Pass and move
In terms of on-field output, there are broadly two things a team can try and control: how they play, and how well they play. Unfortunately, as we all know, one is harder to influence than the other.
We often feel that making a strategic decision to change our team’s playing style can have a significant and long-lasting impact on our team’s performance. It’s easy to make logical leaps like: “keeping the ball better will help wear down opponents and lead to more goals” or “being more pragmatic in our style will keep things simple for the players and lead to fewer defeats”.
The reality though is that the relationship between style and performance is much more complex. If we look at teams in European leagues in the last four seasons, there’s little to suggest changing approach has a positive or negative impact on average (note how most teams have moved towards a slower build-up approach though, which chimes with our analysis that football tends to follow trends).
Between 2014 and 2016, Atalanta and Getafe broadly approach matches in a similar way – both slightly direct in possession but neither overly so. Atalanta were scratching around in the bottom half of Serie A, while Getafe were relegated in 2016 after over a decade in the top flight. Both made head coach changes before the end of the year – Atalanta appointed Gian Piero Gasperini, and Getafe José Bordalás – who took their in-possession playing styles in opposite directions. Crucially, though, performance levels soared for both, such that our World Super League model ranks them 21st and 31st in the world respectively, having both been out of the top 100 in 2015.
It’s easy to post-rationalise the impact these playing style changes have had on performance, and there are undoubtedly some links. However, few would have predicted these improvements in 2016. The scattering of teams above suggests there are a number of stories to be told and lessons to be learnt, and that it’s important to use the context of these clubs when making our own decisions. How quickly did successful teams need to change their squad profile? To what extent were academy-developed players involved? Did unsuccessful teams hire coaches with particularly unsuitable backgrounds?
Driving such visible change can be both exciting and daunting. Having access to history as a guide can give us a better chance of getting it right.