20 Changes In Football Since World Cup '98

How has football changed since France won the 1998 World Cup? Or since Manchester United completed the Treble in 1999? Today on the blog Jed Davies shares his insight into how modern tactical football has developed and where it's heading.

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“In ten years the game will have moved on. It will be played at a higher pace with more ingenious tactics” - Petr Cech (2007)

Has football really changed since Zidane overturned Ronaldo’s Brazil in 1998? Is the game really that different since Sheringham and Solskjaer left Bayern Munich to collect the runners up medal in 1999? It seems just yesterday we witnessed such landmark events in recent football history.

Most will argue that football has changed since you were born and it’ll continue to change in your lifetime. By change, I refer to more than adjustments made in the laws of the game, I refer to the very nature of the game itself: the way it is played, both by individuals and teams (in a tactical sense).

The changes that occur do so for a number of different reasons and this article does not attempt to offer an explanation as to why (which would be a rather complex article in its own right), but instead this article explores how the changes have had an impact on football tactics and the profile of players that the English Premier League demands today. All figures below are of those provided by the FA* and professional football analysts such as Raymond Verheijen.

20 CHANGES IN FOOTBALL FROM 1998-2013

  • 48% more successful passes than there were in 2002
  • 80% of passes in the English Premier League (EPL) are either first touch or second
  • 78% of passes in the EPL are played less than 25 yards
  • 42% of goals scored from Zone 14 region by top 4 sides (2009)
    • Zone 14 - an attempt at goal every four possessions in Z14.
    • Average of 30 possessions in Z14 per team per game.
    • A goal occurred in every 31 possessions in Z14.
  • 20% more passing and receiving situations since 2002.
  • 1000 passes per game now - teams now attempting to retain possession for longer.
  • More passes from central defenders.
  • More goals scored from prolonged passing sequences. 42% of goals (1999-2009) that came from free play were from 5 or more passes.
  • 73% chance of winning should you score first.
  • 68 minutes of actual playing time (compared to 55 minutes at the end of the 1990s).
  • 200% increase in the number of sprints. Now 30-40 sprints per game.
  • Increased distance ran in every position (1998-2008) - 7 metres per second ran. It is predicted by many that by 2025, we could see a further 15-20% increase in distance run.
  • Average number of high intensity activities has doubled (1998-2008).
  • Less space and time in opponents half.
  • Loss of midfield architects.
  • Less man marking (zonal marking).
  • More patience in winning the ball back as teams prefer to drop back into their defensive block (and as a result we see more counter attacks).
  • Changing role of wingers (more wrong footed - tactical reasons).
  • More reliance on a screening midfielder (anchor man).
  • Goalkeepers now play with their feet 7x more than their hands.

 

It is important to note that many of these changes are not exclusive to the English Premier League alone and a number of tactical solutions offered today in the Premier League are as a direct result of foreign influence. These changes can be summarised into:

  1. More short passing (mixed tempos and complex).
  2. Reliance on a well organised defensive block.
  3. Reliance on ‘team play’.
  4. The rising importance of formation and positional balance (tactics).
  5. More running.
  6. More intensity.
  7. More centralised play as a means of scoring or assisting goals (the increase of wrong-footed wingers reflects this).

 

From these twenty changes (or shifts) we can draw a number of conclusions about the impact that they have had on present day football tactics. Teams in the English Premier League often play through clear and identifiable philosophies, but even Stoke and West Ham find symmetry in the way they play with Swansea, Arsenal and Liverpool. In both extremes (and everything in between), possession begins from the back and the tempo of possession as play is progressed further forward increases. The tempo increase is often accompanied by an increase in the use of one-touch or two-touch passing and as a result the technical demands have increased universally.

More evident today than ten or twenty years ago however, is the increased use of the well organised defensive block, a well disciplined structured formation when out of possession - something that Arrigo Sacchi was famed for in the mainstream of the late 1980s and early 1990s. We can agree that there are similarities in the ways teams defend and attack in the Premier League and throughout other elite leagues in Europe, but the the universal analysis (the 20 changes) does not unify the playing style differentiation between the twenty clubs that compete in the English Premier League year in, year out.

The English Premier League: Tactical Diversity

Like no other, the English Premier League has grown into the most tactically diverse league; a league where the full spectrum of philosophies and playing styles match wits and bring about the unpredictability of results. While football will continue to evolve world-wide, the English Premier League has developed a sense of individuality from team to team; a real sense of philosophical belief specific to each club. That is to say that a spectator with no knowledge of the Premier League and the teams in it, could identify each team just from a description of each teams playing style, regardless of player profiles.

West Ham (under Allardyce)* are distinguishable from Southampton (under Pochettino)* without question, and Liverpool (under Rodgers) have not directly implemented the exact system Rodgers employed at Swansea previously. Therefore, the strong and clear philosophies are both manager based and club specific. Rodgers kept no secret in his aim to bring about a Liverpool specific adaption of his approach when appointed as Liverpool manager in 2012, a journey that has since resulted in much experimentation.

A philosophy in football refers to more than just formation, but to the attitude towards possession, defensive patience and that of the transitions (the 5-10 seconds immediately after winning or losing the ball). While the media focus in the last five years has shifted from placing a high value of importance on a positional system (formation) to being centred around the effectiveness of pressing or that of possession and the build up attitudes (counter-attack/slow build up). Football philosophies are built on the grounds of many tactical components - positional systems, attitudes to crossing, width of play, speed of the build-up, the use of a target-man or play-maker, the depth of the line of defence, attitude towards set-pieces, the length and direction of optimal passing, the diversity in transitional instructions.

From the general statistical analysis we can see a set of universal trends arising, but for the Premier League the future lies in strengthening each and every team’s playing profile. The future Premier League will further the comparison between football philosophies and cultures, because after all the Premier League is the result of world football and this is the single greatest benefit of the globalisation and foreign influence on the league.

If we look at the Premier League right now, we find Southampton (Pochettino), Liverpool (Rodgers), Tottenham Hotspur (AVB), Swansea (Laudrup) and Wigan (Martinez) along with a number of others all seemingly representing a similar school of football - that influenced by Cruyff, the great Hungarian side of the 1950s and La Maquina (River Plate) of the same era (or even Scotland, if you trace possession football back to it’s original roots*) - many of these managers have worked under or with a number of footballing ‘professors’ (Mourinho, Cruyff etc).

However, even between Liverpool and Swansea there are considerable differences (not just in player profiles) but in the overall belief and approach to attacking (width and build-up approach) - notably Swansea are more counter-attacking and play with less width. On the other hand, Stoke (Pullis), Newcastle - who have played the most long balls this season so far (Pardew) and West Ham (Allardyce) in particular represent a school of football influenced by Charles Reep and English football, a philosophy where direct football, or “effective football”, provides the sound basis to tactical foundations. And once again, nobody is about to claim that any of the three sides play with an identical brand of football.

The Tactical Future Of The Premier League

This article suggests that as the English Premier League has evolved, the scenario where a team’s playing style is built around player profiles has diminished, the playing style is now founded on each club’s belief in how football should be played (and their choice of manager as a result). The future of the Premier League is perhaps heading towards more diversity, but more than ever before, youth players and first team players are signed on the basis of the player fitting with the clubs philosophy and team-approach.

Michu was a fine example of just this: a player who was always blessed with a world-class sense of arrival in the box. But Michu (as an attacking midfielder) was snubbed from nearly half the visiting scouts from the Premier League as they saw a player who would only benefit from playing in a ‘possession’ team that rely less on pace and the ability to dribble at speed. In many ways, Swansea was the perfect team for Michu and as it turns out, he’s not too bad as a centre forward and is now one of the most sought after players in the league.

For decades the emphasis was on physical attributes (speed, power and strength) and this is often the most noticeable difference between the Premier League and other leagues (as noted by many players), but with the trends showing that teams now require technically proficient players there has been a clear shift in the basic requirements. Where the Premier League is yet to excel (or is at the beginnings of) is the understanding that a tactically astute player may triumph the psychically superior.

This point has been outlined by Raymond Verheijen* often over the years; in a one hundred metre race, we concentrate our efforts on improving the physical aspects to gain milliseconds (where each and every one makes the difference). We should not however, view football through the the same lenses. Football, unlike the one hundred metre race, does not restrict us to the same start points and this concept leads Verheijen to ask: why look to improve in milliseconds when we can find the optimum start position and win by metres. Verheijen argues that English football has been slow to turn it’s focus towards tactical training and it’s difficult to argue with him, his influence at each club he has worked with has seen the benefits of such thinking.

The shift that is therefore present in the Premier League is that from a reliance on physicality to tactical brilliance. Before us at this moment in time, we are witnessing one of the great transitions in football history and one that has often gone on unnoticed to many. With the near-certain future return of Jose Mourinho to the league, I can only see the value placed on strong unique football philosophies increasing.

Concluding Thoughts

So let us return to the original question in this article. Has football really changed over the last decade? Has it really changed that much since France won the World Cup or since Man Utd won the treble? It appears that the injection of millions of pounds in the Premier League has brought with it diversity and an influx of development and despite the negativity towards ‘modern football’ (a game influenced more and more by money) there have been real football-specific changes.

While Manchester United and Manchester City seem to be running away with the league titles in recent years, the fight for fourth place has intensified year on year. The demands on a newly promoted team now ask if you can bring something new to the league, a new brand of football - Blackpool came close, but since then Norwich, Swansea, Southampton, West Brom and West Ham have found their place amongst the stanzas of the Premier League. QPR on the other hand represent one of the most confused clubs the Premier League has seen for quite some time - proof that money does not translate to a solid football philosophy on the pitch.

Football has changed, the Premier League has changed and while the Champions League may suggest that La Liga or the Bundesliga can rival the Premier League for the hypothetical title of ‘The World’s Best League’, no other league can boast such a diverse, complete and unpredictable set of clubs. There are no ‘easy games’ in the Premier League and we should expect the gap between 7th and relegation to decrease with each year.

Unfortunately it does appear almost certain that the top six teams in the Premier League are going to be difficult to close in on (financial power), but with the shift towards ‘team football’ (and tactical importance) and less being based on individual player ability, anything is possible.

“As long as humanity exists, something new will come along - otherwise football dies” - Arrigo Sacchi

 

References

*FA Presentation by Kevin Green: UEFA A Licence coach (April 2013), FA Qualified Tutor, Youth Award Module 3 and employee of the FA (2009)

*EPLindex - West Ham scouting report- by football scout Martin Lewis (2013)

*EPLindex - Southampton and Pochettino - by @chalkontheboots (2013)

*Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson (2009)

*Conditioning For Soccer by Raymond Verheijen (1998)

 

 

Follow Jed on Twitter: @TPiMBW

Jed is a football coach who writes on tactical theory and philosophy for a number of sites and publications including LiverpoolFC.com and his own site JedDavies.com. Jed will have two books on tactical theory and coaching published in March 2013.