In his 2008 book, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, Jonathan Wilson famously argued that it is the English, perhaps more than any other people, who are “unwilling to grapple with the abstract”.
Despite hosting a cosmopolitan league, its teams have routinely, through multiple eras, demonstrated susceptibility to novel and inventive tactics. How many champions have we seen crowned after foreign managers came in with new ideas and the open-mindedness to implement them?
This is not limited to the Premier League, of course. Having bred his Liverpool side on English shores, Jürgen Klopp successfully translated his innovations to the European stage — capturing the Champions League in the process.
But the funny thing about change is that it is only a matter of time until it becomes the status quo.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that, just like the river, life is flux. Change is not a part of life, but rather life itself. Similarly, we can argue that football is not defined by its capacity to change, but represents change itself. We may have moved light years away from the 2–3–5 that was ubiquitous before the 1930s, but to think we are at a final destination is folly.
This is not news to anybody, but it’s simply remarkable just how visible the shift of the current tide is. As we embark on one last international break, the shifting of recent values is stark. It is reflected in league positions unlikely to drastically change in what’s left of the season.
Case study #1: Jürgen Klopp
There are any number of reasons that have contributed to the fall of Liverpool this year. Klopp himself would inevitably bemoan the injuries he’s had to manage — a winding line of stretchers that have carried out key players at crucial times. But this does not mask the sheer extent to which his strategies, once the most puzzling of conundrums, have been systematically figured out.
For about two years Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané delighted with their decisive inward running. Roberto Firmino, neither a false 9 nor an out-and-out striker, provided the enigmatic foil for their operations. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson supported the back not as auxiliary aggressors, but as fulcrums in the attack. With the goal contribution burden lifted, Jordan Henderson’s midfield became masters of efficiency, recycling the ball with rugged, robust intent.
Almost overnight — or, more aptly, over the long night that was the onset of the pandemic — the ability to bewilder the opposition has dissipated. As recent results demonstrate, the sight of Alexander-Arnold charging forward now inspires calm. The once-invisible lanes in which he operated have been marked and blocked off.
With their supply lines cut off, the forward trident has suffocated in the final third. The magic has been replaced with tedium: once able to crack any lock, their attempts now look clumsy as they bang their heads against the door to no avail.
Going the other way, the channels they leave open are ruthlessly exploited. As the wing-back runs almost parallel to his partnering attacker, the opposition is sending balls between them to run on to past the halfway line. These weaknesses were always there, but only in the past few months have the details to capitalise on them been honed.
Case study #2: José Mourinho
Mourinho owns a defensive record that will likely never be broken. In his first season in English football, he commanded a Chelsea side that conceded a ridiculously stingy 15 goals. His defenders may have been superb, but it was his novel approach that garnered results.
Mourinho, arguably more than any other individual, has challenged the notion of what it means to have possession. It goes beyond simply setting up for the counterattack. His sides are characterised by stifling opponents, grinding them down until frustration turns to sloppiness. His powers have undoubtedly waned in the past year, in recent years, they’ve been downright exposed. Taking Tottenham Hotspur to a struggling Arsenal last weekend, the Gunners put on a clinic in how to deal with their obstinate rivals.
They refused to dive into any traps, choosing instead to circle and pick off safe opportunities. There was pressure, but at all times, it was controlled pressure — never leaving room for the riposte.
Still, for 10 minutes, after Érik Lamela pulled off his incredible rabona, the Mourinho game plan appeared to be working … but all it took was one deflection for it to unravel. In the end, there was no doubt he was tactically outman-oeuvred; what was once a master plan now looked lazy and unambitious.
The message is clear: change will wait for no one, not even one of the most successful managers in the modern era.
After the upcoming break, it will be intriguing to watch the returning reactions. We already know that Klopp will be unable to retain the title that brought his city so much joy, but there’s still much to fight for. As a quirk of fate, it may be he and Mourinho who fight for one of the last Champions League spots. Whoever is first to adapt to the new abstract may well secure it.