It may be the sort of half-arsed topic everyone occasionally brings up in an attempt to sound edgy, but it’s frequent enough to just come off as unoriginal. Nevertheless, it’s always been a topic that interests me. Because of my lusting after Claude Makelele, I’ve always liked the idea of basing a system around the strengths of some players to maximise their effectiveness. There’s plenty of evidence to go against though, and one of the strongest arguments against is Arrigo Sacchi and his ideas of universality.
The pros of this system are clear: you don’t become dependant on any particular player, making you less susceptible to a downturn in form if an individual loses their’s or is injured, and so stay unpredictable. Taking the freeform passing and movement of the Dutch Total Football sides and Brazil’s 1970 and extending the former’s pressure game, creating a cohesive unit that was near impossible to prepare for.
To put this in perspective, Ancelotti’s Milan side 20 years later was a balanced but highly individualised system. Based around getting the best out of Kaka and Pirlo, Ancelotti awarded them with free roles and gave Gattuso and Ambrosini the task of winning the ball back for them. Against most teams this system would work without issue, but when Kaka was injured or against better teams, it becomes more difficult. By getting a player in the mould of Gattuso to man mark Kaka and getting attacking midfielders to close down Pirlo, Milan’s creative spark is dampened.
With Sacchi’s Milan you couldn’t do this; there’d be no point in just marking Ancelotti or Gullit when there was another 5 or so players who could attack just as well. And that’s where the problem arises: you need 11 players who play at the same high level and are willing to put their egos aside to succeed. There’s also a lack of evidence for it working quite as well in a league format, with Sacchi only winning one scudetto in his time at Milan, only once edging out Maradona-led Napoli. It’s all very good being unpredictable and so on, but if most of the teams you face don’t have any way of dealing with van Basten or Gullit, is it really a good idea possibly limiting their effectiveness by forcing them into a system?
One of the better examples of the alternate ideals is Ruud van Nistelrooy at Manchester United. He was their best goalscorer for nearly five years in which the club won just one league title; despite winning 3 before his arrival and 3 (possibly 4) after his depature. While it’s true he was there in a transition phase when United were struggling defensively, particularly in replacing Schmeichel, it’s also true that the team still boasted the likes of Ferdinand, Keane, Scholes and Giggs and that their form picked up immediately when he was dropped at the tail end of the 2005/06 season.
When the team is focussed around one main goalscorer, it’s fairly obvious that when they don’t perform the team struggles. When this focus is split between previously lesser goalscorers, in this case Rooney, Ronaldo and Saha, they become more dangerous and the team becomes harder to predict as their attacks don’t all come from the same player. This is the possible change that happens when Chelsea play without Drogba; with Lampard, Malouda and Anelka all having a greater responsibility, they look more dynamic and generally up their play. Plus, since other teams can’t just stop Chelsea scoring by dealing with Drogba, it becomes harder to decide what to do to contain them, resulting in the thrashings of Portsmouth and Villa.
Of course, the key to these theories of universality weren’t so much the system as the players themselves. Sacchi’s perfect team would be forwards who could defend and defenders who could attack; blurring the lines between positions. The best example of this in the modern game is the all-conquering 2008/09 Barcelona team with their front three of Messi, Henry & Eto’o, none of whom can be classed as a “proper” striker and the extreme pressing games they employed.
Drogba is a proper striker, but has all the ideal qualities to make a complete forward: excellent pace, equally great in the air as he is with the ball at his feet and has a working football brain despite some of his link-up play being a bit suspect. It is rarely you will see him closing down defenders to win back the ball though, which is the most important aspect of the ideal. Whether this has been born out of his own laziness or orders from his managers is something that we do not know.
The answer could be explained by Ancelotti’s team selection against Manchester United. Instead of Drogba, he picked Anelka, who style allowed for better link-up play. In the second half, when Chelsea were under more pressure, Drogba was brought on and held the ball up well and scored the second goal. They do play better without him, under certain circumstances.