Thoughts on ‘Universality’ by Matt Whitehouse


‘Universality’ is an essential read for anyone who has a passion for football. In his stimulating, compelling and thoroughly well-written book, Matt Whitehouse highlights the tactical trends emerging in the modern game.

The driving factor behind these new developments Whitehouse discusses, has been the search for fluidity and flexibility. Many teams now prefer to operate with more midfielders, as players who are based centrally are able to contribute in different areas. This change seems to have had a huge impact on players in other positions.

For a start, more teams play with 1 striker, rather than 2, to allow for the extra midfielder. This has meant that higher levels of work rate are required from forwards, who must now cover more ground, but also that more wingers have needed to cut inside to support a lone striker. These developments have led to a congestion of the central areas, therefore more full-backs have been relied upon to get forward and provide width, and in turn, central midfielders have at times needed to drop into the back-line to restore the team’s defensive balance. All of these new trends have created a situation whereby defenders must now be able to attack, and attackers must be able to defend.

This blog has a few disagreements with the book too. Whtehouse has said that the hallmark of a ‘Universal’ player, is a willingness to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team. However, two of the players Whitehouse refers to as being ‘universal’, are Yaya Toure, and Lionel Messi, which does not seem to fit. Whitehouse describes Toure as a ‘box-to-box’ midfielder, when he is arguably more of a ‘centre-circle-to-box’ midfielder. He is fantastic at driving forward and either picking a pass, or unleashing a shot from range. Toure can provide sporadic moments of brilliance, but he only comes alive when he is the one that has the ball. When he does not have the ball, and particularly when the opposing team are on the attack, Toure shows little desire to help out his teammates.

Lionel Messi is probably the best player in the world, but he does not do the things that Whitehouse has said are important for a ‘universal’ player. You will never see Messi pressing from the front, or tracking back, simply because his technical quality gives him the right to conserve all of his energy for when he gets on the ball. At the World Cup, Messi spent most of the time standing around waiting for his teammates to pass to him.

Both Toure and Messi are undeniably great players, who are rightly valued by their respective clubs. However, their only contribution to the team comes when they get the ball at their feet. A universal player will be happy to press and track back in conjunction with his teammates and the manager’s plans. Toure and Messi do not do that, and so this blog would suggest that the success of those players actually controverts the argument for universality.

Whitehouse seems to refer to certain brands of football, most notably tiki-taka and gegenpressing, as though one of them may definitively be the best one, or the ‘way forward’. This blog would argue that no tactical system is objectively better than another. Tiki-taka and gegenpressing have been successful only because they suited the qualities of the players available, and because they were original.

For example, Barcelona and Spain were so successful between 2008-2012 for 3 reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, they had incredibly talented players. Secondly, a lot of those players were used to playing with each other at youth level, as part of the same tiki-taka setup, and they knew each other’s games innately. Finally, no other side at that time was playing the same system with the same level of quality, so opposing teams were simply unprepared for dealing with Barcelona. Originality can be a surprisingly important factor in a system’s success.

This blog would argue that long ball football is just as effective as tiki-taka and gegenpressng. Long balls are now regarded as slightly old-fashioned, yet there may be a time in future when they once again become popular at the top level. The rise of universality dictates that defenders must be quick, intelligent and comfortable on the ball, and this may see a new breed of smaller centre-backs. To take advantage of that, some future managers may be inclined to put 2 target men up front and simply pump balls into the box, as the Ivory Coast did against Japan at the World Cup. Whitehouse shows evidence in the past of tactical trends, such as 3 centre-back formations, box-to-box midfielders and strike partnerships initially looking outdated, and later be re-discovered in a revamped form.It may be simplistic to say that one tactical method is better than another on it’s own merit.

My interpretation of the book is that football in the future will favour players who are flexible, but imperfect. They must be a Jack of all trades, rather than a master of one trade. The quantity of a player’s skills will be more important than the quality of them. Whitehouse implies this, but in a slightly more idealistic way. He talks much about the need to increase the quantity of player skills, but rarely references the potential decrease in quality as a result.

Whitehouse clearly believes that young footballers should be encouraged to develop a multitude of skills, and is against ‘pigeonholing’ a player into a fixed position early on. However, budding footballers, particularly those who may still be at school, have only a finite amount of training time. If they spend a lot of that time looking to become a ‘universal’ player, the skills that are most relevant to the position they eventually play will be less accomplished. It would be impractical, for example, for a centre-back to train with as much focus on their finishing, as their defensive heading ability. Very rarely will a defender need to shoot inside the box, but they will always need to be ready to head the ball away, simply due to the position they are playing in. On the other hand, as the modern game develops, a player’s ‘position’ is becoming less and less distinguished, and more players are required to take up different positions at different times, as football becomes more demanding of it’s players than ever.

In short, Matt Whitehouse’s ‘Universality’ is an incredibly thought-provoking book, and essential reading for anybody curious about the tactical evolution of the modern game.