Tactics and the Modern Game: the Perils of Overstating the Case

Bill Shankly:  "Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple."

Bill Shankly: "Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple."

And my particular bugbear, this week, is bullshit-artists who try to over-complicate a perfectly simple game by waffling on interminably about formations and tactics; holding midfielders, players in the hole, galloping wing-backs blah, blah, blah snooze yawn in a bid to make out they’re more clever than everyone else. There is, of course, a time for such talk, but as somebody clever once said about analysing humour, dissecting football to that degree is like dissecting a frog. Nobody is particularly interested and the frog dies.  — Barry Glendenning.

So wrote the Guardian scribe on the Football Weekly blog this week, and I will boldly be the first to say I agree.

There is a latent fear in English football that unless you discuss a 3-0 top of the table thrashing by making several references to the demise of the 4-5-1 in favour of the 3-6-1, you are somehow part of the old, naive generation of English observers who regard pace, power and passion as the solution to any tactical defensive formation imaginable.  On the continent of course, it has always been a humiliating shame to be considered “tactically-naive”; Bobby Robson learned this first hand managing PSV Eindhoven in the bad old days of the early 1990s when he observed, “An English pro accepts the manager’s decision. After every match here, the substitutes come and visit me.”  Now the fear is that unless the game is reduced to a set of variable formulae, English football (specifically the national team) will remain a footballing backwater forever.

Of course, without intelligent formations and plans there would be no football, but it’s wrong to believe football is merely the sum of its tactical parts.  Yet today Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics sells like hotcakes, and every fifteen year-old boy who’s won a few games on Football Manager posts up their opinions of Wenger’s use of attacking midfielders, with the firm belief that if only they’d been in Arsene’s place to option Vela as a lone striker, Arsenal would never have drew [fill in the the lower table underdog here].  It’s considered conventional wisdom that tactics make the football and not vice-versa, and that’s led to an over-emphasis on the importance of the manager as the driving force of the game. Players are no longer considered capable of taking any on-pitch leadership, or of using their instincts and playing to their individual strengths by grasping a fleeting moment, brilliantly, to change a game midstream.

Bob Paisley once gave famously effective advice to Liverpool on the eve of their first European Cup against Moenchengladbach in Rome, 1977: none at all.  His tactics, already quite familiar to his team, were merely the formations in which his individual players could best excel.  Compare that to Rafa Benitez, who dithered his way out of a Champions League win in 2007 by missing the stupidly obvious: sending in Craig Bellamy to join lone striker Dirk Kuyt (!), so he could at least rough AC Milan up and wedge himself in the box as the game withered and died.

But the best contemporary example has to be Chelsea, whingeing about how Scolari didn’t “make” them train, didn’t “motivate” them by being tough on them, and was “too friendly.” The notion of individual responsibility has been eroded by the expectation that managers should have total control over their players.  Tactics are an integral part of the sport, but they are only one part.  Managers are not gods, and good tactics alone does not a good football club make.  As Glendenning said, echoing Shankly before him, football is a simple game.  Reducing it to tactics and formations alone makes it simplistic.

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  1. The Gaffer February 28, 2009
  2. Brian February 28, 2009
  3. Richard Whittall February 28, 2009
  4. Brian February 28, 2009
  5. Kartik February 28, 2009
  6. Colin March 1, 2009
  7. Thomas March 1, 2009

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