Football’s Ideological War: Pep Guardiola vs. The Traditionalists

If comparison is the thief of joy, then copying is the death of it. Following this, I declare that football is well and truly dead. From 1888-2023, it truly had a great run but alas, all great things must come to an end. At least it went out with a bang with the World Cup Final, with Kylian Mbappe’s hat-trick and Lionel Messi’s coronation as the greatest ever. But what killed it you may ask? The question is not what but who.


In its obituary, it reads that the symptoms first started showing in 2008, when arguably the greatest manager in history first stepped on the sideline. When an all-conquering team dominated Europe and in doing so, doomed the continent and this glorious spot. The wielder behind the knife plunged into football’s heart is none other than Pep Guardiola and the disease which has spread all over the globe is called “Juego De Posicion”.


“Juego De Posicion” is a philosophy that seeks to create an advantage over the opposition by focusing on the positioning and movement of players to generate superiorities. The aim is to find or create the free man in possession using these superiorities by also establishing positional discipline. This system is perfectly fine, there is nothing wrong with it at all. What irks my soul, however, is the globalisation and the insistence that is the only way to play football. If you thought football was free from dogma, think again.


Juanmo Lillo, Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man wrote about this in the Athletic. A fanatic follower of this method, he has lambasted how everyone seems to be training and playing the exact same way. In a recent interview, Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino stated how everyone plays the same way in the Premier League. Playing out from the back and high pressing seems to be the only method to play, whereas in 2014 in Southampton, he and only a few others in England incorporated this style. It’s true in sports as in life, that if someone is successful, everyone copies them, and since 2008, everyone has wanted to imitate Guardiola.


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Watch a random team from a random league and I assure you that you will see a 3-2-5 or a 3-1-6 build-up or maybe even a box midfield, with the manager refusing to play any other way. The cruel irony is that the hero of all these dogmatic dictators, Guardiola, has not confined himself to these principles. Yes, he will stick with possession-based football, but he has made changes every season.


From the use of tiny playmakers such as David Silva to marauding centre halves to recognising the importance of verticality, he has made changes at every turn to stay ahead of the curve. Yet, the myth begets him. Nuance is lost in football and his ‘gospel’ has been spread to every corner of the globe, which has led to all these “copycat” teams who are obsessed with possession and solely possession.


People may disagree with my viewpoint and say in modern football, possession and pressing is mandatory, not a choice. For example, in the NBA, after Steph Curry and the Warriors started the 3-point revolution, every team in the league switched to this style. The days of the big men in the post became numbered, with even your centre needing to be able to shoot from three. If a team were to go into a season without multiple marksmen, they would not even be considered contenders. This statement has now seeped into football’s subconscious and is bleeding the joy from it.


It is not even as if Juego De Posicion guarantees success. Spain post-2012 has been abysmal in international tournaments. Barcelona, prisoners to this style of play, have only won one Champions League since 2011, and are constantly fighting for approval from the rest of the world. Saying, hey we may be constantly embarrassed in Europe and have no money and Madrid has overtaken us as Spain’s biggest team, but we still play good football! (Sidenote, they do not). There is no one way to win, and people need to wake up from the delusion that there is.


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The excitement of watching different leagues and the different styles that accompanied it is what made this sport fun. The Champions League was the ultimate decider as the chaos that hovers in the air on a Tuesday/Wednesday night made the ties even more palpable. Now, watching Europe’s greatest competition just seems to be who can play the same style better than the opponent. Inevitably, the team with the better players wins.


Now, with the never-ending extra time added on, and “timewasting” becoming punished, the dark arts in football are becoming neutralised, leaving less of a variance within games. This will hurt smaller teams, but I guess that’s not the prerogative of those in charge.


There are still those within the game who are fighting the good fight against this ideology. The Brazilian school of relationism is still prevalent within South America. This is an idea that prioritizes individual relationships between players over structure and ideas. This approach creates emerging structures that are different every time a team attacks, giving power back to the player. Instead of players being so far apart to create space, they are close together, combining to get out of any tight spaces and to create beautiful sequences of football. 


Fernando Diniz’s Fluminese is the best example of this. They have played breathtaking football since taking charge in 2022 and he is now interim coach of the Brazil national team. With relationism, the mythical “Number 10” is still alive. Pressing 8’s and creative wide men have wiped them extinct in Europe, but in South America, they can still be found. With Ganso, Fluminense’s creator-in-chief and YouTube legend, still proving football has a place for its most revered position.


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Football’s trajectory has also made me appreciate the deep block battlers which I previously disliked. Diego Simeone and Sean Dyche come to mind. I always thought Simeone was holding Atletico back. His defensive attitude stopped them from winning the two Champions League finals they competed in. Inhibiting the creative talents of Joao Felix. And I always disliked how Dyche’s Burnley team played. Long balls to Chris Wood, constant crosses into the box, battle-hardened defenders with no passing sense. For younger Abu, it was an eyesore. Now being older, (not that much older) I can see how wrong I was.


It was due to Simeone’s defensive work ethic which made Spain’s big 2 into a big 3. It got them a Europa League title and ended Barcelona and Madrid’s hegemony over La Liga. It made Antoine Griezmann one of the greatest players of this generation and made Diego Costa and Radamel Falcao two of Europe’s most feared strikers. In a recent game against Rayo Vallecano, they had won 7-0 despite registering only 43% possession. A proverbial slap in the face to all the naysayers who say Simeone needs to “modernise” his coaching. 


Dyche’s Burnley team was a stereotypical British team and was often chided for it. But why? What has made fans sit atop a philosophical high horse and look down upon a battle-hardened, chiseled and rough team that survived in the Premier League for many years? Often, on the lowest budget as well.


He had gotten this team to Europa League qualification and upon being sacked, had then guided Everton to safety in the last game of the season last year. Because he did not use 43 different formations in a game and use inverted fullbacks or wingers, he is tactically “inferior”?  Nonsense. Genius is subjective but results are not. What he did with Burnley makes him one of the best Premier League managers in my mind and no number of pseudo-intellectuals on Twitter can disprove that.


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The arrogance which has become deep-rooted in football is astounding to see. Zinedine Zidane’s accomplishments at Real Madrid have been according to some “lucky” because he never employed a “style of play”. It beggars belief how a man who won three Champions League titles in a row, which has never been done before, is called lucky in doing so.


Jude Bellingham’s blistering start at Real Madrid has had people call him a second striker and not a midfielder at all. I am sorry that he does not look graceful, completes 38738 passes per game and only collects the ball off the centre-backs, as these are the only requirements of a midfielder these days, correct? Scoring goals, tackling and ball-carrying are all a striker’s duties and no one else. Stupidity is not even the word.


It is especially funny when Premier League fans try to lord over others with a sense of football snobbery and elitism, as the best clash in recent Premier League history has been between Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, two different styles. Like two gladiators in the coliseum, they prowled the touchline and provided us with the best games in Premier League history.


The clash between a demonically direct Liverpool team and an intricate but ruthless city team made the games a spectacle. It replaced El Clasico as the biggest game in football. The eyes of the world were on them and why? Because they wanted to see which team and style would come out on top. That is sport at its most beautiful.


Nadal vs. Federer. Lebron vs. Steph. Ali vs. Frazier. The contrast in these athletes is what made their rivalries so good. Differences in style are what makes football so great, so to see one methodology being pumped as the “correct” one and anything else being seen as inferior is a stain on the game. In politics, there is talk of a culture war, a red herring in my opinion but make no mistake, when it comes to the beautiful game, there is a battle brewing. A battle to restore chaos. A battle to restore long balls. A battle for the number 10. A battle to return enjoyment to the game we all love. Join this battle. Viva la revolucion! And death to Juego De Posicion.  


By: Abu Yasin / @abuy2j

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / James Gill – Danehouse / Getty Images