The State of English Football: Part One

English football is in the middle of an unprecedented transition. In the wake of the global economic crisis, the Premier League’s levels of debt have garnered substantial negative press. Leveraged takeovers by billionaire businessmen, once portrayed as every fan’s ultimate fantasy, have been unsuccessful in almost all cases, the only variable being when things go sour. The 2010 World Cup exposed the national side so starkly that several years worth of stifled misgivings have come to the fore. The idea of English football’s supremacy, pushed so aggressively by various media until this season, seems more fanciful than ever. There are several concurrent narratives setting the new era up to be one of two things: the most exciting ever, or the beginning of a steep decline. Which is it to be? This series of articles looks at the next chapter in English football’s narrative.

Part One: Where The Premier League Stands In 2010/11

Recently, I was asked for my definition of ‘a great league’. Having given the topic the consideration it deserved, the following criteria comprised my answer:

  • Above all else, the teams at the top come the end of the season should be something special. Obviously, vintage sides don’t come along every year, but they should at least be worthy winners, their displays admired continentally as well as domestically.
  • Matches should be of a consistently high quality. Even with weaker sides involved, they will at least be organised and of sufficient strength to be competitive.
  • Standout players should not be limited to the division’s best teams. Whilst the table-toppers will obviously have more than struggling sides, talent should be visible throughout.
  • The tactics favoured should be the most advanced of their time. The pushing of boundaries not only raises the bar in terms of quality, but inherently makes football more exciting.

These points were not the product of utopian thought, but the analysis of what made Serie A so strong throughout the 1990s; what La Liga had at the start of the 2000s; and what the Premier League itself had until recently.

The Premier League’s peak was in 2007/08, with the all-English Champions League final in Moscow. It had been threatened before and was nearly repeated the following year, but that season was the only time it all came together and the division’s two strongest clubs played out a memorable, high-quality and dramatic match – fitting, as it was these attributes that millions bought into with the Premier League. Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo, in particular, were the standard-bearers of a futuristic brand of football which coupled breakneck speed with immaculate control, often producing unique moments of exhilaration. May 21, 2008 was the culmination of all that had come before. May 22 saw the beginning of the decline.

For me, the Premier League definitively jumped the shark on August 5, 2009, the day Xabi Alonso joined Real Madrid from Liverpool. Loathe as I am to say it, Liverpool should have won the title in the preceding season. Rafa Benítez’s 4-2-3-1 was so obviously the best system, their rivals so clearly limited, that it was only just that they win. However, their relatively weak squad could not meet the demands of challenging for the title and the Champions League simultaneously. Cristiano Ronaldo steamrollered Manchester United to yet another title and, in response, Benítez took leave of his senses, selling his most important player. Ronaldo’s transfer may have broken the records, but it was, to me at least, Alonso’s intelligence and accuracy that would be more conspicuous by its absence. So it proved.

2009/10 was a shocker of a season, and in an effort to avoid nausea I will spend as little time on it as possible. There were several demonstrations of the Premier League’s stagnation. Winners Chelsea scored at least seven goals in a match four times, but also lost six matches – the highest number for a title-winning side since 2001. Manchester United became reliant on Wayne Rooney, who regularly excelled despite his obvious limitations. Liverpool’s slump was as graceless as it was sudden. Burnley, Hull and Portsmouth were so excruciatingly bad that West Ham lost half of their matches and stayed up. Wigan’s goal difference was minus forty-two and they also survived. In short, the standard fell through the floor. The division met none of the criteria to be declared ‘a great league’.

The 2010 World Cup also hit the Premier League’s credibility hard. Its players’ hardships have been covered in great detail, so I will not dwell on them here. Needless to say, the Premier League’s current season has begun with a noticeably more reserved tone from broadcasters. Gary Lineker’s introductions on Match of the Day, for example, exemplify the change: whereas last August he routinely described it as the best league in the world, last weekend’s programme began with Lineker half-heartedly using the day’s two six-nils as evidence of the league’s ability to excite. He did not believe what he was saying and nor should anyone else.

Let’s be clear: the situation is grim. With two rounds of fixtures played in the Premier League, we have seen four six-nil results. Chelsea and Arsenal have between them won three, illustrating that the gulf between the division’s haves and have-nots is wider than ever. With this season featuring the ultimate have-not in Blackpool, we will probably see considerably more thrashings than in any other season. In addition to the lack of competition, there is a dearth of individuals worth watching. In the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year list, five of the top ten were based in England at the start of the calendar year. In 2008, the number was three, and in 2007, four. In 2010, it would be unsurprising if there was only one, and yet Wayne Rooney’s loss of form could still see him miss out. Following Javier Mascherano’s move to Barcelona, the Premier League has been further weakened: the only player one may nominate as the world’s best in his position is Didier Drogba, aged thirty-two.

Due to the unbalanced level of domestic competition, the tactical standard of English football will only be verifiable once the Champions League’s latter stages are underway. The group stage draw has been kind to Manchester United and Arsenal. Chelsea’s route is slightly more challenging and Tottenham’s appears veritably cruel. Nonetheless, it is not inconceivable that all four progress. If that were to be the case, the Premier League’s giants – and Spurs – will be rank outsiders behind José Mourinho’s Real Madrid and Barcelona. Last season’s finalists, Inter and Bayern Munich, have not weakened. It would take a brave man to bet on there being more than one English semi-finalist. The Premier League may have set the standard over the last few seasons, but in 2010/11, it is undoubtedly in decline.

The New Holding Midfielder

The development of the advanced playmaker has always been closely linked with that of the holding midfielder. Proactive and reactive. Creator and destroyer. And the holder has always developed as a shadow and a mirror image of the creator – where tactical innovation has opened a pocket of space for the playmaker, an equal and opposite reaction takes place in an attempt to stifle it. For every Zidane there is a Makélélé, for every Riquelme a Mascherano. The role of the playmaker has changed, but what impact has this had on the holding midfielder? How is the role of the destroyer changing in the modern game?

The playmaker is in a continual state of flux, going through a series of different incarnations. At the top level of modern football the old-fashioned, foot-on-the-ball trequartista is obsolete, negated by the rise of tactically-disciplined destroyers like Claude Makélélé whose role is to stifle creative play ‘between the lines’.

This doesn’t mean that the playmaker has disappeared, but that the effective area for creative play has shifted. Specifically, it’s shifted out to wider areas of the pitch. Advanced playmakers either start as a wide midfielder and drift inside (like Luka Modric often does for Tottenham) or start centrally but move into wider areas (like Aaron Hunt at Werder Bremen).

So what does this mean for the holding midfielder? The ‘Makélélé role’ entailed protecting the centre-backs, but the preferred method of unlocking a defence has changed – playmakers now look to exploit the gap between full-back and centre-back. This change could be seen during the World Cup – Spain would often deploy a wide player (initially Jesús Navas and later Pedro Rodríguez) on the right, obliging the opposing left-back to hold a wide position, thereby stretching the defence and manufacturing a gap for a creative player such as Andrés Iniesta to exploit. The gap between full-back and centre-back is therefore increasingly requiring of protection – necessitating the evolution of a new breed of holding midfielder.

How, then, will the new breed differ from its progenitor? First and foremost, the new holding midfielder will not have the brief of directly negating a particular player – the role is more focussed on controlling space. As such, interceptions will be as important a method of gaining possession as tackling, if not more important. This new type of midfielder also needs to be mobile and more technically adept than its predecessors – teams can increasingly ill-afford to field specialists at the highest level of football.

There are current examples of this type of player. Javier Mascherano is perhaps the prototype of the new holding midfielder – covering the full-backs and shutting down space in wide areas – but he is technically limited. A truer example would be Sergio Busquets. Agile, intelligent and possessing of a rare tactical awareness, Busquets is indisputably a holding midfielder, but of a kind almost unrecognisable to Makélélé or Gilberto Silva.

During the World Cup final, Busquets was quick to provide cover on the left side to shut down Arjen Robben – exactly the sort of player to potentially pose a threat between full-back and centre-back. He was also the second-highest passer in the tournament, making over 200 more passes than Mascherano – remarkable even when taking into account that the Argentine played two games fewer. Even more notably, Busquets was undeniably effective in winning possession, yet was far from the most prolific tackler in the tournament – an indication of the increased importance of positional discipline, of knowing how to be in the right place at the right time to intercept a pass.

This is, of course, not the final stage of development. No doubt this evolution of the holding midfielder will open up space in another area of the pitch, which will eventually be exploited. The next tactical innovation is only ever the blink of an eye away, and a corresponding defensive manoeuvre will never be far behind.

Crystal Palace 1-2 Ipswich Town: Two different 4-2-3-1s

Ipswich Town were the winners of an entertaining and unusually high-quality game at Selhurst Park. In terms of the narrative of the game, the turning point was Claude Davis’ red card early in the second half, though the main point of tactical interest lay in both sides’ attempting to exploit the width of the pitch. That the visitors came out on top in this regard was the key to victory.

Crystal Palace lined up with something approximating a 4-2-3-1, but the notation is of limited use given the fluidity of the formation. Neil Danns and Owen Garvan were the two deepest-lying midfielders, with Andy Dorman, Kieron Cadogan and Wilfred Zaha ranged behind the centre-forward Alan Lee. Ipswich started with a similar formation but with more traditional wingers, Andros Townsend and Carlos Edwards, on the left and right flank respectively.

Crystal Palace v Ipswich starting line-ups

A tale of two right-backs

The first half was full of energy and momentum, and both teams tried to capitalise on this by sending players down the right flank. Both the Ipswich right-back Jaime Peters and his Palace counterpart Nathaniel Clyne pushed forward when their team had the ball, while the rest of the back four shifted infield to close the gap.
Although both had a largely attacking brief, Peters and Clyne went about this in different ways. Peters bombed up and down the wing, not only offering wide options for the Ipswich midfield but also freeing up the right-midfielder, Carlos Edwards, to make an impact infield. This strategy worked for Ipswich – although Peters was kept in check by Palace left-back Julian Bennett, the Canadian stretched the home side’s defence and allowed Edwards to take advantage of the space created between left-back and centre-back. It was in this way that Edwards should have opened the scoring, arriving late at the far post to turn Jon Stead’s cross over the bar.
Nathaniel Clyne’s role was similarly attacking, though in getting forward his aim was not to cover the entire flank himself, but rather to overload the Ipswich left side. This tactic enjoyed a degree of success, with Wilfred Zaha and Kieron Cadogan shifting to the right, helping to create 3-versus-2 situations which, with a better final ball, might have produced tangible results. While Ipswich were able to compensate for their right-back’s absence by shifting the rest of the defence over, Jaime Peters’ continual presence out wide meant that Julian Bennett was unable to do the same for Palace. This caused problems for the hosts in other areas.

Palace off the ball (left) and on the ball (right)

Stead and Leadbitter exploit space, Lee isolated

Both Palace and Ipswich deployed lone strikers – Alan Lee for the home side, Jon Stead for the visitors. Stead was well-supported by Grant Leadbitter, the central component of the three players behind the striker, and the two combined well to repeatedly take advantage of the space left by Clyne’s attacking forays.
Alan Lee, meanwhile, was largely isolated up front. The Palace midfield trio of Danns, Garvan and Dorman (nominally the left-midfielder but, as Palace’s attacks were so concentrated down the right, generally moved inside to provide support centrally) sat deep at all times, meaning that even when Lee was able to win headers there was no one breaking from midfield in support. Unlike Stead, who had Leadbitter behind him, Kieron Cadogan’s role was to provide support on whichever flank Palace were attacking, and had little impact in central areas. Ipswich’s dominance in the middle of the park was such that Lee often found himself being marked by Luke Hyam, the defensive midfielder, while the centre-backs Gareth McAuley and Tommy Smith were largely untroubled.

Ipswich in possession

Palace’s deep midfield
As alluded to previously, Palace’s central midfield operated in deep positions. This was mostly to feed passes out to the right, though it also served to prevent Grant Leadbitter from operating effectively ‘between the lines’. Although this had adverse effects, such as isolating the centre-forward, it opened up space from which one of the central defenders to bring the ball forward and perhaps initiate attacks. Unfortunately for Palace, this pocket of space was occupied by Claude Davis, a player hardly renowned for his on-the-ball capabilities. An example, perhaps, of some of the Palace players not being suited to George Burley’s tactical ambitions.

Ipswich quick to make most of numerical advantage

Ipswich took the lead from the spot after Claude Davis hauled down Jon Stead and was sent off, before Leadbitter converted the resultant penalty. The visitors were quick to double their advantage, Grant Leadbitter crossing from the vacated Palace right-back position for Carlos Edwards arrive at the far post and put away an almost identical chance to the one he had missed in the first half. Although Neil Danns pulled one back with a scrappy goal in stoppage time, the match was already decided. That the game was won within a few minutes epitomised its overriding theme – while both sides had a solid system, Ipswich took the points by being quicker to adapt effectively to changing circumstances.

The Unique Majesty of Dimitar Berbatov

To criticise him, it seems, requires nothing more than a pocket thesaurus. Languid. Lackadaisical. Lethargic. And to be honest, to admire him goes against my every instinct.

I’m an admirer of system, of tactics, of the subjection of individual talent to the collective. I am also immersed in a footballing culture where the willing runner is lauded over the technically adept, where the crunching tackle wins a greater roar from the terraces than the perfectly-weighted pass. There is little room in English football for the forward who commits the cardinal sin of Not Tracking Back. And yet. And yet I find myself unashamedly, occasionally joyfully, a fan of Dimitar Berbatov.

It’s not, as you can imagine, an easy position to maintain. Often, during the hideously protracted heartbreak that has been Berbatov’s spell at Manchester United, I’ve found myself exasperated as I explain for the nth time that he is a genius, as I elaborate in detail (and in vain) why I consider the man generally referred to as ‘that lazy Bulgarian’ to be – whisper it – better than Wayne Rooney.

Perhaps I cannot adequately describe the essence of Berbatov’s appeal, but for me there is a single moment that encapsulates it. It isn’t any of his goals, or even the moment he memorably twisted James Collins inside-out. Instead, cast your mind back to the 2008-2009 season. Manchester United are playing Chelsea. Berbatov, just inside the Chelsea half, receives a pass at shoulder-height. Instead of bringing the ball down, he nonchalantly – even casually – performs an immaculate bicycle-kick, cushioning the ball perfectly into the path of Rooney who, from what five seconds ago was an innocuous situation, is suddenly through on goal.

Remember it? Didn’t think so. Thing is, the player who passes Berbatov the ball was offside - the flag goes up while Dimi is in mid-air. Silence from the commentators. Not a single replay of the incident. One of the most singularly pristine and unexpected displays of technical proficiency I’ve ever seen, and I’ll likely never see it again. And it is precisely because these breathtaking moments are fleeting that they are so captivating. In an instant he can lift an entire stadium out of their seats, none quite sure what he’s actually done but all knowing that it was brilliant. He plays at such a pace that at times the English game seems to pass him by, yet in fact he has an understanding of tempo – and how to quickly change it – that is rarely seen in the Premier League, endowing him with a mastery of the unexpected.

The elegance, the poise, the guile and craft and beauty is wasted on the turgid functionality of Manchester United and the breakneck tempo of the Premier League. He is simultaneously too good and not good enough for English football. The genius is at once vindicated and undone by its futility. The effortlessly breathtaking is wrapped up in the eternal incompatibility – that is the unique majesty of Dimitar Berbatov.

This article was originally submitted to The Equaliser as part of their 'My Favourite Footballer' series.

Why forward-thinking coaches are thinking without forwards

Can football be played without strikers? Is it possible for a team to be successful without them? Football formations have developed from the 2-3-5 of the early 20th century to the range of 4-5-1 systems we see regularly today. Is the lone striker the final stage of development, or is there still room for tactical innovation? The possibility of a 4-6-0 is being increasingly discussed, but is the system workable? And is it already in use?

The notation 4-6-0 means any formation without strikers: there are many variants on the idea, never featuring a flat six-man midfield, but rather a midfield split into two or sometimes three bands. The concept is based on a fluid midfield, in which all members are accomplished at defending and attacking, and more than one is capable of adopting the de facto centre-forward position. Naturally the system requires high levels of fitness and technical ability, but these are not unrealistic demands at the top level of modern football.

There are early indications that such a system could be prevalent in the future, the most successful example being the Manchester United side of 2007-08, which won the Premier League and Champions League. The formation can be most accurately described as a 4-2-4-0 (the middle two numbers here indicate that the six midfielders are split into two bands). The forward line usually consisted of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo plus two from Luis Nani, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung and Carlos Tévez, while the two more withdrawn midfielders were Michael Carrick and either Anderson, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher or Owen Hargreaves. The system allowed Ronaldo, Tévez or Rooney to act as the 'striker' while the other midfielders did the necessary pressing and defensive work. In practise, it was Ronaldo who most successfully took the more advanced role, leading to him scoring a remarkable 42 goals, the tireless running of less spectacular players like Park Ji-Sung providing a platform for his talent. It isn't the perfect example of a fluid strikerless formation, as the driving force behind it was not so much midfield universality as a reliance on Ronaldo's individual capacity to create and score goals, and it isn't one that can be easily repeated by other teams: there is, after all, only one Cristiano Ronaldo. But it does offer a glimpse of how a football team can function successfully without a recognised centre-forward.

United aren't the only example. An improbable injury list forced Everton to play some of the 2008-09 season without a centre-forward. An advanced midfield role was being adopted by Tim Cahill and sometimes also Marouane Fellaini, while Luciano Spalletti began experimenting with something approximating a 4-5-1-0 or an adapted 4-1-4-1 at Roma, with Daniele De Rossi and Simone Perrotta running beyond the playmaker Francesco Totti. Everton's system is unlikely to be repeated due to the return of their strikers from injury, but it is still worth looking at. It centred around high levels of positional organisation and work-rate, relying largely on the ability of Cahill, Fellaini and Joleon Lescott to capitalise on the set-piece delivery of Mikel Arteta. Much of the closing down and off-the-ball running was performed by the wide midfielders Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar. Spalletti's Roma, by contrast, deploy two 'shuttling' central midfielders in De Rossi and Perrotta, as well as David Pizarro in a more withdrawn role. This creates space for the forward running of the wingers, as well as the individual talent of Totti. Both Everton and Roma have benefited from their tactical bravery – in 2008-09, Everton finished an admirable 5th place in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final, while Roma finished league runners-up in the first three seasons of Spalletti’s management, as well as lifting the Coppa Italia in 2007 and 2008.

If it’s theoretically viable, then, for a 4-6-0 to succeed, why isn’t everyone using it? There are still significant obstacles to the tactic being adopted more universally. A system without strikers requires both extraordinary levels of fitness and extremely high-quality players. It's telling that the three examples detailed above come from successful, relatively wealthy clubs who perennially finish in the top half of their domestic leagues. The system is unlikely to take on among smaller teams, who lack the physical capacity and standard of players to achieve the fluidity and universality required. Neither is a 4-6-0 likely to be adopted by international sides, as its success depends on the players spending a great deal of time together, a luxury only afforded to club teams. Another threat to the proliferation of 4-6-0 is the recent emergence of more ‘universal’ strikers, such as David Villa and Samuel Eto’o, who offer teams the qualities which previously required two players - both goal threat and defensive consciousness, athleticism in tandem with technical proficiency. However, the recent success of Manchester United, and the promising inroads made by Luciano Spalletti, could inspire others to attempt a similar experiment. Tactics are, in some respects, the search for perfect fluidity, and at the highest levels of club football a formation without strikers could be the next step towards that elusive ideal.