Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side were, if not the best in team in the history of football, then certainly the best I’ve ever watched. You had brilliant individuals in there, most obviously the best player in history, but it was so much more than that. The whole team was built around a single idea about football, and they all understood how to execute it perfectly. More than anything, they moved as a single unit, interchanging and manipulating the ball in flawless synchrony.
No matter who played in that team, the system was the real star.
If you’ve spent a lot of time around Football Twitter, there are a lot of terms you’ve probably seen used around football. If you haven’t, then you’re leading a much richer and more fulfilling life than I am, but you’ll have to trust me on this. A lot of what people say on there is complete nonsense that only exists to argue their favourite club or player is the best, but sometimes you see interesting things that get at something meaningful.
A lot of these concepts get borrowed from other sports. This is nothing new, of course. Football in its earliest days was an outgrowth of rugby, and you can see that sport’s influence in the more physical nature of the English game even today. When football reached other shores, we saw the influence of different kinds of sports really help shape the game we have today. So this is nothing new, and should be readily embraced and accepted.
“System player” is such a concept. When you Google it, most of the results on the first page are about the NBA. I don’t know much of anything about basketball, so I can’t comment on its usefulness there. But when I asked on Twitter for people to define it, I got some interesting responses, of which these are just a few:
So here’s what I understand people to mean when they describe “system players”:
Someone whose importance to the team can be best understood in terms of relying on, and hopefully contributing to, the system around them. One example that was brought up in my mentions often is Jorginho. The Brazilian-born Italy international was outstanding at the base of midfield for Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli. The Italian term for his position, regista, literally translates as “director” and that’s exactly what he did, using his short passing game to conduct Napoli’s patterns of play. When Sarri brought him to Chelsea, he was supposed to direct that side into the same patterns, but the system was nowhere near as ingrained into the players. Under subsequent manager Frank Lampard, a different kind of football was played and Jorginho only showed his quality in brief flashes. The emperor has no system.
A similar accusation can be labeled at Trent Alexander-Arnold. He was arguably the outstanding right back in world football during last season and the year before. While his natural talent is far beyond the general level for his position, But to harness this, Liverpool built a system in which the full backs essentially run the attack, pushing right up and doing all the hard ball progression work, while the midfield is extremely cautious to cover for them. For reasons mostly irrelevant to this article (see here for more info on the issues), that system has collapsed this season, and Alexander-Arnold has been badly exposed because of it. At international level, England never had the right pieces to build the team around him, and Gareth Southgate has left him out of the squad entirely. System player.
But here’s the dirty secret: every player relies on the system like this.
Let’s go back to that Barcelona side. Xavi was at the heart of everything in midfield. He was such a metronome in that team that he saw his reputation skyrocket, moving from a perception as a decent midfielder to one of the best players in the world. The change happened so fast that the Daily Mail referred to his inclusion alongside some global superstars as “The Best Players in the World (and Xavi)”, without realising the tide had turned completely. A year later, the Mail apologised for getting it badly wrong, and Xavi’s acceptance as an era defining player was complete.
What’s curious is this: Xavi wasn’t really doing anything differently. By his own admission, he’d been playing the same way his whole career, except suddenly it reaped much richer rewards. “I have always been a passer but it depends a lot on my colleagues”, he explained in 2010. “The pass is made good by the person who makes the run”. Xavi did the same things as ever, but he was rewarded totally differently. The same thing applies across the side. Gerard Pique had been cast aside as not good enough at Manchester United, but instantly showed just how big an uncharacteristic misjudgement Sir Alex Ferguson made. Andres Iniesta was the perfect lock pick in tight spaces, but needed to rely on Xavi dictating the tempo. Dani Alves was afforded the freedom to rampage up and down the right flank, with the space he vacated always being filled, as he overlapped for...
“Aha!” you say. “That whole team was all about Lionel Messi, and he’s not a system player at all! The system players were facilitating him!” Well, not so fast, I’d say. Yes, Messi is the most brilliant individual in a generation, capable of conjuring up sensational moments from nothing. But he also relies heavily on the work of others. His 2008/09 performances were all about cutting inside from the right and trusting that Alves would overlap and fill that space for him. As time went on, he moved into a false nine role where he relied on the wide players coming narrow and attacking the space he vacated.
Messi is obviously the best player you could possibly want to build your side around, but that doesn’t make it as simple as letting him do his thing surrounded by a bunch of solid pros. Barcelona have attempted that model in recent years, stripped of all the system in the Guardiola years. The evidence for discarding the system is in and it’s not great.
It’s not a question of whether someone is a system player or not, Borussia Mönchengladbach assistant manager René Marić told me, but of “how much of a system player someone is” and, crucially, “which type of system player someone is. [It’s about] putting players into positions to succeed. I think that in football it's often overlooked how much that can matter; for instance, could anyone imagine Xavi at a [Tony] Pulis team in the early 2010s?”
Let’s take an example of someone Xavi and Iniesta admire a great deal: Paul Scholes. The guys at Barca drool over watching Scholes do his thing, even as he supposedly wasn’t admired enough in England. “Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything”, Xavi once claimed.
“He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.”
He may have been valued more had he been Spanish, but in that world, he might’ve also played in a system that suited him better. In his supposed prime years, Ferguson played a direct and ferocious 4-4-2 system where the side attacked in wave after wave. The aim of the game was getting the ball wide to David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, then smashing it into the box for the strikers and midfielders bursting forward. Playing central midfield was much less about technique and controlling the game than energy and hard running. Scholes showed moments of genuine brilliance in this era, but he often felt a square peg in a round hole.
Fast forward a decade, however, and everything was different. Barca had set the template for everyone to follow. Guardiola himself had retired fairly early, complaining that while he was as good as ever, “football [in 2004] is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different, too... as far as central midfield players are concerned, is all on defensive work.” The game suited Guardiola, or Scholes, much less than someone like fellow Utd midfielder Roy Keane. But as soon as Guardiola had the chance to change things, he set in place a hard pivot towards passing in the centre of the park, and Scholes shone. Calendar year 2010 was the most acclaimed moment of Scholes’ career, at age 35. It’s not that he was better; it was that everyone played to his talents now. The player finally found the system.
Football has become such a complex and intricate sport. Long gone are the days when Diego Maradona would just do whatever he wanted and Argentina would accommodate it because duh, he’s Diego Maradona and he’s going to win us the World Cup. Modern teams are Swiss watches in their complexity. The simple truth is that every footballer you can name relies on the other ten players to be able to do their thing. To be a “system player” isn’t a problem at all: it’s the reality of a professional footballer.