Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Winds of Change

Ed likes to take his dog "Uncle 'arry" to the beach every day, whether its windy or not
photo by independentmanvia PhotoRee

Winds of change, or some more hot air from Ed?  You decide:

The single biggest game this weekend was Swansea v. Manchester City.  This is not because the outcome may affect the title race in the BPL, even though it may have propelled United to first place and the realistic belief that a title is possible.  Instead, the significance of the game is one of tactics and styles.

There was Manchester City, the top team in the BPL in terms of personnel, a team that absolutely pounded Manchester United head to head, and a team whose bench could easily be strong enough to anchor another midlevel BPL team.  And on the other side, there was Swansea City, a team composed of some players that were working in different fields some time ago.  This should by all accounts be a blowout. 

Of course, City did not blow out Swansea; instead, Swansea dominated possession and looked the better of the two teams in its victory.  In fact, shortly into the game, City was forced to remove Gareth Barry from midfield – the same Gareth Barry that starts for the English national team – because otherwise they could not press enough and could not get possession of the ball at all.  And even with Ya Ya Toure, a player about a foot taller than any Swansea midfielder and about twice as fast, City struggled to retain possession and get chances.

Swansea play the short passing possession game, and have been called the Welsh Barcelona.  To me, I think Swansea are serving as the ultimate control test in the question:  Is it personnel or tactics that make Barca so great?  It’s seemed that Barca are so much better than everyone else because of their system (sorry Real, but it seems whenever you play Barca your top tier lineup always seems second best in performance and result), but because Messi and Xavi and others are so good – particularly Messi – it is extremely difficult to resolve the question.   But fortunately, I think Swansea finally does it, as there is simply no question regarding their lack of top-tier talent.

Swansea has also made the lower-tier teams in the BPL look poor.  Does Wigan, for example, really have more difficult financial constraints than Swansea?  Is Swansea’s talent level that much higher?  And isn’t Wigan’s Martinez supposed to be a footballing guru who’s slowly putting in a system that will allow them to maintain their position in the BPL?  How about Blackburn?  Same theory, right?

Unlike either of these teams, Swansea has also done extremely well against the top-tier teams, beating teams like Liverpool and City, and losing in close matches to United and others.  Of course, it’s imperative to accuse Swansea and its system for lacking a cutting edge, but is that really fair? 

With respect to the City game, Swansea could have been up 1- 0 pretty quickly if not for Hart's saved PK.  But regardless, the lack of cutting edge under any system, it would seem, is equally an issue for more traditional teams like Liverpool and even Spurs of late.  With teams putting so many men back on defense, finishing often requires top-tier players at the top.  As one commentator to the game noted correctly I believe, Swansea might very well be a top team if they only had 30MM pounds to spend on a striker.

On the other side of the ball, Swansea has shown against teams that out-athlete them every week that the possession game may be the best defense available.   When watching other lower-tier teams play City, they can do nothing but pack it in and hope for a cheap counter goal.  Painful.  Swansea, however, is constantly moving the ball looking for room to attack even after they have taken the lead.


This year’s Champion’s League results seem conclusive to me:  the BPL is simply not that good.  For example, a fifth place La Liga team schooled United at Old Trafford, and the Swiss Miss team that knocked United out of the Champions League competition just lost 7 - 1 to Bayern Munich.  I mention this not because I believe that these problems are related only to tactics.  More importantly, I think, is the distance between the top teams in the BPL this year and past years and Barcelona, and as set forth above, the difficulty these teams have had in playing Swansea.  In short, I don’t think United or City or anyone will ultimately be able to get past Barca on sheer talent.  Mourinho has certainly tried without success at Real, a team with a lineup that is at least as good as Barca’s, and arguably better. 

Some interesting testimony comes from Cesc Fabregas, a player who is loathe to criticize Arsene Wenger but has played at top-tier Arsenal.  Comparing the two, Fabregas noted:
"We train more, here, definitely. It was different at Arsenal. Sometimes after games we'd stay inside the gym but here we're always outside, with the ball, practising, working tactically. Even if we play almost every three days, we hardly have a day off. We train a lot – nearly every day. 
For my first games there was an adjustment, because I was used to my role at Arsenal, where I could move wherever I felt I could make the best contribution. Here, it's completely different. Everyone has their own place and it's important you stick to your position. It took a while to remember stuff I'd learned as a kid at Barcelona. But the memory is coming back and I'm improving game by game."
The issue before us, I think, is whether the top English clubs (or German, or Italian, or US clubs, for that matter) will realize that the next phase in the evolution of soccer is upon us.  That the possession game, with its smaller, quicker players, will ultimately take over the game and its training.  

I wonder whether the top English clubs and their managers adapt or will they ultimately be eaten by it?  After seeing the minimal changes at clubs like United this year after a defeat to Barcelona last year that had them looking like the Junior Varsity team, I suspect that change will come slowly.  Talent will continue to be the excuse until the weight of victories by teams like Swansea and humiliating defeats of top-tier English clubs to teams like Barcelona become too much to bear.

This is farlieonfootie for March 14.

1 comment:

  1. Great points, but it's almost like you wrote that article late at night because you knew some of the other Correspondents, notably Correspondent James, have been slacking off more than the officials who handle Arsenal games.

    -- Ars. W.