After I explained the relationship between reason, talent and capitalism in football last Monday, I had promised my readers that I would explain the dynamics of neo-total football in my next piece. However, Galatasaray’s crushing elimination by PSV forced me to change my plans. In this piece, I am returning to the original plan, and explain how Pep Guardiola’s masterpiece has worked since 2008.
The reason why I call Pep Guardiola’s football philosophy neo-total is simple, it is built on the principles of total football, such as collective actions patterns for moving and stopping the ball. What makes it “neo” is that it has built an entire strategy on this principle and organized its collective actions not only position to position but as a whole. That is why I see a categorical difference between neo-total football and total football.
The main asset of Guardiola's neo-total football is the ball. Possession of the ball is essential and the collective actions are primarily built to possess the ball at any given moment. Therefore, all unnecessary movements that make the relationship of the team with the ball chaotic are carefully removed from the game and thrown out.
For instance, goal kicks are not allowed in Guardiola's game when there is no clear and distinct offensive advantage. Because there is no guarantee that those kicks thrown into chaos will stay on your team. For the same reasons, crosses are mostly avoided in this game as they are much less reliable than planned, direct passes.
Ultimately, the boundaries and purposes of kicks and crosses are very unclear. What is meant by "cutting the ball into the penalty box" will always be a strategic mystery. Unless there is a clear target, one cannot rely on crosses and when there is a clear target, it is no longer a cross but a pass. Nevertheless, since it is the best way to skip organizing sophisticated pass plans in the final third, managers who believe in traditional football schools still utilize crosses often. In neo-total football, however, detailed, precise planning makes all the difference. Guardiola, for instance, builds four-five pass plans in both wings to create time and space for his forwards, so they can have a clear shot.
Another principle of neo-total football is that if the ball is caught by the opponent, the players do not run backward. In principle, every backward run offers the opponent time and space to play with the ball. The best way to eliminate a counterattack is by pressing the opponent where the ball is. By doing so you would give your opponent less space and time to organize an attack and increase your chances of regaining the ball. Even though it seems risky to leave more space behind, disrupting the decision-making of the opponent is a much more effective defensive strategy rather than sitting in front of the penalty box.
With these two main principles, Guardiola organizes his team to move as a block. All players either press, pass, or create a passing option. It is not only the defenders who defend or forwards who attack, whoever is in the best position to pass or press joins the collective action.
Of course, every player has his or her special duties in his respective position, but these duties never mount to creating time and space individually. A talented game creates time and space for its players, as pre-planned collective action is always faster than individual, momentary decisions.
Guardiola’s genius was his ability to transform this game from a utopia to reality. Of course, he had many talented players in his career, but the beauty of his game is that it requires nothing but a sufficient ball technique to pass the ball precisely. In other words, Sergio Busquets is the ultimate player of neo-total football, because he never allows his individual skills to disrupt the natural flow of the game.
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