Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from the May 2023 magazine. It's called, " Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles.”

Are certain tactical styles more conducive to hoisting trophies?

Put it in this perspective, Arsène Wenger won four league titles and 17 domestic cups, but he never won the Champions League. The Invincibles conquered England but bowed out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals.

Do you remember which club won the Champions League in that 2003/04 campaign? None other than a Porto side coached by a young José Mourinho. In the Arsenal ideologue’s most famed season, it was one of the game’s preeminent tacticians who claimed the highest honor.

Is there something the 2003/04 season is trying to tell us?

We had to find out. That is where this one-of-a-kind data analysis comes in. We’ve looked back at the past 15 years of continental and domestic winners, looking at the advanced metrics from the winning managers from the 2015/16 season (the oldest available season on Wyscout) to the present day. Using advanced statistics, we’ve sorted the managers into two groups, the ideologues and the tacticians. This analysis is their story as they battle for continental and domestic supremacy.

The process

This data analysis started with the end in mind. Since the objective was to identify whether ideologues or tacticians were more likely to claim domestic and continental trophies, we started by identifying each manager who has claimed a Champions League, Europa League, or Conference League title in the past 15 years.

The majority of those titles were claimed by clubs in La Liga, the Premier League, Serie A, and the Bundesliga. Since the continental trophies primarily reside in those countries, the domestic portion of the study came in those four leagues. We added managers to the analysis pool if they had coached a team to a domestic league or season-long cup title. Super Cup and the like were ignored. No trophy padding here. Once again, the time frame was the past 15 years. That gives us a list of 28 coaches, a few of whom did not have advanced statistics available.

To separate the managers into two camps, the Ideologues, whose game model is paramount, and the Tacticians, with fewer principles of play and a greater emphasis on matchup-specific tactics, we targeted discrepancies in data consistency. Significant differences in matches between top teams and all other opponents were key. To define what a top team looked like, we settled on clubs that were top six in the league, all Champions League matches and knockout stage games in the Europa and Conference leagues. Any team that did not meet these qualifications was shuffled into the “all other opponents” category.

After downloading spreadsheets for each manager, the next job was to separate the top clubs from the rest of the pack, highlighting the top six league finishers in each spreadsheet. Once that was done, we pulled specific KPIs to a central spreadsheet to essentially build a vision of gameplay through data. Averages were produced for matches against top teams and “all other opponents,” and then added to the central spreadsheet for direct analysis.

The images below show the results of the study. Kick back and enjoy.

Ideologues vs Tacticians – defining the pools

Performance consistency is our operating principle. In a single season, one of the signs we’re looking for is a significant difference in performance metrics from one group, the top teams, to the other, the also-rans. But we’re not stopping there. Most of the coaches in the study had extensive statistical databases in Wyscout. That allows us to compare data across multiple seasons. This is where we start to see some of the differences in how managers approach the game.

Looking at our first image, Carlo Ancelotti is the star of the data visualization. During his season at Bayern Munich, there was very little difference in the percentage of possession from one group to the other. His Bayern Munich side always imposed through possession.

But look at his other seasons. His teams are all over the board. Compare that to Jürgen Klopp at the bottom of the visualization. His Liverpool sides were typically very consistent.

The second image contains the same information, only featuring the remaining coaches in the pool. Notice that there’s far more consistency in this group. The one manager with significant variation is Unai Emery.

To give another visual of differences in possessions, the next two images in the analysis plot specific differences between possession versus top teams and the statistics against the rest. Greater distances between those pink and yellow points signify greater differences in the percentage of possession secured against our two groups.

This is again where multiple seasons from specific managers can give us insights into how their teams play. There’s not much difference in possession percentages with Pep Guardiola’s teams. There is with Ancelotti and Mourinho.

The patterns of the game’s best

One of the most common ways teams adapt their tactics is in where they press. Some teams, including most of the game’s best, prefer to engage the opponent through the high press.

Knowing that the risk is increased and the rewards of the high press aren’t necessarily attainable, it is common to see teams drop deeper as they play top opponents. That’s especially the case when one has a clear qualitative advantage in terms of personnel. That disparity in quality is certainly seen in the high-pressing recoveries chart, but it also gives an idea of the manager’s mentality.

Each of the managers has multiple seasons listed. For some, that includes multiple coaching stops. For example, Nagelsmann has Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig, and Bayern Munich listed. As the quality of his teams improved, the more likely his side was to high press.

This is also where we find interesting details on club cultures. For example, look at any year featuring a Bayern Munich or Barcelona coaching assignment. Even if the manager has additional coaching roles listed, his stops at those clubs are inevitably going to produce more high recoveries. Ancelotti is a perfect example. His season at Bayern Munich represents his most effective season with high recoveries.

High recoveries offer tremendous insight into a team’s defending tactics. You can plainly see which coaches or clubs make it a top priority. They’re going to get after the ball regardless of the opponent.

Which group wins the most trophies and which ones?

So where does that leave us?

Looking at the past 15 years, which managers are more likely to claim trophies and is there a disparity between continental play and domestic?

Using the data from the previous two sections, we split the managers into two groups, the Ideologues and the Tacticians. With those two parties in place, all that was left was to add up the trophy count. Here’s what we discovered.

In continental play, the Tacticians claimed a 21 to 16 victory, a 57% share. That accounts for Champions League, Europa, and Conference titles.

Before starting this project, it was an assumption that the Tacticians would win, but perhaps by a greater margin.

It’s the domestic honors that was more of a surprise…but you’ll have to read the full article for that conclusion.

For the full article, which offers far more insight into the philosophical battle of Ideologues vs Tacticians, head to Total Football Analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles