A tale of two sports: How football compares to basketball
Two sporting events in the early summer of this year served as landmarks in their respective sports.
In last May’s Champions League final, Barcelona reaffirmed their control of European soccer. By defeating Juventus 3-1 in a game that closer than the scoreline suggests, Barcelona proved that they were the premier team in Europe again, despite the decline of the Pep Guardiola’s all-dominant side.
Guardiola’s philosophy was seemingly outdated after the 2014 World Cup, where Spain lost in the group stage employing his famous tiki-taka tactics. But the Catalans, under Luis Enrique, showed a remarkable ability to adapt to changes in tactics. They retained the distinctive aspects of the style that had been so good to them, and brought in parts of those that were employed so successfully by Germany and Holland at the World Cup.
It resulted in a perfect mix. Barcelona combined a strong defence with one of the best attacking trios in the world. It lead to a treble, making Barcelona the first team in history to win one on two separate occasions.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a very different team was starting to establish its reputation. The Golden State Warriors, a Basketball team, were coming off a franchise best 67-15 regular season record. They coasted through the playoffs, losing just 3 games on the way to the NBA Finals.
But once they got there, they struggled against Lebron James’ Cavaliers. For three games the Warriors labored and fought, failing to reproduce the beautiful basketball that had become their trademark.
Finally, it all clicked in game 4. Play started to flow again. The Warriors easily beat the Cavs in the next three games, claiming the franchise’s first title since 1975.
For the NBA, the Warriors victory served as vindication of the up tempo, passing, high scoring philosophy employed by coach Steve Kerr. It will be looked back on a watershed moment for the NBA.
Both of these events may seem unrelated, but they are not in many ways. In fact, the way that basketball and soccer are played are more and more connected. Offensively and defensively the similarities abound.
Pace and Space
The brilliant Warriors offense is the product of years of building change in the NBA. Kerr drew inspiration from two teams that he was involved with earlier in his career: the San Antonio Spurs (as a player from 1999-2001 and again in 2002-03) and the Phoenix Suns (as general manager from 2007-10).
Both the Suns and the Spurs revolutionized how the NBA was played. The Suns, under coach Mike D’Antoni, played a run and gun style. They pushed the tempo of games, seeking to create fast breaks on every opportunity, beating the opponent down the court, not allowing them to set up on defense. Jack McCallum called it “7 seconds or less,” given D’Antoni’s emphasis on getting quick, but good, shots.
The Spurs were a little later to the party than the Suns. While the Suns ran up scores using 7 seconds or less, the Spurs will still playing traditional basketball. Led by Tim Duncan, one of the great big men in NBA history, and coached by Gregg Popovich, one of the smartest coaches in history, the Spurs emphasized strong defense. Offensively, they focused on high pick rolls and little off ball movement.
Popovich saw, however, what the Suns were doing, often through head-to-head encounters, and recognized it as the future of the game. With his stars ageing and the league changing, Popovich and Duncan quickly switched the team’s style. Instead of being a gritty, grinding team, the Spurs became practitioners of the beautiful game. It was a process that took years to complete, as the Spurs grew into the system. Duncan, joined by point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobli, led the team away from a star-oriented system to one that prioritized humility and team play.
The shift over half a decade culminated in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. In both, the Spurs put their passing game on display for the entire world to see. Losing the first 4-3 to the Miami Heat, the Spurs got their revenge a year later, handily beating the same opponents 4-1.
Steve Kerr adopted these basic principles when he took over the Warriors last season. A team built around Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, nicknamed the “Splash Brothers” for their ability to shoot the lights out, the Warriors were perfectly built to play an up-tempo, “pace and space” system.
With Kerr guiding them, and Curry playing out of his mind, the Warriors went 67-15, setting a franchise record. They glided through the playoffs, and were only held back from a quick Finals victory by some incredible performances by Lebron James and some unfortunate form.
The back to back victories of the Warriors and Spurs over James’ teams, first the Heat then the Cavaliers, validated the pace and space model. It has become the dominant paradigm in the NBA.
This trend compares with the resurgence and triumph of tiki taka in the great Barcelona dynasty that debatably still rules Europe.
Barcelona’s beautiful football can be traced back to the 1960s, with Johan Cruyff’s great Ajax sides. Cruyff and then Ajax coach Rinus Michels are credited with creating “total football,” the philosophy that changed the way football is played.
Total football emphasized positional freedom, high athleticism and ball movement. Ajax and later Dutch players were encouraged, in fact required, to often switch positions and keep the ball moving. They pressed hard off the ball, seeking to win it back quickly. While on offense, they sought to open the field up as much as possible, by passing quickly and keeping space between attacking players.
Jack Reynolds, one of Ajax’s early managers, also began to make use of a winger, or wide player. Similar to the “3 and D” role in the NBA, the winger spreads the field of play by forcing the defense to come out of their shell and guard him. This opens room in the center for midfielders and forwards.
Cruyff later managed Barcelona in the later 1980s and early 90s. Nearly all of what makes Barcelona so amazing today comes from his time.
He helped found La Masia, the academy that would go on to train Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique and, of course, Lionel Messi.
He also built one of the only Barcelona sides that can rival the current one: the “Dream Team.” Winning four straight league titles and the club’s first European Cup, the 1991-94 squad is one of the greatest sides of history. Featuring Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola, the team was beautiful to watch.
Cruyff’s most important contribution to Barcelona is the philosophy that now permeates every aspect of the club. Tiki-taka is an offshoot of total football, adapted to the modern game. It requires slightly less athleticism (to be fair, the Dutch were ridiculously fit comparatively), and stresses slower build up play.
But the same underlying concepts are there: spacing on offense, through ball movement and strategic use of the wings, and high intensity defense.
The club grasped this philosophy whole heartedly, teaching it from the youngest schoolboys in the academy all the way to the first team. The great Catalan dynasty of the last 6 years rose directly because of tiki taka.
It’s amazing to see the commonalities in offense in the NBA and world football. The emphasis on using spacing and a high pace to keep defenses from settling in is major in both. Both sports are beginning to glorify teams that are star-less, or rather produce stars through a system, rather than players who straight up dominate.
Analytics are taking a greater hold over both basketball and football. In both, teams, pundits and fans are reaching beyond the normal, box line statistics to find deeper level, more telling ones. They create new statistics to measure things like pace or a ratio of shots taken to total shots.
But the similarities are not just on offense.
Higher tempo offenses don’t start in the opponents half, they start in your own. The key to playing fast in both basketball and soccer is a strong ability to turn teams over, and then quickly attack them in transition.
This is the very idea behind counterpressing. Jurgen Klopp made gegenpressing famous at Dortmund, but nearly all teams utilize counterpressing.
Counterpressing teams seek to defend high up the field, trying to win the ball back deep in the opponents half. If the balls comes into their half, a counter-pressing team then sits compactly, waiting to pounce on the counter.
There are varying types of counter-pressing. Dortmund often used spatial counter-pressing, attacking the dribbler and shutting down the space around him. Barcelona uses passing lane counter-pressing, where they cut off the player’s passing options and then allow him to panic and make a mistake. Cruyff and the Dutch employed a ball dominant focus, where every defender immediately ran to pressure the ball.
Once the ball is won back, the attackers seek to capitalize on the ensuing chaos. Since the defending team is scrambling to recover from losing the ball, it won’t be in a good shape for several seconds.
It is this 3-5 second interval that is crucially important for offenses. Even when a back line gets in position before the attackers can hit them, they are rarely calm headed and collected.
NBA teams also look to take advantage in transition. By pouncing on turnovers and misses shots, teams like the Warriors and Spurs get open shots before the defense gets settled.
They also try to keep opponents in the middle of the court. Corner threes are among the best shots a team can get, and thus defenses seek to cut down on open shots from the corner. Defenses try to keep the ball in the middle of the court, down the lane, where their big man can clog up play and stop any ball movement.
The tactic most teams use to accomplish this is called ice. It’s a type of defense on pick and rolls, where the guard and big man defending trap the ball handler by forcing him to go away from the pick. It is good for screens off the wing or in the middle, closing the room a ball handler has to operate in.
Ice defense forces turnovers, allowing once again the team to break quickly and get transition points.
Counterpressing and ice, as well as the other NBA strategies, are closely related. They both stress using aggressive defense to create high pace offense. They both seek to close down the space opponents have to work in to force them into mistakes.
For both sports, the offensive and defensive strategies popular now are closely related. One can’t have a counterattacking offense without a good counterpress, and there is no point to pressing high if you don’t intend to turn over the opponent and then counter quickly.
Some might think it a great coincidence that basketball and soccer have grown so similar in the past years. But it simply cannot be. Soccer has always been an international sport, and now basketball has begun to take off around the globe.
Thanks to Michael Jordan and the 1992 Dream Team, basketball has become a worldwide sport. International players have flooded the NBA, bringing with them traces of soccer philosophy.
Look at Steve Nash. Born in Canada, Nash has said he could have played professional soccer if he wanted. He has maintained a lifelong love of the game, grew up playing it, and now plays part time with the New York Cosmos’ reserve side.
Nash was the central figure in 7 seconds or less. He has become one of the most impactful players in the post-Jordan era. It’s obvious the impact soccer had on him as a basketball player.
As the NBA expands its global reach, and soccer becomes more popular in America, the two sports will rub off on each other more and more. In places like Spain, Italy and Greece, where basketball is increasingly popular, the exchange will happen even more often. The next trends in both sports could come from the other.
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