A video of Alphonso Davies went viral when football returned to the Bundesliga in May. In a crucial encounter against Borussia Dortmund which eventually tipped the league title Bayern Munich’s way, the left-back made an astonishing recovery run dispossessing Erling Haaland in the box while he was poised to score. With the striker having a head start of 12.5 meters on him, Davies caught up in 3.1 seconds while hitting a top speed of 35 km/h. The Canadian’s speed had many, including players past and present, purring in approval.
What the video also showed was that it had taken Dortmund only three passes and ten seconds to transition between the two boxes. When Julian Brandt played the final ball through, every single outfielder was in Dortmund’s half; Bayern were playing that high a defensive line.
There were so many of the principles that guide modern football in that play; athleticism, pace, power, compression of space and an attacking transition conceptualized and executed on in the blink of an eye.
A football team’s identity can be gauged on what they do in possession, when the other team have the ball and in the management of attacking and defensive transitions. Some managers are defined by their focus on possession, à la Pep Guardiola, who is still unfairly perceived only as an exponent of tiki-taka football. He is so much more than that and his Manchester City press and counter-press as well as anybody, as evidenced by their defeat of Real Madrid in the Champions League round of sixteen. A large focus of Jürgen Klopp’s training sessions at Liverpool is on off-the-ball work but his team have progressively gotten better at possession football as well.
It is in transitions though that today’s deepest football thinkers apply their time and energy. The plethora of data available to football teams coupled with unprecedented levels of physical conditioning in players have changed the game completely. And depending on who you’re asking, not necessarily for the better. A certain type of player, much coveted in other eras, is being phased out of the game. A slower luxuriant talent would find it hard to make the starting eleven of an elite team.
These teams seek to impose themselves on matches by concentrating most of the play in opposition halves, as far as possible from their own goalmouth. Weak teams are crushed while average ones are limited to low blocks, hopeful longballs and the odd set piece. Offensive transitions originate much higher than they did in years past and more teams invest these days on players who facilitate these actions. The defensive line moves up as a consequence with sweeper keepers and ball carrying centre-backs the norm at most top clubs these days.
However, the more teams and players get exposed to pressing and counter-pressing actions, the more proficient they get at playing through them. And when they do, there is a whole world of opportunity that opens up against teams that play a high line. Champions League games this season have shown that in ample measure and the likes of Atalanta, RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg, Lyon and Valencia have repeatedly opened up the best teams in the world.
The management of defensive transitions is what sets the best teams apart at the moment and Liverpool probably do them better than anyone else. Once the ball is turned over or the press is beaten, they have the personnel best equipped to stop counterattacks with vast expanses of space behind them.
A good amount of credit goes to their tireless midfield players who often ensure that the progressive pass is delayed by the fraction of a second that makes all the difference in the end. It often allows a player out of position to scramble back into place and Guardiola hinted at this quality recently when he named Liverpool the toughest team he has encountered in his managerial career. While listing down several attributes, he mentioned that the team were very fast going backwards. Increasingly, this will be the critical benchmark for teams who defend in a high line in future.
These qualities are something that traditional defensive stats like tackles, duels, headers won, clearances, blocks or interceptions will not give a complete picture about. It is one thing defending with the play in front of you and quite another when you are running back towards your own goal sixty yards away with only a pacy winger for company.
Harry Maguire is said to have some pace and is classified as a new-age ball playing defender who can carry the ball into midfield. Ask him to turn at the halfway line and run when a ball is played behind him and it is a completely different story. In the Davies example shared above, Haaland had sat down one of the best defenders in the world in David Alaba. It was Kyle Walker’s refusal to track Maxwel Cornet’s run that led to Lyon’s first goal in their 3-1 win over Manchester City last weekend.
City are increasingly vulnerable in defensive transitions and Guardiola’s coaching on that aspect of his team’s performances leave much to be desired. It is also what has laid bare Frank Lampard’s credentials at Chelsea. Even the Champions League finalists, Bayern Munich and PSG, have shown frailties in this area. Even though the game last night saw only one goal, both teams looked shaky at the back and there were 22 attempts on goal between the two sides.
Even Liverpool, with defenders and midfielders who generally take great positions and make good recovery runs, get caught out often. Ismaïla Sarr took advantage to end their 44-game match unbeaten run in the league but there have been multiple instances over the past two seasons where poor finishing or great goalkeeping have allowed for their mistakes to be glossed over.
Davies, the toast of the town after scintillating attacking performances this season, admitted after that Dortmund game that the only reason he had to make up so much ground was because he was caught out of position. The responsibility for that lies partly with him and partly with the team’s manager. As transition times before a shot on goal reduce even further, elite coaches must find ways to maintain a high line and defend better than they do today. The man widely considered to be the best manager in the world has thrown £350 million at the problem without a solution in sight.
Gabriel Magalhaes. William Saliba. Thiago Silva. Kalidou Koulibaly. Dayot Upamecano. Just a few names being bandied about as the answer to many of the top teams’ defensive problems. Whatever the underlying stats, one would do well to wait and see if these players positively impact the teams they join. Among the Premier League’s big six, only Virgil Van Dijk and to a lesser extent, Aymeric Laporte, have come into their teams in recent years and immediately improved the defence.
People say that there aren’t any great defenders anymore. That is only partly true. There are plenty around who would have thrived till as recently as two years ago. It is just that the nature of their roles have changed more drastically than front men in the intervening period. A Van Dijk is a rare species at this moment in time. Who will be the next one through? Your guess is as good as mine.