Predicting the tactical advancements of the new decade

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

25 thoughts on “Predicting the tactical advancements of the new decade

  1. very interesting and thought provoking piece

    really looking at football tactically and universally in a much deeper light

    i really enjoyed reading this piece and was actually sad when I read the last paragraph and could see it was about to end (regardless of the fact that it actually was quite a long piece)

    Great writing

  2. I agree that people always go with something trendy, however i dont forsee Wenger moving away from allround players to specialists. Also i hope champions league is only won by either Arsenal or Barca or Sevilla since other teams typifies styles or philosophy [that can be copied] that i really dislike.

  3. Great article! I don’t agree on only one point. You suggested that ball winners such as Song could be played higher up the pitch to counter deep lying play makers. But I dont think they have the technical ability to play as high as that. Destroyers are basically specialists and may be you could see more rounded players(Diaby) taking that role. I do agree with you that universality is the future.
    May be we could see Full backs interchanging with wingers and getting into attacking positions.

    1. Pardon me. I actually did mean all-rounded players like Diaby and maybe I should have used him or to a lesser extent Rooney/Tevez as an example.

      I didn’t write an article on the West Ham FA CUP win but Diaby was superb once again, vindicating the faith that (some) fans had in him. He wants to play DM; let’s see if that’s the case because he certainly has the attributes but it’s in his head that will define him.

  4. I am happy with your effort and totally confused by your output. To me it seems you have taken many small things out of context and put them together in a piece that isn’t saying anything really!

    I am amazed you can write so much on football tactics without once mentioning the shape of the team. At the end of the day, the ability to maintain a particular shape defines the tactic of the team. Barca play the way they do because their players can press high up without leaving gaps. If a Stoke were to try that they would get trashed. The Maldini comment touches on this aspect but it’s far too important to be left unexplored.

    The other key aspect is adaptability. Chelsea, for instance, can put 11 behind the ball to stop Barca and they can press high up against smaller teams.

    Most of the advancements you have mentioned are already there. But I agree about a few getting success and other following suit. Visionary managers will always be few and far between.

    This seems like one of those articles where you can’t say anything is wrong but you can’t find anything useful either! Anyway it’s better than a lot of the nonsense on the blogosphere. Appreciate your attempt, its not an easy topic to write on.

    1. I appreciate your feedback. Could that be a reflection on where tactics are in that it’s reached almost an apex?
      But overall, the article wasn’t really about formations even though I understand your point about tactics and formations being inter-related. But how can one attribute increasing universality to a certain formation?

      These small advancements won’t really change the formation as much and whether it does it is open to the manager’s interpretation. Who would have thought Bellamy playing on the left but still staying in a 4-4-2 of some sort? And Modric and Benayoun constantly move central in their set-up.
      (Barcelona used to play a 3-4-3, pressured high but because they were so dominant, knew they can offset some of the risks.)

      The key things is, formations do not have to be symmetrical and that’s the danger fans and pundits alike are falling into in England.

      1. I can never accept that there is no room for improvement. So I cannot accept that tactics have reached their apex.

        I am sorry if by shape I communicated formation. I am not really a believer in formations. They seem to be a very small part of the game and bulk of it is down to the players’ intelligence on the pitch due to the highly fluid nature of the game. Of course when you put 11 behind the ball it has nothing to do with intelligence but most top teams have enough variations.

        The main idea is that the shape is imp and not the players in an individual position at any given moment. For instance, Arshavin is at his best when he gets to move around. When he moves inside from the left, someone has to cover for him. The shape cannot be lost.

        Arsenal struggle when we are too static. i.e. players stuck to the wings and striker alone in the center or such situations. In such situations you can have playmakers, enforcers etc but end result will always be missing.

        Fluidity and maintaining the shape while being fluid is very imp for arsenal. On the other hand, maintaining a defensive shape is very important for someone like Stoke or Burnley. No matter how good or bad a team is and whatever tactic they use, the team needs to maintain its shape which is an integral part of each tactic. And consequently, tactics are governed by the shape the players can maintain.

        As I said, I can’t really say what you have written is wrong. It’s an intelligent attempt and such topics normally require a lot of words if you have to do justice to them. Even my earlier comment was not clear as your interpretation is different from what I intended.

        Last thing, I enjoy your work because there is a genuine attempt to think and analyze football. It’s not easy to get it right always so I can’t blame you for trying and we can always agree to disagree. Keep up the good work.

        1. Hi. Thanks for the reply. In one instance I did talk about movement and how fitness will allow people to do more than one job. So that maybe could tie in with what your are talking about in terms of shape.

          I take in your feedback – I had the same concerns when I wrote my article too but others have took what I intended to express.

  5. I want to start the year and the decade in football blogging by saying that this isn’t just the best Arsenal blog, it’s the best football blog I read.

    The content and analysis on this site is consistently well thought out, enlightening, and original. I also appreciate that the over-emotional criticism of our players, especially the younger ones (which is most of our team) is virtually non-existent here. So many of the bloggers are plagued by ‘all or nothing’ highly charged assessments of a player’s talent; they seem either incapable or unwilling to give proper weight to our young player’s development as they offer their commentary. It’s very refreshing to read a blog that is beyond that brand of fanaticism.

    Also refreshing to read a blog that intermittantly includes articles that focus on the technical analysis of Arsenal football and football as a whole (as this one does), along with commentary about the each individual match.

    Thanks for a great site and I look forward continued loyal reading throughout the new decade.



  6. Hi Brain, first off…a Happy New Year to you and all your readers. Your article comes as a treat, hot on the tails of Jonathan Wilson’s recent musings on the same matter. Here are my two cents: Even among modern sides who specialise in high-pressing, none are likely to be as compact as was Saachi’s model squeezed into 25 metres partly due to the liberalisation of the offside law.
    In evidence, I recall a more recent AC Milan game I attended back in 2007, vs Empoli. For a start, Milan were playing a 4-3-1-2 (anathema to Sacchi’s rigid 4-4-2) While there was pressing, but at its most compact Milan’s defensive block was about 35 metres. In fact, it were the visitors who appeared to be more compact (perhaps squeezed into 25 metres), which makes sense given that they had to account for their inferiority by being more cohesive during more extended periods of the game, whilst the Milan players had greater individual liberty, at least when they were in possession of the ball.
    This leads me to the following observation about Sacchi’s tactical legacy.
    He certainly laid the blueprint for the previous two decades of football tactics, in terms of compact blocks and pressing. But why is it that the elite teams of Europe, say, those with frequent participation in European tournaments, do not adhere so rigidly to Sacchi’s format, whilst the mid-to-lower table fodder (and invariably lower divisions)are more strict adherents? Could it be that the technical quality of the stronger clubs allows them to cherry-pick from the Sacchi menu items which they fancy yet without completely forsaking their individual talent for the sake of collectivism? In a way, I am thoroughly grateful for this. As should be most Arsenal fans (if you’ll forgive my stereotyping) or simply all people who like a styles football that are composed, purposeful and yet entertaining. Why so? Well, because previously (at the dawn of the ’90s) physical rigour and defensive cohesion appeared to foretell an imminent suffocation of creativity and artistry in football. Deep-lying playmakers were being scuppered in favour of destroyers or box-to-box dynamos, and the No.10s appeared to be next on the extinction list as a tyranny of “two flat banks of four” threatened to press-gang players into an industrial hell. And to make matters more ominous, this was considered progress (and rightly so) when placed alongside a football that had grown luxuriant and atomised in the 80s, whose apotheosis was surely the gioco all’italiana wherein each player was given a specific role and needed only worry about his immediate opposite number facing him (asymmetry mirroring asymmetry)- so you daren’t ask the regista to put in a tackle, or the No 10 to display some more lively movement off the ball, nor the No.9 to participate in the build-up play.
    By the same token, the more defensive players (bar the libero and the left-back) were almost exempt from occupying spaces vacated by opponents. It was as if each player were cocooned within the cosy confines of a 1970s union-run workshop; “don’t ask me to hand you that item guv’, it’s not part of my job description”. In that sense, Saachi’s injection of energy and dynamism ushered in some much-needed impetus. His message was that attractive, appealing football would only survive the incipient caginess if its practioners would learn to be aggressive, objective and co-operative in both offensive and defensive phases. In that sense, we can be grateful that he shook up football from its slumber.
    But Sacchi’s philosophy was so inherently dogmatic that it threatened to travel to other extremes: that the individual talent would become so behoved to the collective that he would (or at least his game would)would lose all its spontaneity and unique offerings to the team. In simpler terms, imagine what would be the point in playing a Fabregas at all when you just want him to shed his style and resemble more of a Michael Essien, and vice-versa. Witness how (as Jonathan Wilson has documented) Sacchi’s undoing was pushing his star creative players (Gullit, Van Basten, Donadoni) beyond the limits of their tolerance.
    But luckily, Sacchi left before the Milan project (his baby) could implode and go off the rails, and Fabio Capello could take over (in 1991) and steer things with more moderation and a more conciliatory tone towards individuality of his players. Hence, Capello’s playing a midfield diamond with Marcel Dessailly anchoring and Zvonimir Boban at the tip…never would’ve happened under Sacchi. Roberto Baggio suffered in the Italian national side under Saachi, where his only option was to fit into the rigid 4-4-2 by becoming a second striker alongside the No9 and playing much closer to the defenders who restricted him space, thereby he was unable to replicate his differential club form.
    Thankfully, modern football in the noughties has witnessed attempts to take the best of Sacchism- pressing and zonal defending- and to marry it to the continued presence of playmakers, wingers and other such artistes who in turn must compromise their game at least slightly to the point where they can continue to be relevant at the top level. Witness how Wenger incorporated a No.10 like Bobby Pires by coaxing him out of his previous comfort of a free role (linking strikers to midfield) into adopting a starting position from wide midfield. Thus was born a finely tuned balance: Arsenal’s midfield cohesion did not suffer whenever the team lost the ball due to Bobby reverting to that space, and yet Pires was not expected to behave as an up-and-down industrial wide-midfielder (in the Ray Parlour mould) whenever Arsenal enjoyed possession. Ditto Luka Modric nowadays. Alternatively, some No.10s have even managed to convert themselves into more central-interior players in a midfield three (such as Deco, or Nasri in the same vein as Andres Iniesta). All this lies somewhere on the spectrum between the extremes of industrial fetishism of Anglo-Scandanavian lower sides (football as an extension of the values from the factory floor and territorial aggression) or, by contrast, the retro-romantic slow-paced style of an Argentinian football which is oblivious to change (football as a natural extension of the street-kickabout).

    So my point is that we can be grateful for Saachi for putting in motion the revolution but equally grateful for his not having fully borne it out.

    1. Thanks for the great comment on Sacchi’s ideals which I would have loved to expand upon but you’ve done it so expertly.

      Yes, I agree Sacchi’s philosophy’s were almost fanatical; he was a tactical zealot and thankfully in some sense it doesn’t rule although the Milan side was good to watch. There were some good intentions in it such as having versatile, clever players but he wanted to confine them in his ideals.
      The best teams have taken the best of the tactics (although it can be argued not really from him but the Dutch sides, Kyiv etc.).

    2. A+ Post Roberticus. That is a lot to think about. I particularly like your parting line contrasting industrial fetishism and retro-romanticism. Long live the discussion of football strategy as social philosophy.

  7. Very deep Brian.

    I think the World Cup could produce some negative games in the knockout stages. Too much to lose. Dunga’s team is functional at best, turgid at worst, a bit like him as a player. I mean two defensive midfielders in a Brazilian team is just wrong. A bit like Rafa Benitez at Liverpool with Mascerano and Lucas. Low down and dirty.

    On the flip the most popular teams in League football are generally the most flamboyant, and attacking. Note the decline in popularity of the Italian league, very negative tactically, but ok they do have more problems.

    Hopefully the return to the 433 will be a sign of things to come, more attacking play and less parking the bus.

  8. The part about pushing destroyers up the field is not new. In fact Wenger several seasons ago succesfully used Pires to man-mark and pressure deep lying “defensive playmakers” such as Makelele (no, he wasnt a mere destroyer), who were in fact the rapid initiators of their teams offense, much as Alonson and Song do now.

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