How soccer has changed in the past 10 years: From Mourinho's peak to reign of super-clubs

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A lot can change in a decade. Just 10 short years ago, for instance, Lionel Messi was the dominant player in European soccer, Pep Guardiola was an increasingly influential coach, Cristiano Ronaldo was trying to make a difference with a new team following a lucrative transfer, and money disparities were playing an increasing role in the sport’s power structure.

Hmm.

OK, it appears not everything has changed since 2010. But a lot still has. As we continue to wait for sports to return after stoppages related to the coronavirus, let’s take a look at some of the major differences between European soccer in 2020 — its style, its values and its ruling class — and the version from a decade ago.

Romance was not yet dead

The words “romance” or “romantic” show up 20 times in “Inverting the Pyramid,” Jonathan Wilson‘s tome on the evolution of soccer tactics. It usually shows up in context like this quote from former Dinamo Minsk goalkeeper Mikhail Vergeenko: “The rivalry between Minsk and Kyiv was the rivalry between two minds. [Valeriy] Lobanovskyi was a coach by mathematics; [Eduard] Malofeev was more romantic. The main thing he wanted from the players was that they should express themselves on the pitch. If you give your all, he said, the fans will love you.”

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In America, fans of both baseball and basketball have found themselves engaged in a sort of “nerds vs. romantics” battle in the 21st century — the most efficient and effective way to play the sport vs. the most aesthetically appealing — and things like stolen bases and mid-range jumpers have become far less prominent. American football has undergone a version of this debate as well, with advanced stats suggesting that “establishing the run” isn’t really as much of a valuable thing in the NFL as coaches and fans of “toughness” have long espoused.

(Granted, plenty of us think throwing the football is a hell of a lot more aesthetically pleasing than “three yards and a cloud of dust,” and the shift suits us just fine.)

Soccer, however, has been basically going through its own version of this battle, stats or no, for more than a century. Mechanical team play vs. individual creativity, ball-hogging possession vs. vertical risk. Perhaps because goals are so rare and mini-miraculous, a fan’s favorite memories are often built from romantic gestures: say, a long bomb of a goal or a 1-in-100 pass that found its mark. For some soccer cultures, an old-school, bone-crunching tackle is its own version of three yards and a cloud of dust.

As with the stolen base, some of soccer’s romantic ideals were untethered from the mainstream in the 2010s.

Let’s compare some Opta data for the Big Five leagues from the 2010-11 season (the earliest season for which we’ve got data from all five) to those produced in 2019-20. All of these stats are per team, per 90 minutes.

Passing and possession numbers are up in all the ways you would probably predict:

In short, “Big Five” soccer — English Premier League, Spanish Primera Division, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, French Ligue 1 — has become less physical (in a “bodies clattering off of each other” manner, anyway) and features far fewer hopeful bombs than before. Bold gestures are out; cold, calculated efficiency is in.

Still, while passing and possession numbers are indeed up dramatically on average, so are the numbers for other one-on-one type events that don’t involve tackles or fouls.

You can find plenty of old-school folks grumbling about the shifts in physicality and, yes, romance. But if you like goals and scoring chances, this change hasn’t affected you negatively.

(Reminder: according to Opta, a “big chance” is “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score.”)

Fewer bad shots, more good shots. Seems like a fair trade to me. Maybe we simply need to redefine what we consider “romantic.” Besides, 10 years ago, a particularly results-based and unromantic manager was enjoying his heyday…

Mourinho’s managerial magic was on full display when Inter Milan won the Champions League. He’s had some brilliant successes since then but has arguably not come close to that peak in 2010.

Jose Mourinho was at the peak of his powers

So was Inter Milan. The 47-year old Mourinho had already won the Champions League with Porto and a pair of Premier League titles with Chelsea. He guided Inter through the 2009-10 Champions League group stages, then pulled off a series of magic acts in a wild set of knockout rounds. In the round of 16 they beat his former squad, Chelsea, that would go on to win the Premier League. And after easing by CSKA Moscow in the quarterfinals, he sent a serious warning shot to the burgeoning Barca dynasty.

Inter beat the defending European champs, 3-1, at the San Siro, then survived a trip to Barcelona with only a 1-0 loss. That sent them to the Champions League finals, where they won 2-0 over Bayern Munich — which had taken down the tournament’s most dominant team to date, Manchester United — to complete an Italian treble: the UCL, the Serie A crown and the Coppa Italia.

Heading into the second leg of the UCL semis, Guardiola told the media “even at his age, there is a very strong case for [Mourinho] being the best manager in the world.” A week after the cup win, Mourinho left for Real Madrid, where he and Guardiola would embark on one of the most acrimonious series of matches and seasons that the Barca-Real rivalry has seen. From 2010-12, this was the biggest managerial rivalry in the world, and it began with Inter 3, Barca 1.

Inter, meanwhile, faded from the spotlight after Mourinho left. They held onto second place in Serie A in 2011 but haven’t finished higher than fourth or reached even a quarterfinal of either major European tournament, since. (They were third this season when the world was postponed by the coronavirus.)

€91 million of revenue was considered good

According to UEFA’s annual Club Licensing Benchmarking Report, teams in the Bundesliga averaged revenue of €91 million per team in 2010. That ranked second among European leagues; it would have ranked only fourth, however, in 2018, the time of the last report.

*The No. 6-10 leagues: Russia, Turkey, Netherlands, Scotland, Portugal. This was based on the average revenue figures from 2010
** The No. 11-15 leagues: Belgium, Switzerland, Ukraine, Austria, Denmark. Both Belgium and Switzerland had moved into the top 10 by 2018

We still refer to Europe’s top five leagues as the “Big Five,” but in one way it’s increasingly difficult to do that in a world in which the average Premier League team rakes in as much revenue (€272 million) as the average La Liga and Serie A teams combined.

While England continues to grow at a sharper rate than any other leagues, those top five have still separated themselves in clear ways from the rest of Europe. While revenue has grown almost universally, it grew by an average of 83% for the Big Five and by under 30% for the rest of Europe. (Belgium’s revenue grew by more than 60% per team; they are an outlier.)

Porto and Benfica were still royalty

The leagues outside of the Big Five have long had so-so depth but have made up for it with big runs by their own blue bloods: see Ajax and PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Porto and Benfica in Portugal, Zenit Saint Petersburg and CSKA Moscow in Russia, Anderlecht in Belgium, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev in Ukraine, Olympiakos in Greece, Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, and so on. As the Big Five has distanced itself, though, even these big names have struggled to keep up.

According to the annual rankings at EloFootball.com, Europe’s top 15 clubs in 2010 included three from beyond the Big Five (No. 9 Porto, No. 13 Benfica, No. 15 Donetsk), and the five best clubs from outside the Big Five averaged a 16.8 ranking. In 2020, the best non-Fiver was No. 20 Benfica. The five best clubs averaged a ranking of 24.4.

It has been particularly difficult for the elite Portuguese clubs to keep up. From 1960-2004, Benfica and Porto won four Champions League (or European Cup, as it used to be called) titles. They have also combined for five UCL finals losses, a pair of UEFA Cup/Europa League titles and a Cup Winners’ Cup. Depending on your definition, however, the last major success came either in 2004 (Porto’s Mourinho-driven Champions League win), 2011 (Porto won the Europa League) or 2014 (Benfica made the Europa finals). The clubs combined for just four Champions League quarterfinal appearances this decade and haven’t made it past that round in 16 years.

It’s been similar for the Dutch heavyweights. Ajax, a five-time European champ, made at least the semifinals for three straight years from 1995-97 but have only made it to even the quarterfinals once since 2003: They made a spirited run to the semis in 2019, upsetting Juventus and Real Madrid in the process. They came up seconds short of toppling Tottenham Hotspur, however, and got knocked out in the Europa League round of 32 this past February. PSV Eindhoven, meanwhile, have fallen from 37th in 2010 to 86th in the EloFootball rankings. The 1988 European champions haven’t made even the Champions League quarterfinals since 2007.

$250 million used to buy you Ronaldo, Benzema, Kaká and Xabi Alonso

Now it buys you Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo and Reinier.

As you would expect, with rising revenue has come rising transfer costs. According to Transfermarkt, there were three transfers of over $40 million in the summer of 2009. As part of an outright binge, Real Madrid acquired Ronaldo from Manchester United for $103.4 million and Kaká from AC Milan for $73.7 million. They also paid a combined $76.5 million for Lyon‘s Karim Benzema and Liverpool‘s Xabi Alonso. (For as good as his coaching skills have proved to be, Mourinho’s greatest talent might be convincing owners to spend incredible amounts of money.)

Those were four of the top five purchases of that offseason. (The other: a freaked out Barcelona acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter so he could clash with Guardiola for a season.) In the 2019 offseason, those sums of money would have ranked fourth, 12th, 32nd and 36th. The amount Madrid spent on Alonso was about the same that Valencia spent on Barcelona’s 30-year old backup goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, last June.

In total, there were 27 transfers of over $40 million in the 2019-20 transfer windows. Whereas the 20 most expensive transfers averaged $36.8 million 10 years ago, that average was $77.9 million last summer. And yes, Jovic, Militao, Mendy, Rodrygo and Reinier were the principal players Real went after last year — they cost a combined $3 million more than the fearsome foursome of a decade ago.

Are they good? Yes, and they’ll probably get better. Will they become Ronaldo, Kaká, Benzema and Alonso? Probably not.

Wingers were valued very, very differently

Again using Opta data, it doesn’t appear that formation usage has changed significantly since the beginning of the decade.

In 2010-11, teams started matches in the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formations more than any other, which remained the case in 2019-20. The 4-3-3 remains pretty common, too. (Here’s where we acknowledge that formations are extremely fluid and their notation is only so helpful. But if nothing else, it tells us a little about what positions are on the field.)

There were a couple of interesting shifts, however.

The 4-1-2-1-2, a narrow formation that sacrifices width to fit in both a holding, defense-first midfielder and a playmaking, attacking midfielder — and easily one of my favorite formations in the Football Manager game series — has just about gone by the wayside. It was the third-most popular starting formation in 2010-11, although it was basically only deployed some of the time by Strasbourg and Schalke 044 this season. It has to some degree been replaced by the 4-3-1-2, a defense-friendly formation that allows for you to play out of the back with short passes but also pressure opponents on the wings. It’s not extremely popular, but it was the most common starting formation for teams like Brescia and Lecce trying to punch up in Serie A.

Meanwhile, the 3-5-2, a possession-friendly formation often associated with Guardiola that adds wingers while continuing to field two forwards (and leaves you vulnerable to counterattacks), has gone from basically only used by Udinese in 2010-11 to serving as the most popular formation outside of those top three. Sheffield United has made creative use of it — while continuing to defend well — and Udinese continues to carry the 3-5-2 flag.

These shifts drop a hint that wingers are becoming more useful and important in the Big Five leagues, and that impression is backed up significantly by transfer data.

I attempted an experiment using Transfermarkt data. I ranked the 20 most expensive transfers from each season dating back to 2008-09, awarding 20 points to the most expensive, 19 to the second-most, etc. A total of 210 points allocated per year. I then added up the point totals for each unit on the pitch: forwards, wingers, midfielders, and defenders. (Goalkeepers were in the top 20 only four times in this 12-year span.)

At the turn of the decade, it was very clear which positions were considered the most valuable. From 2008-11, forwards occupied 93.7 points per year, about 45%. This was despite usually occupying only 9% or 18% of your 11-man lineup. Wingers, meanwhile, occupied only 27 transfer points per year in that span, primarily from four huge acquisitions: Ronaldo to Real Madrid, Robinho to Manchester City, Angel Di Maria to Real Madrid and Ricardo Quaresma to Inter Milan. If you weren’t the best in the world at your wide position, you weren’t attracting a hefty fee.

Bayern acquired 25-year old winger Arjen Robben from Real Madrid for the same amount ($27.5 million, tied for 11th in the 2009-10 season) that Barcelona paid Shakhtar for defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy. No offense to Chygrynskiy, but Bayern got a smidge more out of their acquisition.

Over the course of the 2010s, the market came to more properly recognize the value of a good winger.

2008-11 transfer windows: forwards 93.7 points per year, midfielders 62.3, wingers 27.0, defenders 27.0
2011-16 transfer windows: midfielders 77.2, forwards 57.0, wingers 48.0, defenders 27.8
2016-20 transfer windows: wingers 61.0, midfielders 58.3, defenders 51.8, forwards 39.0

In 2019-20, three players designated by Transfermarkt as wingers were among the seven most expensive transfers. In 2018-19, they made up four of the top six. The year before that, two of the top three. It appears teams are focusing more on creators and playmakers and perhaps not quite as much on pure target men or finishers, a trend that is evident in both the dollars spent and predominant formations in use across Europe.

PSG was a random French underachiever

Let’s pretend that next season’s final Ligue 1 standings look like this:

1. Lyon
2. Bordeaux
3. Marseille
4. Lille
5. Auxerre
6. Monaco
7. Paris Saint-Germain

Granted, Lyon’s goal differential was second-best in Ligue 1 at the time of stoppage, and their seventh-place standing in 2019-20 was a bit misleading, but this table would be pretty jarring, wouldn’t it? (And not only because Auxerre is currently floating aimlessly in the middle of Ligue 2?)

The rankings above are cumulative Ligue 1 point totals from the decade of the 2000s. Lyon won the league seven times — they also reached the Champions League semifinals in 2010 — with Marseille, Bordeaux and Nantes each securing one crown each.

If you became a big soccer fan at some point in the past eight years or so, as many Americans have, then you only know one Ligue 1: the one that is dominated every year by PSG. (You also might know Lyon as a dynasty on the women’s side: Olympique Lyonnais Féminin have won the Champions League six times in the past nine years.)

But 10 years ago, Paris Saint-Germain was still more of a concept than a contender. Location alone gave PSG potential, like a pre-billionaire Chelsea or Manchester City in England, but the Parisians had won Ligue 1 just twice (1986, 1994) and had only finished higher than sixth twice in the 2000s. It wasn’t until Qatar Sports Investments purchased the club in 2011 that PSG became Ligue 1’s ruler. They improved from 13th to fourth in 2011, then second in 2012. Since then: first, first, first, first, second, first and first. And that doesn’t include an almost guaranteed league title in 2020 as well.

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Speaking of clubs with money, Manchester City was also still waiting for a breakthrough 10 years ago. The Sky Blues were purchased by Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008 and wouldn’t win their first Premier League title until the final day of the 2012 season. They’ve won three more since.

Juventus, meanwhile, were still working their way back from Serie B after punishment from the 2006 match-fixing scandal. They finished seventh in Serie A in 2010 and 2011 before embarking on a long run of consecutive league titles in 2012.

Leicester were in the English second division, Leipzig in the German fifth division

No one’s going to call PSG’s rise a Cinderella story: After all, Cinderella had a fairy godmother, not a benefactor. But the decade did still see a pretty incredible rags-to-riches tale.

At the start of the 2010s, Leicester City were wrapping up a stirring fifth-place finish in their first year back in the English Championship. They’d been relegated to the third level of English football in 2008 but finished first in their lone year there and re-established their second-division bonafides pretty quickly. After losing in the promotion playoff in both 2010 and 2013, they finally achieved promotion to the Premier League in 2014. They hadn’t been at the top level for a decade, and they almost got sent straight back down.

At the start of April 2015, Leicester ranked dead last, having won just four of their first 29 matches. They were seven points from safety with just nine matches to go, but manager Nigel Pearson gave forward Jamie Vardy, winger Marc Albrighton and defender Robert Huth more prominent roles and shifted formations, and the Foxes ignited, generating 22 points from those final nine matches and, incredibly, finishing 14th.

The next year, Leicester replaced Pearson with Claudio Ranieri, added N’Golo Kante and Shinji Okazaki, and with most of the Premier League’s traditional powers in transition, they continued their hot streak with 38 points in their first 17 matches. After some rickety moments in January and February, they took 28 points in their last 12 matches to comfortably win their first Premier League title.

In a game like Football Manager, it’s possible to show up at a lower-division club, make good moves, win and build a powerhouse. (Who among us hasn’t won the Champions League with Crewe Alexandra?) In real life, that doesn’t tend to happen without the aforementioned benefactor, but Leicester has done an interesting job of remaining relevant and slowly building its infrastructure.

After selling most of their 2015-16 stars (Riyad Mahrez, Kante) and losing ground overall — they stumbled to 44 points and 12th place in 2017 before ralling to 47 points in 2018 and 52 in 2019 — Leicester erupted for 38 points in their first 16 matches in 2019-20 and were in third place, five points up on fourth-place Chelsea, when the league was suspended in March. They are likely to return to the Champions League next season, whenever “next season” actually takes place. They don’t have Manchester money and never will, but they have established a place as a financial light-heavyweight with a strong plan.

Of course, the biggest rise of the decade came with more help.

Red Bull purchased the rights to SSV Markranstädt, a fifth-division German club outside of Leipzig, in 2009. With corporate resources and a strong plan (plus some deft maneuvering around the spirit of Germany‘s 50+1 ownership rule), the club — now named Red Bull Leipzig — advanced up the ladder like a real-life Football Manager experiment.

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Playing an entirely different type of Moneyball, they earned promotion to the fourth division in 2010, the third in 2013 and the second in 2015. It took only two years for them to advance to the Bundesliga, where they finished second in their first season (2017) and third in 2019. They were looking at another top-three finish in 2020 and had advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals when action was stopped.

Under 32-year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann, RBL play exciting, optimistic football with some of the more thrilling young players in Europe — among them, forwards Timo Werner (24) and Yussuf Poulsen (25), midfielders Christopher Nkunku (22) and Marcel Sabitzer (26) and defenders Dayot Upamecano (21) and Lukas Klostermann (23). But Red Bull’s presence, along with that of Hoffenheim benefactor Dietmar Hopp, has been appalling to German fans, who seem to prefer continued dominance from Bayern to RBL’s corporate rise.

Regardless, Leipzig now houses one of the best clubs in Europe. It would have been impossible to even imagine that a decade ago.

Pressing was primarily a German thing

It sort of still is.

As in basketball, there are lots of ways to press in soccer in terms of numbers, where you initiate your press, etc. There are also lots of ways to measure the effect of pressing, and they’re all far from perfect. Two Opta numbers get a decent amount of the way down the road, though:

1. Possessions won in the attacking third: a pretty direct way of determining how teams are defending far up the pitch
2. Ball recoveries: per Opta, “where a player recovers the ball in a situation where neither team has possession or where the ball has been played directly to him by an opponent,” this hints at your overall aggression levels and, more importantly, how many players you have near the ball at a given time

On average, more teams are keeping more players around the ball than they were a decade ago, with possessions won in the attacking third (per team, per match) up from 2.82 in 2010-11 to 4.05 in 2019-20: a 44% increase. Ball recoveries are also up 13%, from 46.9 in 2010-11 to 53.1 in 2019-20.

As both pressing and playing the ball out of the back (instead of hoofing it downfield) has become more commonplace, it’s become a bit more difficult to stand out when it comes to ultra-aggressive pressing. If we look solely at possessions won in the attacking third, teams in the Big Five leagues ranged from a minimum of 0.9 per match (Bari) to a maximum of 8.8 (Werder Bremen) in 2010-11. In 2019-20, that range was smaller: from 2.5 (Rennes) to 7.3 (Bayern). Twelve teams averaged at least six such possessions won nine years ago, and only two did this past season.

Either way, teams in the Bundesliga led the way in the aggressiveness department. In 2010-11, six German clubs were among the Big Five’s top 10 in ball recoveries, while the 18 Bundesliga teams ranked No. 1-18 in possessions won in the attacking third. Granted, this might be a reason to call early data collection techniques into question. Even so, it’s safe to say that the Bundesliga was the most prolific league in this regard.

In 2019-20, the top five teams in terms of ball recoveries, and eight of the top 15, were Bundesliga teams. And while winning possessions in the attacking third has become more of a rich club’s pastime — the top five (Bayern, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester City and PSG) are all current masters of the art — Bayern does still lead the way, and Frankfurt is the first non-rich team on the list.

Set pieces were easier

Something else you find more frequently in Germany: set-piece goals.

In 2019-20, four of the top six Big Five teams, and six of the 12 to average at least 0.4 such goals per match, were from the Bundesliga. In 2011-12, it was three of the top six and nine of 22 at 0.4 or higher. Set pieces have been a point of emphasis among the analytically-inclined in recent years, and we saw two small trends emerge here:

1. The range of advantage has grown slightly. In 2010-11, the best goal-scoring team on set pieces (Bayer Leverkusen) averaged 0.56 such goals per match, or one every 161 minutes. The worst (Cesena and Arles-Avignon*) averaged 0.13 per match each, or one every 692 minutes. In 2019-20, the best team (Köln) averaged 0.60 per match, or one every 150 minutes; the worst (Watford and Mallorca) averaged 0.07 each, or about one every 1,290 minutes.

2. There aren’t as many overall goals from these situations. Shots from direct free kicks are down 37%, from 0.57 per team per match to 0.36. Chances from set pieces (from 2.3 to 2.07) and goals from set pieces (from 0.34 to 0.28) are both down slightly as well, but not as much. Short corners have also increased; this all suggests that teams are often content to simply pass short and possess the ball longer instead of attempting to score. It also seems to mean that when teams do attempt shots on set pieces, they are of slightly higher quality.

* One final change: Arles-Avignon is no longer a club. Les Lions reached Ligue 1 in 2010-11 after four promotions in five years; five years later, the club dissolved due to money issues.

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