There is a saying in literature: “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.” The works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Jules Verne may (and may still) have seemed like completely unrealistic depictions of the future whose only value was entertainment, but their names today evoke not thoughts of crackpot writers but of great literary minds. Extend this idea to football and the concepts of a false nine, ball playing midfielders regularly becoming central defenders, and inverted wingers (sometimes being combated by inverted full backs!) were not exactly common fare 10 to 15 years ago.
Consider this statement: The future of football will be converting the pitch into one large midfield zone. Who said this? Some blogger who has never played 90 minutes of football? A journalist who gets readers based on outlandish claims? In fact this assertion was made by one of the greatest managers in the history of football, Arrigo Sacchi.
Sacchi was a large proponent of the idea of ‘universality’, and while many people say it is the future of football it is a concept that has been around for decades. There are many buzz words in popular football discussion that many consider an ideal way of playing – total football, for example, has this aura as some perfect style of play that, if you could implement it completely, is the end game of football. It would be a system that marries the aesthetics of passing, pressing and interchangeability with the results that deliver trophies. Certainly sides like the Ajax of Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs along with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are some of the teams that have come closest to this ideal, but what kind of ‘universal’ player are we talking about?
Sacchi opined about universal players versus specialists. What’s the appropriate balance between throwing on players full of skill and talent who can do almost everything on the pitch and sprinkling in footballers who specialize in a certain aspect of the game to protect them? Egil Olsen might tell you that specialists in one attribute all over the pitch are most effective while a manager like Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay favours versatile players – center backs who can mark a man and zonally and switch between a back three and a back four, and wide players who can play full back, wing back, or wide midfield. Are their philosophies categorically different, or are they better understood as occupying different places on a continuum? Given the choice would you want a player who is great at one aspect of football or a player that is good at multiple? And theoretically wouldn’t a player who is great at all aspects of football be the player you want; the perfect example of a universal player?
Yet when we look at the most successful current team, the side that is most universal, maybe we are asking the question incorrectly. It’s not necessarily about being maximally good at one aspect or about being great at multiple aspects; it seems that certain aspects of football are being highlighted more than others. Pep Guardiola is a direct descendant of the Michels school of thought via Johan Cruyff so it is no surprise that his Barcelona squad is often cited as the premier purveyors of the total football vision. He plays central midfielders at centre back, full backs high up the pitch, strikers who drop deep into midfield, and natural goal scorers out wide.
However, Barcelona is not a team of players who display universal mastery of all footballing skills. They are world class at passing, moving off the ball, pressing, and reading the game but you would be hard pressed to find someone who says they are great at heading the ball or tackling. These are attributes that people value as players often get praised for being a towering header of the ball or a fantastic tackler. But are all skills equal? If you were to ask Xabi Alonso, the Madrid player who most identifies with Barcelona’s style, he would tell you that tackling is not something you want to do often and practice, that it is a last resort. Sure, it would be great if you were a good tackler but not at the expense of being able to read the game and block passing lanes and intercept through balls. Thinking about this in an extreme hypothetical the idea of some skills being better than others makes sense. Imagine two teams who are average at all aspects of the game with one team possessing eleven great headers of the ball and the other containing eleven brilliant passers. What side would most likely triumph?
So maybe the question isn’t how do we get a team of players who are good at everything and can play all positions – such an idea is impossible anyway. Maybe the future of football is about everyone being great at specific things that most contribute to winning and the key is finding what those skills are and training them. If that is true, and as Sacchi basically said the future of football is the pitch being inhabited by players who display attributes of midfielders, then maybe the future isn’t actually about universality. Barcelona have players who can play multiple positions but they aren’t universal in terms of their attributes. In fact, when you look at it that way, Barcelona are a team of the most extreme specialists on the planet.