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Manchester United don’t have a plan in possession. Does it matter?
And if not, what does matter?
Almost the entirety of modern football tactics can be defined by a single word: space.
Almost every approach, attacking or defensive, proactive or reactive, is about manipulating the space on the pitch. John Muller even named his terrific newsletter Space Space Space.
“Defending is a matter of how much I have to defend”, claimed a certain Johan Cruyff. “If I have to defend that entire garden, I am the worst. If I only have to defend that piece, I am the best.
“Everything has to do with metres”.
It’s the same story in attack.
“In all team sports”, said some rando called Pep Guardiola, “the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.
"And when we've done all that, we attack and score from the other side. That's why you have to pass the ball, but only if you're doing it with a clear intention. It's only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That's what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka."
You suck players towards one side of the pitch to open up the space elsewhere. It’s all about space. And time, if you ask Xavi Hernández.
“For me, it is use of space”, he said. “I understand football as a “time-space”. If Messi is in a space that nobody occupies, he has time to think. Then it becomes very dangerous. If he doesn’t have enough space or time, he needs to challenge. He can do it, against three, even four opponents, but it becomes more complicated. So I understand football as a “space-time” relationship. There are people who have counterattack, fast attack, whatever you want. You put the vocabulary as you like it.
“I prefer to say: look at the space there, or the space is there, space is here. Be aware of the time. Do not rush. Do not come and look for the ball. Take the space, and we will take the ball to you”.
This is the view that has come to dominate our understanding of modern football. The best sides systematically create space to attack while denying it to their opponents. None of this is that new, especially on the defensive end. Everyone and their dog has been saying forever that you have to keep a good shape without the ball, and make sure the spaces between players are not too big. Guardiola’s post-Cruyffian revolution has really emphasised this principle in an attacking sense: you have to occupy the spaces, create room, and then you can score a goal.
But what if there’s another view?
"You can argue about formations, tactics and systems forever, but to me football is fundamentally about the players”, said Harry Redknapp. "Whether it is 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, the numbers game is not the beautiful game in my opinion. It's 10% about the formation and 90% about the players. If you have the best ones and they do their jobs, then they can pretty much play any way you want them to."
Now, if you’ve read any of my stuff before, you’ve probably figured out my own views are much closer to Guardiola, Xavi and Cruyff than they are to Redknapp. This is often framed as intellectuals vs neanderthals, but let’s be more charitable here. The fundamental divide is in building a framework by which the players are told how to progress the ball vs encouraging them to figure it out themselves.
It’s not just the luddites. Arsène Wenger, one of football’s great innovators, has always been an advocate of encouraging players to think for themselves rather than enforcing complex tactical systems. It’s not necessarily an unsophisticated approach. It’s independent learning.
Over at Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjær seems more of this mind than a structured positional play approach.
“There are many ways of creating”, Solskjær told The Athletic’s Carl Anka. “Sometimes I do have discussions — especially with my dad, he likes to say, ‘Well why don’t you draw them onto you? Let them come and press?’
“So in some games you soak up pressure and give away the possession of the ball — sometimes that creates that space. But for us, the players want the ball all the time. So the ball has to do the work: you have to move it quickly, have to be better at circulating it and making decisions on when to keep it and when to risk it.”
It’s a bit different from Guardiola’s “overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak” approach. But the goal is the same. It’s just that one is centred on systems and the other is more instinctive and individualistic. One manipulates space to get the best out of the players; the other uses players to find the space.
People will, justly, point to Man Utd and criticise this approach. Compared to Guardiola’s City especially, their way of breaking down teams is almost purely about individuals doing brilliant things. Bruno Fernandes will play a killer pass, Marcus Rashford will dribble past a few defenders, you get the picture. It is, as people on Twitter will tell you, Just Vibes FC.
Even the squad construction suffers from this. Right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka is an outstanding 1v1 defender, but you don’t want him putting in lots of crosses on the overlap. Right winger Daniel James, signed in the same window (so surely supposed to complement Wan-Bissaka), and alternate Mason Greenwood, don’t offer much in possession either, so rely on Wan-Bissaka’s overlapping runs and crosses. Striker Anthony Martial wants to interchange with the wide players and drift to run in behind, but the side completely lack a static point for him to run off. Just individuals doing individual things.
Is that automatically a problem?
Increasingly, I don’t know if it is. If United added more quality individuals, more players who could do the right things in the right spaces, and just let them get on with it, would that be enough?
The example that always comes to mind is Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. That side were much less tactically complex and deliberate than Guardiola’s. But my god was it effective. I’m very much not convinced that a more holistic positional play approach would have yielded better results than this more straightforward “let the best front three in the world do its thing” method.
I wish I could come to a clear conclusion about this. It’s clear that a strict plan in possession can help sides systemically break down opponents. But it’s not unclear to me that allowing individuals the freedom to make choices can sometimes lead to similar benefits. Unstructured coaching has been associated with “reactive” football, and maybe that’s unfair. There are many ways to skin a cat.
Football is a battle of different ideas, and one shouldn’t discount the view that players are intelligent enough to find their own solutions on the pitch.