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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. Thomas

    March 1, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    @ Kartik:

    It’s often tough to watch the US team play. They seem so rigid in their tactics that they rarely try to produce any moments of brilliance. Players seem locked into their roles.

    Sadly the US also doesn’t seem to have any overly creative players, or a striker worth a damn at the moment. Ching is clearly not the answer, and I hope we blood Altidore before the WC. We need someone who can spark the team.

  2. Colin

    March 1, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Wilson warns against the type of thinking your condemning in the last chapter of his book, mostly through the words of Arrigo Sacchi. Sacchi is more worried about tactical obsession leading to increased specialization than annoying conversations with pseudo-managers though.

    On Glendenning, isn’t his cynical reductionism every bit as annoying as the tactical musings of video game managers?

  3. Kartik

    February 28, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    When the US played the 3-6-1 in the lead up to the 1998 World Cup, I thought it was a useful formation. At the time the Americans had poor attacking players but some technically gifted midfielders in Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna. The formation worked in giving the US it’s only ever win over Brazil early in the year but it wasn’t ready for the world stage. The US bombed out of France 98.

    Bruce Arena took over and reverted to the more traditional 3-5-2 which carried the US to a 3rd place Confederations Cup finish in 1999 and the quarterfinals of Korea/Japan 2002. But I felt the 3-6-1 if played correctly was a better formation for the US than the 3-5-2. The US then gradually shifted to a 4-5-1 which did not work well in Germany 2006 even though it ripped through CONCACAF qualifying.

    After Arena was fired, new coach Bob Bradley made a decision to revert to a 4-2-2-2 which has looked no different than the 4-5-1, honestly. So unless the tactic is very different and innovative like the 3-6-1 they all more or less play the same, I suppose.

  4. Brian

    February 28, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Agreed. The scenario of the overmatched midfielder panicking his way into a perfect clearance is really instructive, because it shows how no tactical system can ever overcome the element of randomness in the game. And the guy who sees the game a kind of math contest between managers is making the same basic error as the guy who refuses to think about tactics at all.

    As you say, the point is not to dismiss or overemphasize any of these elements, but to see how they all fit together in the game.

  5. Richard Whittall

    February 28, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I don’t think there is a dichotomy between individual player ability and rigourous tactical formations (which I alluded to in my remarks on Paisley); I think my greater point is tipping the balance in what Shankly also called the “Holy Trinity of football, players, the manager and supporters” too far in one direction.

    I guess I’d put it simply as “there’s more to football than’s dreamt of in your tactical system.” Perhaps the midfielder is indeed weak, is given lots of space, and in a mad panic gives a wild clearance that by happenstance falls directly into the path of his striker on a forward run. If you think that’s a fantastical scenario, it happens all the time in football.

    I want to stress I don’t think there is something in football to be pursued “outside” of tactics, I just think that there is a pervasive belief today that all football requires of you is to build a system and slot players in, and, voila, the magic “happens.”

  6. Brian

    February 28, 2009 at 8:49 am

    At the same time, though, thinking systematically about tactics can be the best way to understand what’s actually happening in a game. Is the team repeatedly moving the ball down the left wing? Why? Is it because their opponents’ left back is weak? Or is it because their opponents are giving them space on the left to take advantage of their own weak left midfielder?

    The answers suggest very different understandings of what’s driving the decisions of the players and which team has the advantage. If you make it all about personal responsibility, you just wind up saying, “The left midfielder is having a great/terrible game” without really appreciating why that scenario is emerging in the first place.

    I understand the frustration with overly technical and show-offy exegeses by armchair managers. But surely some of the problem is that these people usually don’t know what they’re talking about, rather than that tactics aren’t actually being utilized at a high level in the game?

  7. The Gaffer

    February 28, 2009 at 4:53 am

    “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.”

    I completely agree, Richard. If you listen to Gabriele Marcotti, tactics are an incredibly important part of the game and, tut tut, he can’t believe so-and-so manager used an XYZ formation.

    In any game, no matter what tactics are used, both teams will get plenty of chances in front of goal to score. Just because one bloke (such as Tottenham’s Jonathan Obika in the UEFA Cup game on Thursday against Shaktar Donesk) can’t score even though he had 6-7 chances in front of goal, it doesn’t mean Tottenham employed the wrong tactical formation. If he had scored a few, Redknapp would have been heralded as a tactical genius.

    I’m from the same school that tactics are overrated. The Guardian’s Interactive Chalkboard feature, while groundbreaking, is a form of useless mental masturbation.

    The Gaffer

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