The greater athleticism and prizes at stake, has seen the ‘Big Four’ increase the intensity up front recently but in doing so, are aware it may leave them open at the back.
Arguably the three greatest tactical influences in the modern game are Rinus Michels’ ‘Total Football’ side, Arrigo Sacchi and the liberalisation of the offside law. In fact in South America, it is a widely held opinion between coaches that Holland’s demolition of Argentina and then Brazil in the 1974 World Cup was the last, greatest tactical innovation.
Even though Michels’ always allowed his sides to play with freedom rather than govern them with restrictions that plough the modern game, it was his tactics and style of play that lasts long in many people’s memories. His teams played a high offside line, pressed the opposition in possession (the South American playmakers to great effect too), and were about quick passing and the interchangeing of positions. His main man, Johan Cruyff was very much influenced by the coach and his Dutch influence was felt by Barcelona when he became their manager (and eventually most successful too).
Barca played in what is now their synonymous 4-3-3 but was adaptable, allowing for triangle passes (i.e. more options in the pass). This type of football is less sustainable in the modern game and Van Gaal tried to account for this by updating the system in order to accommodate it’s pace, skill and athleticism. Hence the now direct Dutch 4-3-3 with more emphasis on counter-attacks and slightly more orthodox.
Still, Pep Guardiola, a former player under Cruyff has looked to bring back some of his philosophies. The three pronged attacked of Messi, Henry and Eto’o could may well get 100 goals between them by the time the season’s done. Guardiola’s forwards are no longer protracted by unnecessary tacking back, which invites the opposition to come at them and at the same time, tiring their own players. Instead they look to force the issue and press the full back’s and the defenders as high as possible, looking to force a mistake and maybe nick the ball. “Barcelona make the pitch look bigger than it really is,” says the former Barcelona midfielder and current Getafe coach Víctor Muñoz. “Barcelona play very high up the pitch and if they get the ball off you there, they’re lethal.”
However it is not a very much used strategy by much other teams and indeed in the Premier League, as Roy Hodgson explains; “There is less high-intensity pressing from the front in advance areas (in top-level European football). This is partly because concern of the interpretation of the offside law has led to teams to play deeper. Sides are sill compact, but this is mainly in their own half of the pitch.”
Indeed playing such a tactic requires organisation at the back and highly mobile players. Nevertheless recent games have shown an increase in it’s use by the ‘big four’. Against Villarreal at home, Arsenal never gave the Spanish side an inch and similarly against Roma. The side’s more quicker and wider style of play this season has seen higher pressure and denying of defences in playing the ball out. It helps that the full backs have been more cautious and indeed this is the same for Chelsea too. Gus Hiddink, a student of Dutch philosophies recognised his side were allowing Arsenal time and space in the FA Cup semi-final and in reaction, deployed the energy of both Essien and Lampard higher, the latter playing just behind Drogba. The result saw a more withdrawn Arsenal and they were unable to get the ball out as Chelsea were snapping on their heels.
Liverpoo’s big matches have seen them having to pressure high up the pitch in order to force the issue but as a result were left more open at the back, and the susceptibility of the full back’s were punished. United are relentless pressure machines and although they have recently been a bit more disciplined up front (Rooney out wide), when they have the ball are almost playing a 4-2-4, suffocating the opposition.
With the traditional 4-4-2 hard to play, pressuring the opposition high up has also decreased in it’s deployment but when implemented, can be particularly effective. The question is, is it really a viable tactic to be used regularly like Barcelona do or is too risky?