The basketballification of football

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It’s a good thing for us, Marcelo Bielsa aside, that robots don’t play football. Humans and their limits make things much more fun.

Now that high, intense pressing has been in fashion for a few years, it’s easy to predict the future pattern of a game. If a team’s going all-out for a sustained period of time early in the match, then they’ll likely be stretched during the last 20-30 minutes. This is just one of the ways (and the most obvious) that high-pressing is leading to a back-and-forth ‘basketballification’ of football.

The other is that a high press, in itself, often leads to teams ceding midfield. They have two options for what to do with their defensive line, and in particular their centre-backs, when squeezing their opponents. One is to push everybody up, keeping the entire outfield compact but leaving a lot of space in behind; the other is to have the centre-backs hang back a little and, if faced with someone breaking through the press, backing off instead of trying to challenge them high up the field.

Given that height and strength are still two qualities highly-valued in these defenders (and presumably because they haven’t grown up in this kind of coaching environment), it’s often more sensible to ask them to back up.

Sometimes this makes the team look or feel worse than they are — seeing defenders back off for thirty yards towards their own goal tends to feel like every single plan has gone wrong, when really this is often a contingency plan that’s been baked into the system.

This kind of backing off, while it looks like a team in need of solidity, tends to lead to pretty poor quality shots, ones that are either from distance or rushed or, fairly frequently, both. (Granted, it’s possible that forwards should just be coached better on how to keep focussed in these situations).

In terms of how fans should view the game then, they should probably sit a little easier when the back-and-forth-ness swings towards their goal. Most of the time, things are under control more than they appear.

However, this basketballification makes me wonder about what effect this style of play will have on statistical metrics that are still pretty young.

Given that football is a sport in which one goal is at one end and the other is at the other, ‘ball progression’ metrics are a way to try and gauge the quality of more creative midfielders, beyond looking at the shots they set up.

I’ve personally been a little skeptical of them anyway, but this skepticism just grows when games get end-to-end. When matches have no midfield, moving the ball thirty yards with a dribble or a pass becomes a lot easier. How much are these ball progression stats based on a player’s role within the team as well as that team’s style?

It’ll be interesting to see just how far football goes towards become an end-to-end basketball-esque counter and counter-counter fest.

Much of the North London derby this weekend was a bit of a farce — partly because the two teams were only sporadically decent, but exacerbated by the effects of the intense pressing.

Southampton — under Ralph Hasenhuttl, a famed fan of pressing — visibly tired after half an hour against Manchester United. Their intensity kept United hemmed in and looking shaky for the first 20-30 minutes, but after that the spaces started to open up and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team became more comfortable.

There are clearly limits to how far humans can be pushed, then. And, if we’re looking five years into the future, maybe football styles will swing back again. If players can’t keep up the intensity for a full match, then teams will start to plan their games around exploiting the final half hour. Once pressing teams start to be torn apart in the final, tired third of matches, will the pressing be dialled back? Will a Jose Mourinho style of football again reign supreme?

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