From Charles Darwin to WWE’s Triple H, everyone is an advocate for evolution. In every sphere of life, you have to evolve and you have to adapt. Persisting with the same recipe will be stale more often than not. Unless of course, you are cooking.
Football has always been a game where eleven players try to evade eleven others and put the ball in the back of the net more times than the other XI. The premise of the sport is as simple as that. However, the sport itself has evolved so much and so many times over the years. Whether it is tactical setups, formations or player roles, football has undergone major changes every few years.
Clubs and teams appeal to fans for a variety of reasons. It could be a particular player, their underdog status, their manager and even their identity or style of play. While the first three factors are pretty black and white, the last one is sort of a grey area.
A brand of football is something that has been present for many years. For example, Barcelona is associated with slick passing moves, Real Madrid is more of a catch-them-out-and-punish team and the Brazil national team plays exuberant and free-flowing ball. Every team has a style and identity; in fact they should be having a style and identity. Fans of the current Manchester United, Arsenal and even Barcelona will tell you how important that is.
But there are many fans who always want the team to play a certain way. The style they grew up watching and the style synonymous with their team has to be played in every match, and for every minute. The team has to stick to their principles and philosophy and play entertaining football every game. Sounds great? Well, yes and no.
The current Barcelona team is the PERFECT example of why this stubborn thinking is ridiculous. There are many fans who want the team to return to its roots and do way from the mediocrity that has engulfed them completely. While going back to playing attractive football is one thing, pining for the glory days of tiki-taka and 2009 sextuple style is wishful thinking at best, and deluded at worst.
Football, as mentioned earlier, is an ever-evolving sport that needs adaptability on the fly. You cannot go into every game without a Plan B. Take Barcelona for example.
Against most teams, you will expect them to dominate possession and dictate the tempo in midfield, while passing the ball around in the final third to create chances. That is the identity of how they play, and that should never be done away with. But what is not okay is expecting that plan to run with every team.
Against a Manchester City, for example, the lion’s share of possession is no longer a guarantee. For those not in the know, City is a very strong team, and at the moment a whole tier or two ahead of the Catalan club. Yes, it pains your Barcelona fan writer to be saying this.
A tactical observation about the defending Premier League champions is that they can be susceptible to conceding chances on the break. If you are a coach and you know something like this is as obvious as the sun rising in the east, would you try and exploit that, or stubbornly stick to a style the opposition is better at executing than you are?
The idea that somehow Plan A is the only one that will work doesn’t work anymore in football. As has been said multiple times in this feature, football is ever-evolving, and we have witnessed an evolution in the last few years itself. Teams now focus on aggressive pressing, speed and physicality in attack and defence.
This sort of tactical preference is meta, but like every other style of play has its own weaknesses. A good team exploits those weaknesses instead of stubbornly trying to play their way.
Take Paris Saint-Germain last season. In the UEFA Champions League, they faced Bayern Munich, the then defending champions and the favourite. What followed over the two legs is the point of this feature.
PSG, a team glittered with superstars and who can play the most attractive football, stuck to parking the bus against Bayern. Hansi Flick’s Bavarians pressed high and naturally played an extremely high line, which the blistering Kylian Mbappé had a field day exploiting. PSG just flipped gears and sat back for Bayern to give the ball away.
Two goals in ten minutes meant Bayern were on the ropes, and the match finished 3-2 to the Parisiens. The second leg saw Bayern win 1-0, but PSG secured a massive win on away goals and upset the favourites.
Look at that situation again. PSG got the job done by adapting to Bayern. Had they stuck to their style of football, Bayern might have knocked them out. They saw a weakness in the Germans’ armour, and took full advantage of it to send the champions packing.
Times have changed
There is no shame in playing football which is the antithesis of what your team stands for. Sometimes, it just has to be done to ensure success. Unfortunately, fan culture has made it seem like an identity and style of play are everything. It is hugely important, but does it have to dictate every match? Not at all.
We need to realise as fans of football that while having a plan is well and good, there are times when it just doesn’t click. At that time, it becomes imperative to adapt and improvise, or risk being exposed.
We have seen so many examples in football over the years, where a manager was unhappy with what his team did on the pitch, switched tactics and completely turned the match around. The pressure of ‘playing a certain way’ and ‘embracing the DNA’ is illustrious, but it should not be all-consuming.
Sections of fanbases of clubs like Barcelona and Arsenal which are so adamant about a way of playing at the cost of any actual success need to wake up and see the light. They are right about 90% of the time, but there is that 10% where you need to just tear up the plan and shake things up.
Adaptability is hardly a bad thing, and you don’t need to go all gung-ho attack to win. In fact, that would land you more losses than you would expect.
Winning is an art, but doing whatever it takes to win is perhaps more impressive. A brand of football is amazing, but sometimes, doing away with it can bring in unexpected results.
Win, lose or draw, adaptability is consuming the modern game, and clubs, teams and managers will do good to embrace it. Most importantly, the fans will to acknowledge the changes or risk being left behind.