The question: what were the tactical trends of 2012-13? | Jonathan Wilson

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Aug 1, 2010
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Bayern Munich built on Barcelona's tiki-taka in a season of forward thinking and creative holding
"The point of training," César Luis Menotti said, "is to increase the speed at which one can be precise." It is a truth that seems written into the internal rhythms of football: each new form is developed and modified, made faster, until it reaches a maximum pace at which a new innovation arises to replace it. What Bayern Munich have done this season is to take the Barcelona model and to improve it, not so much with technical innovation than with physical.
Barcelona were the first team fully to exploit the possibilities of the modified offside law[. It stretched the effective playing area, giving players more space, decreasing physical contact and so readmitting small, technically accomplished players to the game. With fouls increasingly drawing cards, it meant that the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi could thrive playing a possession-based passing game that they coupled with a stifling pressing enabled by their supreme fitness.
But just because small players can do something, it does not mean that that same thing isn't better done with big players, if they are capable of the same levels of technical expertise. Bayern perhaps haven't hit quite the same levels of filigree passing as Barça at their peak, but they are not far off, and what was striking in the Champions League semi-final was how tired – how weak – Barcelona looked. Of course, it is not entirely fair to compare a team on the rise with one coming to the end of its cycle – one is hungry, desperately eager for success, the other is sated, lacking the drive to suffer to stay in a game – but equally it can hardly be denied that Bayern's players are bigger than Barça's. (The issue of whether Barca are finished is a tricky one: history suggests great sides, once toppled, take time to recover, but the elite teams have never before had such financial advantages as they do now; it seems likely that Barça's fall will only be relative).
That Borussia Dortmund's pace and aggression similarly unsettled Real Madrid in the semi-finals seemed to confirm the advantage the Bundesliga has in terms of physique. That's not to say that pace will always overcome technique and it may be that Barça at their best would still have overcome Bayern at their best. All sides have an optimum rhythm, and the tiki-taka of Pep Guardiola's side probably required a slower tempo than the fractionally more direct style of Bayern. It may also be that successful teams become more conservative – certainly Spain have under Vicente del Bosque – and that that slows the pace. Either way, the prospect of Bayern, already superb, developing further under Pep Guardiola, evolving a supercharged tiki-taka, is awe-inspiring.
But it would be wrong to portray Bayern's triumph as a defeat for tiki-taka. Rather it is an evolution of tiki-taka. Like Barça, Bayern press high up the pitch (arguably Jupp Heynckes's greatest achievement has been to persuade Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry to perform their defensive duties diligently) and seek to control the ball. Over the past two seasons, in the top five leagues in Europe, only Barça have had higher possession and pass completion stats than Bayern. The basic philosophy is still one of bielsisme (the style of Athletic Bilbao's Marcelo Bielsa), although the more direct architect of both is Louis van Gaal. The pressing, perhaps, is more focused – certainly that is true of Dortmund, who also play to the same basic philosophy – and the outlook more vertical (which actually, of course, makes it even more true to the ideals of Bielsa) than Barça's but the central tenets are the same.
What Bayern also have is a greater variety of attacking options, something they showed against Barça. When two possession sides meet, obviously, only one can dominate the ball. Bayern accepted over the course of the semi-final that they would be the more reactive side, sitting deep and springing rapid counter-attacks, something they could do because of the pace through the side and the capacity of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dante and, especially, Javi Martínez to release long passes. (Again, this shouldn't necessarily be taken as a criticism of Barça: for four years they made Plan A so good it would have been a waste of effort to develop a Plan B; so good, in fact, that even Bayern decided to modify their approach against them). In that, the role of Mario Mandzukic, a player so fit that even Felix Magath seemed nonplussed by him, was vital.
And that hints at two other trends this season: the growing importance of the deep-lying midfielder as a playmaker and the increasing variety of the central striker.
That the holding player – or one of the two holding players – has a creative function is not exactly new but the implications of that do seem to have been particularly relevant this year. As Jurgen Klopp gleefully noted after Dortmund had had the better of Real Madrid in the group stage of the Champions League, if you shut down Xabi Alonso, the rest follows. Then he did it again in the semi-final. That Dortmund couldn't neutralise Martínez with the same efficiency was one of the reasons Bayern got the better of them in head-to-heads this season (a supremacy that was greater even than a record of three wins and two draws in five games suggests).
Ilkay Gundogan performed a similar role for Dortmund, receiving the ball deep and setting the tempo. Andrea Pirlo did the same for Juventus. Sergio Busquets does it for Barcelona and Michael Carrick for Manchester United. That's one of the reasons the central creator now has a defensive role, which has been one of the impressive aspects of Juan Mata and Oscar for Chelsea this season. Midfields have never been so split – it's common to think in four bands rather than three – and yet the need for universality, for holding players to create and for creative players to shut down, has never been greater.
But it is centre-forwards who are probably the most notable feature of this season. While Spain and Barcelona have shown it's possible to play without a traditional striker at all, more traditional types have flourished. Perhaps the most old-fashioned of the lot is Robert Lewandowski, who in style resembles a cross between Ian Rush and a classic target-man. In front of a fluent midfield he has been a reference, always pulling into the spaces between centre-backs and full-backs, yet also capable of playing with his back to goal, holding the ball up. Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani, in slightly differing ways, are examples of complete centre-forwards, players who are gifted finishers but also have the creative ability to pull wide or drop deep, to generate chances themselves. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a target man with the skills of a No10: forwards increasingly have to be a blend, capable of finishing and creating or at least finishing and holding the ball up. Some even don't have to be that good at finishing. Mandzukic may have scored 15 goals in the Bundesliga this season but he is barely a striker at all in the conventional sense: rather he is a fearsome spearhead, driving defenders back to create space for the midfield and leading the press with terrifying energy.
Neither Mandzukic nor Lionel Messi are anything like the sort of forward who may have been typical 15 or 20 years ago, and yet they could hardly be more different from each other: the one neat and skilful, the other raw and aggressive. Yet both lead teams who ostensibly play to the same philosophy and – in a slightly crude way, for nobody would realistically suggest that Mandzukic is better than Messi – their differences highlight the contrast between Barça and Bayern: there are different interpretations of the general bielsista theory.

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