In this piece, Jon Mackenzie argues that perhaps Marcelo Bielsa’s defensive looks worse than it actually is and that this affects the way it is generally perceived as a system…
“…When he puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were the property of things.”
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement
I’ll be honest: if I’m on the lookout for philosophical debate, I don’t often head across to Monday Night Football. But this week, that’s what was in the offing. It was all because of technology, you see. Jurgen Klopp had heard Roy Keane say the word “sloppy” and he was here to disagree.
“Did I hear right that Mr Keane said we had a sloppy performance tonight, because I could hear you already? Did he say that?” Klopp asked. “This was a sloppy performance tonight? Maybe he spoke about another game. It cannot be this game, sorry. That’s an incredible description. This was absolutely exceptional. Nothing was sloppy, absolutely nothing.”
So what was it? A sloppy game or an absolutely not sloppy game? Was Keane right or was Klopp right?
In many respects, this debate is about aesthetics at heart. It’s about how things appear. Does the appearance of precariousness mean that a football team were actually under pressure? Or can it be an illusion?
Jurgen Klopp was absolutely certain about his position on this topic: “I think 60 or 70% of all the balls in behind were offside. You just wait a little longer for the flag, meanwhile, so that’s why it feels not great but it was offside. Ali[sson] had to make one save. They had two balls in behind. You cannot avoid that. You need a goalie in these situations.”
At this point, we could argue about the relative pros or cons of the use of a high line and why Klopp chose to use it against Arsenal (rightly, in my opinion) or we could touch on the more wide-reaching aspect of this admittedly minor spat on Sky TV’s post-match coverage. That aspect is this: how important is aesthetics to judging how good a team actually are? Do looking good and being good equate to the same thing? Or, in this instance, do looking bad and being bad equate to the same thing?
Of course, we’ve seen the early skirmishes of this debate being played out on the foothills of Twitter for a number of years now.
Take, for example, the eye test vs stats debate that rumbles on across the timelines of football Twitter. Ignoring, for now, the underlying logics of these arguments (which are wrongheaded, in my opinion), there is a basic aesthetic premise up for debate in these arguments: in our observation of footballers, is there some intrinsic quality — let’s call it ‘goodness’ or something equally vague — that reveals itself in the process? Can I look at a midfielder and get a sense that they will be a ‘good’ midfielder without applying anything more than my observation to this process?
The Klopp vs Keane debate extends this logic to the tactical aspect of the game: can I look at a team’s play during a game and determine if it is ‘good’ — again keeping this term vague — from simply the mere observation of what is unfolding on the pitch? Jurgen Klopp is clear: there are situations where what you see might look ‘bad’ — that is, the equally vague opposite of our vague ‘good’ — but that it is deceptive. It looks like Liverpool gave away worse chances than they did by dint of the quirk in the adjudication of the game which requires lines…people(?) to raise their flags late.
“Ah!” you say. “But this isn’t really an aesthetic judgement at all. This is simply being tricked into thinking a good state of affairs (an offside call) is actually a bad state of affairs (a one-on-one chance). It’s not really a debate about aesthetics at all.” But what if we do apply these logics to another example where the playstyle is deceptive because it leads to you thinking that an effective mode of playing is bad simply through observation?
Anyone who knows me well enough will know I have a mild obsession with Marcelo Bielsa’s out of possession tactics. I won’t go into the ins and outs of them in any great detail here but if you want to know more, I have written about them at length elsewhere. Suffice to say that Bielsa’s out of possession approach involves a fairly intense ball-oriented press and a more general man-oriented marking system.
Now, I’m not a scholar of the wider tactical realities of football. I can’t name you anyone off the top of my head who employs this tout court man-marking system in world football. There may be some managers who do. Most don’t for a very simple reason: if it breaks down, it is a nightmare. As soon as players lose their markers, then the breakdown can be swift and ugly. If you lose the ball in an attacking transition, then you’re probably going to give up a goal-scoring opportunity.
However, the system does have some safety mechanisms built in to alleviate these sorts of breakdowns. And this is where the issue of aesthetic judgement comes in. Because where a situation can look a mess, there is, curiously, a logic to it. So something ‘sloppy’ looking can, in fact, be effective.
At the back, Bielsa uses a ‘man over’ as defensive cover. If you want to be insufferable (which I often do) you can call it a +1 superiority. Bielsa himself will call this player the libero. This player is there to help out his teammates. He doesn’t have a man to mark and is free to fill in where needed.
Obviously, as soon as the libero is drawn in to cover a teammate’s player, that teammate themselves becomes the libero, responsible for covering other unmarked opponents should the need arise. This ‘partial libero’ system, as Bielsa calls it, allows for there to be a level of flexibility in the man-marking system. If a player loses their man, the rest of the team will follow certain protocols to lessen the immediate threat caused by this breakdown.
Often, then, it will look messy but, on careful analysis, the logics can be traced through. The aesthetic judgement can perhaps give rise to an unfair assessment of the situation.
This is all very academic. To illustrate my point, I will show you two concrete examples. The first is from Leeds’ game against Fulham — a game that Leeds ended up winning 4-3:
At this point in the play, Leeds have just lost the ball in the midfield area and Michael Hector has just played the ball first time to Zambo Anguissa in the midfield area (Fulham are playing left to right).
Given it was a possession phase and is now and out of possession phase, Tyler Roberts is too far away from his marking responsibility. Anguissa has time to turn.
The ‘partial libero’ system kicks in. Kalvin Phillips rushes in to close down Anguissa. This means that Phillips’ marking responsibility, Bobby Reid, is now free.
Unfortunately, Phillips rushes in too aggressively and is rolled by Anguissa. Once again, the ‘partial libero’ system kicks in. Liam Cooper, the initial libero in this situation, starts to move forwards to cover for Phillips.
However, when you look from another angle, you can see that Phillips’ responsibility, Bobby Reid, is now being marked by Stuart Dallas who is responsible for both Reid and Ivan Cavaleiro. By sitting in between both, Dallas allows the through ball to Reid to be on.
Anguissa finds the through ball…
…and Bobby Reid is through on goal, finishing smartly in the far corner.
On the face of it, this defensive scenario looks like a nightmare. But looking back on it, there is a logic to everything. In fact, the only real error is Kalvin Phillips charging in too aggressively on Anguissa (discounting the original turnover of possession). Had Phillips not done so, the rest of the marking system would have caught up and a goal would probably have been averted.
Of course, you can question the logic of using a system that can break down so readily on one mistake. The point here is simply that the aesthetics of the situation are actually far worse than the reality. Had Phillips not been turned so easily, none of this would have happened.
Here’s a second example from last weekend’s game against Sheffield United:
In this scenario, Luke Ayling has just turned Ollie Burke and drives into the space it opens up.
With Ollie Burke chasing him, he manages to dribble past Ben Osborn. Stuart Dallas, seeing this, looks to drive into the space that has opened up in front of Ayling, moving away from his marking responsibility, John Lundstram.
Ayling plays the ball to Dallas but there is a mix-up and the ball is turned over. Dallas is now a long way from his marking responsibility and Sheffield United now have a lot of players over to counter-attack.
At this point, the ‘partial libero’ system kicks in. Dallas is now marking Sander Berge and Mateusz Klich takes responsibility for Lundstram. Klich has a head start on Lundstram so all is well.
Sheffield United drive down the field and the defensive structure looks largely fine. Every Blades player is being marked by a Leeds player and Kalvin Phillips is playing the libero in the middle and helping out Helder Costa. Klich, however, has let Lundstram get a run on him and is now playing catch-up.
As the ball goes across the box, McGoldrick makes a delicious flick-on and the ball falls to Lundstram on the penalty spot. Only a good save from Illan Meslier keeps Leeds at parity.
During the game itself, this situation elicited questions about Leeds defensive structure from the pundits. Once again, though, despite the final situation looking awful from a defensive point of view, there is a logic behind everything and the only mistake in the defensive transition was Klich not recognising the threat sooner and allowing Lundstram to steal in ahead of him.
As before, questions could be raised about the decision to use this sort of defensive system. For the purpose of this debate, though, that is another conversation entirely. Needless to say, this system gave Leeds some of the best defensive numbers in the Championship last season and affords Leeds an attacking edge. But when it comes to aesthetic judgement, the immediate response elicited might not match the underlying reality.
When Jurgen Klopp called out Roy Keane on Monday Night Football, he made an important point about the place of aesthetic judgement in football analysis. Looking good or bad might not necessarily correlate with being good or bad on the football pitch.
No doubt there are plenty of practical applications for this sort of realisation. On the one hand, it offers a more interesting context to the debates that rumble on in the media about, to pluck some examples out of the air, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in defensive transition or, from the opposite side, Mikel Arteta’s solid yet perhaps aesthetically flattering football.
On the other, it may have some wider tactical application. Who remembers when people scoffed at Liverpool’s midfield three? How much of the early under-valuing of Liverpool came from a position of aesthetic sensibility? Could coaches use this to their advantage? To look bad whilst being good in order to be overlooked as a threat?
This season, a lot will be made of Leeds’ defensive breakdown when the ‘partial libero’ system kicks in. At times, no doubt, they will look like they are flying by the seat of their pants in defensive transitions. When you’re listening to the pundits’ criticisms and watching the takes churn out on the timeline, though, remind yourself of the Klopp vs Keane debate and ask yourself whether or not the aesthetic is playing tricks with you.