For the purposes of this article, a footballing philosophy is defined as: a set of beliefs about how football should be played on the field tactically. Football tactics are assumed to be that of the strategy(-ies) employed by a team to defend, attack and everything in between (the two transitions of losing the ball and winning the ball).
The definition of ‘philosophy’ from the Oxford English Dictionary
1 [mass noun] the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.
- [count noun] a particular system of philosophical thought:the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle
- the study of the theoretical basis of a particular branch of knowledge or experience:the philosophy of science
2 a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour: don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed, that’s my philosophy
I have felt it necessary to define the terminology so precisely in this article as a football philosophy can of course refer to a set of beliefs about how a football club should be run, how a club should act in the transfer market or the commitment to home-grown youth academy players and so much more.
[quote]48% more successful passes in the Premier League today than there were in 2002[/quote]
So we can therefore conclude that a ‘football philosophy’ is more than a Brendan Rodgers buzzword that many have began to question. But Brendan Rodgers is certainly not alone in having a clear, identifiable and strong philosophy in his approach to football; I would argue that every successful and sustainable team in the Premier League of today has to have one. Twenty years ago, it may have been possible for Premier League teams to rely on great individual talents to carry a team through from victory to victory, but the game of today has changed. I recently wrote an article detailing the analysis and statistics provided by the English FA and professionals within the game that suggests football teams in England are advocating the loss of the traditional ‘midfield architects’ and that there were 48% more successful passes in the Premier League today than there were in 2002; an article that would go on to conclude that the Premier League has evolved into the only league in the world where it would be possible to identify each team just through a description of the way the club plays it’s own brand of football (article available here).
So what does this mean for the EPL and how important is a football philosophy when it comes to football tactics?
When we analyse the most consistent teams in the Premier League, teams that produce something similar on an annual basis we often find that the football philosophy is far superior to that of the players that play within the team, for example: Arsenal without Fabregas and Henry, will continue to look to play the ‘Arsenal way’ and Stoke will continue to purchase the player profile’s to play the ‘Stoke way’. But over the years we have seen a number of transitional teams that have slowly developed their philosophies through a change of managers and players who have fluctuated in form. Chelsea and Liverpool are the two most obvious case studies of just this; Chelsea have ventured from Mourinho’s rigid, powerful and mechanical style through to a team full of flair and smaller moments of magic.
[quote]it was all part of a plan that should have led to a team to victory should they “win more than 40 headers, or cross the ball more than 30 times or make more than 12 regains in the final third”
Liverpool on the other hand, have undergone a transition like no other team in recent years and it is this that I find fascinating (despite being an extremely loyal Cardiff City fan). Under Damien Comolli, an expensive experiment began, Liverpool were to purchase players that were to ‘benefit Liverpool as a team that scores from crossing the ball’ and a number of statistical analysts came together with something of a ‘Moneyball’ method that arrived at the decision to bring in Stewart Downing (one of the most consistent players with a successful cross completion rate at the time) and Andy Carroll (a player identified with an unstoppable ability in the air); it was all part of a plan that should have led to a team to victory should they “win more than 40 headers, or cross the ball more than 30 times or make more than 12 regains in the final third” (The Tomkins Time, 2012) .
It may come as a surprise that these players were purchased with a simple philosophy in mind and it almost seems comical now looking back at the shear amount of crosses played in to the box during the 2011/12 season, leaving Liverpool with one of the worst cross-to-goal record in EPL history in a single season (they required 421 open-play crosses per goal! ). Put simply (and without further debate), you cannot build a football philosophy on the basis of these statistics alone and the end product of a playing philosophy is reflected in the player profiles available to the manager, regardless of the managers’ own philosophy.
Liverpool have since undergone the (sometimes agonising) transition from a crossing team that fails to combine a slow build-up and crossing (as the opposition have time to set their defence) to a team that can take advantage of their own ability to pass the ball – a trait that Liverpool have founded their philosophy upon decades before the Comolli changes. With or without Brendan Rodgers, Luis Suarez or Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s philosophy will always be that of out-passing the opposition and beating the other team ‘with the ball’.
What Rodgers does bring to Liverpool is an extreme-ended philosophy. In attack, Rodgers wants his teams to exploit the width as a means of stretching the opponents rather than as an access for crossing and uses possession as a way to control games. Without the ball, Rodgers sets his teams up in an extremely rigid zonally positioned 4-2-3-1 formation (typically) that sets the team up in this desired block. The formation changes (from fluid team-attack to rigid team-defence) are arguably the second most imperative aspect of Rodgers’ philosophy (after that of possession) as Rodgers uses space-domination as a way of controlling the opposition. Variations of this ideology exist throughout football and in the Premier League alone, Southampton, Arsenal, Wigan and others advocate such a philosophy.
Where does this philosophy differ from others? (two case studies)
West Ham under Allardyce are a team that look to cross the ball on the counter attack as his teams set up to defend and then play off of the target-man either through counter-attacking crosses or knock-down balls to attacking midfielders who arrive in the box to support. I know this to be true through personal analysis but Allardyce himself has consistently commented on his sides success at out-crossing and shooting the opposition, without any reflection on the quality of the goal scoring opportunities. For Allardyce, football is about quantity and opportunity maximisation; this is how Allardyce measures control.
[quote]We had ten shots on target, ten or more off-target and 46 crosses, it just never stopped, but only one goal, which I have to say isn’t good enough. We must be as dominant as that but we must come off with a victory at the end of it and not come off disappointed like we have against QPR.
Sam Allardyce after the 1-1 draw with QPR, January 2013[/quote]
Manchester United on the other hand provide the Premier League with a unique football philosophy, one that no other team in world football can boast. While the likes of Barcelona, Juventus, Dortmund and Bayern Munich all play football in a particular style (or with a particular philosophy), Manchester United under Ferguson appear to have the complete Premier League toolbox. Ferguson’s acquisition of Robin Van Persie was the final tool in his box of tactical options because he is both flexible and the perfect ‘bridging’ player between the two philosophies that Manchester United are capable of switching between within minutes of a game.
Manchester United have the capacity to use their traditional wingers to break down the wings on the counter attack and then they have the midfielders that have the capacity to break into the box to meet the counter-attacking cross and it is this combination that leads Manchester United to the top few of the crosses-to-goal ratio chart every single year that goes by. But more than this, Manchester United also possess the ‘tools’ to play through the slow build-up approach more centrally and break down teams at the edge of the opposition’s 18-yard box and it is for this purpose that Scholes, Giggs, Rooney and now Van Persie and Kagawa are so crucial to Manchester United’s alternative route to successfully breaking down teams.
Sir Alex Ferguson is very rarely praised for his tactical implementation, but no one can question the success of this methodology he has used through out his lengthly tenure (even Johan Cruyff once labelled Sir Alex as the greatest tactician he had ever seen).
The Premier League is now full of teams that play with unique playing styles; each team in the division is unique in how they set out to play football. Much of the tactical philosophy we see is pre-set by the selection of the manager, but we have to assume that the chairman responsible for hiring the manager is someone who takes into account whether they have found ‘the right man for the job’.
The football philosophies for each English Premier League team is therefore deeply ingrained in the club’s history and any ‘transition phase’ that clubs look to undergo is going to be experimental and time consuming in reality.
More and more, clubs that are introduced into the Premier League are asked the question: what is your philosophy? Swansea, Southampton, Norwich, West Brom and Stoke are all great examples of teams who have answered this question with clear eyes. QPR on the other hand have gasped at the very thought of a clear and identifiable footballing philosophy on the football field (or how to fit a Adel Taarabt into a ‘team’ that defends) and as a result of this have paid the heavy price of near certain relegation. If it were based on the strength of a football philosophy, I struggle to see how Reading and Sunderland or Aston Villa won’t join them. It is for this reason that Wigan’s belief in the way they play will save them when the time comes.
So next time you watch your team play 90 minutes, ask yourself: does my team play with a particular defensive, attacking or transitional strategy that is identifiable in every game? Only then can you begin to appreciate the depth in the concept of a ‘football philosophy’.
Artwork on cover is created by @NazarStefanovic and is used with the artist’s permission. Nazar has teamed up with Jed for the artwork in Jed’s near future published books (The Tiki-Taka Handbook), a guide to related football training theory and philosophy. Please follow Jed on twitter for more information @TPiMBW