Possession football, the end of the striker and Barcelona's passing and pressing have dominated the game this year
Possession is nine tenths of the law
In 1872, the 11 Queen's Park players who made up the Scotland national side looked at the England team they were about to face in the first international fixture and decided they had to try something out of the ordinary. England were over a stone a man heavier and given the head-down charging that characterised the early game, that was a significant advantage. What Scotland had to do, it was decided, was to keep the ball away from England, to deny them possession and thus control the game.
And so was invented passing and possession football. It was, in origin, a defensive move. 140 years later, Vicente del Bosque's Spain won Euro 2012 using passing football to control games. If others wanted to defend deep against them – as sides have increasingly been doing as Spain have dominated the world game – they were happy to keep the ball, knowing that chances would eventually present themselves by process of attrition. It might not have been especially exciting, but it was effective.
Some people moaned it was boring but Del Bosque did not care, his priority being winning games rather than satisfying the whims of a neutral audience. And who, really, was to blame if Spain's games became sterile: Spain, who were winning, or the teams who packed defences against them and when asked to come and get the ball could not do so? Del Bosque said his side would look better if teams allowed them "profundidad" – depth of field of play – and as soon as an opponent made the mistake of doing so – Italy did in the final – they were hammered 4-0.
Spain's triumph in Poland and Ukraine may come to be seen as the zenith of the age of the pass. For a long time football was about dribbling, then it became increasingly about pace or physical strength; now, thanks to law changes that have made tackling more difficult and less brutal and have increased the effective playing area by all but eliminating the offside trap, football is about passing. Although Chelsea's success in the Champions League shows that exceptions still occur, and that the dogged and the disciplined and the hyper-motivated can still prosper under certain conditions, at the highest level the majority of games are won by the team that best controls the ball.
Strikers are out of fashion
Most recent tactical innovations have been designed with ball retention in mind. Del Bosque, of course, often used Cesc Fábregas as his centre-forward. Most seemed happy enough to call him a false nine but he was a very different false nine to, say, Lionel Messi. Where Messi drops deep, leaving space that disconcerts defenders and that his team-mates can exploit, Fábregas's deployment was far more like that of an orthodox centre-forward. He played in the centre-forward's position but he brought to the role the skill-set and mind-set of a midfielder. His job was to hold the ball up and lay it off, to serve as a board for other midfielders to bounce the ball off.
In that, of course, he sounds very like an old-fashioned target-man; it is just that his hold-up play was not done after battling for high balls pumped from the back but from short low passes played from midfield.
Nothing, perhaps, could have expressed the modern Spain's disdain for orthodox centre-forward play, for their disregard of goalscoring as a measure of ability, than the fact that Fernando Torres won the golden boot – a moment of high-concept satire to rank alongside Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Although Corinthians signed Paolo Guerrero in the summer and moved to a 4-2-3-1, their side that won the Copa Libertadores earlier this year operated with a different kind of strikerlessness, the front two of Jorge Henrique and Emerson often drifting wide to turn 4-2-2-2 to 4-2-4-0. That complicated opponents' marking structures and also meant that Corinthians could pin in the opposing full-backs, something that was vital to their fine defensive record.
The leader in strikerlessness, though, remains Barcelona and Messi.
Passing and pressing dominates at the top table
José Mourinho might at last have won the psychological battle against Pep Guardiola last season but he has probably lost the tactical war. Indulged individuals may be able to keep things together long enough to win occasional trophies, but egotism will eventually breed discontent. While Real Madrid squabble among themselves, Barcelona have managed the transition to a new coach smoothly. Tito Vilanova's team looks more direct than Guardiola's and is perhaps a touch more functional, but it is hard to make any real assessment until the latter stages of the Champions League.
Even had Vilanova not stepped so calmly into Guardiola's shoes, it is the Barcelona style that dominates.
Football has undergone a process of bielsafication; pressing and possessing, passing rather than dribbling, intercepting high up the field rather than making last-ditch tackles, are in vogue.
Marcelo Bielsa's extreme version of the style at Athletic Bilbao yielded some stunning football in March and April – their two wins over Manchester United featured some of the most thrilling attacking you will ever see – before fatigue set in. It was a similar story for Gerard Martino, who played under Bielsa at Newell's Old Boys, as his Newell's side faltered on the run-in to the Argentinian Torneo Inicial. Other more moderate disciples, though, continued to prosper. Most notable is probably Jorge Sampaoli, who has been appointed to the Chile national job after two years of sustained success at Universidad de Chile.
In Germany, possession-based teams in Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund continue to dominate, while both Manchester United and Manchester City seem deliberately to be attempting to play more of a possession game, something that has come at the cost of defensive stability. Where United's lack of a dynamic presence at the back of midfield last season seemed the result of misfortune, it now appears to be policy, while City's dabbles with the back three, the sale of Nigel De Jong and the weird ostracism of Joleon Lescott all suggest the desire to retain possession longer.
Only Italy, rediscovering the 3-5-2 and its relatives as a means of generating attacking width without sacrificing bodies in the middle, and France, doggedly sticking to its preferred plot of grinding midfield battles, remain aloof. Elsewhere, though, the pass is king.
In Britain, used to long-ball thumping, at least, we have been familiar with considering passing football as something attacking, redolent of the filigree thrusts of Total Football. As Barcelona show, it can be, but Spain this summer offered a reminder that in its inception, passing was a defensive tool.Jonathan Wilson
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