Part of association football’s appeal is that it’s always the same game, but there’s a constant search to find new, more effective, ways to play it. Clubs try to find a system which suits them and one which helps the players within it deliver success, regardless of the level they’re playing at. However, thanks to the continuous evolution of football tactics and new advancements within the fields of analytics and data, someone somewhere will always be working out how to counteract, or improve on, a currently successful system.
2012 was the year of the inside forward, in its various guises, as teams looked to get the most from their gifted all-round attackers. Not a winger, forward, attacking midfielder, or target man, these players demanded a role in the team in which they could combine attributes from each. These roles usually ended up as a false nine (Lionel Messi), inverted winger (Arjen Robben) or an inside forward (Cristiano Ronaldo)
It was also the year of Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund. These two aesthetically pleasing styles suited each club perfectly, but attempts by other clubs to replicate either like-for-like, could be their downfall.
2013 – Football’s Coming Home
2013 has seen an even bigger shift in the tactics used within the English Premier League. The possession based football once confined to a few teams (Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in particular) has now spread across the league. A new wave of young managers with continental influences have taken over at English clubs, and some chairmen have ditched their old style in favour of a brand of football which is perceived to be more aesthetically pleasing.
Brendan Rodgers attempted to instil his possession based style at Liverpool, commenting that this pass and move philosophy was already ingrained in the club. The evolution of the team has seen them become more akin to Dortmund than “Swansealona”, but at the same time they’ve also displayed a versatility to change style from game to game, and even in-game.
The magical Roberto Martinez, who kept (his FA Cup winners) Wigan in the Premier League against the odds for several seasons, replaced David Moyes at Everton. Whilst Moyes struggles to create any sort of identity at Manchester United, Martinez had Everton marching to his beat within months. Everton fans are keen to point out that they adapted to this style of football much quicker than the Red Side across the park, and in Ross Barkley they have a local player who suits the system perfectly. The combination of Martinez and Barkley could yet bring a new era of success to the historic club.
Mauricio Pochettino entered the league as Southampton manager amid a backlash from some commentators, as many felt that previous incumbent Nigel Adkins was unfairly sacked. However, it wasn’t long before the former Espanyol man was lighting up the league with a workmanlike brand of attacking possession football, and thoughts turned to comparisons with his former coach at Newell’s Old Boys, Marcelo Bielsa, rather than any injustice served to Adkins.
The style now on show in the Premier League mixes the continental flair and guile, with the cut and thrust synonymous with the world’s most popular competition. The under-appreciated managers who practice styles haughtily referred to by football hipsters as “anti-football” or “hoofball”, continue to get the most from their limited resources, and add much needed variation to the league.
Tony Pulis’ baseball cap returned to action with Crystal Palace, after the Stoke board and fans sought a different style under the management of Mark Hughes. Sam Allardyce remains confident despite West Ham’s Andy Carroll troubles, as the owners at the Boleyn Ground put all their eggs in one large lumbering basket. And Steve Bruce has his Hull side playing a brand of composed hoofball, using his son Alex in the middle of a back 3 / 5, and talented midfielders such as Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore to control the midfield during certain phases in games.
Chart Topping Duo’s
Across the leagues in Europe, many teams have returned to formations which use a pair of strikers, with a several examples experiencing considerable success. After a slow and slightly anonymous start at Juventus, Fernando Llorente eventually joined Carlos Tevez in attack, forming a formidable partnership almost instantly. The Turin club topped Serie A going into the winter break, with Tevez on 11 goals and Llorente on 5.
At Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini has adapted his 4-2-2-2 formation to suit the English league. He somehow has Samir Nasri doing defensive work down the left, but drifting to more central positions in attack, and uses David Silva, Jesús Navas, and James Milner in similar wide roles which are given more freedom when the team has the ball. Using one of the more intriguing tactical systems on show in European football, Pellegrini’s City qualified from their Champions League group in second place. They were level on points with current European champions Bayern Munich, and even managed to defeat Guardiola’s European giants on home turf at the Allianz Arena. City are also an example of an effective strike partnership, as Alvaro Negredo joined the stocky Sergio Aguero up front, forming another world class Spanish/Argentine strike duo.
Speaking of European champions, the 2013 European Cup final was played out between two German clubs, as Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund took on Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich. It was to be Heynckes’ swansong, but he wasn’t going to be tactically outdone by his much lauded younger opponent. After a first half in which Bayern struggled to cope with Dortmund’s ceaseless pressing, the Bayern manager moved Robben from his position cutting in from the right wing, to a central position alongside Mario Mandžukić. Robben darted in behind Dortmund’s high line, whilst Mandžukić occupied enemy territory, with Ribery and Muller threatening from the flanks. This was yet another example of an effective double act up front, and saw both players find the net in the second half giving Bayern Munich a 2-1 win and their 5th European Cup.
As we see some clubs in Europe edging toward a South American approach with their variations on 4-2-2-2, in Brazil the European style 4-2-3-1 has become a popular set-up. This has allowed sides to retain the traditional two in midfield, but also meant that teams could incorporate the abundance of attacking midfielders and wide forwards currently emerging in Brazil.
Brazilian Champions Cruzeiro rotated a set of forwards across the front four, with 2013’s revelation Éverton Ribeiro playing as the inverted winger on the right, and the under-appreciated Ricardo Goulart playing through the middle. This particular pairing was the focal point of their attack, and behind them were two more important duos: The impressive midfield pair of Nílton and 20-year-old Lucas Silva provided both cover in front of the defence, and a starting point for the attack, whilst centre backs Dedé and Bruno Rodrigo gave the defensive solidity which is vital to any championship win.
Other sides had success with the 4-2-3-1, albeit fleetingly, as Botafogo manager Oswaldo de Oliveira found the perfect position for Clarence Seedorf using this system. Botafogo’s early season success came thanks to a period of games where they rotated an attacking midfield three of Uruguayan star Nicolás Lodeiro, young upstart Vitinho, with Seedorf operating in and around them. It was great whilst it lasted, but Botafogo were to drop away after the departure of Vitinho to CSKA Moscow, and a marked dip in form from almost every other player in their side.
The increased use of possession based tactical systems has meant that goalkeepers have to be as comfortable on the ball as their outfield counterparts. This requires both the mental willingness to give and take the ball under pressure, and the technical ability to perform these actions. They’ve almost become sweepers, as they contribute to the build up in attack and seek out stray long balls when defending, with Spurs’ Hugo Lloris being a great case in point.
Goalkeepers are often asked to play long passes out to the full-backs if their central defenders are being closed down, and as a result much more emphasis is now put on passing in a goalkeepers’ training schedule.
Throwing is still an important aspect of goalkeeping play, as those ‘keepers with a strong arm can use it to effectively launch a counterattack. Teams like Manchester United have been doing this since the days of Peter Schmeichel, and it remains a useful weapon, especially when the game is more open as full backs and midfielders join in attacks.
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One final point worth noting, which is a trend across many leagues in world football, is the continued growth in the importance of the defensive midfielder. It’s a position which is much debated by fans, and one which is highly sought after by the top clubs. The position requires players who can combine the positional awareness and defensive ability of a centre back, with the technique, passing, and creativity of a more attacking player.
This makes the position sound like the most difficult to play, but there are several masters of the art, and plenty more emerging. Two of the best in the world are currently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, plying their trade at Barcelona in the shape of Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano. This type of defensive midfielder can work as part of a duo, but also on their own, using a positional sense and tactical discipline to work in front of the defence. Behind the obvious few, destroyers such as slow burner Fernando Reges, French pair Yann M’Vila and Blaise Matuidi, and Brazilian Sandro, are amongst the most talked about in the position, and it’ll be interesting to see how such players are employed during the 2014 World Cup.
This article was originally written for Think Football.