In the 2004-05 season, a team arrived that revolutionised the sport: their previously unheralded coach popularised a playing philosophy rooted in fluid passing and frantic pace. The rules of the game had changed a few years before to encourage more offensive systems and with players pushing the boundaries of what was physically possible, the Seven Seconds Or Less rule took the league by storm.
The system was based on the belief that the best opportunity to score was within the first seven seconds of regaining possession and with the opposition defence scrambling to get back into position. With wide players hugging the sidelines to spread the play and an attack that created overloads at pace, the team changed the way the game would be played in future.
We are, of course, referring to the Phoenix Suns in the National Basketball Association.
They led the league with a Pace Factor (the number of possessions a team uses per game) of 97.35 that season. By 2017-18, five teams had breached the 100-mark. The next year, this shot up to seventeen and it was just one down on that this season.
Five years ago, an average NBA team ran 16.9 miles per game. Before the Covid-19 crisis hit, this was up to 18.1 miles. Basketball is more athletic these days, and with advances in sports science and analytics, the game is only expected to get ‘quicker’ in coming years.
There are parallels to be drawn here with football. A Premier League game today increasingly resembles a hoopfest with the ball pinging back and forth constantly between the sides involved. The philosophy espoused by the Suns could easily apply to a football team and the likes of Pep Guardiola and Ralf Rangnick espouse their own variations of the seven second rule.
As any player worth his salt gets increasingly judged on the ability to press and counter-press (or resist them), the more creative aspects of the game have taken a backseat for now. Arsene Wenger certainly isn’t a fan. The Frenchman, whose style of football Jürgen Klopp once famously compared to an orchestra, believes that football runs the risk of being a sport where players run furiously to win the ball back without knowing what to do with it after.
It certainly has not gotten to that stage yet. The two best practitioners of the ‘modern way’, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, have heavily coached patterns for when the ball is won in any part of the pitch. They wreak havoc in opposition ranks and disrupt their patterns of play, which if you were looking at as a spectacle through Wenger’s lens (especially if he were still managing Arsenal), doesn’t make for great viewing. The champions of England and Germany though, know exactly what they are doing.
For someone like Klopp, whose stylistic influences clearly lie someplace else, his creation is beautiful to behold in its own way. Against Arsenal in the league, the average distance away from their own goal that Liverpool started their possession sequences was 58.4 meters. This in itself is nothing new as countless teams have been playing a high line for decades in various forms.
In this era of verticality, however, and with the opportunities available for others to hurt them with one pass if any component fails for even a moment, Liverpool are increasingly finding order in their chaos.
The art of defending has changed drastically over the last couple of years to accommodate some of these new ideas, as articulated in this piece. The Phoenix Suns never won anything for all that offensive basketball because they leaked plenty at the back. It was only when the Golden State Warriors took a lot of their principles and added some defensive big men to the mix that Championships were won.
This defensive structure, which starts with the front men and ends with the goalkeeper, is what the Reds and Bayern have nailed down at the moment. Last season, Liverpool won 3.71 offside calls per ninety, 42% more than the second-highest team in the league. Klopp and his team understand the risks associated with their high line and have rightly concluded that they do enough to mitigate them while reaping the desired benefits with their pressing. This obviously did not pay off against Aston Villa for a variety of reasons, including the loss of key personnel, but the German will be confident that the record 2-7 loss was only a statistical anomaly.
Wenger is right in many ways. Football may never revert to an orchestra-tempo again. Players will continue to get bigger, fitter and faster. More goals than ever will be scored. The rules will be tweaked to accommodate a more audience-friendly product and those always favour offensive outputs in most sports. Basketball enthusiasts fret about the game broaching cricket score levels at some point and perhaps football will look at its American cousin likewise. At the moment though, the balance is just right and in the controlled frenzy of the best teams, there is a lot of joy to be found.