"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Rafa Benitez by Mauro Pederzoli

Here's a translation of this piece by Paolo Brusorio.

"He doesn't count goals when judging a striker". It goes against the logic of pub talk but it is how Rafa Benitez thinks. With Liverpool he's signed a five year contract: he is the Reds' manager in the manner that is habitual in England. He takes care of the team both on and off the pitch, he's given a budget and decides how to spend it. He has his own staff and, since this time at Valencia, has been in synch with Eduardo Macia, the former sporting director of the Spanish side. Yet when he arrived on Merseyside he took on an Italian: Mauro Pederzoli, the former sporting director of Brescia and Cagliari who is now under contract at Liverpool.

Pederzoli met Benitez some fifteen years ago "I lived in Spain where I had worked on the deal which led to (Gigi) Maifredi being made Albacete's manager. Common friends brought us together and he asked me to be his window on Italian football." Since then they never lost touch "one day it would be great to work together" Benitez used to tell him. And then came Liverpool.

Fresh for Pederzoli is the memory of a young Benitez who in the nineties managed to take Extremadura to the Liga. "That Benitez is very similar to the modern day one. He keeps thinking about football twenty four hours on twenty four." Football as a sort of rosary. A hermit of a manager and perhaps a mad one, where the madness comes through work. The name of Arrigo Sacchi comes to mind? Bingo. "The greatest manager of the modern era" is how Benitez calls the former Italy boss. Pederzoli recalls "Rafa used to come a lot to Italy to meet him, to study his methods and to question him. Where do the two meet? The care for each detail of the match, their exasperating work when possession is lost and the method through which players are chosen."

Simple but unbreakable rules that Benitez passes on to his helpers. Benitez doesn't want headline hogging players but discipline, he avoids small players and fancy dans. He looks for "fair and strong" players. Pederzoli says "Put together those players and you get Liverpool. The team that tops the fair play league, no player sent off in the league."

Together they’ve chose players like Agger, Kuyt and Mascherano ("he was strugling with West Ham but we believed in him because we had been following him since his time in South America"). And what of Agger? "The aim was to sign players to replace Carragher and Hyppia. Agger, who played at Broendby, was in the list of players that Benitez told us to follow for a whole year, even during training. We also followed (Daniele) Bonera (then at Parma but now at Milan) but Benitez doesn't like small defenders. We spoke about Cordoba one day and he asked me the height that Inter's defender can reach when jumping. We estimated 2.35 metres. You see, he told me, it only takes Crouch to jump thirty centimeters and Cordoba doesn't even see the ball."

Kuyt instead "has all of Benitez's beliefs, he's the type of strikers he prefers useful when he has the ball, even more when he hasn't" Oh, right, that story of goals and strikers. The strong beliefs of the man who, when criticise for having made Liverpool seem too Spanish started to shuffle the pack. Pederzoli remembers those days clearly. "He never wavered because he has a great self-belief that always gives him strength. He's got fire inside. Benitez in Italy? Here he's very happy and then he wants to win the Premier League."

Benitez keeps thinking about football. It happened also on their honeymoon "He was with his wife Montserrat and I spoke to him about Adriano Bacconi, the first one who applied informatics to football. Benitez asked me to meet him. In the end he spend a whole day with him and his computer whilst his wife waited."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Casillas: Pepe Reina is the worst keeper in the world!

Funny interview BY Reina where he asks Casillas to say "Pepe Reina is the best keeper in the world"

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tactics: Defensive Forwards

The Question: Are defensive forwards the future?

Barcelona, Manchester United and Liverpool are among the teams to have realised that attacking players must be prepared to function in less glamorous ways

Leo Messi and Thierry Henry

Leo Messi and Thierry Henry celebrate Barcelona's second goal against Manchester United. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Amid all the praise for the way Barcelona maintained possession againstManchester United in the Champions League final, one comment from their manager, Pep Guardiola, tended to be overlooked. "Without the ball," he said, "we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early."

From a Barcelona manager, perhaps that isn't so surprising. After all, since Rinus Michels took charge there in 1971, they have favoured the classical Dutch model, which demanded pressing and an aggressive offside trap. "When I went to Barcelona," remembers Marinho Peres, the Brazilian defender who joined the club in 1974, "Michels wanted the centre-backs to push out to make the offside line. In Brazil this was known as the donkey line: people thought it was stupid. The theory was that if you passed one defender, you passed all the others.

"But what Cruyff said to me was that Holland could not play Brazilians or Argentinians, who were very skilful, on a huge pitch. The Dutch players wanted to reduce the space and put everybody in a thin band. The whole logic of the offside trap comes from squeezing the game. This was a brand new thing for me. In Brazil, people thought you could chip the ball over and somebody could run through and beat the offside trap, but it's not like that because you don't have time."

Arrigo Sacchi, whose philosophy was developed from Total Football, believed that a side pressing would ideally allow only 25 metres between centre-forward and centre-back, but such a thin band seems impossible under the liberal modern interpretation of the offside law, which is one of the reasons that it has become increasingly common for sides to play in four bands instead of three. (In fact, it could be argued that one of the reasons that United were so outplayed was that Barcelona's system was discernibly a 4-1-2-3, while United, perhaps because of the absence of Darren Fletcher, perhaps because of Anderson's indiscipline, were stuck in a far more rigid 4-3-3. Given rough equality of talent in that midfield area, a triangle will always beat a line.)

What Barcelona achieved, in other words, was to find a way of pursuing the classic tenets of Total Football – short passing, intermovement of players, winning the ball high up the field – under the modern interpretation of the laws. Their solution, in truth, is not especially complex. Certainly it does not require the intellectual leap of faith Marinho found he needed to accept the efficacy of aggressive offside.

If defenders cannot move forward to defend high up the field because the weakened offside law makes them reluctant to leave space behind them, then logically forwards, when they do not have the ball, act as defenders. This is nothing particularly new – Andriy Shevchenko's ability to defend, for instance, was one of the things that made Valeriy Lobanovskyi hail him as the first "universal player" – but what is surprising is the extent to which Barcelona's forwards are deployed as ball-winners.

To traditionalists who prefer to think of forwards as fragile artists who should not be troubled by such negative thoughts that may be unpalatable – Jimmy Greaves always thought a forward should run as little as possible to ensure he was fresh to pounce when chances arose - but the statistics are telling.

For Barcelona Dani Alves stands alone, having committed twice as many fouls as anybody else in the back four last season, but Opta stats show that Thierry Henry committed more fouls than any other member of the back four, with Gerard Piqué only one ahead of Samuel Eto'o, and Leo Messi and the other regular defenders within one foul of each other. Given none are the sort of players usually thought of as dirty, and they are not the Kevin Davies or Niall Quinn sort of target-man forward who concedes a lot of free-kicks simply because they challenge for a lot of headers, that surely is significant.

Barcelona, because of their reputation for beautiful football, are perhaps the most striking example, but they are certainly not alone. It is not stretching things by much to draw a parallel with table football where, beyond a certain level, most of the play is made by the back two, because they have secure space behind them and so can tee up shots, while the front bands of five and three are left to block or to pounce on loose balls.

Full-back has become the most tactically interesting position on the pitchbecause full-backs, as Jack Charlton noted in 1994, tended to be the only players on the field who regularly had space in from of them. Logically, the next step was to close that down, which means forwards, and particularly wide forwards, taking defensive responsibility.

Manchester United tend to use Park Ji-sung as a defensive winger, as he did most notably against Internazionale when he almost entirely negated the attacking threat of Maicon from full-back. Indeed given his lack of obvious creative abilities, his deployment against Sylvinho, who had barely played for two years and who looked nervous early on, was one of the more mystifying elements of the Champions League final.

But Wayne Rooney too has been used defensively. Even within the scope of that final, it was evident in Carles Puyol's surges from full-back in the second half – one of which led to the second goal - just how Rooney had restricted him before switching flanks at half-time. There are those who would argue that Rooney would be better served operating centrally, as a purely creative presence, but that is to ignore both how many goals are scored from wide these days, and also how good Rooney is as a defensive player. Defenders are often spoken of as being frustrated forwards, but Rooney at times gives the impression of being a frustrated left-back, forever chafing at the restrictions of creativity, desperate to go and get involved in a bit of jockeying.

The surges of Aly Cissokho from left-back had troubled United in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Porto, so in the second leg, Sir Alex Ferguson played Cristiano Ronaldo as a centre-forward, with Rooney on the right. Cissokho and Porto were negated, and United completed a relatively comfortable 1-0 victory. Similarly last season, in the semi-final away to Barcelona, Rooney became almost a second full-back, neutralising Messi.

Ronaldo's 42 goals last season meant he was almost universally hailed as United's outstanding player, but consider this curiosity: in Premier League games Ronaldo started last season, Manchester United picked up 2.38 points per game; when Tevez started they picked up 2.44; when Rooney started they picked up 2.52. That's only one measure, and it's fairly crude, but it does hint at how much important work goes unseen. It may be more thrilling to see Rooney employed in a central role, but it is not necessarily more effective. Indeed, it is tribute to his selflessness that he is prepared to function in less glamorous ways.

At Liverpool, similarly, Dirk Kuyt has become adept in the role, harrying and pestering his full-back. Given Steven Gerrard seems certain to continue at the centre of their 4-2-3-1, it is easy to understand why Rafa Benítez might be tempted to bring in Carlos Tevez. Not only would he offer a second central striking option, but playing on the left he would give Liverpool a formidable line of three creative players, all of whom work exceptionally hard, and all of whom are prepared to do their share of defending.

Of course the corollary to defensive forwards is that more defensive players must learn to create. The deep-lying play-making of Falcao and Cerezo for Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, it could be argued, wasfacilitated by the defensive work of the centre-forward Serginho. More recently, Shevchenko helped drive back the opposition defence to create room for Andrea Pirlo's successful reinvention as a deep regista (central midfield playmaker, literally 'director'). In the Premier League we have seen Michael Carrick and Xabi Alonso offer interpretations of the same role. Would Xavi or Andrés Iniesta be quite so effective without three forwards who tackle in front of them?

Lobanovskyi evangelised universality, foreseeing an age when players could interchange at will, and it is perhaps towards that that we are heading. Yet that process seems, paradoxically, to be leading to greater specialisms, perhaps even inversions – in Park's case in particular. Some defenders have always been selected with their creative qualities in mind; now we are seeing the rise of the defensive forward.

Tactics: Box-to-box Midfielders?

The Question: is the box-to-box midfielder dead?

In the latest in our series analysing football tactics, we look at where the Robsons, Keanes and Matthaus's have gone in the modern game

Bryan Robson playing for England against Holland

Bryan Robson Photograph: Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

Doing some research into the 1990 World Cup recently, I was struck by a comment made by the England manager Bobby Robson after his captain, Bryan Robson, had picked up his customary World Cup injury, rupturing an Achilles during the 0-0 draw against the Netherlands. Bryan is, Bobby said, "as good a player as we've ever produced".

As good a player as we've ever produced. Even allowing for the magnifying lens of context, for the sense of despair Bobby Robson must have felt to lose his captain at such a crucial stage – and just when England had produced a performance, if not a result, to rebuff their most poisonous critics – that is an extraordinary statement. Not "he'll be a big loss", not "he's been a key player for us over the years", but "as good a player as we've ever produced".

The stats show the importance of Robson the player to Robson the manager. Bobby was in charge for 88 games. Bryan played in 62 of those, of which England lost only 10; of the 26 he missed, England lost seven. So that got me thinking: if Robson really is one of the best ever, where would he fit in the present England set-up?

And the answer is that he wouldn't, not comfortably, not if England continue to play a loose 4-2-3-1. It seems churlish to define such a great player by what he was not, but did he really have the technical ability to operate in one of the three attacking midfield slots? But equally, given his goal-scoring ability, would it not be a waste to play him as a holding player? And, anyway, until his pace had gone late in his career, did he really have the discipline to operate as one of the holding players?

He would probably have to play in the awkward compromise position Frank Lampard occupied against Slovakia and Ukraine, as the freer of the two holders, alongside a Gareth Barry figure. Which would just about work, I think, and yet it seems terrible to circumscribe the role of a player whose greatest assets were his stamina, his courage and his completeness. And anyway, that role seems best occupied not by a shuttler chafing constantly at the reins, but by an intelligent passer such as Xabi Alonso or Michael Carrick.

And then it occurred to me that complete midfielders, those great drivers of teams who could both score goals and make tackles, are generally a declining breed. After Robson there came Löthar Matthaus, David Platt, then Roy Keane and thereafter, well, nobody. The question is why.

Reason one: The decline of the traditional 4-4-2 formation and the rise of the holding midfielder

Perhaps the point is not that complete midfielders don't exist so much as that they are no longer able to play as complete midfielders. Michael Ballack, Cesc Fàbregas and Michael Essien, for instance, have all played this season both as holding midfielders and as attacking midfielders, but rarely, if at all, just as midfielders.

This, surely, is the key issue in the debate over whether Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both of whom would seem to have the full range of attributes that in a previous age would have made them Robson-style box-to-box players, can play together in the same midfield.

In a sense, the problem is less the answer than the question. For what the question omits is the assumption that we're taking about them playing together in the centre of a 4-4-2 (for how, until Fabio Capello opened our eyes, could our players possibly have veered from the one true path of 4-4-2?).

This, arguably, was the main reason for the farrago of the golden generation: England were blessed with a remarkably talented generation of players; the problem was that Michael Owen and David Beckham needed a 4-4-2, while Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard needed an additional holding player. Neither Sven-Göran Eriksson nor Steve McClaren ever had the clarity of thought to opt for one system over the other and cull players accordingly. It was almost as though football itself were taunting England for its lack of tactical sophistication and its concomitant obeisance to the cult of the celebrity player.

Perhaps in a club situation, working together every day, Lampard and Gerrard could have come to an understanding, but at international level they palpably couldn't. The World Cup qualifier away to Austria in September 2004 showcased the problem. Both Lampard and Gerrard scored, and with 20 minutes to go England seemed comfortable, only for Roland Kollmann to knock in a free-kick conceded by Lampard, and Andreas Ivanschitz to equalise with a drive that deflected off Gerrard and squirmed under David James.

Both goals, ultimately, resulted from the vast space that opened up between back four and midfield as Gerrard and Lampard advanced. That area has always been English football's great weakness. It was from that position that Matthias Sindelar almost exposed England when Austria lost 4-3 at Stamford Bridge in 1932, from that position that Vsevolod Bobrov so tormented Chelsea in their 4-4 draw against Dinamo Moscow in 1945, and, most notoriously, from that position that Nandor Hidegkuti crafted Hungary's 6-3 demolition of England in 1953. Even in the 1990s, Eric Cantona and Gianfranco Zola were able to exploit the stratified nature of the average English set-up, prospering in the space between the lines.

As lone forwards became increasingly common, so it became increasingly necessary for sides to deploy a midfield holder to combat the withdrawn forward, precipitating the gradual shift – at the highest level at least - to 4-2-3-1. Once that formation has been adopted, midfielders are necessarily categorised as either defensive or attacking, and completeness, although it allows a player to play in either role, becomes within the immediate context of the game far less of an asset.

Reason two: modern football is about specialists

The game nowadays increasingly demands universality. It is no longer enough simply to be a winger or a playmaker or a poacherFull-backs have to be able to attack. Which makes the decline of the most universal player on the pitch paradoxical.

It also explains the distaste of Arrigo Sacchi – along with Valeriy Lobanovskyi one of the two high priests of universality – for 4-2-3-1. "Today's football is about managing the characteristics of individuals," he said. "And that's why you see the proliferation of specialists. The individual has trumped the collective. But it's a sign of weakness. It's reactive, not pro-active."

Sacchi saw that most clearly during his time as sporting director of Real Madrid in 2004. "There was no project; it was about exploiting qualities," he said. "So, for example, we knew that Zidane, Raúl and Figo didn't track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that's reactionary football. It doesn't multiply the players' qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players' abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have [Claude] Makélélé, he can't do that. He doesn't have the ideas to do it, though of course, he's great at winning the ball. It's all about specialists."

Sacchi remains as committed to 4-4-2 now as he was when his AC Milan side won successive European Cups in 1989 and 1990. Neither of his central midfield pairing of Carlo Ancelotti and Frank Rijkaard were as prolific as Robson or Matthaus, but both were certainly capable of both destroying and creating. Given players with the physical and technical attributes of Lampard and Gerrard, he would, presumably, play both in a 4-4-2 – if, that is, they had the mental attributes he demanded. He is not sure that Gerrard, in particular, does.

"When I was director of football at Real Madrid I had to evaluate the players coming through the youth ranks," he said in response to a question about Gerrard. "We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry. But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision-making. They lacked positioning. They didn't have that subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective.

"You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team, and, by doing this, making both you and the team greater. So, situations like that, I just have to say, he's a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player."

Rafa Benítez, who is probably the most Sacchian manager English football has known, seems to have harboured similar doubts. Twice, he was willing to sell his captain (to Chelsea, who would presumably have used Lampard and Gerrard to flank Makelele in a 4-3-3), and his regular deployment of Gerrard on the right or the left of a midfield four was surely evidence of his uneasiness at giving him responsibility in the centre.

It was, of course, the use of Didi Hamann as a holding player that released Gerrard in the 2005 Champions League final, while Benítez's conversion to 4-2-3-1 more recently has given Gerrard licence, because he has two holders behind him. Gerrard started as a complete midfielder, might have become a holding midfielder who get forward, and has become instead an attacking midfielder who can put in the odd tackle.

Lampard's role at Chelsea is slightly deeper-lying, but he is, none the less, more comfortable with a holding player behind him. It will be fascinating to see whether he has the acuity to adapt to the slightly more defensive brief Capello seems to envisage for him with England.

The question then is the extent to which the need to use Gerrard and Lampard in conjunction with more defensive players is a facet of them lacking "knowing-how-to-play-football", and how much it is inherent in the way the tactical evolution of the game has affected the position they grew up playing.

To an extent, the comparison of England's 2004 performance against Austria and a Sacchi side is absurd, for no Sacchi side would ever allow the sort of gap between defensive and midfield lines to open up as emerged in Vienna (something that may, in part, have been caused by the defence's desire to prevent David James, who was having one of his more erratic days, from being tempted into leaving his box).

Reason three: the liberalisation in the offside law

That said, Sacchi's ideal was for attack and defence to be separated by no more than 25m, providing a compact structure that facilitated his hard-pressing game, and it may be that such a high defensive line is no longer practicable given the liberalisation of the offside law.

It is impossible to prove, but it seems reasonable to suggest that Sacchi's approach would be undermined today as much by the modern interpretation of offside as by the egos of millionaire modern players. The change in the offside law has stretched the game, so we now tend to see it in four bands, and it is that that has effectively decommissioned the complete midfielder.

Historically, that is entirely consistent. The notion of a complete midfielder itself is far from constant across football's history. It first emerged as the centre-half in the 2-3-5, which came to prominence in the 1880s was a multi-skilled all-rounder, defender and attacker, leader and instigator, goal-scorer and defender, but by the early thirties he had all but disappeared as W-M took hold (the last of the old-style centre-halves was probably Ernst Ocwirk, who continued to mastermind the Austria midfield until the early 1950s, but he was very much an anachronism by then).

The old-style centre-half was replaced by the stopper and, as the inside-forwards dropped off to become advanced midfielders, the resulting 3-2-2-3 neatly split midfielders into those whose responsibilities were defensive and those whose were attacking.

Only in the mid-sixties as the four bands of the W-M were replaced by the three bands of 4-2-4, and then old-style 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 – a development that was soon followed by pressing and the squeezing of the game – did the complete midfielder re-emerge.

Now, as three bands once again become four, midfielders are specialising once again.

Tactics: Fullbacks

The Question: why is full-back the most important position on the pitch?

All the hype in football is about forwards and fantasistas, but increasingly the battle is won and lost among the full-backs

Cafu and Roberto Carlos

Cafu and Roberto Carlos excelled in tandem at the 2002 World Cup. Photograph: Reuters

It was, strangely, Jack Charlton who first gave voice to the thought, claiming after the 1994 World Cup that the most important attacking player on the team was the full-back. At first, it sounds preposterous, until you consider that every World Cup since has been won by the team with the best pair of attacking full-backs: Jorginho and Branco for Brazil in 1994; Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu for France in 1998; Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002; and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy three years ago.

Now of course, to an extent, that is coincidence. Nobody wins anything simply by having a pair of good full-backs, but what the trend highlights is the importance of full-backs to the tactical side of the game. Take, for example, Spain's victory over Russia in the Euro 2008 semi-final. The game tends to be remembered for its 3-0 scoreline and used in evidence against Andrei Arshavin, but it started very evenly.

Arshavin, it's true, struggled to escape the marking of Marcos Senna, but the decisive moment of the game came after 34 minutes, when David Villa was injured. Off he went, on came Cesc Fábregas, and Spain switched from 4-1-3-2 to 4-1-4-1. That brought Andres Iniesta and David Silva into more direct confrontation with Alexander Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov, the Russia full-backs whose marauding had been such a feature of the tournament. With their forward surges inhibited, Russia lost fluency, Spain took control of midfield and went on to score three times in the second half. Counter-intuitively, without the tournament's top scorer, they played more effective football – a useful reminder that goals are a measure of success, not a means to it.

Or consider the first leg of Manchester United's Champions Leaguemeeting with Internazionale. In the first half, Park Ji-Sung, presumably selected ahead of Wayne Rooney for the purpose, restricted Maicon's attacking surges from right-back, which, given how narrow Inter's midfield was, allowed Patrice Evra to advance. If it looked at times as though United had an extra man it's because, effectively, they did.

After the break, though, as Ivan Cordoba replaced the hapless Nelson Rivas at centre-back, Estaban Cambiasso was able to play higher – in the first half, he had almost become an auxiliary centre-back, so deep had he dropped to bail out Rivas – allowing Zanetti to push further to his right and so restrict Evra. Accordingly, the second half was far more even than the first had been.

Brazilian beginnings

The full-back, in the modern sense, developed in Brazil in the fifties. The genesis of the 4-2-4 is complex and disputed, but what is significant here is that at the 1958 World Cup, Brazil were using it and nobody else was. It may seem counter-intuitive that it should have been Brazil, with their reputation for attacking flair, who pioneered the use of four defenders as opposed to the three of the W-M, but formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them an defensive or aggressive aspect (which is another way of saying, yet again, that 4-5-1 is not inherently negative).

Terminology here is surely significant. In English the term "full-back" is used as a hangover from the days of 2-3-5. Those two defenders were pushed wider by the backward movement of the centre-half (another confusingly antiquated term) in the W-M, and then wider still when another midfielder (usually the left-half) was pushed deeper to form a back four (this is why the classic numbering of an English back four, reading from right-to-left, goes 2-5-6-3).

In Brazil, though, (and, for that matter, in Spanish-speaking countries as well) a "full-back" is a 'lateral'. The term gives a notion of width, but not of depth: he was, in other words, a wide player, but not necessarily a defensive one, a mindset that was inherent in Brazilian football almost from the start. Arsenal toured in 1949 and, although broadly successful, were bewildered by what they found. "Suddenly, a bloke comes dashing through and he's had a shot at goal and the ball went wide," said the full-back Laurie Scott, describing Arsenal's 5-1 win over Fluminense in Aidan Hamilton's An Entirely Different Game. "And we started looking around to see who we'd got to blame for this. We couldn't find it. We found out it was their full-back. See, they didn't care. I never went up there like that."

That exuberance had been a problem for Brazilian football – they won only two Copa Americas before the second world war, and it's significant that both of Uruguay's goals in the final game of the 1950 World Cupresulted from the left-back, Bigode, being caught out of position. The 4-2-4, though, gave just enough structure for those attacking tendencies to flourish.

Given the space in front of them, the full-backs were encouraged to advance, while at the same time providing immediate cover. Once marking had ceased to be man-to-man, it became a simple process for the fourth defender to react to the forward movement of the full-back by not pushing out himself, leaving his side still with the three-man defensive cover they would have had in the W-M. The pairing of Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos is often overlooked, but they were key to Brazil's World Cup victories of 1958 and 1962.

Natural evolution

Even by 1962, though, the shape had changed, with Mario Zagallo shuttling up and down the left rather than acting as a traditional winger – as Garrincha most certainly was on the other side. England, in 1966, operated without wingers, using something that would today probably be described as a 4-1-3-2. Their full-backs, George Cohen and Ray Wilson, while nowhere near as flamboyant as their Brazilian forebears, had vital roles, and were noted for their overlapping runs. This, of course, is a natural evolution: if there are no wingers to defend against, the full-back can be more adventurous; and at the same time, if there is no winger, there is a need for the full-backs to advance to provide width.

In 1970, Brazil operated with just one attacking full-back, Carlos Alberto, with Everaldo tucking in on the left to provide balance. That was a function of the highly idiosyncratic development of that side, but it was symptomatic of a more general trend. Most European sides who used alibero tended to deploy one attacking full-back, balanced by a more defensive player on the other flank, who tucked in and operated as a marker: Giacinto Facchetti and Tarcisio Burgnich in Helenio Herrera's Inter, for instance; Paul Breitner and Berti Vogts in West Germany's World Cup-winning side of 1974; or Antonio Cabrini and Claudio Gentile in Italy's World Cup winners of 1982.

In those last three combinations, the left-back was the attacking one of the pair, which was the orthodoxy. Gianluca Vialli has a theory that the right-back was always the worst player on the team. If he showed defensive ability, and was of average height or above, he would be moved into the centre; if he was good on the ball he would be pushed into midfield. The only players left to play at right-back, then, were those who were outstanding neither defensively nor technically. Left-backs were different, partly because left-footers are rarer and tend to be nurtured, and partly because of the example of Facchetti. That thinking has changed over the past 20 years.

The advent of wing-backs can be seen as attempt to liberate both full-backs again – particularly in a world without wingers, but as the gradual move to a single striker has led to a return to a back four, the full-back has again taken on attacking importance. That Dani Alves can be hailed as one of the greatest players in the world is an indication of how crucial the role has become.

Few sides today play with wingers who stay wide. Part of the point of a 4-2-3-1, in fact, is to restore dribblers to the game without risking becoming over-manned in the centre. Even in a 4-4-2, the wide midfielders rarely play high up the field, which means that, as Charlton said, the full-backs are the only players on the field who regularly have space in front of them, and where there is space there is opportunity: if there is no direct opponent, there is the chance to overman, as United showed in the San Siro.

Trying to counter the full-back

The danger, of course, is that sides become over-reliant on the full-backs to provide attacking width, as happened to Russia in that Euro 2008 semi-final. Equally, Chelsea under Luiz Felipe Scolari, after early success with Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole pushing forwards (a Brazilian coach employing a typically Brazilian tactic), found themselves restricted as teams began to deploy midfielders to pen them back.

The rise of players like Park and Dirk Kuyt, wide men who play high up the field but are capable of taking on a defensive brief, is one of the most striking features of the past couple of seasons (or look at the job Wayne Rooney did in Barcelona last season). In a sense they are modern incarnations of players such as Jair, who operated on the right for Herrera's Inter. He was a tornante (literally "returner"), a wide midfielder characteristic of classic catenaccio, whose role was to occupy the opposing left-back and track his forward surges.

Most fascinating is what happens when genuine winger and attacking full-back clash, as happened in last season's Champions League final. Cole has probably played Cristiano Ronaldo as well as anybody, and so Sir Alex Ferguson switched Ronaldo across to the left, putting him up against Michael Essien.

For half an hour, Ronaldo destroyed him, not merely twice beating him on the ground, but even leaping above him to head United into the lead. The temptation must have been to try to double up on Ronaldo, but Chelsea ended up doing the opposite. Essien drove by him again and again. That effectively gave Chelsea an extra man in midfield and as they came to dominate, Ronaldo became increasingly marginalised. Frank Lampard's equaliser, of course, came from a half-blocked Essien drive. The course of the game mirrored exactly the ebb and flow of that battle between Essien and Ronaldo.

England's 4-1 victory in Croatia, similarly, can be seen as a tale of winger and full-back. Danijel Pranjic had looked excellent in the Euros, his overlapping runs allowing Ivan Rakitic to drift infield off the left flank on to his favoured right foot. Faced with the pace of Theo Walcott, though, he never had the confidence to abandon his man and surge forward, which had the effect both of stymieing Croatia as an attacking force, and of exposing his own defensive shortcomings. That Walcott scored a hat-trick underlined the point, but came almost a bonus alongside his primary role of disrupting Croatia's left flank.

Come next summer's World Cup, of course, all the build-up will be about the forwards and fantasistas – Lionel Messi and Franck Ribéry, Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto'o and Robinho. Perhaps though, what we should be concentrating on is the full-backs: Sergio Ramos and Philipp Lahm, Alexander Anyukov and Patrice Evra, Dani Alves and Ashley Cole. For it is there, increasingly, where the battle is lost and won.

Tactics: Goalpoachers?

The Question: what has happened to the classic goalpoacher?

Michael Owen is one of the last of a dying breed as more has become required of strikers as football has developed tactically

Michael Owen

Michael Owen lacks the all-round game possessed by most of the world's top strikers. Photograph: John Walton/EMPICS Sport/PA

Michael Owen may be the arch-poacher, but even he seems to have accepted that the art in which he excelled is of declining relevance. In his 2004 autobiography, Off the Record, Owen was still fighting against the tide, condemning Kevin Keegan for his attempts while England manager to add variety to his game.

Yet by the end of last season, under Keegan at Newcastle, he was willingly operating in a deep role behind Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins. Owen is perhaps the last English example of his kind – at least at the highest level. There are two things at which he excels (or at least excelled): sitting on the shoulder of defenders and timing runs on to through balls, and getting across his marker at the near post to meet crosses. His diminishing pace has affected his ability to do the former, but he remains excellent at the latter (it is three years ago now, but his two late goals in the 3-2 win over Argentina in Geneva were typical).

No more Müllers

Over the last 40 years, numerous players have succeeded with similarly limited skill-sets. It would be hard to argue that the likes of Gerd Müller, Gary Lineker, Hossam Hassan or Filippo Inzaghi contributed much to the team beyond putting the ball in the back of the net, and yet all had distinguished international careers.

But football has changed. As a snap-shot of top-level modern football, let's take last season's Champions League quarter-finals. The main striker for each of the eight teams in the first legs were: Mirko Vucinic, Wayne Rooney, Kevin Kuranyi, Samuel Eto'o, Emmanuel Adebayor, Fernando Torres, Mateja Kezman and Didier Drogba. Of those, only Kezman even comes close to being an old-style poacher, and even he was operating as a lone forward, there as much to create space with his movement as to score (and, it may be noted, he was playing for Fenerbahce, probably the weakest of the quarter-finalists).

Improved defences

So why should goalscorers have gone out of fashion? There is a practical explanation. Put simply, defences are better now than they were before: it takes more to break them down. "A lot of the goals a poacher scored came from mistakes," said the Montenegro manager Zoran Filipovic, an outstanding centre-forward for Red Star Belgrade in the early seventies. "Maybe not an obvious mistake, but a loss of concentration, giving the forward a metre of space. With defences now that doesn't happen. And fitness is better. Players used to make mistakes because they were tired. Now they can concentrate better."

In addition, the liberalisation of the offside law over the past decade means that teams tend not to operate such a high defensive line. They don't leave so much space behind them, and so the ability to burst onto through-balls at pace and beat the goalkeeper in a one-on-one is less valuable than it once was.

That, in part, explains Chelsea's troubles at home this season: Nicolas Anelka is one of the best in the world when put through against the goalkeeper, but is only given the opportunity to demonstrate that when the opposition attempts to take the initiative and is unable to defend as deep as they may like. Of his 14 Premier League goals this season, only two have been the first of a game (and one of those deflected in fortuitously off his knee at Blackburn); of Chelsea's 12 Premier League victories, only two have been by a single goal: in other words, when Chelsea score early and the opposition chases the game, Anelka takes advantage.

Set positions or fluidity

But there are also more theoretical reasons for the poacher's decline. There are two basic ways of conceptualising a team: it is either a series of predetermined slots (the target-man, the holding midfielder, the right-back ...) into which players are dropped, or it is a holistic entity, in which the relationships between component parts are as significant as the parts themselves.

In reality, of course, most managers end up somewhere between the two extremes, their more idealistic impulses often tempered by the resources available. Football in Britain, though, far more than anywhere else in the world has tended towards the former. Players preferred the security of a "position" in whatever the default formation of the day was: 2-3-5 until the thirties, the W-M from then until the sixties, and 4-4-2 ever since.

Pundits are still bewilderingly suspicious of sides who refuse to play "two up", while there seems to be a general consensus that 4-4-2 is the only logical way for England to play. There is a certain logic to that, for while at club level there is time to work on other systems, at international level it is probably safest to stick to the tried and tested, the formation that is hard-wired into English players from birth.

That said, at Euro 96, Terry Venables's side played a highly fluid system that, although taking 4-4-2 as its base, could become 3-5-2, with Gareth Southgate stepping into midfield, or 4-3-3, with Steve McManaman advanced. In the 1990 World Cup, under Bobby Robson, England switched mid-tournament to a 3-5-2. (Such flexibility, of course, is indicative of the basic truth – which is surely what Fabio Capello was alluding to when he dismissed the Whole notion of formations – that designations such as 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 are nothing more than crude signifiers useful for providing observers with a general idea of patterns; there are always far more subtleties beneath, and it is with those that a coach deals on a day-to-day basis).

And in 1966, Alf Ramsey devised what would become known as the 4-4-2, despite the prevalence of W-M and 4-2-4 at club level. In other words, in the three tournaments in which England reached the semi-finals or better, they were using a formation that struck against the default. Which is perhaps to say no more than how we used to do things is not necessarily a blueprint for how we should do them now.

Lobanovskyi's science

Valeriy Lobanovskyi was not the first to take a holistic approach, but he was the first to use computers to aid his conceptualisation, and the first to explain his thinking in clear scientific terms. Influenced by the cybernetic techniques being pioneered at the Polytechnic Institute while he was a student in Kyiv, he saw football as a system of twenty-two elements – two sub-systems of eleven elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.

What really fascinated Lobanovskyi is the peculiarity that in football the efficiency of the sub-system is greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that comprise it. Football, he concluded, was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them.

Universality or poachers and their partners

Lobanovskyi became convinced of the importance of "universality": if players could adapt, could play in two or three positions, could interchange on the field, those coalitions were less predictable and therefore harder to disrupt. In such a philosophy, there is no place for a player who is only a sniffer, whose only contribution is – to use Arrigo Sacchi's term – "reactionary", finishing chances created for him by his team-mates or presented him by the errors of the opposition.

Lobanovskyi hailed Andriy Shevchenko as the player who had come closest to his ideal of universality. Perhaps significantly, in his early days at Dynamo Kyiv, he was regularly outscored by Serhiy Rebrov – only later did his focus shift more to goalscoring; and even at Milan he regularly acted as a creator for Inzaghi. As such, he is the prototype for the modern forward.

Poachers operate best in partnerships. They need either a target-man to knock balls down to them (Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips, Mark Hateley and Ally McCoist) or a deep-lying creator to feed balls through for them (Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka). That, though, draws a player from midfield, which decreases flexibility and thus a side's capacity to control space.

Mourinho's modern forwards

The best modern forwards are universal players; effectively hybrids of the old partnerships. The likes of Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor are both target-man and quick-man, battering-rams and goalscorers, imposing physically and yet also capable of finesse. A Thierry Henry or a David Villa mixes the best qualities of the creator and goalscorer, capable of dropping deep or pulling wide, as adept at playing the final ball as taking chances himself. Somewhere in between the two extremes are ranged Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres, Dimitar Berbatov and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

English football, though, seems reluctant to adapt, as Jose Mourinho pointed out. "I can't believe that in England they don't teach young players to be multi-functional," he said. "To them it's just about knowing one position and playing that position. To them a striker is a striker and that's it. For me, a striker is not just a striker. He's somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2."

Glut of creators

By playing one of the hybrid strikers as a lone forward, a coach can accommodate three – perhaps four – creators, allowing greater fluidity and flexiblity, which in turn enables the control of space Lobanovskyi demanded. Football's development off-field, possibly not by design, has gone hand-in-hand with that thinking, as academies have produced a glut of attacking midfielders.

It may even be that in the absence of the hybrid striker it is better to play with none at all (the 4-6-0 foretold by Carlos Alberto Parreira, and practised by Roma and Manchester United last season and, more recently, Everton), or with an otherwise undistinguished target-man who can hold the ball up – hence the return to favour of Emile Heskey (it is worth noting in this context that Aime Jacquet has always insisted Stephane Guivarc'h's contribution to France's World Cup triumph in 1998 was undervalued and, as Rob Smyth argued on these pages, thatSerginho's contribution to Brazil in the 1982 World Cup may have been misunderstood.

Is this it for Owen?

So is there any place for poachers in modern football? The bad news for Owen is that if there is, it is probably at somewhere like Newcastle. After watching Lobanovskyi's USSR beat Italy 2-0 in the semi-final of Euro 88 with a breath-taking demonstration of their pressing principles, Marcello Lippi hailed the victory of systematised pressing – of the necessity of controlling space (as Lobanovskyi, Rinus Michels and Sacchi had been arguing).

That means universality, and that means no poachers. But that sort of football is hugely difficult to play, and there is an argument that sides who are not capable of it may as well ensure they make the most of whatever chances come their way. Equally, it may be that good sides having an off day and in desperate search of a goal should abandon a stuttering quest for control and trust to chance by knocking balls forward, looking for dead-balls and lucky breaks, trying to stimulate panic in opponents who are holding the lead. Again, in those circumstances, it may be useful to bring a poacher off the bench so that if a chance does materialise, it is as likely as possible to be taken.

Far better, though, for good sides is to reduce as far as possible the workings of chance, and to trust reason and ability and do everything possible to control the flow of chances by controlling space. You don't win games by scoring goals; you score goals by winning games.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009