away goal only to be caught out by Lionel Messi in the 77th minute. Simply ignoring his ideals to earn a result away from home against the eventual European champions was something Pep couldn’t do. His hubris wouldn’t allow his team to defend for the draw even for the remainder of the game.
In his post-game comments Pep said,
The best way to defend is to attack, it has worked well for us in the past. I could not come here and shut up shop. Against players at his level, Leo, and others, there is this possibility if you lose the ball close to your area
This highlights the internal war Pep has been waging for years. A battle pitting his logical reasoning against his idealistic wishful principles. Pep implored the concept of abandoning what he knew to be correct football yet his hamartia, his stubborn refusal to abandon his ideals, ultimately was his downfall once again.
Importance of Positive Restructuring
Though Guardiola is famous for his tinkering, his changes are focused around altering his system to exploit specific teams. As a perfectionist Pep loves to experiment with historic formations and playing players in unfamiliar positions specific to his opponents. The two-time Champions League winner’s system was ever-changing and possession was kept with the intention of unbalancing and penetrating their opposition’s stronghold. This is highlighted through the state of Barcelona after Guardiola’s departure.
Under the discretion of Pep’s replacements, Tito Vilanova & Gerard ‘Tata’ Martino, Barcelona attempted to replicate the football that brought them years of success. Under the two successors the Catalan club employed a style of football that was bland and stagnant. An element was missing; Barcelona lacked the final product and were unable to break teams down in the refreshingly effortless, aesthetically pleasing manner they had demonstrated so recently.
This came with the recognition that Pep’s system was more than simply needless passing for the sake of passing. The phrase Tiki Taka took the world by storm but to Pep his system stood for a lot more than the boring, negative connotation that the term now stands for in the minds of many.
Barcelona finally were able to reach new heights once they recognized that Guardiola, his system and all the inherent glory were a thing of the past. Despite still being one of the best teams in the world it was time for a restructuring. Enter Luis Enrique. The former Barcelona player used Guardiola’s work and added a degree of flexibility to Barcelona. He freed them of their obsessive need to control possession and allowed them to play direct and punish teams on the counter attack. It was finally when Barcelona recognized that the only way to advance was a change in basic philosophy. That they could obliterate their opposition without having a deeply rooted lust for possession. Enrique’s men admitted that they had to shed Pep’s brand of football and it was finally when they were injected with a fresh perspective that they again began to reach the pinnacles of European football, subsequently winning the treble.
The Schwarzgelben Reich
The Westfalenstadion was the cathedral home to the breathtaking reign of Jurgen Klopp. Under his care Borussia Dortmund specialized in the art of Gegenpressing (counter pressing in English). Immediately upon losing the ball Klopp’s men would swarm the ball carrier in order to retrieve possession in the opponent’s end. Klopp was quoted as saying, “Gegenpressing is my best playmaker” This was due to the forward areas in which they would win the ball back with numbers around it, close to the opponent’s goal
Klopp’s Dortmund teams displayed a high degree of tactical variability. Inferior opponents were subjected to organized high pressing schemes as a form of ball retrieval. Against possession-based sides BVB would sit further back and defend patiently. Upon winning the ball Dortmund harnessed one of the most expansive, high-class counter attacks in present day football. With the likes of Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze the North-Rhine club would burst with tremendous speed and quick short passing which most often had devastating repercussions. Klopp was a polarizing and sometimes eccentric, but enthusiastic and almost a father-figure to his young players, adding to the allure of his time in power.
Using this advanced system Klopp’s Dortmund enjoyed a period of great success while playing some of the most enjoyable football spectators were delighted to witness. With their domestic rival being fabled superpower FC Bayern, Klopp’s achievements were all that more impressive. Back to back Bundesliga titles, a Deutscher Pokal and a Champions league Final appearance were the defining honours of a fabulous run of colorful, often breathtaking football.
The Fall of Dortmund and Sophisticated Rebuild
Like most great runs, the end of the era ended in a season of turmoil. Opponents recognized that Dortmund were threatening on the counter attack but struggled to break teams down in possession. In Klopp’s last season Dortmund finished the Hinrunde bottom of the Bundesliga. Klopp spent the first half of the season recognizing that his system had its flaws and that teams had found ways to combat his star-studded squad.
Klopp was less reluctant to adjust and Dortmund spent the remainder of the season playing a less attractive brand of football. They managed to scrape their way to 7th in the table due to their sheer quality. This style of football wasn’t proprietary, however, and a heartbreaking loss to Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus in the Champions league summarized their problems. Once again Dortmund were allowed to dictate possession and weren’t able to penetrate the Turin club’s deep 3-5-2/4-1-2-1-2 hybrid.
Weeks into the second half of the season, an awareness of his inability to lead Dortmund to continued greatness created a difficult decision for Klopp. Unlike most managers, Klopp realized that his preferred system had run its course at Dortmund and either he had to adapt his system and find a new way to be successful or leave the club and allow someone else to do the job. Klopp however suffered from the same tragic flaw as Guardiola — he couldn’t bring himself to abandon his ideals. Luckily the renowned coach and the club agreed that his departure was the best way to advance the club. His departure from the club and players he seemed to love in an almost-paternal manner was selfless, although his BvB successes insured that the bespectacled sideline enthusiast would have the opportunity to start a new chapter, on his terms, in another venue.
For their part, Dortmund’s leadership avoided the mistake committed by Barcelona in hiring a similar coach to the one they enjoyed great success, and instead made an excellent decision. It came with the recognition that they couldn’t continue to chase the style that once conquered Germany. By hiring a similar coach like Roger Schmidt or promoting assistant coach Zeljko Buvac, it is likely that Dortmund would fall prey to the same shortcomings that eventually derailed Klopp’s system.
It was an excellent decision to appoint Thomas Tuchel. From the board’s perspective, they were able to sever their obsession with Klopp’s football and exhibited the realization that in order to restructure their club, a fresh perspective and approach was needed. Tuchel taught Dortmund the origins of excellent positional play. Balance and penetration in possession was the focus of his tactics and it has worked to resounding effect thus far in 2015/2016 with Dortmund in second place in the Bundesliga, collecting 38 points from 17 games and even outscoring their Bavarian counterparts across all competitions.
Importance of Tactical Versatility
In Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern have appointed a three-time Champions League winner as the successor to Guardiola. Along with a wealth of experience, Carlo has become an expert at assessing a team’s situation and adjusting his philosophy and system accordingly.
In his early days, while managing Parma, Ancelotti was very reluctant to sway from his ideals and even refused to sign Roberto Baggio because the prolific attacker didn’t fit his formation. His strict 4-4-2, like football itself, has evolved and now the 56-year old Italian is a specialist in adjusting his system.
Taking over from Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid at the time were reminiscent of the tail end of Klopp’s era. Very one-dimensional and very threatening on the counter attack. The Spanish capital club realized that rather than trying to recreate the excellent work of the Special One, they instead needed to divert from his foundations and find a manager with a wider range. Ancelotti transformed Los Blancos into a team that was very competent in possession and controlled the flow of most games. He was the reason behind a midfield of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric that operated so successfully despite not featuring a natural ball winner.
Ancelotti’s Madrid faced Guardiola’s Bayern in the Champions League semi-final in his first season in Spain. The Italian coach opted for a pragmatic approach to the tie and despite achieving the vast amount of his success through possession play, realized that his opponents were superior in dictating the ball and elected to deploy a disciplined defensive foundation and attack in bursts through the pacy Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
That tie alone symbolized the difference in control over one’s ambitions. Pep Guardiola the romanticist was obsessed with his idea of perfect football. Though Ancelotti shared most of Guardiola’s beliefs he was able to sacrifice those beliefs in order to win the tie while Guardiola’s hamartia prevented him from doing so.
Immunity and Future ambitions
In the era of philosophers in football, a stern pragmatist with philosophical ideals is a rare combination. Ancelotti is the rare bird able to identify creative solutions while also not letting innovation for its own sake cloud his judgement. Unlike many other ground-breaking managers, Ancelotti is not obsessed with the need to offer something entirely different when tried and true solutions can be exercised with success. His eyes are totally focused on the prize.
As well as having superlative match preparation and individual game tactics, the ex-Real Madrid man is the ultimate player manager. He never takes credit for his match plan but rather attributes success to his players. Bayern Munich players like Mario Gotze, and even aging stars such as Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are in need of a manager like Ancelotti who can bring the best out of them.
Bayern have many direct and creative players that will naturally benefit from a manager who isn’t insistent on a certain playing style. Pep’s reign in its essence was still a successful one, yet with his decision to leave, the Bayern board have done a fantastic job of identifying in which this direction this club needs to head next and not to blindly follow in the Spaniard’s tactical footsteps.
Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho and many other top managers in the modern game suffer from the tragic flaw of stubborn obsession, the obsession with the idea that football must be played only one way, and as manager they shouldn’t attempt to sway from what they believe is correct and has brought them such unforgettable past success. In contrast, Carlo Ancelotti is immune from this tragic flaw because he has the ability to adapt to his circumstances and is completely tactically versatile. He plays the pragmatist amid the romanticism of his most esteemed colleagues.
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