“The third year is fatal,” said Hungarian coach Bela Guttman (from Inverting the Pyramid).
Yes, the same Bela Guttman who cursed Benfica. The Portuguese club are yet to win a European trophy since.
And yes, his statement did lead to the birth of the ‘three year rule.’
The three year rule is surprisingly accurate. It really is one of the few absolutes – like the life span of a coach – in a sport that tends to defy expectations more than anything else.
Pressing teams have a life-span of three years, after which injuries, complacency, exhaustion, mental exhaustion and various factors prevent teams – even the ones most prepared to carry on for longer – from succeeding. The rule has been proven time and time again, with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona being the best example.
For proper context, I recommend Jonathan Wilson’s old pieces, which give an overview of the rule, many examples and discuss how Pep’s Barcelona couldn’t overcome it:
— Siddharth Ramsundar (@Tacticalfouling) August 10, 2017
— Siddharth Ramsundar (@Tacticalfouling) August 10, 2017
And one of my own, on the life-span of different teams, with a focus on Bielsa:
Then this https://t.co/b85lW78G5J
— Siddharth Ramsundar (@Tacticalfouling) August 10, 2017
Wilson’s “Why do great teams come to an end” is one of the best articles I’ve ever read.
Within this context, let’s examine the life span of some modern day pressing teams:
Tottenham Hotspur (2015-present)
Tottenham are a particularly interesting team because there’s reason to believe that they could defy the three year rule.
Team Age: Two and a half years into Pochettino’s regime. His first season (or seven months) doesn’t count because of all the deadwood he cleared out.
Physical Strain: Pochettino’s press is raw and intense. They are strong, fast, and relentless. Physically, this team is being pushed as far as any in the modern era, even with their newfound counterattack. No wonder Pochettino finds no use for older players. Many probably can’t handle it. For better or worse, the side hasn’t had to endure an extended run in Europe alongside the league.
Mental Strain: This is where it gets complicated. Tottenham do not have a major trophy to show for their significant efforts. The loss to Leicester in 2016 hurt to an extent, but they followed it up with their best ever Premier League campaign, only to lose to a side which benefited from even more positive variance in Chelsea. While the impact of those losses might not be quantifiable, the wages are a different story. The players are automatically accepting lower wages by staying at the club, and Danny Rose’s situation illustrates that competing for titles with this small a wage bill may not be sustainable.
Player Turnover: Fairly low. 7 players – Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen, and Moussa Dembele – have been prominent starting outfielders for the last 2 years. Victor Wanyama, Danny Rose, and Heung-Min Son have been key players as well. The side has evolved slowly, with only the best players remaining untouchable. Davinson Sanchez’s signing could lessen the burden on the 30 year old Vertonghen in the coming years, while Moussa Dembele will be phased out, although the Belgian did put in a top notch performance earlier in the week to quell any talk of him being on the decline.
Will the 4th year be fatal?
The physical and mental strain on these players suggests that this side could easily wither away after this season. They will also do well to win any trophies, considering the competition in England. Another top 4 finish would do little to cement their legacy, although finishing 2nd for a third consecutive season, and therefore above a Manchester club, would be a feat in its own right.
But the age of this team suggests that they might not be done just yet.
Ideal situations for the Spurs involve winning some trophies (win cup competitions, go further in Europe after topping Juve in a 45+ game season) or getting eliminated from the cups early on, playing fewer games, and securing a top 4 (or 2nd) place finish. The former would satisfy everyone at the club, but would require careful rotation to avoid burnout in a World Cup year. The latter would allow the side to almost assuredly go on for another year.
The worst case scenario here would be a heavy workload in cups followed by a 5th or 6th place finish. A lack of Champions League football would be a disaster.
The Spurs’ longevity will boil down to one key thing:
Can the club continue to bring in quality players to supplement the core, and will this be enough to match Pochettino’s ambition?
This is still a rather young squad that has been through a lot in the last few years. Its best years could still be ahead of it. A dynasty could be on the cards. At the same time, that requires spending a bit more money and keeping Pochettino happy. Everything is intertwined: if they fail to qualify for the Champions League, then regardless of performance in Europe and domestic cups, Poch might as well leave to a big club. Finish top 4, then success could be based on the cup competitions. There is a fine line to tread upon.
Prediction: When you’re left to decide between ‘one or the other’ the answer is usually ‘a bit of both.’ Tottenham have made great strides as a football club in the last few years, and I’d bet on them keeping Pochettino while continuing to grow. If they manage to beat Juventus, and complement it with a top 4 finish, everything will be in place for next season. The biggest challenge will be keeping Harry Kane. Lose him, and the project falls apart. Keep him, and you can move forward.
Verdict: The age of the core is important, and gives the side more time. Poch’s magic means this team should be fine, but without significant investment this project could easily peter out.
Atletico Madrid (2012/2015-Present)
For everyone’s sake, Atletico should look to change things up next season.
Team Age: 3rd year for some of the core members (signed in summer 2015), 6th year for others (who have stayed since Simeone’s first full season in charge: 2012/13).
Physical Strain: Atletico have a physically demanding style of play. The players run tirelessly (in big games, especially the central midfielders) and force the ball wide, where it is won back ahead of counterattacks. Horizontally, the side is notoriously compact, and covers plenty of ground going from side to side, which is a quietly exhausting process. Full-backs bomb forward. Strikers get back.
Mental Strain: Their supreme organization demands incredible levels of concentration. They’ve been dumped out of Europe by Real Madrid for the past four years, but the UCL finals are the ones that have taken a great toll. They are, in all likelihood, close to mental burnout.
Player Turnover: Significant until the last two summers. Key players moved in the summers of 2013, 2014 and 2015. Summer 2016 witnessed harmony after Simeone reached his second UCL final in three years, but the transfer ban forced Atletico’s hand last summer. Costa and Vitolo’s additions have come six months too late. The core present now is fairly varied, although the majority were present in 2013/14 or purchased for the second UCL run.
What Happens Next?
The issue for this team is simple: the most holistically exhausting style of play – designed to push a team to its limits – in recent memory can only be sustained on this budget for so long.
What do Atletico’s two UCL runners up teams have in common? They both embarked on historic seasons after significant summers. The first team beat Real Madrid in a landmark win the season before, lost Falcao over the summer, tweaked a little, then became the toughest team to beat in Europe, with few miles on their legs prior to that season. The second team formed from the ashes of the first, as Simeone rebooted the team with a batch of new players to complement what remained of the core (and no, it wasn’t entirely a forced rebuild unlike summer 2014).
Atletico’s issue, now, is that the transfer ban and some terrible variance has crushed their season. They got lucky enough to pick up points in the league, (but not enough for a title challenge), got extremely unlucky in the Champions League, and have signed Costa and Vitolo for a Europa League run.
We’ll never know how Atleti would’ve fared in the Champions League with this side, unfortunately. A summer of rebuilding certainly awaits. The current side has too many miles on it, and has been through too much to truly grow, unless Simeone manages to add to his style.
The most plausible situation is that Atletico win the Europa League, then Griezmann, Gabi, Gaitain and possibly a core defender are sold over the summer. Beyond this, it depends on the club and Simeone. If Simeone stays, they might as well reinvest the money in a group of quality players, and make another run at the Champions League. If Simeone leaves, they might as well overhaul the project. Saul is signed on for almost a decade, and in Koke, Costa, Carrasco, Gimenez, Vitolo and co they have the core to fire them to another top 4 finish.
Regardless of what happens next season, losing Simeone will present some risk for Atleti. Unless they have substantially increased their revenue following the move to the Wanda, they may never experience this level of success for years. At the same time, keeping Simeone might just prevent him from achieving bigger and better things at Inter or in England, and the club might just decay.
Verdict: Back Simeone with a lot of cash, either in the short term or long term, or just start afresh.
How long can Barcelona go without replacing the core?
The first time this core ‘burned out’, it didn’t really burn out. Back in 2011/12 Guardiola fought so hard to prevent decay and refresh the squad. He failed, but left them with enough in the tank as a result. Following that, they semi-evolved every year, then signed Neymar, and went through two and a half coaches in two years. In comes Luis Enrique. Then a giant spending spree with plenty of misses, but one so big that you are bound to hit too. They successfully complement Messi and his aging friends Xavi and Iniesta, then win the treble and the domestic double.
The MSN might have rejuvenated a core that was hard to rejuvenate, but only for so long. Prior to this summer, Barcelona were decaying since December 2015, when the team first showed signs of stumbling. The side is seemingly far past its expiration date.
Recent events could fool anyone. Barcelona are top of the league, broke their Anoeta curse, and Messi is firing on all cylinders. Valverde has done a fantastic job with this team, more than most imagined when he took over.
But the core is still aging. Pique, Busquets, Suarez, Iniesta, as well as Rakitic and Paulinho are on the wrong side of the aging curve. On one hand, Umtiti has unprecedentedly stepped up for Mascherano, Mina could be special, and Semedo and Roberto are a good right back pairing. On the other, the marquee long-term replacements for the core in Coutinho and Dembele have been signed for unsustainable, exorbitant sums leaving the club in a questionable financial situation.
The issue here is that, regardless of the signings, the club is leaning on a 30 year old Messi more than they ever have. Barcelona is still just a Messi injury away from complete, total disaster. He covers up for their aging core, he can single-handedly propel title challenges with an imbalanced side, and he can make Paulinho play like a world-beater. Lose him to injury, and this is a club with an overpaid squad, aging core, and is in all fairness, on the verge of financial disaster.
Barcelona don’t need revolution. They just need a plan, or a semblance of one to see out Messi’s next few years. They need to surround him with a fresher core without hitting UEFA’s 70% wage-revenue threshold. They have assets they can sell, and a solid midfield rotation.
Considering the miles on some of their core players, that is a fantastic position to be in.
Are Liverpool in year 3?
Liverpool present a curious case, but by the looks of it, the coach and the board might be setting up the side to peak next season.
Theoretically, Liverpool are in year 3. It has been over 2 years since Klopp joined, and they went far in his first season. At the same time, there’s been enough player turnover to feel that this team is not going to burnout next season despite Klopp’s style of play.
Some might argue that Klopp hasn’t been able to have his signature impact on Liverpool, but there is reason for optimism. Liverpool have a stable of attackers in Firmino, Salah, and Mane, as well as reliable starters in Clyne(Gomez), Matip, Van Djik, Wijnaldum, Robertson and Lallana. Throw in Keita – who joins this month or next summer – then the team is arguably a goalkeeper and a midfielder away from contending on all fronts in 2017-18.
While Coutinho’s departure does signify a loss in terms of creativity and flair in the squad, it does open up a lot of possibilities for Klopp to tweak his side or bring in another player to replace Coutinho. Either way, it works in Liverpool’s favour that a fresh player might be added to this core, and continue without the possibility of being burned out.
In other words, Liverpool are nearing a brilliant year 3.