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European football has evolved over the last decade. Some top clubs have adapted, some are still finding their feet (Reuters file)
European football has evolved over the last decade. Some top clubs have adapted, some are still finding their feet (Reuters file)

How European football changed in the last decade

Top teams in all five leading European football leagues are showing two shifts: short passes over long balls, open play over set-pieces

It was at Spanish club Barcelona, between 2008 and 2012, where Pep Guardiola crafted his reputation as one of the foremost managers in football today. His Barcelona teams played a thrilling brand of football that focused on holding on to the ball and moving it via short passes, with a fluid sense of movement and a perceptive sense of space. Tiki-taka, it was called. There was a core of players, led by Lionel Messi, who executed it as if they had been born with that gift of the pass.

Residues of that philosophy were seen in German club Bayern Munich, whom Guardiola coached between 2013 and 2016, and are now on display at English side Manchester City, where he has been since. One statistic bears that out: the increase in the share of short passes made by the club in total key passes (passes that lead to a shot on goal). In all three teams, that percentage increased from levels of 80-85% to nearly 90% under Guardiola’s stewardship.

It’s not just Guardiola’s sides. Data shows that reliance on short passes, defined as passes less than 35 yards, to create goals is a philosophy that’s crept into the top echelons of European club football. We compiled such data for the top five teams in the five tier-one European leagues—England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain—for the 10-year period from 2009-10 to 2018-19, and it throws up a few shifts.

One, short passes is diminishing the long ball further. All five leagues have seen an increase in short passes leading to shots. The smallest increase is, interestingly, in Spain, where this philosophy first took centre stage. More interestingly, the biggest gain in the share of short passes is seen in the English Premier League (EPL), of 7.7 percentage points. English football has been long known for moving the ball to the flanks and sailing long crosses into the penalty area with the hope that someone would head it towards the goal.

This is changing, and it is being driven by off-field factors as well. This last decade has seen EPL pull in more money from TV deals and sponsorship, and become the prime draw in Europe for players and managers alike. In the EPL, a bump in short passes came in 2016-17, when a new set of managers who were more offensive-minded and less ‘English’ like Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur started establishing themselves at their respective clubs.

Two, this is influencing how goals are being scored. In 2019-10, for the top five clubs in all five leagues, the share of set pieces—corners, free kicks and penalties—in the goals scored ranged between 30% and 40%. In the last season, the share of set pieces was above 30% in only the Spanish league. In the other four leagues, it dipped below 30%, while demonstrating a steady decline over the decade. The biggest fall was in Germany, from about 38% to 24%.

This suggests something both defensively and offensively. Defensively, teams are more successful, relatively speaking, in stopping moves the shape of which they know in some measure. Offensively, those top teams are still findings new ways to score.

Those new ways are increasingly coming from open play. Always a dominant source of goal-scoring, it’s becoming even more dominant. In 2009-10, the share of open plays in goals scored for all five leagues was in the 50-60% band. Last year, it was all in the 60-70% band, and the rise has been steady. The biggest jump in the share of open play in goals scored was seen in Germany, from 51% to nearly 70%. These goals from open play are also coming after longer periods of possession. The share of goals from counterattacks (fast transitions from defence to attack) has also largely declined as teams seem to be building up play more before scoring.

Inevitably, greater expression via open play—and conversely less reliance on set pieces and counterattacks—has been the hallmark of successful teams in the last decade. In 2012-13, the year after Guardiola left but when Tiki-Taka still defined Barcelona, the Spanish club scoring 82% of its goals via open play.

There have been two other instances of clubs piercing the 80% mark in the share of goals scored via open play in the last decade—against the normal range of 55-70%. In both instances, the manager was Guardiola: Bayern Munich in 2015-16 and Manchester City last season.

Conversely, the inability to flourish in open play has bogged down Manchester United, a club that is struggling by its lofty standards, and that has gone through a carousel of managers and players. Last season, it scored just 62% of its goals from open play and remained in an existential funk. European football has evolved over the last decade. Some top clubs have adapted, some are still finding their feet.

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