After an era in which the Merlins of the grass reigned supreme, the rise of Paul “P.T. Barnum” Pogba, and the ascent impending of the likes of Sergej-Milinkovic Savic, Leon Goretzka and Lorenzo Pellegrino all seem to suggest new fashions in midfield as the tiki-taka era passes.
Manchester City cast a long shadow in the Premier League of 2017/18; the imprint that they ultimately leave may well be the most impressive that the league has ever seen left on it. The present intensity of the culture of England’s top flight does not allow them to be as shacklelessly imaginative as Pep Guardiola’s 2009 Barcelona, to whom the comparisons are tritely obvious; indeed, there have been a number of PL conquests marked by more pure improvisation in attacking play than the one being mounted by the English team currently 12 points out in front. But, as a choreographed whole, as designers of the goal types most esteemed by their architect-in-chief, they are close to peerless.
Rarely has any team been so relentlessly accomplished in construction as City were in the early innings of the season. In shape, Kevin De Bruyne occupied a role once defined by Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal, and with a more or less comparable pedigree. The Belgian eye of a storm writ with English pace, threaded with Brazilian guile and whipped with Spanish technical noblesse, De Bruyne would seek out runners and find them with unerring accuracy. The consistency with which he identifies inordinately difficult potential passes, and the ease with which he spreads them along the ground is telling of a player who may, should his vision align so sympathetically with City’s, do as Jamie Carragher foretold and write his name large in the Premier League’s history books. In the early season, when City availed themselves to however many goals as they liked, it was the same, time after time; five or six would move off of De Bruyne’s radar, the lines of movement as bent and wavy as the angles of connecting passes were often angular and disdainful of the wave. Two runners would align at 2 ½ in the final phase; the first receiver would square it. The second—usually Raheem Sterling—would tap home.
City’s football has often described as tiki-taka for the Premier League—but though it shares evident ancestral roots, it is really one sister of that pure passing method, much as Germany’s World Cup winning short-pop style was another. In fact, Guardiola’s style is more allied now to the German model that conceives of touch-play with vertical intent, though City can often be seen to indulge in the lateral Spanish pure style as a sort of pre-post-match vanity, popping it off around the middle when the game is won. Heresy against received wisdom though it may be, and obscured further by his more recent decline in favour though it certainly has been, the coach who most successfully marshalled pure, triangular tiki-taka as his Premier League team’s foremost attacking outlet was Jose Mourinho. Before he suffered a bewildering loss of nerve, and chummed all possibility that they might go down in English football’s aesthetic elite, Mourinho’s Chelsea title-winners of 2014/15 played a truly gorgeous pure form of the stuff; it is, in an ironic twist bound to please no Chelsea fan whatsoever, the fact that Kevin De Bruyne prefers to play in long-form that saw Oscar preferred to him in Mourinho’s team-architecture, and led to his discontent and sale. The less-dominant, impressionistic, decorative pretensions of Oscar did not insist on primacy as a skill set like De Bruyne’s would have; Chelsea were generally reluctant to try speculative shots from outside the box in Mourinho’s second tenure, charting only 7 +18 yarders in 38 games. With 4 in 18 matches, De Bruyne leads all players across the top European leagues in goals from outside the box this season, thriving on the things. I wrote of Thiago Alcantara that his particular profile of technique was ‘timeless’; of Kevin De Bruyne this descriptor is doubly true, and more fascinatingly so, so boldly is he formed of syncresions of traditional Number 10, Number 8 and Number 7 styles. When Guardiola initially trialled him as a 6 in a 3-4-3 earlier in the season, he proved competent there as well.
The patron sprite of Guardiola’s City, one that presides over their passing as truthfully if less imperially than De Bruyne, is not merely timeless but, in a sense, spaceless; if any player can be dubbed the carriage of essence relative to that dribbling technique known as ‘ghosting’, then David Silva is it. He is of the era when Merlins of the grass ruled supreme; what marked him apart from Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas—where schooling, nationality, literal stature, and figurative stature marked them alike—was his being the man most likely to roam. To sit and observe Silva’s own path through a game is a sporting exercise in itself, and makes enviable those who are able to do so regularly. He does not take the game, rather preferring to twist it; allowed his positional indiscipline, Silva can apparate to snatch a ball off the tip of Fabian Delph’s boot, or suddenly appear between towers of Swansea defence to heel home at a corner. To think of his icy, bodyless work rate as a heat map seems a contradiction in terms—in the finest manner, Silva’s play is passionless, waged not by the principles of penetration but those of permeation, intuitive by the dictums of as refined an intuitive sense as is possessed by a footballer currently active. He is a No. 10, but is less beholden to duties’ handles than even that position suggests; David Silva merely plays as David Silva plays.
Silva is also aptly described by the ‘ghost’ conceit because, while he remains in health as rude as he has enjoyed as a Citizen, his era is passing. The Premier League did not have a concerted period wherein smaller, highly technically astute players were all the rage—the unsuitability of such a physical profile for the demands of the league was taken as gospel to the point where the likes of Arsenal, who insisted on subscribing to a smaller-is-better philosophy, were the butt of a running joke about it. Such a profile tends on to the pitch towards individualism, and individualism with English football does not make a cultural mesh, however similar English fans are to all the rest in being helpless against delight when watching a great dribbler. The counter-vogue to team-pressing and short-release touch play has been the low-block and the bludgeoning counter-attack, defined by midfielders who did not open the middle of the park so much as cordon it off, players whose non-possessive abstract medium was not movement, as with the cartoon of the progressively minded shorter player, but presence. While Mourinho may have enjoyed a fruitful fling with the precepts of the tiki—and let us not, that we have a moment, succumb to the nonsensical idea that one-touch passing was invented in 2008, or that it had never graced English fields before Guardiola’s time, or Arsene Wenger’s for that matter—he is far more notorious for authoring those commandments of football that ascribed the fear of error to those who possessed the ball.
The downshot of this means of countering possession football played in the Cruyffian manner—his approach being a yet more refined one than mere advocacy for pass-and-move, and which thus merits its distinct recognition as such. Football that is purely reactive tends to grind the sport to the nub of its own essential lightness: played in good faith, the meaninglessness of it all is affirmative of life, of the value of excellence ‘just because’; but played as if it were a competition of siege tactics, it is about as much fun as a siege, and left hopelessly vulnerable to just charges of ludicrously outsized self-importance. While Guardiola’s City might be the Premier League’s shortest team on average, there is some indication that the sport is beginning to broker a kind of third way, a third pole in its present tactical era.
When Paul Pogba arrived in the Premier League, he was as much as anything else a daintily knickerbockered scout rider from a coming circus. Football has never been so outsized since when Pogba introduced it to the social media dopamine loop; you think Neymar would ever have been bought for +£200 million if he couldn’t command the gold of pure global attention just by changing shirt? While off the pitch he’s a showman like P.T Barnum, and a social butterfly whose phonebook is a natty weapon to subvert rules concerning ‘tapping up’, Pogba is something of a model of the new way. Football depends fundamentally on its ability to stoke exhilaration; thus pure pragmatism cannot take hold, much as in the present era of results-at-all-costs pure idealism comes quickly a’cropper too. The new third-way has been given some measure of identity by the sweeping to prominence across Europe of the Contean 3-4-3, a formation that can be as copiously offensive or stringently defensive as the whims of a coach or the vicissitudes of a game situation demand. To the third way is born the third way footballer; the Pogba, who considered as a pure player bereft of his ulterior trappings is a canny provider of assists, no slouch in the technical arsenal if not in any proper defiance of that old cliché about height, and has presence in plenitude. To say that this player is a mere box-to-boxer is not necessarily true; this is not a revival of a prior trope so much as it is the blossoming of a position that once tended to house the pure destroyer.
Pogba embodies the attributes fundamental to the new midfield type, while prodigies such as Sergej-Milinkovic Savic and Leon Goretzka are arguably even more successful at it, and are fast becoming among the most reckoned and competitively valued players in the sport as a result. Savic’s USP is a bolstered long-shot (only KDB has more goals outside the box this season) more traditionally associated with the box-to-boxer, but he has been seen to administer to the separate departments of midfield with the sensitivity of a specialist, not merely with the wild energy of the Jack-of-all-trades. Goretzka, like Savic, finds himself consistently with means to charge at goal, his touch always meted out with enough assurance that he can play his own particular game with like comfort at walking pace as he can when all cannons are a’firing.
It should not so much need to be said that midfielders are generally the most definitive players on the pitch; and that a greater balance in midfield tends to a far greater dynamism going forward. The notion of something as relatively limited as football having its own true philosophies often seems a stretch, an almost cutesy interpolation of a vast concept onto a sticky label then applied to a coach’s diligently assembled folder of dietary profiles and training regimens. Nevertheless, we have seen an age of ideological purity pass in football; under its pall, Germany, England and Spain radically revised the scope of their grassroots training approaches, met with sprightliness by the lower-weight-class nations such as Serbia and Croatia. The results are lower-age-bands whose ranks blister with the volume of players who often boast exceptional physical pedigree and technical prowess. Entertaining ideologues is not, to my mind, something that has worked to football’s benefits; tiki-taka can be just as staid, stale and effectless as football that dares only to further serate pre-existing holes in oppo strategy. If the furore around football’s contingent attractions grates, we may see balance return to play in football, something like the one that culminated in Euro 2000, perhaps the most exhilarating contest and full exhibition in and of the sport in thirty years. The end of the 90s saw a period wherein no element of the game’s DNA was neglected or denied space in its play, taken at a continental level—perhaps unsurprisingly, the period in question was exceptionally long with the activities of players who went on to be considered all-time notables in the sport. Under the general stewardship of the towering, competent midfield, putting himself about with as much verve as he puts the ball about, we may see the carriage of what we have loved in football over the last few years into a new domain.