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Liverpool, Napoli and the Problem With Systems

There is no such thing as a 4-3-3. The same goes for all those pithy threads of numbers that are hard-wired into soccer’s vernacular, the communal, universal drop-down list of legitimate patterns in which a team might be arrayed: 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 and even the fabled, fading 4-4-2. They are familiar, reflexive. But none of them exist. Not really.

The way a team lines up to start a game, for example, most likely will bear very little relation to what it looks like during it as players whirl around the field, engaged in what anyone who has not watched a lot of mid-table Premier League soccer might describe as a complex, instinctive ballet.

Most teams will adopt one shape when blessed with the ball, and another without it. Increasingly, many will shift their approaches in the course of the game, responding to the lunges, the parries and the ripostes of their opponents.

A team presented in a 4-3-3 on a graphic before kickoff might be playing a 3-5-2 while that image is still fresh in the memory. A coach might choose to drop a midfielder between the central defenders to control possession, or push the fullbacks daringly high, or draw a forward a little deeper. The nominal 4-3-3 might, if it all comes off, be more accurately denoted as a 3-1-4-1-1. Sort of. Maybe.

And besides, every manager will have a different sense of what each of those formations means. As Thiago Motta, the Bologna coach, has said: a 3-5-2 can be a front-foot, adventurous sort of a system, and a 4-3-3 a cautious, defensive one. How the players are arranged does not, in his view, say very much at all about their intentions.

None of that is to say that formations are completely meaningless. As a rule, managers tend to scoff at the very mention of them. They assume that hearing any value ascribed to the idea of “formation” is a surefire sign that they are in the helpless company of a slow-witted civilian, or perhaps a child.

They are, though, useful shorthands: broad-brush, big-picture guidelines that fans and opponents can use to try to find a pattern in what can look — at first — like unfettered chaos. They are a way of establishing what you think a team might look like once it takes the field, what it might be trying to do, how it might be attempting to win.

Or, at least, that is what formations have always been. It may not last. There is a chance, now, that soccer’s great leap forward will render all of those old, comfortable ideas almost entirely moribund.

The three decades on either side of the Millennium — the period, in soccer terms, that starts with Arrigo Sacchi’s A.C. Milan and ends with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City — will, in time, be remembered as the sport’s age of the system, the first time its most coveted talents, its defining figures, have been not players but coaches.

On the surface, there may be scant similarity between the tiki-taka that turned Barcelona into the finest club in history and the sturm-und-drang of the energy-drink infused, heavy-metal inflected German pressing game.

Underneath, though, they share two crucial characteristics. They are both precisely, almost militaristically choreographed, players moving by rote and by edict in preordained patterns learned and honed in training. And they both rely, essentially, on a conception of soccer as a game defined less by the position of the ball and more by the occupation and creation of space.

Soccer’s history, though, is a process of call and response, of action and reaction. One innovation holds sway for a while — the process happens increasingly quickly — before the competition decodes it and either counteracts or adopts it. Both have the same, blunting effect.

And there are, now, the first glimmers of what might follow on the horizon. Across Europe, the system teams are starting to falter. The most obvious case is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, struggling not just with a physical and mental fatigue but a philosophical one, too. Its rivals and peers are now inoculated to its dangers.

But there are others: Jesse Marsch’s travails as the manager at Leeds United can be traced in some way to his refusal to bend from what might broadly, and only moderately pompously, be called the “Red Bull School.” Barcelona, its characteristic style now widely copied across the continent, is scratching around with limited success for some new edge. Even Manchester City, where suffering is always relative, seems less imperious than once it did.

The future, instead, seems to belong to the teams and coaches who are willing to be a little more flexible and see their role as providing a platform on which their players might extemporize.

Real Madrid, of course, has always had that approach, choosing to control specific moments in games rather than the game itself, but it has done so with the rather significant advantage of possessing many of the finest players on earth.

That others, in less rarefied climes, have started to follow that model is much more instructive. Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli, the most captivating team in Europe, is barreling toward the Serie A title thanks to a free-form, virtuosic style that does not deploy the likes of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen as puppets but encourages them to think, to interpret, for themselves.

Fernando Diniz, the coach of the Brazilian side Fluminense, has even given it a name: the “apositional style,” placing it in direct (but perhaps not intentional) conflict with the “positional play” that Guardiola and his teams have perfected.

Diniz, like Spalletti, does not believe in assigning his players specific positions or roles, but in allowing them to interchange at will, to respond to the exigencies of the game. He is not concerned with the control of specific areas of the field. The only zone that matters to him, and to his team, is the one near the ball.

In his eyes, soccer is not a game defined by the occupation of space. It is centered, instead, on the ball: As long as his players are close to it, what theoretical position they play does not matter in the slightest. They do not need to cleave to a specific formation, to a string of numbers coded into their heads.

Instead, they are free to go where they wish, where their judgment tells them. If it makes it all but impossible to present a shorthand of how the team plays, then so much the better. After all, systems are designed by coaches with the express purpose of stripping the game of as much spontaneity as possible. Managers want, understandably, to control what a player does in any given circumstance. They crave predictability. They yearn for it.

In that environment, it is only natural that unpredictability becomes an edge.

Alexia Putellas’s year effectively ended last July 5, the day she felt a click in one of her knees during a small-sided training game. A few hours later, she was in the King Edward VII hospital in London, attempting to absorb the news that she had ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament with the European Championship only days away. She would miss the tournament, and at that stage her participation in this summer’s Women’s World Cup was in doubt, too.

Putellas is, thankfully, making excellent progress. Her recuperation has gone sufficiently well that she is not only running again, but engaging in what everyone in soccer refers to as “ball work”: the delicate process of ensuring that the repaired connections in her knee can handle the sudden, jarring twists and turns that games will likely demand. Barring any major setbacks, Putellas will feature for Spain at the World Cup that opens in July, and the tournament will be all the better for it.

It was hard, though, not to be struck by her election as the best female player on the planet at FIFA’s flashy awards show Monday night in Paris. It would be unfair to suggest that Putellas was an undeserving winner. She is an outstanding player, after all. But at the same time, she had played only half the year. She did not feature in the Euros, the year’s pre-eminent women’s tournament. Her club team, Barcelona, lost the final of the Champions League.

The immediate suspicion, where any FIFA award is concerned, is that her victory is a testament to the power of reputation. Both the men’s and the women’s prizes, after all, have had a habit of reverting to the default: The national team coaches and captains, and the international media representatives, generally favor whoever is the most famous, the most high-profile, the safest choice.

In the case of Putellas, though, it is likely to be something else. The European champions, England, did not have a single standout player, though a case could be made for Beth Mead, the leading scorer, or Leah Williamson, the captain. Keira Walsh of England was the tournament’s best player, but she is a defensive midfielder, and defensive midfielders do not win awards.

Likewise, Lyon’s run to the Champions League title was not inspired by a single individual, as it had been when the goals of Ada Hegerberg powered it to glory in 2019.

This year’s field, in other words, was both broad and deep. In that context, both what Putellas achieved — Spanish champion, leading scorer in the Champions League — and what she could not played in her favor: The perception that Spain’s bid for the European Championship fell apart in her absence was supporting evidence for her legitimacy.

There comes a point, really, where everyone involved should take a look at their behavior and feel their cheeks flush with shame. There is a level of pettiness that is unavoidable in a rivalry as virulent and intractable as the one shared by Real Madrid and Barcelona. But then there is the controversy that engulfed David Alaba this week, which makes all concerned look like children.

Alaba, the Real Madrid defender, is also the captain of the Austrian men’s national team. As such, he was eligible to cast a vote for The Best Men’s Player at FIFA’s sparkling celebration of self-importance. He picked, not unreasonably, Lionel Messi, as did an overwhelming majority of the appointed electorate. (A note, here, for the captain of Gabon and the coach of Botswana, who watched Messi inspire Argentina to the World Cup title and both declared Julián Álvarez the real star of the show.)

Only Alaba, though, subsequently had to explain his decision. A Real Madrid player not selecting Karim Benzema, you see, was considered unacceptable not only by Madrid fans on social media but by several Madrid-based news outlets. That he would instead throw his weight behind Messi, so indelibly linked with Barcelona, was beyond the pale.

Alaba, to his credit, indulged the nonsense, explaining that the Austrian team voted as a collective and that the majority of the players’ council had favored Messi. He wanted to make it plain that he considered Benzema the “best forward in the world.” Most impressively, he did this all without once mentioning how stupid the whole debate was, or noting that encouraging players to vote politically renders the concept of the award itself completely meaningless.

Alaba was perfectly entitled to vote for Messi, whether in consultation with his teammates or not. Benzema would have understood that instantly. He would have been no more offended by Alaba’s selection than he would have been at the sight of France’s captain, Hugo Lloris, and coach, Didier Deschamps, not voting for him either. He is, after all, a grown-up. It is a shame that so many of those commenting appear not to be.

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