Bayern Munich manager Hansi Flick could have played it safe and won the Champions League Final against PSG all the same, but he insisted on keeping his high defensive line that had defined his short time at the club. The risky strategy seemingly played right into Neymar and Kylian Mbappe’s strength of finding space behind Bayern’s defense. But for Flick, it wasn’t just about winning the most prestigious club competition in world football, but also how it was won. It was about proving a point as much as getting the result, with Flick adding that Bayern would always try to “impose our style” on the opposition, regardless of the occasion.
Flick had it both ways, with Bayern winning the final 1-0 while sticking to his principles. That emphasis on eschewing safety for pressing is why Flick’s Bayern were the team that both dominated and defined 2020. And with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool shaping 2019, we can go back to two fundamental tenets guiding this current soccer age: the importance of scoring goals within eight seconds of retrieving the ball, and the observation that soccer matches now resemble NBA games with their back-and-forth possession.
Of course, any conversation of the sport last year must be layered with the larger context of the pandemic. It hardly feels like the same year now, but do we remember those February and March months, back when we first encountered the virus largely through social media? There were the latter stages with matches played behind closed doors before leagues around the world shut down, a symbol of us trying to hold onto normalcy in the face of the inevitable.
The time without the everyday rhythm of soccer made us reconsider the societal responsibility of athletes during crisis. The question took on an immediate importance considering the role that Atalanta’s home match against Valencia played in spreading the virus in Bergamo. There were initial signs of coming together: players and managers across all leagues took pay cuts to keep their clubs afloat. Teams were also careful in not receiving COVID-19 tests before the general public, with La Liga president Javier Tebas claiming that “there are no first-class and second-class citizens.” Atletico Madrid’s Saul recruited his soccer peers to offer assistance and resources for small businesses and health-care workers in Spain.
At the time, the collective unity felt like a turning point, though we knew that modern restlessness would eventually return. While easy targets due to their public salaries, others like Wayne Rooney and Jordan Henderson responded through social and traditional media. Rooney wrote the op-eds asking where his money would go once he took a pay cut. Henderson organized a fund among other Premier League captains to offer donations to the larger public. But eventually, the ideological divide between a club as a public good or a business would collide. Liverpool received public backlash for accepting government aid and furloughing 200 employees after players agreed to take pay cuts. Similar actions across Europe broke the family illusion, reminding us that underneath is still a business.
The ability to close out the season was therefore framed as a societal reward for acting quickly to slow down the virus. Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said that the Bundesliga being the first out of the major European competitions to restart showed the discipline of German society. League CEO Christian Seifert preached a more cautious approach, emphasizing that clubs were on parole with each week unlocking the next. Bayern’s 1-0 win over Dortmund at the end of May was the first big match of the post-lockdown, ghost-match era, and was described as the highest expression of the pressing game. Bayern subsequently turned a four point league lead heading into lockdown into a 13 point margin for the title.
It’s difficult to imagine Bayern and Flick not continuing their dominance through 2021. There are some tiny cracks within Bayern’s squad with Thiago’s departure, David Alaba potentially leaving the club after his contract expires, and Leroy Sane’s struggles integrating into the system. So perhaps what stops this current cycle isn’t another style, but key players aging and leaving. But if we take the longer view of history, the pendulum should eventually, naturally, swing back towards possession. Maybe there will be an entire generation of academy players built around press-resistance.
How much further can pressing go? The physicality of the approach seems like there’s a natural limitation based on human speed. And players eventually have to get tired too, right?
But most exciting, from a democratic standpoint, is how the next evolution of pressing may not necessarily come from Liverpool, Bayern, or Julian Nagelsmann, but in how the idea morphs and adapts throughout various leagues around the world. Every paradigm shift empowers its quick-adapting sides as much as it disrupts the industry leaders. Norway’s Bodo/Glimt won its first Norwegian title in its 104-year existence. The playing style featured the second-most presses per match in the league, a frenetic pace that captain Ulrik Saltnes described as “kamikaze.” The New York Red Bull bought out Gerhard Struber’s contract from Barnsley for $2.3 million. AC Milan was reportedly close to turning the club over to former Red Bull soccer architect Ralf Rangnick.
For some clubs, pressing delivered a blueprint to overturn a century’s worth of tradition. For others, the philosophy inspired a hoarding of its greatest minds as an academic endeavor. The focus on physicality as opposed to rarer skill gives clubs from all over the football pyramid a voice. In attempting to give an overarching purpose to 2021, pressing will continue to evolve around the world. And the style will uncover and develop talent in previously overlooked, unorthodox teams and leagues.
That reliance upon innovations from the bottom-up in the upcoming year is a product of structural constraints. Finances dictate the ability for a side to update its roster, renewing the cycle. With clubs holding on to aging players a year longer than they might have in the past, we may have to push back the next iteration of dynamic, boundary-pushing football - the answer to the press - for 2022 and beyond. These current rosters are what they are.
Even if larger clubs are looking to clear out their squad, who is in position to buy? A suppressed transfer window ripples through every level. The unspoken part of Lionel Messi’s transfer saga last summer was also in how Barcelona needed to move off his wages for the club’s financial health. When asked about the potential of selling Jordan Morris this offseason, Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerway put it succinctly: if Real Madrid and Barcelona are cutting costs, then “the market is not good, man.”
But leagues today power on, mostly through brute force more than finesse. The pessimistic version is that leagues need to receive television funds to help cover a lack of matchday gate receipts. That headstrongness contrasts the careful approach we took to finish out last season. It has only been seven months since Dortmund and Schalke re-opened the European season after its suspension, with the match described as “genuinely one of the most important football matches ever played.”
Predictably, that togetherness eventually wore off with time and economic realities. There is too much at stake now. And as clear as the future of the game is on the field, the off-field stories range anywhere from clubs going bankrupt to the formation of the European Super League. We want to think that the return of supporters will signal some end of the pandemic when life can return back to normal. The new saying is how the pandemic didn’t change any industries but only sped up what was already happening. We may look back at 2021 as a pivotal year in the re-shaping of European footballing structures.