Some football stereotypes don’t shift, Sam Allardyce is a long ball merchant, Spurs fall at the final furlong, the Theatre of Dreams plays exciting football and Arsene Wenger believes predominantly in possession football and the Tiki Taka style of football.
As the above graphic shows this year there are shifting sands of time, Wenger obviously instructed Cech to go long. 19 long accurate kicks equates to one every 4.5 minutes, effectively every 5 minutes a long ball. This goes massively against the grain of what people see in Wenger and his “possession” football.
What it points at is we are in a season and a point of time where it is “Horses for Courses”. No doubt a cobbled together Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho in Central Defence for Liverpool, influenced Wengers decisions and tactics. In addition from a tactical point of view Wenger wanted to bypass Klopp’s Gegenpressing in the attacking third, hence decided not to pass out from the back, Wengers preferred method. As commentators have suggested the antidote of Gegenpressing is the long ball. Klopp’s tactic of trying to regain possession closest to Arsenals goal was negated.
The much maligned Olivier Giroud, current form of eleven goals in eleven games also no doubt influenced Wenger. The win Arsenal had against Man City at the Emirates conceding possession to hit City on the counter-attack to win 2-1 at the Emirates signalled a change of thinking in Wenger. Wenger is no doubt under increasing pressure from the powers that be, Gazidis and Kroenke to win the title and he has consequently adapted his approach.
Managers in the Premier League, have been influenced by the supreme success of Leicester City, with an average possession of 34%. The trend across football has reverted away from total possession to more “effective football”. If we look at the masters of possession, Barcelona have gone from total possession to a more direct football with Luis Suarez under Luis Enrique.
Renowned possession teams such as Swansea are struggling currently in the Premier League compared to previous years. Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal and his “Philosophy” have the possession but little end product, and will no doubt start going more directly to ensure a top 4 berth.
The Premier League has evolved, even mid to average teams can defend resolutely so the first goal has grown in prominence. The direct rumbustious style of Leicester doesn’t give a team a chance to organise their defence, and get their banks of four in place. Possession for possessions sake, often leads to a growing confidence in the opposing side when the ball is retained but there is no threat. The possession side also starts to feel the wrath of the crowd as we have seen at the theatre of dreams if they have reams of possession but are unable to score. Analogously this increases the confidence of the non-possession side increasing their belief that they can nick a goal on the break.
The growing money pot of the Premier League summarised by a team like Crystal Palace buying a player of the calibre of Yohan Cabaye, means there has been an evening-out of the calibre of players across the 19 teams in the Premier League. The “fear factor” of the big teams is redundant, and you can no longer just pass teams into submission.
Fitness levels and athleticism levels mean teams are equipped and happy to defend for 60/70/80 minutes if necessary. You can see a lot more backs to the walls performances that do not wilt almost regardless of how much possession the opposition has. Jose Mourinho created and formented this blueprint in his Inter Milan Champions League Semi Final versus Barcelona, winning with 28% possession over two legs.
The gulf in class and ability of any player in the Premier League has narrowed, so being able to pass a team into submission no longer works. The likes of Stoke bringing in the quartet of Arnatovic, Afellay, Bojan and Shaquiri mean that they are not fearful of any team, they soak up the pressure and hit on the counter-attack in supreme confidence. A team like Man City, Man United or Arsenal cannot simply rely on the “superior” ability of their footballers to pass pass and pass and eventually break the dam. Defences are better drilled both physically and organisationally and do not have that resident fear of the big sides of yesteryear.
Leicester have truly broken the cast and shown what is achievable on what is ostensibly a simple game plan, and it most certainly has heralded the end of “possession for possessions sake.” If a possession luminary such as Arsene Wenger is changing tack, it truly does herald a shift in the sand, and will no doubt only increase the number of imposters who imitate the Leicester modus operandi. The death of total possession and a swing towards counter attacking zealous athletic football has arrived and Mr Ranieri deserves all the plaudits for having the verve to “attack attack attack.”