Has football become too Robotic?

Football, like many aspects of life, has changed drastically over the last thirty years. From heavy drinking late into the night by footballers in the 90s, to strict dietary routines later in the decade, to now almost robot-like professionals in the modern era. But did we lose the essence of the sport somewhere along the line? Has football become too robotic?

The Demise of the Number 10

Nothing symbolizes the change in modern football more like the demise of the 10. When one switches the TV to tune into a match the very first to ask is who the number 10 is. The 10 was the heartbeat of the team. Every time he got on the ball there was an air of expectation. Magic was about to happen. Hence many of our childhood heroes were playmakers. From Zinedine Zidane, Diega Maradona, Pelé, Dennis Bergkamp, Juan Román Riquelme, Michel Platini to Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Neymar. Playing without a number 10 was unthinkable….. Or was it?

Jürgen Klopp famously remarked that “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.” While he still employed his flair player, Coutinho, in attack, his traditional role of being the creative force for Liverpool was all but phased out. Klopp set about creating his mentality monsters through his famous gegenpressing. With this change came massive success and the whole of the footballing world hearkened and paid attention.

Gradually, the number 10 became a ‘luxury player’. Nowadays, everyone needs to press and work hard for the team. The number 10 was required to be a cog in the machine rather than the engine of the team. Thus, focus shifted from the more technically gifted but slower 10s to the more nimble and physical midfielders.

Mesut Özil is arguably the most high profile casualty of this evolution. Once hailed as the most creative player in Europe, Özil ended his career being labelled as ‘lazy’. He still had his usefulness no doubt but the game had moved on from him. With that came the rise of physicality and speed in the modern game.

Modern Football is All About Athleticism

In a nutshell, modern football is all about physique, speed and intensity. Combine these attributes with technical ability and the result is: Kevin De Bruyne. He represents the game in the last 10 years. A technically gifted player who can play multiple positions, is physical, intense and thrives when the game is played at a high speed. Young footballers nowadays have to adapt to the speed and intensity of the game, but what does that do to the raw natural talent that was for so long the basis of a football career?

Former Manchester United and Liverpool player Michael Owen controversially claimed that a player does not have to be that good anymore to be a top player. “Now, if you can just run a bit further than everyone else and pass the ball from A to B, then you can have a decent career in the premier league. You don’t even have to be that good anymore. You used to have real skill and attributes to be a top player. Now you have to be an athlete.” Some painful truths delivered by an ex-professional Premier League player.

“If I was playing in today’s game I would be scoring at the same level as all of the top strikers. You look at some of the players in my generation, Brazilian Ronaldo for example – is Erling Halaand really better than him? Thierry Henry is another,” Michael owen

The Football World Knows it Too

Cesc Fabregas has long been concerned with how much the modern player is not allowed to express himself on the pitch but rather is fed too much information. Cesc was a beneficiary of Arsene Wenger’s love for technical players and his philosophy of giving players freedom to express themselves.

In an interview with Marca in 2022 Fabregas had this to say: “What the modern coach wants is competitiveness that the footballer is physically at his best. If one player is faster than another and the one who is a bit slower has more talent, he plays the stronger and faster guy. I do not have any doubt.” He did not stop there, explaining his dislike for stats and said a ‘robotic game’ is being created.

“There are methodologies that have been based on many automatisms in which the coach basically tells you how far you have to pass the ball at all times. The player has to be placed in a specific place. A robotic game is being made.” A scathing review of the modern game by one of the all-time greats of football.

What of the new generation? Barcelona star Pedri did an interview with The Guardian in June 2022 on the game becoming too physical. “Lately, more attention has been paid to the player who runs than to the technician who understands the game. Football is becoming more and more robotic, but there are still those who resist it. I still play for fun. It’s always been that way for me and I think that fun is the best thing that football has to offer.”

Every time I watch a football match I always ask myself this question? Are footballers much better than they were 20 yrs ago or have the current systems made them much better than they appear? I argue that there is a lot of over coaching of players. Those who watch Pep Guardiola, Roberto Di Zerbi, Xavi or Mikel Arteta’s teams for example, might agree with me. The players are almost always coached through every phase of play. You have to be at a certain position at a specific time. You have to play an extra pass before the pass. It’s all chess with no spontaneity! pedri

Bring back the wingers who could actually beat their man, the Ronaldinhos who played the game for the fun of it. The flair players who made watch us football at the edge of our feet. Bring back the number 10.

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