Football's Rare Pause for Thought Gives Coaches Time for Inspiration
Marton Bukovi showed his courage in wartime Zagreb but the Hungarian also rethought football tactics. Today’s coaches should use their layoff constructively
“What did you do in the war, Mr Bukovi?” “I invented the false 9. What did you do?”
That wasn’t all Marton Bukovi did during the second world war. The Hungarian coach – quite possibly the greatest tactical mind football has known – found himself in Zagreb, coaching Gradjanski, when the conflict began. When the Ustashe seized power and began enacting antisemitic legislation, his position became insecure, given he was the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He, in as much as religion bothered him at all, seems to have identified as Christian, and there is a cross on his gravestone in the Rakoskeresztur cemetery in Budapest, but his wife, Aranka Klein, was Jewish and at least one of his sisters was a practising Jew.
Bukovi not only kept working but also helped protect the club’s groundsman, a Jewish refugee called Max Reisfeld who had fled Nazi Vienna, taking food and provisions to him and his family as they hid under a stand at the stadium where, for four years, they remained undetected and survived.
Bukovi was courageous and a man of firm principle but he was also notoriously difficult. He had his habits and was rarely minded to change them. He loved the cinema and would go every day after training, but he hated being distracted so would turn up at the box office, ask if his wife were there and, if she were, he would go on to a different cinema.
“He was a hard man,” said Marika Lantos, whose husband, Mihaly, later worked as Bukovi’s assistant at Olympiakos. “Precise, strict and consistent. He demanded order and discipline. It didn’t matter who a player was; he would always tell him what he thought of him. That might be why many didn’t love him. He could be reserved and grumpy but he had a heart of gold. He was like a bad mother-in-law: he commented on everything and always found fault. He meant well, but he couldn’t understand that he needed to make distinctions between people. He just said what he wanted to say.”
But then he was a genius, and geniuses perhaps are allowed some leeway with the social graces. When the war in Yugoslavia was over and the Communists were in control, the clubs who had played in the fascist league were disbanded and, in many cases, had their archives destroyed. Gradjanski, eventually, were reborn as Dinamo and Bukovi was persuaded to become manager.
The interim had given him time to think. He had already overseen Gradjanski’s transition from a 2-3-5 to the W-M formation but what, he wondered, if you went further? What if you withdrew the centre-forward so deep he was almost a midfielder, gave your inside-forwards licence and pulled one of the wing-halves so deep he was in effect a second central defender, turning the 3-2-2-3 of W-M into something very close to 4-2-4?
And so, in 1946, in the game against Lokomotiva that would decide the Zagreb championship, Bukovi put his theory into practice.
Gradjanski won and Bukovi was vindicated – not that he was entirely happy. “Dragutin Hripko played the role,” he said. “He played it closer to well than to poorly, but far from ideally. As a footballer he never achieved great quality, but I always spoke about him when asked about a withdrawn striker. He was my lab rat … I can clearly remember how the Lokomotiva players didn’t know how to handle him.”
Bukovi took the system with him when he returned to Budapest and by 1952 Hungary were using it to win Olympic gold, part of a four-year unbeaten run – in which they twice hammered a befuddled England – that ended with defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final.
Managers rarely get time to think. The churn of games, the routine of training, of the day-to-day dealing with players is too much. But now, during a shutdown that will last at least a couple of months, managers do have time. Football is a mature game now: huge developmental steps such as Bukovi’s are unlikely. Everything happens by increments. But what is possible? What might an enlightened manager do having been given this long period without the immediate pressure of games?
Elite-level football tends to move forward by solutions. A team is successful playing in a particular way and so a means must be found to interrupt that. The possession-heavy game of Pep Guardiola and his imitators was eventually overcome by the high-energy, highly focused press and transition game of Jürgen Klopp – to the extent that Guardiola has begun to change.
That makes sense: the way to defeat possession football is to work out a way of disrupting those patterns of passing and regaining the ball better.
So what comes next? How do you disrupt a pressing game? One way is simply to pass the ball better, in less predictable patterns. Perhaps if Guardiola’s Barcelona of 2008-11 were still around, still at their peak and still with the dribbling potency of Lionel Messi, that would be possible (it may be that what passed was less their stylistic hegemony than simply the peak of that side). But given it is not, and given the seeming impossibility of that aim, how else could hard-pressing football be circumvented?
An obvious way, which Guardiola briefly took against Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in a German cup game, is to go over the press. Guardiola used Javi Martínez as his target man, but perhaps target men in general are due a comeback. What better way to thwart a well-deployed pressing line than by whacking it long and early at a Niall Quinn or a Joe Jordan or a Nat Lofthouse, particularly if they could be supported by a rapid poacher? How better to unsettle two central defenders picked less for their marking and battling qualities than their positioning and passing than by making them defend against a pair?
Or perhaps not. But in this time of enforced inaction, it’s perhaps worth managers asking, what would Marton Bukovi do?
The Guardian Sport