The world of soccer is becoming one in which the best teams play possession dominated, attacking, total football. Top clubs are content to sit back and wait for the right build-up before attacking. It is getting to the point where smaller clubs have said, enough is enough. They are changing their game, content to let bigger more talented sides control possession and attack, hoping they will get their chances whether by way of counter-attack or set piece.
There is no better example of this than Celtic’s 2-1 win over Barcelona on November 7th of 2012. Celtic came into the game as massive underdogs, playing arguably the most talented side in the world. Barca controlled possession for 84 percent of the game, but just could not capitalize on their chances. Celtic scored their first goal off a corner kick set piece and their second after a wayward pass was intercepted for a breakaway goal.
This model has become popular amongst bottom-half clubs in the bigger leagues across Europe, sit back with 11 men behind the ball, wait for your opponent to make a mistake and take advantage of your set pieces. It has made for boring soccer and many fans are critical of tactics like these.
The best example of an EPL team who has found success with this model is Stoke City. Currently Stoke sit in 10th place of the Premier League table. Stoke has become synonymous with defense and physicality. Stoke’s two center-backs, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross both stand at 6’3 and are renown for their prowess through the air and strong tackling ability.
In a 20 team league Stoke ranks 17th in goals for, with 24 goals through 25 games. They have allowed 30 goals thus far, ranking 6th in the league. While Stoke’s style has been the target of criticism it has proved affective for them, allowing them to avoid relegation for 5 straight years, an accomplishment for a club who has had a difficult time throughout it’s history staying in the top flight consistently.
With the increased importance of set pieces, free kick specialists have become hot commodities on the transfer market as have strikers who are well versed in the air. This has also given way to the problem of diving and trying to sell questionable fouls in advantageous areas. Playing the advantage has become increasingly rare in the game, as players would rather receive the free kick and a chance at goal.
Whether this trend will continue remains to be seen. Soccer is a game of ever changing and evolving tactics. Many fans hope to see this trend fall by the wayside as attacking, up and down, free flowing soccer is the most aesthetically pleasing for fans.