There’s a great t-shirt, put out by Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox or Inverting the Pyramid’s Jonathan Wilson, that simply says “Goals are overrated”. Feeding the ever growing soccer geek market, it speaks to the idea that our game is so much richer than what the scoreline to most games provides. And it is. Whether it’s the pathological obsession that Barcelona have in maintaining possession of the ball via masterful technique on the ball and rabid pressure off the ball or precision penetration of players like Mesut Ozil when playing for Real Madrid or Germany at the national team level, the game still staggers me daily with ability that doesn’t necessarily result in a goal.
But the obsession with tactics is becoming too much. The idea that the top managers at the top clubs are doing Wizardly things behind curtains that no one has thought of or could dare to execute on the field is silly. The growing obsession with formations and the need to reduce team’s efforts to these formations when the best teams are, if anything, pushing away from formations in order to make their play less predictable and thus less defendable is counter-intuitive.
When I watch Atletic Bilbao play Mallorca at home today and in the first ten minutes Fernando Llorente scores on a header off a free kick in the first 13 minutes it really makes me wonder about the ability of even top players to absorb tactics and stick to them in the heat of the battle.
Here’s the first video that pops up in YouTube when you put Llorente into the search box.
You get the idea. Lots of goals from crosses. Lots of those with his head.
Here’s the goal he scored today.
If I’m Mallorca manager Joaquín Caparrós, the first thing I work on all week in preparing for an away game to Bilbao is how to neutralize Llorente. Neutralizing does not mean stand off him two paces, get caught under the ball in no position to clear it and give him a free header from six yards out from a free kick that’s knocked in from about 30 yards out.
If as a manager at this level you cannot expect players to grasp where the danger is and how to deal with it, when you’ve undoubtedly spent a lot of time preparing them for the most obvious of these dangers, especially ones from a dead ball situation where you have time to organize and prepare, what hope is there for looking for more complex tendencies and situations to exploit in a fast, fluid game?
Goal side, arm across Llorente, grab his shirt if need be, TRACK HIS RUN, impede his approach to the ball, jump a quarter second before and into him. DO NOT LET HIM GET TO THE BALL FIRST. Besides initially being goal side, the Mallorca defender did none of these and the player that leads La Liga with the most headed goals this season got another one. Uncontested.
Again, if players can’t manage something as tactically simple as marking the prime target off a free kick delivered in the air, why persist with anything more involved?
And it’s why the smart people in the game will continue to push in the direction of technical excellence, incessant movement off the ball developing the football brain that recognizes and acts on what is presented. Positions are giving way to the more vague roles and responsibilities. It is Total Football but it’s also like Game Theory as explained by Simon Kuper in Soccernomics when looking at the best approach to taking penalties. The argument there essentially is the best approach is for player to decide on the run up to the ball what they are going to do. This makes them unpredictable. This makes them immune to tactics that would look for previous tendencies that could be provided to the keeper.
Tactics lend themselves to clubs that have massive budgets and can buy specific types of players as if they are components in a grand scheme. They are bought to fit the approach of a manager who has a tactical bias in mind. Other clubs like Barcelona, Swansea, Ajax install a particular mode of playing that has to have at its core a history within the players for it work. They have to have been brought up through the ranks playing “what’s on” with the central focus being to keep the ball by passing and supporting. Everyone has to be on the same page for it to succeed and everyone has to have the technical and mental acumen on both sides of the ball. They learn the tendencies of their teammates rather than the tendencies of their opponents and rely on that knowledge to get past them.
Attacking patterns of play are becoming anachronistic. Forcing the constant re-evaluation, balancing and tracking of runs by defenders through quick ball movement that seemingly randomly changes the point of attack is what is likely coming down the pipe the next ten years. For me as a youth coach, that will be my focus. Passing, receiving, movement, awareness.
Arrigo Sacchi famously said something to the effect that in the future, teams will play with ten midfielders.”All of our players,” said Sacchi, “always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.”
Reference points, that are constantly changing, form the basis of decision making rather than prescribed patterns of play worked out ahead of time to exploit tendencies that coaches hope will appear in certain parts of the field at certain points in the game. It pushes even more responsibility for the game’s outcomes onto the players and the managers job becomes more about picking the players capable of this rather than players capable of following instructions from the bench.
That’s total football and perhaps the end of tactics.