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Football Tactics: Thom Yorke's Role in Radiohead's 4-5-1

INDIO, CA - APRIL 18: Musician Thom Yorke performs during day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Art Festival 2010 held at The Empire Polo Club on April 18, 2010 in Indio, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

In our ever evolving online community, where any Joe, Tim or Reba can start a blog, post, pontificate or reminisce, the lost art of responsibility can evade even the most keenly trained eye. As budding young bloggers dressed all in their khakis attempt the fine art of emulation, a shout to their messianic journo idols, a plethora of newbie soccer fans in America, the UK and anywhere else a laptop can connect to a local wi-fi spot fall prey to their misuse and barbarism of all things football related and the written word.

O.K., maybe the ‘B’ word was a bit harsh, and maybe the whole ‘he who is without sin, cast the first stone’ ideology should hit a bit closer to home, yet the few and the proud, those who refuse to aimlessly destroy a chalkboard or snapshot a match review to cater to their strengths, continue to stand amazed at some of the published jargon that appears each day across the width and breadth of the Internet. Truly fascinating, but who to trust?

While I’ll never slate or scoff at those who pursue their passion or simply wish to better themselves through almighty practice, there seems to be a reoccurring theme among the up and coming, the wanna-be’s and even the snobbish as it pertains to football formations and tactics. As the Zonal Marking‘s and Jonathan Wilson‘s of the world continue to enlighten football fans with their other worldly views on ‘how things work’, the charlatans continue to emerge from underneath their day jobs to plop themselves in front of their MacBooks as overnight experts. The problem: the next Jonathan Wilson awoke this very morning deciding he’d like to write tactics and figured he would pursue this new venture with content and not contemplation.

While there continues to be nothing wrong with the pursuit of the Yankee dollar or the warm, cuddly feeling of seeing ones name in all those bright lights up on high, may we at least clear up one or two minor affairs as it pertains to the use of certain terminology?

First off, it’s no sin if you’re a football fan, passionate or lukewarm, to not be able to dissect and analyze a match as experts do for major publications. The implementation of tactics, the use of various formations and the chopping and changing conducted each and every weekend in the Premier League by experienced managers, in a sense, shouldn’t always be understood by Joe in Tucson. Managers in the Premier League and across Europe spend their entire lives studying the art of football, which makes it just fine if normal soccer fans can’t grasp the idea of if a 4-2-3-1 has advantages over a 4-4-2 and why.

Secondly, those random numbers interspersed with dashes in odd sequences do not define tactics. We may like to think it’s that simple, unfortunately, it really isn’t. Think for a second about your favorite band. Not the newest flavor of the week, but one with a decent enough catalog for the example. For the sake of the exercise, I’ll choose Radiohead.

A match of football that ends 3-1 in favor of your team is their most recent release, 2007’s In Rainbows. Easily accessible, straight forward, brilliant (for you) and definitely worth another listen, or, in your case, another viewing. No need to overly analyze anything, your team was simply better in every position. Their straightforward 4-4-2 was balanced and attack-minded enough to overcome their inferior opponent. They flowed through the full 90 without much resistance, think Arsenal at home in August v Blackpool.

The very next weekend, your team draws 2-2 away when things looked to be going smoothly. Let’s define the draw as 2000’s Kid A, same band, but something slightly different, a change in direction from 97’s OK Computer, worth a deeper look and in need of analysis. The manager chose to take a risk and play one up top with a five man midfield. Now is the time for you to consider how the lone striker fared v a central defensive pairing, or why specifically the five man mid couldn’t retain possession the way you thought they would. What were the assigned roles of the deep-lying midfielder?

This is tactics. Kid A was a brilliant mix of risk and reward.

Finally, your team loses the following week at home 1-0. This loss is 2003’s Hail to the Thief, a tricky outing, positives to be taken, but maybe something was amiss, just maybe the result of some misplaced ideas. While your team lost, they reverted back to the 4-4-2 formation from the first example and the 3-1 win. Wait, 4-4-2 worked earlier, what went wrong? Tactics will help to explain, Hail to the Thief was a transition record shaded in discord. The 4-4-2 may not have worked this time because of the assignments undertaken by the full backs to ‘stay at home’, thus creating little width in your side’s attack.

If you’re still following me, the point here simply stated is that a team’s formation can show you a broad view of how they set up and the shape they’ll attempt to keep throughout the match. Tactics are a more specific ‘scrape’ of the formation. If Carlo Ancelotti deploys Ashley Cole at left back in a 4-3-3, that’s a part of the formation. Using Cole’s abilities to get forward at pace and overlap Florent Malouda in midfield was a tactical choice made by Ancelotti. 

Is the metaphor flawless in its execution? Probably not. But while students of the game we all are and strive to be, one should remember that formations can be obvious, tactics can be ambiguous. While it’s essential that the two key terms are defined and used with appropriation, it’s all a bit O.K. if you take the match as it comes. The illustration simply defines a point or two we should keep in mind when reading the latest dissertation from the recently converted. After all, to sit back and relax as the game unfolds in the manner you see fit unquestionably defines the meaning of being a football fan, just make sure you’ve got some Radiohead playing in the background.

Jesse Chula can be electronically flicked in the ear on Twitter here.

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  1. lobech

    March 29, 2011 at 6:22 am

    and, of course, “Ok Computer” is nowadays Barcelona playing whichever tactic you want to name, I guess

  2. IanCransonsKnees

    September 30, 2010 at 9:01 am

    I think this article clearly shows the difference between most English and American football followers. The ingrained obssession with tactics in American sports is being dragged into consideration by American fans watching the Premier League. Over here it is of much less concern, you’ll get the odd snippett and sometimes and article but in nothing like the depth that appears on here, in my opinion.

    There was an excellent article on here the other week explaining formations which I assume would similarly be lapped up.

    I think the difference comes from being in the lucky position to attend live matches. I find I get more caught up in the pace of the game and emotions flying around the stadium I might notice the odd formation or change in tactics but generally its of negligible interest.

    I think the problem we have watching it in the flesh is that we’re in a fixed position, we don’t get the changing camera angles or replays (unless on the big screen).

    I think it’s a sporting culture thing.

    • Gaz Hunt

      September 30, 2010 at 11:45 am

      You can’t say that the obsession with tactics is a strictly American invention. Arguably the two at the forefront of this modern analysis are Jonathan Wilson (English) and (English).

      • IanCransonsKnees

        September 30, 2010 at 1:44 pm

        I think it depends on the circles that you mix in. To most football fans I know over here it’s the last thing on their mind. To those more interested in playing or managing in the game be it parks football or non-league then there may be more of an interest.

        It seems to me though that stats, tactics and formations are in integral part of American sporting culture when discussing the team/event etc where people over here seem more interested in the action and drama on and off the pitch.

        I may be completely wrong but there seems a need to disect a game/the game down to it’s minutest detail. My guess would be that, that is because people are new to the sport and trying to learn about how it works, the rules regulations etc whereas we’re ‘past’ that for want of a better phrase. That’s not to belittle the articles that appear on here about those issues. They interest me from a sporting cultural perspective as much as anything else.

        I suspect Jesse may be leaving here in November with English citizenship, if it is only honorary, and I look forward to his take on things over here.

        • The Gaffer

          September 30, 2010 at 2:31 pm

          It definitely is an interesting subject… how football supporters experience games. There are so many ways to enjoy a match from following the ball as it moves around the pitch, to keeping one eye on the ball and watching the player movements off the ball with the other eye, to studying the tactics, and so on and so forth. There are so many ways for the sport to be enjoyed.

          The Gaffer

  3. dominjon

    September 30, 2010 at 1:57 am

    I saw Radiohead on their first tour in the UK after Creep was released. I was visiting friends in Glamorgan University. I think it was 92. I also saw them a little later at a place called The Loop Club in Cardiff, where they were debuting songs that would end up on The Bends. There are actually some great stories about that night, including how my friend, who was extremely skinny with huge ginger hair, decided to flash his Ethiopian-like torso at some girls across the room. They broke up laughing, unfortunately Thom Yorke was walking in between and he thought the girls were laughing at him and he stormed off. I like to think some great angst-filled songs came out of that misunderstanding.

    • JeanInRainbows

      September 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm

      I hope Thom sees this article and your comment. Have you ever tried to send your story to Thom? I envy that you saw them back then and I envy anyone who has seen them live. I pray I get the chance!

  4. cary eddy

    September 29, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    dude, quit rambling…. and quit using Thom’s name in vain.

  5. dirk diggler

    September 29, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    This is an embarrassing and strained metaphor.

    • Robert

      September 29, 2010 at 6:16 pm

      Yeah, you’re a star…a big, bright, shining star…That’s right.

  6. The Ginge

    September 29, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Nice use of Radiohead.

    Also, good decision in not using OK Computer for one of the analogies since it could be considered the greatest album ever made, dare I say, a perfect album. Therefore, since there is no perfect formation, it would be impossible to compare OK Computer to a formation.

    Or maybe I just like Radiohead a bit too much.

  7. Sean Steele

    September 29, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Kid A = a cosmopolitan, total football 4-3-3; or a not-quite-played-this-way but exciting , chileanesque 3-3-1-3

  8. jose

    September 29, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    2+2=5 lol

  9. The Gaffer

    September 29, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    As an example of how fickle rock audiences are, I saw Radiohead open for REM very early in their career in the US. The vast majority of the crowd hung out in the hallways outside the arena while Radiohead performed, and only later took their seats when REM were ready to perform. Their loss, my gain.

    The Gaffer

    • Gaz Hunt

      September 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm


      I saw them in 1995 during the Bends era (probably about the same time you’re talking about). They played in a tiny club in Philly, the TLA – the place probably maxes out at about 250 people and it was in no way sold out.

      Funny to compare that to the last Radiohead show I went to and could only get “lawn” seating.

  10. Gaz Hunt

    September 29, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    For the somewhat pretentious part of us that wants to treat football like an academic area, tactics are our textbooks to study. I’m definitely a little inclined to this thinking but am fully aware of it’s absurdity.

    Sometimes your team wins simply because the players were better than the opposition. And what’s wrong with that?

    Love you using Radiohead as an example. Anyone have any ideas for the football equivalent of Pablo Honey or The Bends.

    I’d go for penalty-kick winner using 4-3-3 for Pablo Honey (bad album, top 40 single) and a 2-0 win using 4-2-3-1 for The Bends (favorite of the critics, unnoticed by most others).

    • Robert

      September 29, 2010 at 1:10 pm

      I’d say Pablo Honey was they typical British 4-4-2, in that it looked and sounded like much of the other Britpop dad-rock albums of the mid-90s. England had a style, and dog gone it, those bands would follow the formula. Pablo Honey was definitely a 2-1 victory: “Thinking About You” was a hidden gem, and prefigured some of The Bends’ best acoustic moments.

      With that said, I don’t think In Rainbows was a 4-4-2 album at all. It was a 4-2-1-3, with Ashley Cole (“15 Steps”) bursting down the left side in the first minute and assisting a thunderstrike by Drogba. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “All I Need” are Mikel and Essien, providing balance and calm in the midfield. “Jigsaw Falling into Place” is a cherry-on-top goal that is reminiscent of “Paranoid Android.” It’s the 8th goal in a 8-0 thumping.

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