The first part of this series can be found here.
Football is a game of centimeters with a very small margin of error. Pass just a fraction too early or too late and it’s a foul. A second too quick or too slow and you’ve missed the ball. But you’re surrounded by the centimeters that you need to win; they’re there every minute and every second of the game. You have to fight for every one of them; you have to run yourself into the ground for that. You have to fight tooth and nail for that extra centimeter. Because when you add up all those centimeters, what you get is the difference between victory and defeat.
After 1958 WC, almost all the countries adopted the 4-2-4 formation of the Brazilian national team. In England, it turned into a 4-4-2 with two withdrawn wingers. However, comparison between two systems cannot be drawn, as the saying goes – “The English player thinks; the Brazilian improvise.” The art of joyful football was still alive and kicking, and needless to say, the world was enjoying it. But a somewhere deep down, they knew that enjoyment will not bring them trophies; enjoyment will not bring them results. Whenever someone has come up with a plan to take world football by storm, the remainder of the globe plotted against him. The same happened with Brazil; the same happened to Catenaccio and the same happened in the case of Total Football. The age of Joy was about to come to an end, and it heralded the age of systematic and scientific approach towards the beautiful game.
From the globetrotting Béla Guttmann to the modern day André Villas-Boas, football has seen many managers who have changed the landscape of footballing history. But there have been few managers who have revolutionized the art of coaching so much that they have become the epitome of greatness; those coaches have come to characterize an entire era, nay generation. The scientific genesis of the beautiful game can be traced back to former USSR, where the main protagonists were Victor Maslov and Valeriy Lobanovskyi.
When Lobanovskyi first came to Kiev in 1973, he came with the plan that to win titles. To him, it was imperative that what happened on the field be as vital as what happened off it, in terms of physical preparation and rehabilitation. Along with him, came another three gentlemen, and all together, these four men changed the face of Russian and world football during their tenure. Anatoli Zelentsov was in charge of individual training of players; Oleh Bazylevych did the actual coaching and Mykhaylo Oshemkov was considered for statistical collection of data from games. With such capable back-room stuff, Lobanovskyi set about assigning specific “tasks” to all the players. He hated the idea of kick-and-rush football, for which he abhorred the concept of mindless clearing of balls from defense. If one did that, it not only meant that the opposition had the ball, but also meant they have that crucial thing that Lobanovskyi craved – possession.
Football, to him, became a “system” of 22 elements, where the two sub-systems of 11 elements each moved in the restricted area of the pitch, bound by certain laws. Mathematically speaking, if the two sub-systems would cancel each other out, the match would end as a draw. His idea of treating the players as “components” of a much grander system can be looked upon as the watershed moment of Modern Football. Individualism was on the decline as coaches from all around the globe started to realize that in order to win, one need not have the best 11 players on the ground, and one needs only those 11 who can complement each other in every aspect of the game. Probably the first ever-recorded incident of a team utilizing space on the ground to the maximum will be Rinus Michels’ Ajax side.
His thought was trouble-free – increase the size of the pitch when you have the possession of the ball and decrease it when the opposition has it. This manipulation of space led to a pressing game, which Lobanovskyi took to a different level altogether. Pressing for Lobanovskyi was three-fold – full pressing, when opponents are hounded deep in their own half, half-pressing, when opponents are closed down only as to cross halfway, and false-pressing, where only one player closed down on the man in possession, whereas the rest of the team sat off. Against technically superior opponents, he would go for a full pressing at the very onset to unsettle them and later go for false pressing to induce them into making mistakes.
His scheme of attacking was straightforward – in order to attack, it was necessary to deprive the opposition players of the ball. His notion that attacking and defending were not related to the position on the pitch, but only to possession, was taken to an extreme when he ordered one forward to chase opponents into their own penalty box. The steel glove with which he ruled the back room was evident in the following comment
Better not joke with Lobanovskyi. If he gave an instruction, and the player said “But I think…,” Lobanovskyi would look at him and scream, “Don’t think! I do the thinking for you. Play!
This attitude, invariably led to conflicts and it was needless to say that players found little warmth as time progressed. However, his methods were successful – 30 titles from 1974 to 2001 hold testimony to this fact. He did not possess a team like il Grande Torino, but still like that legendary team, he led Dynamo to five consecutive League victories from 1997-2001.
But the decline of free-flowing football cannot be blamed totally on Maslov and Lobanovskyi. The actual end of it came with the invention of Catenaccio by Karl Rappan. With the spread of Catenaccio all over the globe, it soon became quite impossible to play the way Brazil had been doing for so long and so successfully.
But is the joy in football over? Maybe, to a certain extent. Can one imagine Garrincha playing the Modern game? For starters, no one would give him that extra yard or two of space to begin his shimmies. However, it would be unfair to say that Garrincha would not be able to dribble as much as he did back then.
The world, today, has changed. The players have changed, and certainly the tactics have changed. If one has to pinpoint the day the “system” won for the first time, it would be the meeting between Brazil and Italy in the 1982 WC. Brazil was trounced 2-3 by an Italian side, which embodied the modern game. Possibly it was the last time a team was fielded with 11 best players, who were told to go out there and enjoy.
However, that did not mean that individual attacking flair was abolished. Instead, it meant that now they were a part of the football system. Imitation is the best form of flattery, but only if you have the players to pull it off. Barcelona, possibly the best side around, may have been winning laurels worldwide for their style of play, but the underlying process by which they play comes through the lines of Maslov, Rinus Mitchels and Lobanovskyi.
I rest my case.