Football coverage is getting smarter but the game is still the same
No matter the identity or calibre of his opponents, Rafael Benitez pores over hours and hours of footage before every game. There is the film of their last few games. There are videos of individuals, set-pieces, how they play in attack and how they set up in defence.
There are scouting reports to read and analysts' notes to assess. There are conversations with his assistants, phone calls to friends at other clubs who might have faced them recently. Anything and everything that he and his staff deem relevant is put into a comprehensive dossier. It contains every strength, every weakness, every point of interest. By the end, there are dozens of pages for every single game in every single competition.
The players do not see all of this work. They will be given an abridged version tailored to their individual positions and personal concerns. The left-back, for instance, will have a detailed synopsis of how the opponents attack down the right; the right-back will be granted an explanation of how they attack down the left.
There is no guarantee, though, that the players will read them and so the day before the game, the squad will be gathered together to go through all of the information. The meeting will last around 15 minutes. A few clips here, a couple of formations detailed there. Benitez will boil down his tactical plan to just a few minutes; any more than that and the players do not take it in. All of that work and all of that research comes down to just a few sentences.
Benitez is not unique in this. Most of his peers (though, alas, not all and not yet) will do much the same, whatever league they play in and whatever their beliefs about how the game should be played. Some will concentrate more on dead balls than others; some will choose to prioritise defence over attack or vice versa. Broadly speaking, though, this is how the world's best managers warn their players what is to come.
Football is full of jargon. It always has been. In the 1950s, one of the things that convinced Stanley Rous, the head of the Football Association in England, to make Walter Winterbottom the first manager in the history of the country's national team was that he used phrases like "peripheral vision." It was a new phrase to describe an old concept but it persuaded Rous that Winterbottom was a man ahead of his time.
There is a welter of similar terms in use now. Some of them describe very old and very obvious concepts but dress them up in intellectual clothes. Managers regularly now insist that games are "decided in the transitions." It has become a truism; you can tell it has seeped into public consciousness because Alan Shearer, a man too blunt to be at the cutting edge, has used it on Match of the Day.
We all know that games are decided in the transitions these days. We rarely stop to think what that implies: transitions are, after all, just the point where you give the ball away. Games have always been decided by what happens when teams give the ball away. It's not like, until the phrase transition was invented, teams just stood around waiting to see what the opposition could do. It's just that it was not called "a transition" -- it was called "giving the ball away."
You can do this with any number of fashionable phrases. "Between the lines" used to be called "in the hole." Zonal marking was invented in the 1950s by Brazil. Hungary played with a false nine -- that most modern of positions -- in 1948, as is well-known; it will come as a surprise to more that lowly Bury were doing the same in 1936.
Any team worth their salt in the modern game presses. Managers and players talk of the importance of pressing. Again, though, this is just a new(ish) term to describe an old concept: getting the ball back. Again, it is not the case that prior to Barcelona's Champions League win in 2009, everyone just waited for the opposition to finish before attempting to win possession. They pressed; they just did not know they were.
This is more than just a semantic point. Over the past decade or so, there has been a rampant intellectualisation of how we discuss football. In many ways, this has been both extremely welcome and long overdue. It has enabled fans (and journalists) to obtain a fuller understanding of how the game is played, of all the many dynamics that are at play over the course of those 90 minutes. Many now have more than a passing familiarity with things like passing lanes. Twenty years ago, that was all but unthinkable, certainly in Britain.
But it is crucial to remember that a change in the language does not suggest a change in the way the game is played. The same things are happening on the pitch; it is just that there are now more labels, different labels, for them.
More important still, there is a disconnect between how we, the outside observers, discuss the game and how managers or players do. In those brief meetings preparing for a match, Benitez and his peers are not telling their squad to make sure they counter-press in the passing lanes. The instructions are, by necessity, much more basic than that.
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Players can only take on so much information. It is intriguing, for example, that Louis van Gaal's Manchester United squad have taken such exception to the detailed, 45-minute sessions held by the Dutchman's video analyst before every game. They feel that the sheer weight of what they are being told serves to stifle the way they play. There has to be a degree of freedom: of expression, of interpretation. Football, at least the way those inside of it see it, is not an orchestra. It is jazz.
This is the caveat that should be applied to all of the new terms added to our lexicon in recent years. You can talk about gegenpressing and transitions and asymmetrical formations as much as you wish; it will, to some extent, help enhance your understanding of what a team is trying to do (or appears to be trying, seeing as all of these terms are better used in retrospect than in advance).
But none of them bring us any closer to a solution to the game. There is no perfect way to play. As Benitez and his ilk know all too well, only a small percentage of what happens on the pitch bears any relation to the tactical instructions they draw up; those instructions are, in turn, only a small percentage of all the knowledge they have acquired about that specific opponent.
It is not the case that if you apply as many of the fashionable concepts as possible, you can find a way to win every time. Football's charm is that so much of it is chaos. We can get closer -- we are closer -- but there is no answer. It is not an equation. It is, in the end, 22 men or women, giving the ball away and trying to get it back. Changing the name does not change the game.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.