Tactics and systems matter. This really isn’t shocking or that groundbreaking in terms of soccer analysis, but if there’s any trend that has emerged from this summer in both the United States and France, it’s that talent can only take a team so far.
While this hasn’t been elaborated on all that much with regards to the Copa America Centenario, tactics, systems and charismatic managers have laid the groundwork for what turned out to be a relatively unsurprising result. Peru and Venezuela in many normal tournaments would not have advanced, and on talent alone they were third in their respective groups. But Ricardo Gareca and Rafael Dudamel got the most out of what they had and embraced their team’s strengths, which propelled both teams to the quarterfinals. And for Chile, a team that lost their most successful manager only five months before the tournament and struggled to find a replacement, they were able to embrace what made them successful with a new manager making the necessary tweaks to launch his team to another Copa America title over a more talented but tactically inferior team.
But in France at the Euros, the world has seen just how important tactically adept and astute managers can really be. The examples of how managers with plans even if they don’t have the talent in their squad are numerous. Iceland, Wales, Hungary, Italy and even Northern Ireland have shown what charismatic managers, belief in systems and embracing a tactical identity can do for teams that certainly don’t stack up against some of their opponents in terms of talent, but do everywhere else. Wales and Iceland have both had their stories told ad nauseum, but their successes have shown what belief in systems and belief in the manager and the other players can do when it comes time to frustrate more talented but tactically naïve opponents. And for Antonio Conte, he and his team have ignored every claim that this is the weakest Italy team to come into a major tournament in generations, and have become a tactical wall that is nearly impossible to breach.
Having a dearth of expensive transfer signings, individual class and ability can only take a team so far. England and Belgium on talent alone should have advanced way further than they did at these Euros, because man for man they were far more talented than their opposition in Iceland and Wales. But not only did England and Belgium deserve to lose, they were tactically outclassed by teams that with even a slight bit of nous or clarity, they would have taken apart. Imagine England with Chris Coleman, or even Belgium with Antonio Conte, and suddenly those teams look even more frightening. Germany are the World Champions because they have such a great blend of talent and tactics that makes them so difficult to beat and to frustrate. Fancied teams like Spain, Austria and the two mentioned above are not playing anymore because they lack what “minnows” and lesser fancied teams have in spades, which has become the story of 2016 in this sport.
Sure, this is not the case with every tournament and every team. Real Madrid still won the Champions League on the drive and determination of talent alone, and France have made the quarterfinals of this tournament on the strength of a few world class talents themselves (though they are hosts), but if they struggle to click the way they have against Romania, Albania and Ireland, then Iceland will give them many problems. Didier Deschamps has far more talent at his disposal, but with the amount of questions regarding selection and tactics, Iceland’s talent gap suddenly doesn’t seem as wide.
So much of world soccer these days seems predicated on finding the best and most expensive talent, but in many ways the role of the manager has become even more important than it did when he would control almost all aspects of club business. Keeping the egos of his dressing room in line, but also finding those tactics solutions in individual matches and individual moments can be the difference between winning trophies and ending up with a pink slip in your hand.
Every time there is a major tournament there are always tactical trends to analyze. In 2010, the reign of tiki-taka was in full swing. In 2014, counter-attacking at speed and with speed became en vogue, as did five at the back. Now, in 2016, if your team is better organized and better drilled, anything can be possible.
The Euros wouldn’t be the same without managers like Chris Coleman, Lars Lagerbeck, Antonio Conte and their tactics.
Who would have ever thought something as simple and basic as good defensive organization would become the marker for success?
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