Football today increasingly feels decided by the size of the wallet of each football club, dictated by what happens upstairs in the boardrooms, directly influencing events on the pitch. An inequality like never before runs through today’s game, sharp as a knife, determining where the trophies go.
Finance affects a lot of things and that includes influencing the style of play of a team, and the tactics of a manager. The general pattern in football is that when clubs invest heavily, they expect a return matching the financial input, and demand a type of football that is aesthetically pleasing enough to convince supporters and boardroom members that the money was well spent.
One glance at European football reflects that. Compare the two seasons in which Liverpool won the Champions League. In the 2004/05 season, there were 333 goals scored. Fourteen seasons later, this was 366 goals. The landscape of football has tilted towards attacking play and weak defending; the age of great teams defending well has vanished.
The last team to win the European Cup based on a defence-first approach was Chelsea. Otherwise, the story has usually been that the team who attacks the most wins the most.
It could also read, the team who spends the most, wins the most too. In the last ten years, Manchester City, Barcelona, PSG, Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid have all spent over £1bn respectively. None have sold nearly enough to balance the books on that front, but it mostly hasn’t mattered for them due to having incredibly rich financial sources to lean on.
Today in European football, financial muscle is another man on the pitch. It is what allows Juventus, PSG and Bayern Munich to dominate their domestic leagues so emphatically. Their closest rivals, be it Napoli, Inter or Roma in Italy, Monaco and Lyon in France or Borussia Dortmund in Germany, can only compete by generating funds through sales.
The issue for a lot of teams is that their dominance leaves them unprepared in Europe where the competition is far greater. When smaller teams defend so much in domestic leagues that these big teams themselves forget about the need to defend, it leaves them exposed in Europe.
This is both driven by the rest of these leagues being so comparatively weak, and heavy investment creating an expectation for glamorous football. It is what has befallen managers at clubs such as Real Madrid and Chelsea, even if it has contradicted the tactical approaches of the managers in charge at the time.
Some might then argue that Madrid trotted out three European Cups in succession, and four in five years. But would anyone have argued that those Madrid sides were very attack-minded? They were built on solidity and exploiting the counterattacking potential of an absurdly rapid attack.
Consider how, despite being far more successful than Guardiola’s Barcelona in Europe, this Madrid team are rarely seen in the same light, seldom spoken as the greatest team of the modern era. There was always a sense that they were inferior to the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich, and this head-scratching confusion when Madrid overcame all of them to win the European Cup.
It was actually in the league where Madrid suffered, as they didn’t have the consistency that Barcelona had to repeatedly break open smaller teams.
The issue with the trend of high-spending clubs demanding attacking football is that they are less likely to recruit managers with a pedigree for defensive football if they believe that they – and the supporters – have spent heavily and are fairly entitled to at least being treated to beautiful football.
Diego Simeone, for example, is unlikely to ever get hired by one of the top clubs in the world, such as Barcelona, Liverpool, Bayern Munich or Man United, because his tactics are essentially that of an underdog. And a club that spends heavily, doesn’t feel like an underdog; it feels like it is the biggest threat in any competition and can go out and beat anyone.
This is fundamentally changing football, and one can argue not for the better. Consider the Premier League and the adoration for likes of Wolves and Southampton, but the lack of praise for Burnley.
The latter plays a highly direct style of football that rarely receives the plaudits it deserves. Sean Dyche is one of the finest coaches in the league, but his style of play means he will only ever manage a club with a ceiling on its ambitions.
But could it really be said that Frank Lampard or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are better coaches than Dyche?
What he has done with Burnley has been highly impressive, but it’s unlikely he will be considered for the top jobs. It underlines a degree of subjectivity to what is considered impressive today; survival football, is not considered to be one of them.
This brings us to the biggest victim of this new era of “extreme wealth for extreme attacking football”: Pep Guardiola.
The Catalan is seen very differently today to how he was received at the beginning of his career, as if a luminous glow that surrounded him when he was at Barcelona has ebbed away revealing a man who is human and capable of flaws and faults in the game.
The criticisms of him are often fuelled by partisan or blinkered mentalities, that reduce his achievements to the fortune of having Messi, Xavi and Iniesta in his team and that he isn’t really a genius coach. It’s wrongly argued that he only wins because of money.
Well who doesn’t? Every manager needs funds to spend and rebuild their teams, and Guardiola is no different.
However, over the last few years, cracks in his tactical thinking that were identified during his time at Barcelona have become more pronounced in Europe. Defeats to Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon in Europe over the last four years have all been tied to a startling defensive vulnerability.
So why is this the case? The answer, or at least one of them, is that the finances that allowed Guardiola’s teams to be so far ahead of their rivals is what leaves them with a soft underbelly.
Big finances encourage an expansive style of play and when that’s all you’ve known, it’s difficult to organise a team to be solid and compact and capable of maintaining a clean sheet.
Guardiola’s three teams have all been at the top of their domestic food chains; they have generally had the best and most expensive squads, and when necessary, Guardiola has been able to recruit the best.
By not starting out at the bottom of the footballing pyramid, where style matters less, he’s left himself as a genius in only attacking football.
His gift in producing the best attacking football cannot be understated; Guardiola changed football. But it’s also arguable that super wealth changed it too and demanded teams to be more adventurous, and he was there at the right time. His very philosophy focuses on the ball, and what to do with it, a style that complements the bourgeoise clubs who are expected to dominate.
It set him up well in leagues that lacked competition; when he came to England, he was forced to modify to adjust to a league where intensity was the norm. He responded and crushed his opponents to such an extent that a similar scenario to the ones in Spain and Germany rose as teams simply no longer attacked Man City. And when it came to Europe, that was a big problem.
One could argue that this might have been avoided if Guardiola had managed at a smaller club where he would have been forced to learn the virtue of defending. It is perhaps the difference to other managers such as Diego Simeone, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho. These are all coaches who began their trade at lower divisions, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that their tactics revolve heavily around the team shape without the ball.
Some will argue that Klopp and Pochettino are not defensive managers because of how high they press. While this is true, it cannot be a coincidence that both have had teams in England who have conceded fewer goals than Guardiola’s City across multiple seasons.
Pressing without the ball, after all, is both an offensive and defensive tool. But what separates them from Guardiola as better coaches, at least in the defensive sense, is the clear evidence of an organised shape without the ball.
Analyse Liverpool in big games, particularly the Champions League final in 2019, and there is a visible compactness that trims the green space on the pitch for opponents. Watch a Guardiola team and there is no sense of defensive cohesion existing.
Consider some of the achievements listed below and then ask whether Guardiola could do this with his current tactics:
- Winning back-to-back German league titles with Borussia Dortmund (Klopp)
- Winning the Premier League title with only a single transfer signing (Klopp)
- Winning the European Cup with Porto and Inter Milan (Mourinho)
- Winning the league title with Valencia and the European Cup with a very weak Liverpool team (Benitez)
- Taking Tottenham to the European Cup final with a squad unchanged for years (Pochettino)
- Winning the league with Atletico Madrid as well as reaching two Champions League finals (Simeone)
None of this is to disparage Guardiola who remains one of the finest tacticians the game has ever produced. But every manager has a weakness, and Guardiola’s is a glaring one that begs the question as to whether he can ever manage a team with weak finances and a pool of talent not necessarily the best in the league.
It is a weakness that is also crippling him in Europe, and it’s legitimate to wonder whether it is now beyond Guardiola to fix this.
He has had several seasons to fix it and he has failed; worse, there are signs he has actually given consideration to the defensive aspects of the game and still come up short.
In the tie against Barcelona in 2015, he organised with three at the back before reversing after being frantically overwhelmed. It left his team’s gas tank depleted and they were hammered.
Against Liverpool in 2018, he approached the first leg cautiously, mindful of what happened a few months earlier in a 4-3 defeat. His team were still overrun. More bizarrely, he changed his team’s shape to match up with Lyon in 2020 and prevent them from being caught out in the spaces on the break, and they still lost.
Perhaps Guardiola simply doesn’t know how to set a team up to defend, a price paid for producing relentless, magnificent attacking football at clubs who never had to worry about the rest of the league’s threats.
This failure to change isn’t confined to Guardiola and perhaps explains why Sir Alex Ferguson is arguably the greatest manager in history of football.
His adaptability to different styles allowed United to figure out their rivals, and then come back stronger. Curiously though, his rivalry with Arsene Wenger wasn’t concluded by either of them emphatically trumping the other, but the arrival of Mourinho in 2004 and Arsenal’s move to a new stadium.
Jurgen Klopp comes closest to showing this adaptability; his style of football is an extremely attacking one but begins from a defensive phase: without the ball. It’s the pressure after possession is ceded that his team burst into life.
Over the last few seasons, he’s modified this to harness his team’s energy in the latter stages of seasons. But of course, he too has his weaknesses, being that his team often lacks the nuance to open low-block defensive teams.
All managers have their weaknesses; Guardiola has thrived in big clubs where recently Mourinho and Benitez have suffered. The “Special One” failed at Real Madrid and Manchester United, in part because the football was dour. Madrid fans and journalists derided the team’s lack of flair, particularly in big games against Barcelona.
When a smaller team defends, it’s heroism and courage. When a big team does it, it’s often seen as cowardice. Likewise, Benitez floundered at Real Madrid; his team were seen as boring and lacking spark. And when he did once opt for a more flair-driven line-up, it resulted in a brutal hammering at home to Barcelona.
So it can be argued that this era that demands attacking football punishes all managers after a while. The question is whether it can be reversed but it feels highly dubious to think that could happen.
Klopp has gotten away with winning the league based on defensive solidity and teamwork because Liverpool, like Dortmund, regards itself as an emotional club surrounded by wealthier rivals.
Could he really win the league with Barcelona where possession is a virtue but clearly not his priority? Perhaps a club could become so tired of obscene investments accruing little in way of return of trophies that they hire someone like Simeone. Maybe he would thrive at PSG or Chelsea, or maybe his style of play would suffer because he doesn’t have the emotional rapport with the fans as he does at Atletico, who embraces the sense of being the underdogs.
The high-spending clubs are now operating on a currency of impatience and yearning for attractive, winning football. But if the failures of PSG, Juventus and Man City have taught us anything, it’s that spending the most and playing the most passes in a game isn’t a guarantee for success. You need a team that can attack and defend very well. It’s highly unlikely that these clubs will learn that.