By Mark Cohen.
When Denis Law famously back heeled Manchester United down a division in 1974, he helped relegate one of the true bedrocks of world football from the top tier.
It was a different time, a more egalitarian game then, they tell us, a time when the equality of the First Division meant a wider ranger of outcomes were possible, but who really remembers?
One thing is for sure, the vast amounts of cash that have come into the game over the intervening 50 or so years have greatly nullified the threat of a behemoth being relegated (indeed, United begun the season at 750-1 for that event according to Ladbrokes).
Idiotic management, incoherent strategies, childish player/manager spats, horrendous wastes of money and no lack of amateurism at the very top should still never see a giant like United under any threat of the drop.
Of course, with the amount of quality players United are being linked to on a daily basis now, a likely January spend of £300m including the likes of Kouibaly amongst them, United clearly do possess the time and money to fix their position from one of possible disaster in 19/20 to that of relative safety and security, but the fact remains that, right now, they look utterly bereft.
So this piece is not a wind-up, and it’s not designed to make a case for such a bizarre event, but rather it’s a proper, cold hard look at how Manchester United have brought themselves to the mercy of a single black swan event away from unthinkably heading down a tier.
Perhaps that statement will prove to be hyperbole, but right now, every time I try and type the word “United”, I wind up spelling “Untied” out instead, a suitable portent then for their parlous state.
In football presently, there are, broadly speaking, two styles of team management;
- ‘Ends’ Domination – the original. Think Brazil 1970, or Liverpool through the 80’s. Think Mourinho’s Chelsea, Ferguson’s United, Maradona’s Napoli in 86/87.
- Environmental Domination – the replacement. Think of Klopp’s Liverpool, Pep’s City, the great Sacchi’s AC Milan of the late 80’s. Think of Bayern today and Juventus and Salzburg too as prime examples.
‘Ends’ Domination means that a manager looks to build a team whereby the focus is to dominate the ‘ends’.
So, dominate the defensive actions man to man, and then dominate the attacking actions man to man at the end of the pitch where the goals are either saved or scored.
Example: Think of a classic Mourinho team, almost always purchased in totality rather than reared and almost always involving players brought in at the peak point in their career.
This Mourinho ‘ends’ team were not very good at controlling game by strategy (his 04/05 team a robust 4-4-2 diamond, not exactly the stuff of the revolution), but rather by physically controlling the one-on-one interactions between players that occur many times a match.
Mourinho’s ethos could be summed up as such –
Fill your team with better players; more agile keepers, stronger and quicker defenders, highly technically proficient ball winning midfielders and strikers who had a proven history of goal getting.
Thus, make your team better, man for man.
Play your natural game with lots of defensively coached reinforcement to limit good chances being created against you. When chances do occur against your team, defend them with your better defenders or save them with your world class keepers.
When chances occur for your team, rely on your world class goal getter’s to take more chances than your opponents.
By extension, win many more games than you lose or draw. Simple maths.
This strategy has worked fantastically well over the years, not just for Mourinho, but for football clubs in general. Even Liverpool’s old halycon 80’s team were a product of this thinking.
Yes, of course the Bootroom ethos played a huge part, and so did Liverpool’s awesome community spirit in forging those great teams of the second half of the 20th century, but tactics at that stage were considered anathema to good football, and managers were far more about squad control and motivation than about beating others by strategy.
Paisley and Fagan, two great 70s and 80s style bosses, were tasked with maintaining a sort of winning culture within the ranks; no mean task, and this whilst having to purchase new players or introduce youngsters with aptitude into the first team without the loss of quality.
Tactically, they had to keep things simple – pass and move. Success would be in making sure players worked hard for one another in order to allow all of their natural skills to flourish.
Defenders had to defend with focus and rigour, whilst forwards had to apply their coolness to the task of putting the ball in the back of the net.
Liverpool had the toughest defenders, the most fleet-footed midfield magicians and the highest precision finishers. It was the manager’s job to be sure it remained ever thus.
That they did actually achieve this is in large part down to the excellent man-management they must have possessed alongside the great procurement they and the club managed.
Liverpool bought well, managed well, and utilised the great Bootroom ethos to forge an identity and win for many years.
So this debate is not to slight ‘ends’ domination at all, but more to point out that, over the years, as the game has become two orders of magnitude more analytical, ‘ends’ domination is meeting its end and being replaced naturally with thew far more evolved environmental domination.
Of course, before we even begin to explain environmental domination, it’s worth pointing out that it is not a new idea, it was around long before computers produced the proper analytics needed for this type of efficiency.
The great total football Ajax team of the early 70’s is a good example of a manager realising that a ‘system’ could trump a group of extremely good players, but even that was late to the party. Jack Reynolds in the 1920s was already working this proto-idea with Ajax, whilst Harry Potts won a title with this theory at Burnley in 1960.
In any event, what does the modern environmental domination look like?
Here, a manager looks to build a team whereby the focus is to dominate the environment rather than the ‘ends’.
Essentially, managers came to understand that, since the ball moves faster than any man, and many defenders can stop even the most technically brilliant attacker, the forging of a tactical system designed to overload the environment where the game-play occurs should result in your team seeing much more of the ball in more dangerous areas, allowing for the limitation of chances against your team, whilst simultaneously leading to more goals. (Think of Klopp’s superb press – the point is to overload that position/player on the pitch with enough red shirts so he makes a bad decision and we retrieve the ball.)
In other words – dominate the environment and this will naturally lead to controlling the game defensively and in attack.
The two systems naturally overlap, in the sense that both styles would always place an emphasis on good footballers – players with awareness, technique, balance, stamina and precision, but their approaches differ so much everywhere else that it’s like chalk and cheese.
One of the most interesting traits that is falling by the wayside is ‘dribbling’. Once considered imperative, it now languishes as an attribute that is great to have but not an absolute necessity in most positions.
This is because the environmental system places a high importance on the system beating the single man through clever positioning and passing, rather than a player needing to do it technically.
Of course it’s still a great trait, but it’s nowhere near the top anymore.
Reading Raphael Honigstein’s great book, Klopp: Bring the Noise, I was struck by the excitement that Klopp would take in structuring a weaker collection of players (probably a poorer club) into a system capable of beating a better collection or ‘team’ (a richer club). At its heart, this is what the difference between the two systems is – One prioritises ‘players’, the other ‘system’.
Thus we can say, that in the environmental system, best described at the moment by Guardiola and Klopp, the focus is on an enormous amount of coaching, in the image of the respective manager’s philosophy.
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