Improvements in technical ability and fitness means the likely trend in football could see the proliferation of all-rounded players.
This summer, we may get the earliest indication of where the next phase in the cycle tactics may be heading. Brazil have swept everything in their path thus far and are justifiably the favourites for the World Cup in South Africa. But they’ve done it in a way quite removed from the free-flowing exhibition of attacking football married into a team collective that won them three Jules Rimet trophies between 1958 and 1970. The problem as Dunga sees it as coach of Selecao, is that opponents now make it harder for such teams to pass their way through the middle and indeed in a sense that was proved as Brazil played some of the best football before 1994 but it wasn’t until players like him (a destroyer) that the nation became world champions again.
His thinking therefore sees greater opportunity lying in transitions and set-pieces, relying on the dynamism and individual brilliance of a select few (namely Kaka and Maicon) to take advantage from outside play and their expert organisation to stop others from playing. When it was pointed out to Dunga in the 1-0 defeat to England in Doha that his team often had eight men behind the ball, his answer was pretty stark. “That’s the way we play,” he said. “England had 11 men behind the ball. They need to learn how to dribble [through us]. That’s what you have to do. Teams are more compact these days.”
But can we learn anything from a tournament lasting only a month, especially as international managers have less time to work with their players? It is true that recent trends seen in club level such as pressuring high up the pitch (Chile one exception but on to that later) or the use of hybrid strikers or ‘false nines’ have been less prevalent in the international game, possibly because the selection pool is much more limited while Fabio Capello feels it’s because there is a dearth of top quality strikers at international sides.
However, the more underlying trends seen in club level were all on show during the early parts of the decade. Brazil shifted towards catering for the individual in even greater disregard for the collective game in 2006, France’s performances in the same year took a positive upturn when Zidane became the focus while Greece’s compact, counter-attacking side in Euro 2004 typified zonal marking in Europe. But more positively, recent winners (Brazil being the only exception in Copa America) have shown a greater emphasis on technical and creativity, with Slaven Bilic stating Italy’s win in 2006 as being about the “movement of 10 players.” And Spain’s win in Euro 2008 owed much credit to a culture of technical excellence, movement and ingenuity backed up by beaten semi-finalists Russia’s speed of passing and dynamism out wide. Somewhat strangely however, Egypt have not translated their recent African Cup of Nations form, defeating arguably more physically imposing teams, into World Cup qualification.
So it is with this more technique-orientated shift, it is curious to see how well Brazil will fare in the next World Cup. Because the danger is, beneath the defensive resilience, if a team can pressure the two holding midfielders/destroyers of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo, you can stop the team from playing by exposing the pairs’ technical shortcomings. If that happens, you are likely to see Brazil put the emphasis back on producing deep-lying playmakers as opposed to pure destroyers. Indeed you don’t even have to look far at the English Premier League to see the upshots of recovery of the deep-playmaker with teams such as Aston Villa, Birmingham, Everton (before Arteta’s injury) and Fulham having great success with them.
However it seems more apt to attributed its revival to the increasing fitness demands on players rather than technique. The fast pace of the Premier League has led to managers opting for players who can distribute the ball quickly and in turn not be easily closed down, and the conceded physicality compensated by making sure their sides are more organised and compact. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Teams are pressuring more aggressively and higher up the pitch, which should lead to more universal or all-rounded players such as like former Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Redondo, who played as the deep-lying playmaker but his energy levels allowed him to dominate far greater areas of the pitch than his position implied.
Arrigo Sacchi is adamant not much has changed in football since his AC Milan side triumphed in the European Cup in 1989 and 1990, except the proliferation of specialists. Inspired by Rinus Michel’s Holland side, the key idea was that every player must play an equal part in a highly systematized layout. That meant having players in all areas of the pitch who can deliver key passes (for him, everyone was the playmaker) and then able to press and defend to the manager’s ideologies (i.e. compact, organised and moving as a unit – a difference of twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward was a must to be maintained). “With [Sacchi] it was all about movement off the ball,” said Paulo Maldini. “And that’s where we won our matches. Each player was as important defensively as in attack.” And as fitness improves, technique will almost become a prerequisite therefore universality seems the obvious trend. Indeed teams playing with strikers on the wings have indicated this may be the case.
Strikers and defenders have also seen transformations, as forwards are required to be hybrids – to be able to score goals and create chances as well. Defenders represent a precarious case; some see the return of the sweeper (libero) as the lone forward becomes the preferred choice thus leaving one centre back spare. However, disregarding the fact that the libero requires extraordinary mental talent, tactical evolution in modern football is all about controlling space – when one space opens, it’s attempt to exploit it becomes closed which invariably opens up another one. It’s difficult to see the libero in a free roaming incarnation in this decade again because the space will be much more limited and harder to exploit. More likely, is three or two advancing centre-backs each alternating moments to get forward when the time is right so as to spring greater surprise and effectiveness.
The back three is likely to see some sort of revival although probably not as wide spread in its use as in the ’80’s. Chile have played a 3-3-1-3 in qualifying for the World Cup without any wing backs and pressuring high up the pitch. Could we see more customised formations in the near future such as a 3-6-1, looking to take advantage of the underlying trends in recent times? Also in pressuring high up the pitch, could we see players like Alex Song or Wilson Palacios pushed higher up the pitch to stop teams from distributing the ball forward? Maybe a mixed attacking midfielder in the hole marking the deep-lying playmaker is a possible advancement.
David Dein secretly says Arsene Wenger feels the future lies in Africa and South America and with a mix of physique and technical ability, it makes perfect sense. Players such as Alex Song, Michael Essien and Yaya Toure who can distribute the ball well combined with cosmic energy levels will be desired in every team. Indeed as competition intensifies, the best African youngsters are making the way to the top clubs earlier which can only serve to better their technique and creativity. England may also find themselves in a good position as the fruits of a ten-year cycle in improving youth infrastructure nears its conclusion which should see graduates mixing old-style English ruggedness with continental flair.
Football is only ever likely to see subtle changes, unless their is a change to the standard dynamics of the game, with advancements such as fitness creating small evolutions such as how the different players interpret their roles and their movement. For example Cristiano Ronaldo played on the left of a fluid 4-4-2 in Man United’s 2007/08 triumph but was expected to carry the same goalscoring duties of a striker while on the other side, Park Ji Sung despite playing in the same position per se, was more defensive, tracking back and pressuring but also expected to get in the box. We can see in the centre of midfield, Diaby’s importance as defensively he covers for the left forward and makes tackles for the team while his strong, late running is considered one of the best by Wenger.
The next decade seems set to follow a holistic nature but as fitness peaks, football is likely go full circle again and as soon as someone finds success with a destroyer, a stopper or a goal-poacher, others will follow suit. Nevertheless with universality looking the near future, the twentytens looks set to become an exciting one.
Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s defensive game