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Tactical Nous

Over the past several seasons the debate about tactics has come to the forefront time and time again. Perhaps it is my perspective of soccer that is shifting, because to me tactics have always been a big part of the game! Then why is it still such a big issue today that fans disagree with their managers over squad selection? Surely some other factors like contractual obligations or team chemistry or game plan according to opponent are worth mentioning. Ok, so as fans we don’t know what really goes on behind closed doors at a football club but it isn’t really that complicated is it? Hopefully by the end of this article, we aren’t kicking ourselves about the issue of squad selection.

Rinus Michels is a man that changed football forever, after his time in charge of the Dutch national team in the 70s. He is voted a close second to Sir Alex Ferguson in the greatest managers of all time category on ESPN Soccernet for a reason. That reason is simple. Rinus Michels is the Godfather of modern day football.

It’s worth mentioning that the game has evolved since the 1970s, particularly with things such as passive vs. active offside and passing back to the goalkeepers. Even though the Netherlands weren’t able to win a major trophy, their different style and philosophy evolved into what is referred to as “Total Football” today. Total football of course, was the team’s ability to collectively pass and move, rotate positions and cover all areas of the field in attack as well as defense. Total Football eventually made its way over to La Masia and Barcelona through Johann Cruyff, and the rest is history. The closest modern day equivalent of the Dutch national team in the 70s is Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Tactics have become increasingly prominent in the modern game because of player ability. So much so, that nations are developing systems for players to grow up in that prepares them to play in a certain way by the time they reach the senior level. In the Netherlands, 4-3-3 is the most prominent tactic used. It is important to note that 4-5-1, 4-1-2-1-2, and 4-2-3-1 are all variations of the 4-3-3. There are many tactics that managers can choose from when picking their matchday squads.

What is inherent in any successful squad is a tactical philosophy, combined with the ability of the players to implement the style of play. A manager who focuses on wing play coming to a team with a surplus of passing talent would be a disaster. In this sense, Michels was fortunate to be able to combine his philosophy and his player’s ability to change the game completely.

Here are some other factors that become apparent along with the marriage of philosophy and talent:

Squad Rotation: 

Big squads have this problem. Liverpool under Benitez had a rotation system that never seemed to work out in their favour, but over at Manchester United Sir Alex Ferguson was able to rotate his squad constantly while continuing to win. So much so that one commentator was famously quoted as saying “everyday I’m shuffling”, in regards to Ferguson. What was the difference? Liverpool had Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, and Torres at his lethal prime, and this deadly trio helped Liverpool reach their highest points tally in the premier league as well as several forages into the later stages of the Champions League. The argument was made that Liverpool couldn’t field a consistent team that could put together a consistent run of games, but this case was totally nullified when compared to Sir Alex’s rotation, because Fergie rotated more than Benitez (remember Johnny Evans being in central defense in his first season as a regular and helping to set a record clean sheet streak?)

Bayern Munich have a surplus of talent in their squad, but all of their players are able to execute the same game plan that Pep Guardiola implements. Bayern, to this extent, are the most complete team in world football at this time. They have players who compliment each other perfectly but also have exceptional individual talent. How do you pick a matchday squad when you have three first teams to pick from (that can execute the same game plan)?!

Squad rotation comes down to the player’s ability to play with each other – which is exactly why a team with Wes Brown and John O’Shea (Manchester United 2007-2011) as prominent figures was more efficient than those with superstars all over the pitch that were brought from all over the place (Man City in the early days of their new found wealth/Chelsea eternally). Average players with good chemistry are more effective than great players with no chemistry! Ferguson’s philosophy was also able to harness every last ounce out of a Manchester United squad that had several average squad players who have more premiership medals than some of the finest players the league has seen. Can Moyes make his mark with United in the long run?

Player Roles in Relation to Formations:

This past weekend, we saw Liverpool move to a more traditional 4-4-2 formation against Aston Villa and promptly go down 2-0, with Villa outplaying them on their own patch. A shift in formation saw them eventually pull the game level. Scything remarks were made about Gerrard’s pace, but it is unfair on the player for such remarks to be made. Today, Gerrard is much more effective as a team player when playing in a three man midfield, instead of a two man midfield, and that is why Liverpool were unable to be effective with that formation with Gerrard. The three man midfield has been Liverpool’s source of solidity this season, giving SAS the playroom to bag the goals. Rodger’s approach to Liverpool is also completely different to the traditional 4-4-2 in the English game. His emphasis on passing and speed were not properly implemented with the 4-4-2 and the switch in formation brought his team back into the game.

Tottenham were playing a 4-2-3-1 under AVB and were barely creating any chances, except they had the highest number of shots in the league. Now under Tim Sherwood, they play a counterattacking 4-4-2, and have converted the highest percentage of chances in the league since his arrival. How does this make any sense? The only difference between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 is a shift of 1 player from midfield to attack (it seems that the player who makes the difference is Adebayor, as opposed to the peripheral Soldado!) The problem was that Totteham had all the speed in the world but when playing a high line along with a pressing game, they were ineffective at breaking down other teams. Now with speed under Sherwood’s system, they are lethal on the counterattack and Adebayor’s finishing is also impeccable.

Manchester United had some serious difficulties with a 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1) recently but when shifting to a 4-2-3-1, they had a higher percentage of wins. It has come to the forefront that their “lack of midfield” is the root of all their failures, yet they have had the majority of possession in almost all of their games. Perhaps the imminent Mata signing can link their scattered pieces together under Moyes?

Traditional Systems:

While I’ve mentioned that the Dutch were pioneers of the modern day game, different nations have different styles of play, and hence, different footballing educations are given to the youth academy graduates from each country. Italy is known for its “defense first” approach, Spain is known for possession football (tiki-taka, anybody?), and England for its bullish, fitness based approach to the game (4-4-2 wing play and crosses galore!). This probably explains why you don’t see too many English players playing abroad, but you see many foreign players who are able to acclimatize to the English game. English players can’t easily adapt to the Spanish game, while Spanish players can easily adapt to the English game. You don’t see many Italian players in England either, considering its a defense first mentality clashing with an offensive juggernaut mentality.

The Point:

Formations are nothing without the players themselves. The marriage of a manager’s tactical philosophy along with the player’s technical ability at implementing the style of play is the key ingredient for success.

An example of this is how both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid play a distinct 4-2-3-1 but Bayern were able to outclass Barcelona 7-0 over two legs of the Champions League semi-finals while Real have been consistently second best to the Blaugrana for some time now. Bayern’s superior flanking ability as opposed to Real’s play through the middle approach was what caused the major damage to the Catalan outfit – an example of Spanish tiki-taka through the middle vs. German all round efficiency.

Perhaps a 4-4-2 isn’t so bad after all… You just need the players who are good at playing it, and a manager who is good at harnessing it from his players!

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