Arrigo Sacchi, coach of the great AC Milan sides of the late 1980s, apparently once tried arguing that there was no major tactical innovation in soccer after his perfection of the 4-3-2-1. There’s some merit to that argument, but it forgets that Sacchi only found success by perching himself on the shoulders of past tactical giants.
Maybe there is no such thing as a revolution in soccer formations and systems, just a Whiggish history of inevitable progression toward ever greater configuration and athleticism.
Jurgen Klopp’s Gegenpressing, after all, could be described as simply the most radical interpretation of the pressing game that had steadily evolved over the decades since the professionalization of the game in the early 20th century, allowing players the fitness to harass opponents constantly for 90 minutes.
That might be the case with tactics, but not with rules. Each minor rule change is a minor revolution, preventing a return to the status quo ante and quickening the pace of that inevitable evolution in tactics. There was soccer before goalkeepers were allowed to handle the ball outside the penalty area (pre-1912) and soccer after it was banned. Pre-VAR (video assistant referee) and now.
We’re currently watching tactics evolve in real time after players have been allowed to receive a goal kick within their own penalty box since 2019, meaning teams can now press higher, creating far more space between the defending, midfield and attacking lines, thereby making counter-attacking easier but defending more arduous.
Gone are the days when the goalkeepers didn’t have to be capable ballplayers (an “outfield player with gloves,” as someone once put it), although that inevitable progression had begun before the rule change. Manchester City’s Ederson made that clear when he arrived in 2017 but it was greatly moved forward by Edwin van der Sar at Ajax in the early 1990s.
Yet no on-field rule change would solve the most pressing demand in soccer today, the necessary reformation to level the playing field between the super-rich clubs, who can go out in a transfer window and dump a quarter of a billion dollars on new players (as Chelsea did last summer), and the sides competing against them with a trifle few millions to invest (often hurriedly and unwisely).
One proposition making the rounds, which may appear at first glance the method of a technophile with a spreadsheet and too much solitude during the pandemic, could be called an “inverse-points handicap system.”
Teams would automatically start off a new season with points allocated by where in the league they finished the previous campaign. If there are 20 teams, as in the English Premier League, then the previous season’s winners begin the next season with 0 points, the second-placed team with 1, the third-placed with 2, and so forth.
The three newly promoted teams would be given the most points to begin their new campaign. The side who win the Championship, the second tier in England, would start their next season in the Premier League with 17 points, while the side promoted through play-offs, therefore the least successful of the newcomers, would start with 19.
It could then be factored down into the lower divisions. The three teams relegated from the Premier League – in 18th, 19th and 20th positions – would start the next season in the Championship with 0, 1 and 2 points, respectively, while the rest of the math takes care of itself.
The purpose, foremost, is to limit the compulsion for poorer sides to waste their windfall payments on a glut of new players, indebting themselves for the coming years, especially if they are quickly relegated. The side-effect is to increase the competition on the dominant (and richer) teams.
Of course, a newly promoted Fulham aren’t about to win the Premier League because of their allocated points. But they could fight for survival. Given that the 20th-placed team last season, Norwich, was relegated with 21 points, and the season before Huddersfield with 16, it would provide the newly promoted sides some level of comfort, meaning they don’t yo-yo across the divisions because of the financial demands that promotion entails.
Of course, the Premier League, run by the clubs and therefore very much a closed shop, isn’t about to accept such a plan voluntarily. The top six clubs would argue it discriminates against their past success. The perennial mid-table sides (a Newcastle United or a Crystal Palace, if you like), who will never challenge the top six but rarely struggle with relegation, will say it hurts their chances of ambling along without any real significance.
It isn’t fair, of course. Why punish success and reward newcomers? But fairness went out of soccer long ago. The only way fairness could come galloping back is if the Football Association mandates that all clubs must now be owned by Gulf sheikhs, American hedge funds or Russian oil tycoons.
Yet it might be something for the mid-level sides to think about if the now seemingly fated creation of the European Super League isn’t too far off, a disaster for any team that isn’t one of Europe’s top-20.
Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo, speaking this week, reckons such a new elite competition, whereby the top teams of Europe’s domestic leagues would leave and play in their own continental tournament, will almost certainly be given the thumbs-up if there is another postponement of matches because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But English soccer has long been an adopter, not an originator. So such a handicap system would need to be experimented first in another country. I propose in the Czech Republic (although, now living there, I am slightly biased).
The Czech First League (or for branding purposes, the Fortuna Liga) isn’t the most uncompetitive of European leagues; more titles have been shared between different teams over the last decade than in the German Bundesliga, for instance.
But the Czech Football Association has shown itself open to new ideas, keen to boost dwindling attendance numbers and to foil the automatic departure of any successful Czech player spotted by a foreign team.
In 2018, it attempted to spark some life into proceedings by dividing up the First League toward the end of the season. After 30 games, the top six teams enter the “championship” mini-league, where additional points are added to their existing tally, to see who wins the title and the Champions League qualification places.
Teams ranked seventh to 10th play a knockout tournament for Europa League qualification. And teams ranked 11th-16th battle in another mini-league to see who avoids relegation.
It’s all somewhat confusing at first and, though it does inject a little renewal of excitement for the best and lowliest of teams, there usually isn’t a great disparity in the standings between before the league is carved in three and after the mini-leagues come to an end.
So how would a handicap system play out?
There are usually 16 teams in a league (more now because of the pandemic) and the 2019-2020 league winners Slavia Prague finished 51 points ahead of bottom-ranked FK Příbram (at the end of the initial 30 game main league, so before the season splits). Since Příbram finished 14th in the previous season, with a handicap system they would have started the 2019-20 season with 13 points and, therefore, finished 38 points behind Slavia.
That’s not a great improvement, but it does tighten the disparity somewhat. More important would be for the middling teams. Under such a system, my local side, Sigma Olomouc, would have finished the main 2019-20 season (again, before the split) only 9 points behind third-placed Sparta Prague instead of 14 points adrift.
But extrapolating a new handicap system on to past events doesn’t reveal the full extent of the change. What would have been the psychological impact on Liverpool, who finished 18 points clear of second-placed Manchester City last season, had they begun this season’s campaign 19 points behind newly promoted Fulham? It would have taken them at least seven games, a fifth of the season, to get ahead of the league’s weakest side.
And how would a middling team respond if they started the season effectively with a two or three-match advantage over the previous campaign’s top-four clubs? The handicap system wouldn’t just inject some added competition into proceedings, but also a novel psychological factor that hasn’t yet been part of the game.
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the columns Free Flowing and Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.