Antonio Conte has insisted that having the right balance between defence and offence is still the biggest key to winning trophies in football, rather than an overt preference for one or the other.
Conte’s stance is deemed noteworthy as it flies in the face of doctrines practiced at Manchester City and Liverpool these days, which have proven quite successful this season. But for the (still) Chelsea head coach, who’s won a league title in four out of his last five seasons in club football, in order to win consistently, you need to have balance. Balance is everything. Not beauty or entertainment or passing or possession or vague notions of playing the “right way”. Balance.
Most associate “beautiful football” with Pep Guardiola, but his brand of possession-based football, which came to be known as “tiki-taka” back in his Barcelona days was actually the brainchild of Pep’s former manager Johan Cruyff.
For Cruyff, who grew up in the Ajax/Dutch school of Total Football, the emphasis was on possession-oriented football with an attack-minded 3–4–3 / 4–3–3 formation, along with a high offensive line, high pressing and constant interchange of players. Cruyff was also responsible for introducing the rondo, a training exercise where a circle of players try to pass the ball to each other while the one or two players in the center try to intercept it.
Guardiola adopted this style of play during his tenure at Barcelona (and then Bayern and then City) — including the high defensive line, positional interchanges, and general reliance on possession — but he also tweaked it to the extreme, sublimating everything to passing. Possession-based and possession-oriented are often used to mean the same thing, but with Guardiola, we can make a distinction.
902 - Manchester City today completed more passes than any other team has managed in a single Premier League game (since 2003-04). Distributed.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 4, 2018
A team can still be possession-oriented, to draw the opposition out of their positions, but then take advantage pockets of space created with long passes or crosses. Pep, however, relies entirely on quick, short passes. He instructed his goalkeepers to play out from the back no matter what and instructed his fullbacks to be higher up the pitch. It’s his own brand of tiki-taka, much more disciplined and ultimately much more refined. Passing is not only the sole way to create in attack but also the main way to defend. The opposition cannot score if they don’t have the ball, after all.
Another school of thought, which owes its roots to Cruyff and has gained popularity in recent years is gegenpressing. Gegenpressing essentially means to press or counter press the opposition right after losing the ball, to have a coherent, organized, aggressive response immediately rather than just dropping back into a defensive shape!
Gegenpressing, as used by Klopp in Premier League, employs the high defensive line, high pressing and positional interchange aspects of Cruyff football, but instead of emphasizing possession, it reduces the system’s reliance on it. Like Guardiola, Klopp uses this idea as not only his main way of defending but also creating, as they look to constantly exploit the opponents’ lack of defensive organization while using their spatial intelligence to find pockets of spaces created in transition.
Roma 6-7 Liverpool— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 2, 2018
No Champions League knockout tie in the history of the competition has ever seen more goals across two legs.
THIRTEEN GOALS. pic.twitter.com/sJTyneqI6P
City and Liverpool are both reaping the benefits of their specific systems, with the former ruling the Premier League with an iron fist and Liverpool becoming the first Premier League team since Chelsea in 2012 to reach the final of the Champions League.
Never before has the most watched/popular/Best League in the World™ been so heavily influenced by Cruyff’s ideals. Thanks to its successes this season, outcries for beautiful football are growing louder and louder, as the recency bias kicks in.
Conte, however, is not ready to cave in yet.
“I think there are many styles of football. There is not one style that can make you a winner. Last season, City and Liverpool didn’t win and I think their style was always the same.”
“It’s important, in my experience as a player and as a coach, to have in every moment the right balance, offensively and defensively. This is the best way, in my opinion, to win something.”
Conte’s point of view is understandable and justified. Chelsea’s last two titles were delivered precisely by teams featuring a good balance between attack and defence, including his own 3-4-3-styled machine last season. Mourinho did experiment with a more open style in the first half of the 2014-15 season — leading to wins such as the 6-3 win against Everton or the 4-2 win over Swansea — but after losing 5-3 to Spurs on New Year’s Day, José switched to a more balanced setup and delivered the title.
Many will claim that the football world is changing and emphasis on attack is the only priority, that teams like Mourinho’s Inter or RDM’s Chelsea would not achieve anything these days. For Conte, that’s a rather simplistic viewpoint however.
“Everyone wants to put on the pitch the best technical players, but then you must have players very good to run, to win the ball, to fight to win the ball, good tackling, good at defending. Football is not simple. You must be good in both phases.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Telegraph
There is unlikely to be one clear answer — if everyone played football the same exact way, it would turn into a very boring sport indeed. But with an advocate of possession-oriented, beautiful football tipped to take over from Conte this summer we might just find out who was more right.
In the end, as Conte once famously explained, what it ultimately comes down to is finding the best solution for the available players. It’s all well and good to tinker, but someone has to be the tailor.