Top 4 Tactical Innovations in Soccer

Following the impressive performances – most notably the 5-1 victory over the defending champions Spain – of Louis van Gaal’s Dutch side in the World Cup, a new formation seems to be in vogue…the 3-5-2. In reality, many sides have utilized a back four in the last decade with Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile, Roberto Martinez’s Everton and Wigan, Walter Mazzarri’s Inter, Edy Reja’s Lazio, Gian Piero Gasperini’s Genoa, Roberto Donadoni’s Livorno, Antonio Conte’s Juventus and Steve Bruce’s Hull City all coming into mind.

Many teams in Serie A have been actually making use of similar formations in the past couple of years especially since many teams nowadays are playing with just one lone striker. However, it usually takes a famous and eagerly-followed spectacle such as a World Cup or Champions’ League that helps put the limelight on certain tactical innovations.

Below are four tactical innovations that I have chosen that have helped give a different dimension to how soccer tactics and formations are to be viewed. As will be seen, most innovations seem to sprout from the Italian Serie A. Obviously, there are many more tactical revolutions, such as the Dutch total football of the 1970s, that will not be mentioned.

1. Herrera’s Catenacccio

Italy, and specifically Inter Milan, are “notorious” for having introduced the ‘Catenaccio‘ (literal translation is ‘door-bolt’) into soccer. This defensive system was actually first used by the Austrian coach Karl Rappan in the 1930s but it was Helenio Herrera’s Inter that made it famous due to their impressive results. Rappan’s original plan was to have a “sweeper” playing behind a back three whose role was to sweep away any attacks that get past the three ahead of him. This was revolutionary since Rappan was coaching in an era where most teams lined up with four or five players in attack. Having four players to defend was hardly the norm!

While coaching the side that has become immortalised as “Grande Inter” in the 1960s, Herrera used a defensive 5-3-2 formation with a sweeper playing behind a back four rather than a back three. However, the wingbacks, one of whom was the legend Giacinto Facchetti, were given more of a role in attack, especially in counter-attacks.

The role of the sweeper sweeping attacks that have penetrated the defensive line is now more or less obsolete. However, Herrera’s catenaccio gave rise to innovative concepts that are still very much in use in modern soccer. Counter-attacking strategies used so often nowadays by coaches such as Jose Mourinho have their roots in this system. So too does the role of the modern full back that is so vital in both defence and in attack to provide width, especially during counter attacks.

The sweeper, or libero, also gradually changed over the years from a defensive role to a more creative one. Players such as Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Mattheus and Franco Baresi were all sweepers from whom most attacks used to actually start. This actually eventually gave rise to the modern creative holding midfielder with the likes of Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo being sought out by their team-mates to start attacks from deep.

2. Ramsey’s Wingless Wonders

England has always had a reputation of producing top class wide players. John Barnes, David Beckham, Steve McManaman and Stanley Matthews are just some of the names that have excited crowds by their play on the wings. Nevertheless, in 1966, their World Cup squad didn’t boast such names in wide positions. What Alf Ramsey did have, however, was one of the best attacking midfielders ever to set foot on a football pitch and several fearless and skilful central midfielders.

In an era where most teams played in a 4-2-4 formation with offensive wingers on either side, Alf Ramsey decided to play a type of 4-4-2 with the four midfielders playing narrow. Thus, England’s wingless wonders were born. Bobby Charlton took up the spaces centrally behind the strikers with the fearless Nobby Stiles playing in a deeper role and utilizing his ball-winning skills to break off opponents’ attacks. Stiles is in fact fondly remembered by many England fans for his role in the semi-final against Portugal in nullifying Eusebio’s significant threat.

On either side, the industrious pair of Alan Ball and Martin Peters helped cover attacks from the wings but regularly found team-mates in a central area when in possession. Their skills and football intelligence helped bring about the midfield harmony on which the World Cup was won in Wembley.

3. Ancelotti’s Narrow Midfield

What do you do if your squad boasts several world class central attacking midfielders? Carlo Ancelotti was pondering this dilemma during his early years at AC Milan. His answer was simple: just lump them all in the starting line-up and forget about wingers by setting up the side in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation with a very narrow midfield.

He converted Andrea Pirlo into one of the best holding midfielders in world football making the most of his creativity and range of passing rather than his ball winning attributes. Ahead of him was the aggressive and bulldog-like Gennaro Gattuso and the finesse of Clarence Seedorf while Rui Costa (and later on Kaka) operated behind the strikers. Since the midfield was so narrow however, Ancelotti relied heavily on his full-backs to provide the necessary width with Cafu especially impressing.

At times, Ancelotti also set up his Milan team in a Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1) with Pirlo once more usually anchoring the midfield and the rest of his central midfield team-mates taking up the remaining four slots in midfield. This was at a time when playing with just one striker was considered as taboo with club president Berlusconi actually once coming out in the media criticizing his manager and saying that Milan should always play with at least two attackers.

4. Spalletti’s False Nine

In the early days of 2006, Luciano Spalletti, the then AS Roma coach, faced a crisis in his forward line. The injury-prone Vincenzo Montella was his only out-and-out striker of any experience and his team had started the 2005/2006 season rather sluggishly. Whilst at the back Spalletti could rely in the expertice of the likes of Christian Chivu and Christian Panucci, his side lacked a cutting edge up front. His solution took the whole of Serie A by surprise.

Rather than dip into the transfer market for a new striker, Spalletti decided to simply not utilize one in a 4-6-0 formation. The aggression of Giuseppe de Rossi and creativity of David Pizarro were ideal for anchoring the midfield that boasted a front quarter of Rodrigo Taddei, Mancini, Simone Perrotta and Francesco Totti. Totti usually started off ahead of his team-mates in the “false 9” position with Taddei and Mancini coming in from the flanks and Perrotta advancing from a central role. This fluid front line meant that there wasn’t just one player spearheading the attack making marking from opposition defences very difficult. This helped Roma embark on a record 11-game winning streak.

This tactical innovation inspired many managers to try using different tactical line-ups utilizing a false nine with Guardiola’s Barcelona being the most successful in recent times in getting the best out of Lionel Messi in the position made famous by Francesco Totti and co.


  1. Juan Arango August 9, 2014
  2. mark October 15, 2016

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