December 14, 2017

The Cephalopod Principle in the Bundesliga

Jaron Lanier, famed technology philosopher and writer (among many other things), concludes his book You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto with a section on what he calls “post symbolic communication.” In this section, Lanier pens an ode to the Cephalopod, citing a remarkable Roger Hanlon video of a shape-shifting octopus. (Really, watch the clip—it’s stunning.) Here, you can marvel at the morphing octopus, as the creature transforms its texture, color, and shape in a single breath-taking moment. Given Lanier’s technological subject matter, he compares morphing octopuses to computer graphics via chromataphores/pixels and shape-shifting/animation. He argues that us humans need to learn from the morphing Cephalopod as we evolve digital technology into more advanced forms of communication.

The same can be said for football coaching and tactics. Basically, “Cephalopod football” is the ascendant form of the game. I’ll explain.

I first thought about the connection between Lanier’s Cephalopod thesis and football when I was pondering the moribund Borussia Dortmund under Peter Bosz, or pondering the tactics and strategies that make Europe’s elite clubs successful. Basically, the same traits Lanier praises in the octopus and applies to digital technology, can be praised and applied to football coaching and tactics. That is, like the remarkably morphing octopuses, the best coaches and football tactics are increasingly defined by their flexibility, specifically hybridity in strategies, shape-shifting, and tempo-shifting.

This principle of flexibility, call it the “Cephalopod principle” is a phenomenon I’ve been tracking for about five years now. It’s a principle that, instead of advocating for a specific “system” of strategies and tactics, one should adopt a sort of “meta” perspective that, in an utterly flexible way, applies and integrates elements from various tactical systems, player positions, match situations, etc. Perhaps I’m trying to describe something like an absolute pragmatism in that flexibility can lead a football coach to what simply works in any given situation. Increasingly, successful football clubs are less torch-carriers for a successful system, but instead are stockpiles of footballing talent that can be flexibility adapted to any situation. At least this utter adaptability is becoming the aspiration for successful clubs.

Before I say more about football and octopuses, let me warn you that I’m going to talk mostly in generalities for the rest of these piece. I’m going to mostly talk in “sketch” or outline form, tracing the recent development of the “Cephalopod principle” in the Bundesliga. You bet I’ll overlook or oversimplify something. Or simply make mistakes. If so, please point this out in a comment below. However, I’m confident about the general presence and development of this principle, not only in the Bundesliga, but across all European football. I see flexibility itself emerging as the sort of all-encompassing meta-trait sought by all Europe’s biggest clubs, at least this is precisely my argument. Finally, I hope that my sketch can be elaborated upon, complicated, argued with, agreed upon, whatever. In other words, I hope it generates something interesting and fruitful.

Okay, back to the football.

I first started noticing elements of this principle with Jupp Heynckes’ 2012-13 Bayern side. Famously, Heynckes coached a side that, in terrifying fashion for the rest of us, employed a hybrid system of Louis van Gaal possession football with direct verticality in attack, plus some high pressing.  I won’t go into too much detail, because others have already studied this treble-winning monster. (For example, Jonathan Wilson called it “the new total football” or an improvement on Barcelona’s tiki-taka.) However, here I’m less concerned with Heynckes’ “system” than I am in smaller moments of flexible thinking that, I’d argue, opened new footballing horizons for us and were really what underlies the hybrid “system” everyone praised that season.

First, the notion of hybridity itself is striking. Heynckes smartly built on van Gaal’s legacy, rather than jettison the whole thing. (José Mourinho probably should’ve learned the same lesson at Manchester United, alas.) Heynckes’ possession play + vertical play hybrid “system” opened new horizons for his Bayern squad and created new problems for opponents. And this newness factor is key. Hybridity is hard to plan against and account for. Opposing coaches can become overwhelmed by trying to pin down a constantly-transforming thing. Heynckes’ Bayern could switch into different modes, given the opponent and situation. For example, Bundesliga sides got a heavy dose of possession-based Bayern shoved into their faces, as the “Bayern Treatment” became a dreaded thing. Meanwhile, in the Champions League, Bayern weren’t above conceding more possession and switching into a vertical-based countering side, especially when playing on the road. Of course, Heynckes’ Bayern won a treble by the end.

Second, on the level of individual players, Heynckes advocated flexibility. For example, he famously persuaded Robben and Ribéry to participate in a high defensive press, rather than simply accepting these elite wingers’ self-proclaimed roles as pure attackers. Or take the example of adjustments he made during Bayern’s historic demolition of Barcelona. We all know how this knockout round match up ended. During the two legs, Bayern demonstrated the range of its flexibility by using vertical passing tactics to by-pass Barcelona’s tiki-taka webs. Then there was Javi Martinez, who’d just been signed from Athletic Bilbao. The Spaniard defender alone expanded Bayern’s possibilities. Against Barcelona, Martinez wreaked havoc against Barça’s midfield, effectively shutting down the elite Iniesta-Busquets pairing. Moreover, Martinez’s passing abilities, specifically launching vertical balls to Robben and Ribéry helped spark Bayern’s devastating counters. As a holding midfielder/defender, Martinez embodied the spirit of hybridity that marked Bayern that series and season. Flexibility trumped system. Contrasted with shape-shifting Bayern, Barça’s ageing tiki-taka looked depleted and limited.

Thus, Bayern flexibly adapted to any opponent in 2012-13 because it had players capable of playing many roles, fulfilling many duties—and doing it all excellently. In Bayern’s case, a flexible squad enabled shape-shifting and adaptability.

After Heynckes’ treble, Pep Guardiola provided the Bundesliga’s next example of the “Cephalopod principle.” It’s not a coincidence that Pep achieved this result with the same Bayern side that Heynckes had just coached, albeit with the key addition of Thiago Alcantara and, later, Robert Lewandowski. Although Pep is remembered mostly for the “system” of Juego de Posicion he implemented at Bayern, as documented in Marti Perarnau’s books on Pep, especially Pep Confidential, I’m less interested in Pep’s system here than I am in the adjustments he made to it, as he adapted his philosophy to the specifics of the Bayern squad.

However, I should make the observation that Pep’s system only seems to work with flexible players, and, perhaps, is the closest you can get to a “Cephalopod system.” The Juego de Posicion system works on the principle of “superiority,” as Perarnau explains it. That is, a team always looks for opportunities to create numerical advantages on the pitch, which unbalance and overwhelm opposing defenders, creating new attacking spaces. To pull this strategy off, you need smart flexible players, who can play all over the pitch.

Moreover, Pep’s Juego de Posicion looked Cephalopod-like. Typically, Bayern’s play under Pep didn’t resemble any standard “shapes”/formations. Bayern was an amorphous and fluid network shifting and transforming itself to find numerical superiority. Frequently, Bayern possessed the ball for long stretches of time to achieve these goals. However, as Pep himself painstakingly clarified, Bayern wasn’t playing tiki-taka; in fact, Pep wasn’t averse to working elements of vertical attacking into Bayern’s play—basically, whatever elements worked given the imbalances that Bayern created. In this sense, Pep’s system is as close as a tactical system can get to expressing the “Cephalopod principle.”

My favorite passages of Pep Confidential described Pep’s training sessions, in which the pitch was divided into corridors, and the players weaved their way through, looking for imbalances to exploit, or in passages describing Pep’s individual work with players on ball touches, body positioning, and passing decisions. In these episodes, readers can see the kind of training required to build flexible players—training eschewing the standard stuff (there’s a humorous episode in which Bastian Schweinsteiger wants to lead the plays on a brutal “mountain” run, and Pep makes fun of them).

Then, of course, we have the individual players. Pep upended old roles, responsibilities, and ruts. Case in point: Philipp Lahm. The captain’s path from fullback to midfielder was one of that season’s biggest stories. Basically, Lahm took a walk. Just the bare fact of this positional switch alone contradicted old adages/truisms about old dogs not learning new tricks, or that professional footballers can’t actually grow once established. If any Bayern player was the transforming octopus, it was Lahm. The veteran was stunning in his new role, or rather “roles,” given his ubiquity on the pitch. By season’s end, he was a player of the year contender.

Philipp Lahm’s midfield “radar” from that remarkable 2013-14 season. Source: @FussballRadars.

Single-handedly, Lahm opened new horizons of possibilities. No longer was he “just” a fullback, but also a midfielder—and an expansive midfielder at that. Watching Bayern was exciting for this new development alone. Suddenly, a German footballing legend was breaking boundaries. In his new role, Lahm didn’t have a position, as much as he had a territory and a network, stretching all over the pitch. No wonder Pep laughed off the idea of Bayern playing inside formations which could be numbered off conventionally, like 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-1-2, etc. These sort of numbers were meaningless.

Of course, Lahm wasn’t the only player who benefited from Pep’s application of the Cephalopod principle. Likewise, David Alaba, Thomas Müller, and Manuel Neuer all discovered new possibilities to their games. Similar to Lahm, Alaba was freed up from strictly fullback duties. The Austrian sometimes played in midfield or even in attack. In these new roles, Alaba suddenly looked like one of the world’s most versatile players. Next, Müller probably had his best professional seasons to date under Pep, who allowed him to roam around between lines and channels during attack. This freedom unlocked more creativity and scoring contributions from Müller. As for Neuer, well, let’s just say “Sweeper Keeper.” Because he’s so good with his feet, Neuer was allowed to move far outside the box and participate in more meaningful build-up play. Finally, other players like Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez, Jerome Boateng, and later Robert Lewandowski all brought flexible traits to the starting lineup.

In all these individual cases, Pep catalyzed the pre-existing flexibility in his players, transforming Bayern’s Startelf into a constantly-evolving assemblage of shapes, movements, and tactics. We all know how unstoppable Pep’s Bayern was domestically, wrapping up the league championship in early spring each season. Each Bundesliga matchday was an exciting “unveiling” to see what Pep would try out next with his starting eleven.

However, Pep’s Bayern famously didn’t solve the Champions League problem, failing to even reach a final. In the bigger picture, I don’t think this “failure” is a big deal. First, the Champions League, like any knockout tournament, involves a lot of randomness, like luck and health. And aside from the 2013-14 exit against Real Madrid (over-coaching?), Bayern had neither luck nor health in 2014-15 and 2015-16. However, if anything, Pep’s Bayern became slightly more “brittle” in Champions League play, sticking to default ball possession patterns. I don’t exactly know how to explain this phenomenon except to say that Bayern lost some of its flexibility in the Champions League. Its “Cephalopod principle” weakened in Europe.

After Pep’s Bayern, the next incarnation of the “Cephalopod principle” was Thomas Tuchel’s two seasons at Borussia Dortmund. You shouldn’t be surprised by this transition, because Tuchel is heavily influenced by Pep Guardiola’s ideas. And immediately, Tuchel implanted his ideas upon taking over Jürgen Klopp’s gegen-pressing outfit in the summer 2015. Suddenly, BVB played a possession-based game under Tuchel. BVB’s Build up play slowed down, as especially Mats Hummels and Julian Weigl orchestrated progress forward. In possession, BVB somewhat resembled Pep’s Bayern. A new way of playing suddenly appeared possible for BVB. By contrast, when out of possession BVB kept its defensive speed and aggression, reminiscent of the kinds of pressing Klopp’s sides were famous for. And no wonder: Klopp’s tactics were still surely muscle memory to the squad in 2015. The result was a wonderfully hybrid system of switching speeds, intensity, and positions. Sometimes, BVB played with three at back, sometimes four. As for “formations,” well with so much switching and movement, numbering off a formation seemed pointless. Suddenly, Bayern wasn’t the only sophisticated side in the Bundesliga.

Tuchel relied on flexible play for his squad to make all this work. For example, his two attacking lines constantly interchanged positions, lacing passes around each other in the final 3rd (has Henrikh Mkhitaryan ever looked more dangerous?). Marco Reus was especially useful in this role. In midfield, the newcomer Weigl could control tempo, the direction of play, as well as calm things during transitions. And, at times, Hummels sometimes resembled Javi Martinez by exhibiting a maturing jack-of-all-trades ability in the defensive half and in build-up.

Although not always successful (e.g. against Bayern sometimes or in European knockout phases), Tuchel’s BVB could adapt to situations by changing shape, tempo, and tactics within a match’s dynamic flow. Of course having skilled players helps, but Tuchel’s coaching unlocked new things in these players and showcased their flexibility. You just have to wonder what a 3rd season under Tuchel could have meant for BVB, especially defensively, as Tuchel seemed to be in the middle of a work-in-progress for closing down open space for opposing attackers, as he tried to mesh high pressing with possession play in his own unique hybrid framework.

Anyhow, it’s this metamorphosing trait that I found to be most remarkable for BVB under Tuchel. Similar to Pep’s Bayern, Tuchel’s BVB excited me, simply to see what was possible from matchday-to-matchday, as players tried out new roles and switched into others during a match. Perhaps I was spellbound, but I had the impression that Tuchel’s “system” implied a sort of progress toward something, however undefined that thing was. In other words, BVB grew under Tuchel, similarly to how Bayern grew under Pep. These two “Cephalopod” sides seemed destined for bigger things, perhaps interrupted only by intra-squad politics, administrators, boards, stake-holders, and general assholery (ahem—Pep and Tuchel). I know, I know: human beings had to foul the whole thing up.

As for the present day Bundesliga, perhaps Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim is the newest version of the “Cephalopod principle” at work. Perhaps. If so, we’re seeing an almost ironic version of the principle. In general, you can say that Nagelsmann’s side plays flexibly. A whiff of hybridity marks Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, which presses defensively, can do build-up, and can do verticality. Again, this hybridity is possible because of the squad’s flexibility. But Nagelsmann is also an odd bird, claiming to dislike “automatisms,” according to an interview in the 2017-18 kicker season preview issue. Here, automatisms refers to the almost automated ability of players to find each other with passes and sharp movement when in possession. In fact, much of the hybridity, interchangeability, and shape-shifting I’ve been describing so far probably isn’t possible without automatisms. Indeed, Tuchel even referred to their importance during press conferences. Regardless, Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim certainly is “Cephalopod principle” club worthy.

What’s the opposite of the “Cephalopod principle”? Let’s try: “Brittle football,” which here can mean something like one-dimensionality. In my estimation, Jürgen Klopp’s gegen-pressing BVB sides are the best example of this problem. After BVB won its back-to-back titles, and Bundesliga coaches began adjusting to Klopp’s “heavy metal football,” Klopp’s BVB ran out of ideas. For gegen-pressing to work, BVB had to win the ball off opponents and break with speed. Fast transitions were absolutely crucial for BVB. Initially, these tactics overwhelmed opponents as BVB won back-to-back titles from 2010-2012 and advanced to the UCL final in 2013. However, Bundesliga coaches figured out that simply conceding loads of possession and sitting back into a deep defensive box was the most effective way to stifle Klopp’s BVB. During Klopp’s final season, opposing coaches brilliantly used this strategy, as BVB stunningly slipped into the relegation zone at die Winterpause. Even UCL opponents figured it out. Klopp never had a plan B for adjusting to the opponents’ adjustments, just same ol’ gegen-pressing. Klopp either couldn’t think flexibly, or was unable to coach flexibility into his players. Hence, brittleness. And from the bit I’ve been following Klopp at Liverpool, it seems this problem hasn’t gone away.

Which brings us to the present day: Peter Bosz’s BVB.

So far, commentary has mostly focused on the BVB’s defensive woes—that cardiac arrest of a high backline, lacking automatisms between defenders, and individual gaffes. However, what hasn’t received enough attention is BVB’s lack of flexibility across the pitch under Bosz. But I don’t mean tactics; Bosz is obviously capable of trying out different tactics (e.g. the initially successful three-man backline against Schalke in the Revierderby). Instead, Dortmund’s players seem too role-bound, as if afraid to vary from whatever script they’ve been assigned (or imagined for themselves!). We’ve seen this problem in about the last month’s worth of UCL and Bundesliga matches leading up to last Saturday’s Revierderby. First, there’s been little interchangability and shape-shifting by BVB’s players. Instead, players seem to stick to predictable channels with their passing and running. As a result, BVB’s attack has looked static before the Revierderby. The hybridity we saw under Tuchel has been replaced with another form of brittle gegen-pressing.

For us BVB supporters, this new style definitely feels regressive, especially in contrast with the perception of progress that Guardiola and Tuchel’s hybridity bring to the unfolding of a season, matchday-by-matchday. Instead, almost half way into the season, Bosz’s BVB seems too one-dimensional. And for my money, this trait is what’s mostly holding BVB back so far—the players seem unsure of themselves after, perhaps, playing with the flexibility offered by Tuchel’s system. As the UCL group stage winds down, BVB’s play in this tournament has been especially marked by uncertainty and brittleness. It’s no wonder even APOEL earned two draws against Bosz’s BVB.

Anyhow, my point in this piece is that ambitious Bundesliga sides will play with something like the “Cephalopod principle.” This principle lurks behind much of our tactics talk; it’s a sort of unifying principle that can explain where we at this moment in football. Flexibility is king. Of course, one implication is that flexibility needs skilled players, who are either purchased (Bayern and Dortmund) or coached (Hoffenheim and perhaps RB Leipzig). Skilled players enable coaches to employ tactical hybridity, adjusting to what the present moment on the pitch demands, rather than what a strategic system dictates should happen.

This development is akin to the “modernist” turn that occurred in fields like art and chess at the first decades of the 1900s. In these instances, artists began painting the “present moment” according to the demands of the present—hence modern art, at least according to Gertrude Stein. Or in chess, grandmasters began looking for the best move according to what the position itself required, rather than classical rules-of-thumb and principles previously developed in chess history, at least according to Richard Reti’s narrative.

In this piece, I’ve been trying to describe a similar shift in football thinking. Although I don’t think something like the “Cephalopod principle” is new to football thinking—indeed, flexibility has existed as long as humans have thought about our beloved sport—it’s just remained mostly nameless as a unifying principle that sheds light on what works right now in football. So consider the cephalopod, ye football coaches, players, and supporters. I think the principle packs a nice punch of explaining power for these times.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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