Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Forced Evolution: Pep Guardiola, Mack Brown, and Urban Meyer

If you're interested in the other football, Barcelona, evolution, or just an interesting discussion about how tactical changes occur over time, then I highly recommend Kevin Alexander's new piece at Slide Rule Pass.  His basic thrust is to put Barcelona's style into context, tracing back the major innovations in football from Herbert Chapman's W-M at Arsenal through the Magnificent Magyars, the Brazilian Back Four, and Total Football,* and then to Guardiola's Barcelona. 

* - One common thread occurred to me while reading the piece.  Both the Hungary side of '54 and the Dutch side of '74 lost World Cup Finals to West Germany.  The Germans have never been credited with a major tactical innovation like the sides that they conquered.  Is that a compliment to German teams for overcoming innovators or a criticism that they win without giving anything to the world game, other than stereotypes about efficiency and determination? 

Alexander then gets to his point, which is that Barca have been trying a new 3-4-3 formation this year and that their attempts to take another step in evolving might be the reason why Real Madrid are three points ahead with a game in hand:

Though crowned Champions League winners in 2009 and 2011 Barcelona managed Pep Guardiola has sought to vary Barcelona’s approach this season. On one hand it is understandable that he wants to prevent other sides from figuring out a way to stop his side playing (as Inter Milan famously did in the 2010 Champions League), yet on the other hand one has to wonder whether trying to enforce a change on a fluid and evolving game is ever going to be truly successful.

The move away from the 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 that had served them so well to an, at times, 3-4-3 (often with no recognised centre-backs) has met with decidedly mixed success. Though there have been victories, it’s difficult to ascertain whether Barcelona won those matches thanks to their new system, or thanks to the extraordinary individual talents they possess...

Given time, perhaps Guardiola’s new way will take root, and set in motion the next stage in the evolution of Barcelona and, by extension, modern football. However, by trying to force change where no natural pressure exists, Pep may have found himself on a dead branch of the evolutionary tree.
The question of whether there is truly natural pressure is an interesting one.  As Alexander notes, Barca lost its European title to Mourinho's Inter in 2010, so Guardiola might have been thinking one step ahead: "if Mourinho is spending all summer trying to figure out how to deal with out style, then maybe I need to change the style?"  Additionally, trying a new formation is a good way to keep players sharp and interested, which is no small matter when one is trying to motivate a group that has won everything there is to win, both for club and country.  Finally, Guardiola was faced with a dilemma this fall in that both of his starting central defenders - Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique - were injured and he was faced with cobbling together a backline using a left back (Eric Abidal), two defensive midfielders (Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano), and a collection of Brazilian attacking fullbacks (Dani Alves, Adriano, and Maxwell).  Change or die, right?  Well, Barca have dropped nine points away from the Camp Nou in La Liga, they have scored only eight goals in their six road matches, and now they head to the Bernabeu in a must-win position, so maybe change wasn't such a good idea.

Alexander's line about forcing change where no natural pressure exists had me thinking about college football.  I remember having a conversation with a friend three years ago about how USC, Texas, and Florida were poised to dominate college football in the coming years.  They had the coaches, the systems, the fertile recruiting bases, and the rivals in turmoil to ensure a series of meetings with crystal balls on the line.  Leaving USC and their NCAA issues aside, as recently as two years ago, Texas and Florida were both coming off of years where they lost only one game: to national champion Alabama.  In the summer of 2010, we read numerous writers opine that both the Horns and Gators were moving away from the spread styles (pass-based for Texas and run-based for Florida) that they had favored in favor of more conventional, power-based attacks.  (I remember Tony Barnhart being especially pronounced in making this point, but I cannot for the life of me find a link to verify my memory.)

The results of this forced evolution (maybe devolution is a better term) have been disastrous.  Here is Florida's national rank in yards per play from 2008 forward: 3, 2, 78, 67.  And here is Texas's: 13, 57, 78, 67.  Both Florida and Texas had a style that worked for them and then have gone away from that style, whether by recruiting decisions or scheme.  They had evolved into approaches that moved the ball and then chose to eschew those approaches for something new.  Two years later, they are both picking up the pieces from those decisions to force change.


Kevin said...

Hi, thanks for reading, and the positives words about, my article. It's interesting to see it applied to other sports. Great read.

Michael said...

I'm glad you liked it. There are a number of common elements between American football and the rest of the world's football. At their heart, both games are about moving eleven pieces around to create space in which great players can operate. The most interesting ideas in American football come from the college ranks because there is greater diversity of offensive approaches.

Anonymous said...

Love the article, Michael.

I might be a complete slappy, but I just feel the comparisons to American football(college, to be far more precise) are so weak because I'm a huge believer in the "Evolve or die" concept. I'll try not to make too big an ass of myself, but I believe the fair majority of the NCAAs most efficient offenses(PPG, YPP, whatever metric) run some form of the zone-read option or a wide open spread passing offense.

College football is special in that its one of the few sports where schematic advantages can exist, at least offensively. Itg's one of the few sports where all the fuss about coaches being geniuses actually computes. Unfortunately for Charlie Weis, a traditional pro-based offense isn't one of them. Ultimately I don't think anything is ever learned from outfits that utilize traditional base formations - all Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, etc. have taughht me is that they just have way, way, way more blue-chip talent at their disposal and it's not gonna matter too much what offense they run.

Same goes for Barcelona. I don't think we'll ever end up getting a read on whatever they try, formations-wise, because its still being run by Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and co. The Detroit Redwings have dominated ice hockey for 20 years and everyone thought it was their "puck-control" system, which was partially true - but we've seen this line of thought challenged by the eroding talents of some of their superstars, and a predictable regression to being just a "good" hockey team in recent years.

So, really, I guess I'll just have to wait until Blackburn tries out the 3-4-3. :)

Anonymous said...

Anon1, for a discussion of why teams like LSU and Bama shouldn't look to maximize yards per play, see

Notably, LSU is #1 in the country in fewest turnovers, with only 8 on the year. Bama is tied for #3, with 12. This suggests a healthy dose of Goliath strategy has worked for both teams.

Also, I'm not wholly convinced that there's something magical about zone read or spread offenses. Many of the top ten offenses in yards per play (which includes Bama) run the offenses as you describe. But #7 is Stanford, of the three tight ends on first and ten. And while Stanford does have some very highly touted recruits (including the aforementioned, who were the #1,2,3 tight end recruits that rights), unlike Bama you certainly can't say that Stanford is lining up and simply out-talenting their opponents across the board.