Book Review: Universality – The Blueprint for Soccer’s New Era

Some of you who may have had the good fortune of reading ‘Inverting The Pyramid’ by Jonathan Wilson, would probably know that it is pretty much the best book to have been written on the history of football rules, tactics and their evolution – all the way from the 1850’s to around 2008. The book talks about how playing systems developed over time and how the game adapted to changes brought about by forward thinking proponents of the beautiful game.

I am pretty sure you must have heard of Arrigo Sacchi. If you haven’t then you might want to crawl out from whichever rock you have been living under. One of the greatest managers  in the history of football, this is what he had to say, “The future of football will be converting the pitch into one large midfield zone.” Sacchi has been the biggest advocate of universality. To explain it in simple terms, Sacchi sees football evolving into a game played by universal players, and not by specialists. He sees the game dominated by players capable of playing in different positions, i.e. versatile players.

If this future excites you, then I would suggest you get your hands on this book, ‘Universality’, as soon as possible. Written by Matthew Whitehouse, author of the widely acclaimed book “The Way Forward”, this book will take you on a captivating journey of football, starting from the late 1990s to the end of the 2013-14 season and the recently concluded football World Cup in Brazil. The excellent analytical skills which Whitehouse possesses can be clearly seen on every page of the book, as he takes an in-depth look into the modernization of football as we know it, and the trends which have been visible over the years.

Whitehouse talks about Arsene Wenger’s role in grabbing the Premier League by its horns and taking it in a new direction, with his vision and the style of play he brought to Arsenal in the second half of the 1990s. This is followed by the Makelele era, which brought the destroyer to the forefront of football tactics. While Makelele was every bit a specialist, this was the era when we started to see signs of universality. The inverted winger became the next in thing, with players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Robben making life hell for the opposing fullbacks in the early 2000s. However, one of the most prominent tactical adjustments to the game would be the use of the ‘false nine’. Barcelona, Spain and Roma epitomized this approach.

He goes on to speak about how tactics became a much more central aspect of the game as compared to earlier times. While free-flowing, attacking football was pleasing to the eye, it was actually smart, tactical football which won trophies. The 4-4-2 was giving way to the 4-2-3-1. The tactical evolution of the last couple of decades has been laid bare for us to understand and absorb. Be it tiki-taka or Gegenpressing, everything has been explained with due diligence.

Whitehouse is steeped in tactical and technical knowledge, and the manner in which he has expounded the intricacies of every position all over the pitch, starting from the goalkeeper to the striker, is extremely commendable. I would go so far as to say that Part II of this book explains football in a manner that should be known to each and every footballer, irrespective of the position they play in. However, the real importance lies in the fact that every position has been focused on considering the aspect of universality. For instance, what would one expect from a versatile centre-back? How can a fullback be a universal player? What is a universal forward? The author leaves no stone unturned when talking about universality.

The very first line of this article, is also the tag-line for this book. There is no doubt that Guardiola is the most forward thinking coach of our times. He is a visionary in the truest sense of the word. While modern day football has indeed been influenced by other coaches, like Louis Van Gaal and Marcelo Bielsa, it is surely Guardiola who is at the helm of football ‘research’, if I may use the term. He dares to push the boundaries of football like no other coach before him. However, there is one common theme that can be seen among the visionaries of the present age and the past – their belief in the Dutch school of ‘Totalfootball’. Starting from the Ajax of Rinus Michels, to the Kiev of Lobanovskyi, to Sacchi’s Milan, to Cruyff’s Barcelona, to van Gaal’s Ajax, to Bielsa’s Chile to Guardiola’s Barcelona – all these teams, led by their managers, were comprised of players who could play in a fluid system where players would often be seen in various positions on the field, owing to their versatile skills and abilities. Whitehouse gives us insight into each of these teams and what made them so special.

The story of universality would never be complete without a mention of Germany’s role in taking football to a new level altogether, and the author is very well aware of this. The manner in which Klopp’s Dortmund used Gegenpressing to overcome Bayern Munich’s dominance, forced Heynckes’ Munich to add Gegenpressing to their own repertoire, thereby making them one of the most complete sides to have played the game. When Guardiola came to Bayern at the start of the 2013-14 season, he knew that he had the perfect set of players to further his experiments with football. He made a few additions of his own, and now Pep has all the ingredients he needs to create his ultimate recipe of total football.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Whitehouse has called Guardiola ‘The Architect’. It is no surprise that the last two World Cups have been won by national teams – Spain and Germany – whose main core of players had been coached under Guardiola at their respective clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. One could strongly argue that Bayern Munich is currently the most universal side to play the game. With fullbacks like Lahm and Alaba coming into the midfield and players like Gotze and Muller popping up anywhere in the final third, we are currently witness to an evolutionary process the likes of has never been seen before in the history of football.

Matthew Whitehouse has done a stellar job with this book. The manner in which he has combined the developments football has undergone in the last decade or two, how those developments came about, and what do these changes mean for the future of football, is simply fantastic. His learned nature comes across in full force in every sentence on every page. This book is not the random rambling of an armchair critic. Matthew Whitehouse is a UEFA ‘A’ licensed coach with a Master’s Degree in Sports Coaching. We strongly urge our readers to follow his award-winning football blog, The Whitehouse Address. The future of football lies in adapting to the quickly changing demands of the modern game, and this book provides some much needed insight to this aspect.

Parashar Thanki

Manchester United. Spain. Cristiano Ronaldo. Step-over maniac. Coffee aficionado. Prefers playing sports to watching them. Anyday.