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21st Century Football and the Complexities of the Modern Game

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With the advancement of globalization and the various tactical revolutions that have taken place in the last decade, understanding modern football and following its evolution is far from a simple task.

Along with this complication, a wealth of detail was added to the game, both on and off the field, which ended up fueling debate among fans around the world. In the Juventus community, the debate about the existing styles of play is something routine, which has become even greater with the return of Massimiliano Allegri to Vecchia Signora.

Is there a better way to play football?

As with all questions in life, to find the answer to this question is necessary to understand among specialists and academics. In this way, if we are to research and study the definitions of the modern game among the most renowned on the subject, it appears that there is a consensus in modern football, there is no correct style of playing.

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In fact, according to Jonathan Wilson, a respected English journalist, in his book “Inverting the Pyramid”:

“I don’t believe there is a “correct” way to play. Yes, from an emotional and aesthetic point of view I prefer the Arsene Wenger passes to José Mourinho’s pragmatism, but this is a personal choice; it doesn’t mean that one is right or wrong”

Wilson’s reflection leads us to a clear conclusion; playing styles are everyone’s preference, condemning a style because it’s not attractive or you don’t like it, is actually going against one of the basic concepts of the modern world, isonomy. Another expert who agrees with this theory is Domenec Torrent (former assistant to Pep Guardiola and current Galatasaray coach) when asked about Guardiola’s transfer to England in 2016.

“Pep came to England to contribute new ideas… Football is played in a thousand ways, and the only thing Pep does is play one of them — one that he may more or less like and that he often wins with, but it’s not the only one or the ‘ true’ “

A conclusion that modern football has something important, the idea of accepting different styles of play, even if it is not your favorite, leads us to another important question.

How can we define if some coach is outdated?

We need to resort to another definition that is practically a consensus among scholars: the game undergoes an almost daily evolution, not only in the field but also in the debates on the subject. As Jonathan Wilson points out, again in “Inverting the Pyramid”:

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“The tactic in history is constantly evolving: your history, too… that the term “false nine” is used so loosely suggests not only a common tendency, but also that interest in tactical analysis has grown significantly over the past five years”

Based on Wilson’s thinking, it is clear that evolution forces game professionals to update themselves to the demands of modern football. Those who do not update themselves, or who do not admit the evolution of the game, can be considered outdated managers or outdated systems. The big problem with the lack of evolution is that, in addition to having a disadvantage in relation to those who update, you become predictable always. A great example of this is José Mourinho’s Chelsea during the 2014/15 season when he won the Premier League. He ended up finishing the following season in 10th with just 50 points playing the exact same way as the previous season.

However, the discussion about modern coaches and how they should adapt to the game should also extend to knockout competitions, especially the Champions League. Therefore, it is important to ask ourselves:

Is it true that defensive styles are unlikely to win the Champions League?

The search for the answer to this question is something that causes a lot of discussion among Bianconeri. Some fans argue that with the pragmatic style practiced by Allegri, the team will never win the Champions League; while others point out that the club reached the final of the competition playing with a defensive style, and that to win the tournament, it is necessary to have a solid defense, something that a coach like Allegri knows how to do. After all, what can we conclude from this?

Well, the fact is that when we talk about a football match at the Champions League level, style is just one of the many factors that influence the game, especially when we talk about games with the importance of the biggest club competition in the world.

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Another important point that also demystifies the idea that offensive teams necessarily have an advantage in the competition is the fact that in the Champions League, almost no team plays every game with the same identity, but adapts to each opponent and context. Take for example the 2020/21 champions, Chelsea. The team played the semi-final against Real Madrid with a completely different identity than the one that played the final against Manchester City, in which the team chose to play with low lines and exploit counterattacks. This final also serves to prove that the most offensive team will not always win, in fact, the team that is most prepared in all aspects of the game will win, including the right choice of the style for that specific game.

All these discussions about football, especially about current football, oblige us to carry out an important reflection on the analysis of a coach’s work:

How can we tell if a manager’s work is good?

Well, in my personal view, I strongly believe that the coach prepared for modern football should be based on 3 concepts:

Adaptability: Undoubtedly one of the most important concepts when you are a manager. As Martí Peranau says in “Pep Guardiola: the evolution”:

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“It is not the strongest nor the most intelligent who survive, but those who adapt best”

The coaches who never allow an escape from the system are doomed to failure. In my view, the greatest example of adaptation in recent years was Guardiola at Bayern, who arrived at the club with his ideas and instead of simply implementing them, in an orthodox way, he adapted them to German football, demonstrating the ability to adapt to the culture and DNA of the club.

Equilibrium: As Carlo Ancelotti says in his book, “Quiet Leadership”:

“When people talk about football they usually seem to believe that playing ‘offensive’ is good and playing ‘defensively’ is bad. Not true. If you have a team that plays good in defense, but not so good in attack, or the opposite, this is an indication that the coach is not good.”

Ancelotti’s words sum up well the importance of this topic. A coach can choose any style of play as long as it’s good both offensively and defensively. The equilibrium is without a doubt my biggest criticism, for example, to Allegri in several Juventus games; it is not enough just to create solid systems defensively, but offensively the team also needs to do well, especially in counterattacks. I’m not here talking about the number of goals, but the number of chances you have in a game, after all, when you play with low lines, you need to take advantage of the chances you have to score.

Get the most out of your players: One of the main jobs of a coach is to keep his players motivated. Regardless of how you manage it, there’s needs to be efficiency. Convincing players to run every inch of the field for their team is decisive for a coach’s job.

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The second fundamental point of the player-coach relationship is that the coach must be qualified to maximize the talent of his players. Looking back over the past decade, it’s no coincidence that the two coaches who dominated Serie A, Conte and Allegri, are known for improving the performance of their players, creating methods to leverage their talents. Let’s never forget, great jobs are built by great players who can only achieve this status thanks to their coaches.

My opinion on the future of football in the coming years

Finally, I would like to share with you a personal reflection on the ideal path for football in the 21st century. Personally, I believe that the ideal path to face the complexity of the game and the accessibility of globalization is a humble and, especially, rational attitude, which recognizes when it makes mistakes and does not enter into debates with preconceptions or opinions guided by emotion.

Never forget, football is driven by passion, but the analysis is driven by ideas and thoughts. I hope that football fans start to have the maturity to accept that the debates go much deeper than some people believe. And that sometimes even the club and the professionals we love can and should be criticized.

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