Tactics are… overrated?

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.

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7 Responses to Tactics are… overrated?

  1. DJLarkins says:

    No comments yet? Must be the off season at VUFC or nothing gets a comment like a SPL blog.

    Three things. First, I agree entirely with your point. Second, clubs like “Barcelona, Swansea, Ajax” – really? Last I checked Barcelona was around the 5th richest club in the world and had spent £35m in re-acquiring Cesc Fabregas – a player who seems to fit in nicely with Barcelona’s grand scheme.

    Third, is it so much that the rise of Barcelona is the product of substance of over form (tactics) or that Barcelona is the most recent incarnation of “innovation” like Arsenal in the 30s, the Dutch in the 70s, perhaps Brazil in the late 90s and early 2000s? Each total football approach, in relative terms for the time, good until someone thinks of a tactical formation to frustrate it. Kind of a ying and yang to tactics generally. It is probably cheaper, more predictable and more immediate professionally to pursue the latter to the former and that is why teams like Barcelona now and Ajax years ago stand out for their commitment to this approach and their success at the time for doing so.

    I still think in youth soccer you practice technique to develop skill in order to implement decisions, then have players understand options and give them scenarios as to when one decision may be a better, but not the only option, to make. As much as everyone hates the long ball, it is great to see a holding or deep player on my team recognize that a fullback on the opposing side is out of position and a forward on our team is making a run and hit him with a long ball. Time and place, I say, for everything.

    • Gregor says:

      Cesc did cost a lot of money but it was a repatriation more than a transfer as he was brought up at La Masia and fits the mindset and approach of Barca. Also, not sure about them being rich. There was just a story outlining their massive debt and that it’s just getting bigger. Turnover is huge but for some reason they are still losing money hand over fist.

      Agree that Barca is but one and the latest incarnation of what others in the past have tried to do in terms of throwing away the playbook and making complete players who can be set free on the field and succeed.

      • DJLarkins says:

        Cheers. I bet if Brendan Rodgers could read your blog and see Swansea mentioned in the same sentence as Barcelona it would put a smile on his face – probably most of the directors’ faces as well.

        Did not know about the financial troubles at Barca – indicative of Italian and Spainish (European – save for German/ Russian) clubs generally?

  2. Gregor says:

    Swansea will have a hard time keeping Rogers past this season I think. Here’s a story on the debt of both Barcelona and Real Madrid:

  3. Brendan Quarry says:

    Tactics are so coaches can cling to the illusion that they participate in the game. Always makes me laugh when a team wins a match and the commentator says “the coach really got his tactics right today.” No mention of the fact that his players were simply better on the day or probably just better all around.

  4. Burnsie says:

    To be fair, McGyver, that’s the most difficult spot on the field for a team to defend when it comes to free-kicks especially when the delivery is perfect(mind you I think the keeper should have come out and got that one 🙂 )

    As for tactics, obviously still important but moreso when the game starts. It’s a coach’s ability to change something that he/she feels is a weakness with his/her team OR a weakness in the opposing team. The basics are never going to change(goal side, contain, support, width etc.) but coaches who can make that slight adjustment that will help give his/her team an edge are the coaches who really understand the game. Too many coaches just leave things and aren’t willing to try something because it might turn out ‘bad’. Personally, I’m a gambler……and always love taking chances as a coach. Some may backfire but that’s the fun part of coaching. The kids get to try different things and know that they will never be TOO set in their ways.

    Let’s go, Flyers!

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