The evolution of football … from a layman’s eyes

The hangover from the Argentina – Venezuela match still lingers in Kolkata. Even though the match did not rise to great heights (as I had anticipated) and the teams played at perhaps best 30%-40% of their normal pace, still the class was evident from the likes of Messi, Higuain, Di Maria which definitely points a finger to the ever-increasing difference in the football standards between our clubs / country with a nation who currently ranks 9th in the FIFA rankings. But this match has allowed my mind to go back to history and analyse the evolution of the game. By the way, I am no expert, nor have I obtained any heights while playing football, nor have I googled to read articles on football evolution. This is based on my own personal interpretation of what I had witnessed international football from the age of 7-8 years old.

My first glimpse of international football was when I saw the flowing hair of Mario Kempes in 1978 final against the Netherlands. I still remember distinctly the goals of Kempes, the midfield patrol by Ardilles, the great physical play with the referee forgetting to blow the whistle against the so-many fouls being committed and of course, the huge amount of small pieces of paper on the ground. Now, after seeing many world cup matches till 2010 world cup, I would still rate that as a great classic match ever.

The game that time was fantastically flowing style – flowing with great attacks, flowing with the opportunity given for individuals to display their skills, flowing with attacks through the flanks and the middle by 5-6 attackers and of course, a greatly physical play. That time, the referring regulations were not that strict – hence, if you were a great player, capable of dribbling past me with skills as well as pace, then I need to kick you either on your shins or even your thighs to make you stop. The average goals scored were quite high – simply because the football was focused on scoring goals. So, even you concede 2 goals, good teams had the capability to score 3 or 4 goals.

But how will the comparatively weaker teams survive ? They have also come to win matches and even proceed as near to the finals. Well, the formations were changing to 4-4-2 to counter the attacking game. I will cramp you up in the mid-field, will cramp more in defense, use both man-marking and zonal markings, will be physical as well – let me see how you can score goals ! So, I start to draw matches, which earlier I was losing like anything.

But if I have to proceed in the world cup, occasionally I do have to win matches as well. Hence, I have to score goals, at least in some matches. Then I bring in two side-backs with lot of pace and stamina. And I rely on counter-attacks. I also introduce a libero – who will stand a little behind the rest of the defence and will scuttle all attacks. My strikers should have classical finish – may not be a game maker and I will rely on either long balls or very swift movements through maximum 2-3 passes to suddenly attack my opponents. This was the equivalent of guerrilla warfare – catch the opponents unawares. The Italians were best in this and their catenaccio style was so effective that they won the cup in 1982. Paolo Rossi became a hero and the great Brazilians were humbled. Imagine a team with players like Zico, Socrates unable to find any answers against an ‘ordinary’ Italian side. Inspite of so many attacks, Brazil failed, Rossi scored a hat-trick and subsequently history was written. This to me was a game-changing phenomenon – it proved that you simply cannot have an excellent attacking side but with ‘zero’ defense.

1986 was perhaps an ‘aberration’ when it comes to football strategy. An ‘aberration’ in the name of one Diego Maradona. There was no strategy for Argentina – just allow Maradona to play. Inspite of so many fouls committed against him, Maradona was unstoppable and won the World Cup. I had seen clippings of Pele, Garrincha, Cryuff. Never have I seen one individual carrying single-handedly an ‘ordinary’ team to a world cup victory. Even a tight man-to-man marking in the finals could not stop the man – Maradona withdrew himself to his own half, took his marker and two more defenders, passed the through ball to Burruchaga and rest was history.

The next major change in strategy was pushing the game to 120 minutes and then go for the penalty shootout. People say tie-breaker is a lottery – but still I cannot find any explanation as to why Germany has been so good in tie-breakers. The strategy for success has changed for good – go for defense-first-then-attack and then rely on counter-attacks. Suddenly we saw a tie-breaker ‘specialist’ goalkeeper in the name of Goycochea. In the normal 90 / 120 minutes, he was average standard, struggling to read flights during free-kicks and corners. But when it came to tie-breakers, perhaps God used to enter him and he was invincible. Otherwise how can you explain Argentina playing the finals ? They played the most negative football, accompanied by some Maradona theatrics on the field – but still pushing strong teams out in the penalty shoot-outs.

The importance of dead-ball situations were always there – but in earlier times, all teams played attacking football and hence scoring goals through free-kicks were felt more during the late 80’s till date. Suddenly we had the experts coming up in free kicks – starting from Maradona, Platini, Baggio, Hagi to more recent names of Beckham, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Figo till current names like Forlan, Messi, Xavi, Robben, etc

All teams, including the Latin American teams, started playing ‘defensive’ style – in line with the Italian / European strategy. They continue to do so till date and that is why the average goals per match has started reducing. FIFA made conscious efforts to protect game-makers, to encourage more goals. Hence the strategy of play-acting is now often used as a strategy. If goals are hard to come because of ‘defensive’ strategy, either you rely on set-piece movements, dead-ball situations or you try to “create” free-kicks and penalties. Every striker in the world probably have tried play-acting on the field multiple number of times. I am sure, this has become part of the strategy.

The last 2 years have perhaps made another game-changing strategy. This is a very effective strategy, but extremely difficult to implement. To me, this is the ultimate entertainment, the ULTIMATE strategy. Perhaps this was envisioned by Cryuff in the 70’s – but now championed by Barcelona, Spain and to some extent, Argentina. The strategy is to keep maximum ball possession (to the extent of 65%-70%) & frustrate the opponents, play great passing football, constantly probe the opponents cracks in their defense and then go for the kill. I think Johan Cryuff’s ‘total football’ was based on this philosophy and through he personally could not achieve this, he definitely was instrumental in giving the philosophy to Barcelona when he was the coach. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol have mastered this in Barcelona and this is a treat to watch. Spain played this in 2010 world cup and became the deserving champions. Barca literally toyed Manchester United in the Champions League to become the Champions of Europe. For this, you need class players, years of practice with same players and great physical stamina and skills.

But to me, this is the ultimate in football unless another game-changing strategy gets evolved in the future. Who knows whether a lesser-known country or club will come up with something unique to rock the football world.

Till then, we can only watch Barca’s magic and wish “if I could have played like Messi …….”

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