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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What tactical trends could we see over the next year?

January 6, 2011
By Joshua Askew

As Jonathan Wilson pointed out in his latest edition of The Question, it’s not generally worth paying much attention to what people predict about the future of football for plenty of reasons.

1) Very few of us have anything to do with the game, so it’s not as if any of our ideas are going to be put into practice other than in our long-suffering Football Manager sides. The higher ups in football are generally worth listening to though – take Carlos Alberto Parreira’s prediction of a “strikerless future” as an excellent example.

2) Football tactics generally evolve over several years. There are certainly some trends that can take just a year, but many of them are minor and not worth delving into, such as favoured formations et cetera.

3) According to Roberto Mancini, football has reached an endpoint tactically. It makes quite a lot of sense to be honest – there must be a point where the hundreds of different ways of kicking a sphere on some grass have been figured out and anything afterwards is somewhat insignificant. There will never be anything as game-changing as Hungary’s organised disorder 60 years ago for example.

4) Those new tactical innovations are often simply stumbled upon – for instance, Francesco Totti only played as a false nine for Luciano Spalletti’s Roma after all the traditional alternatives had been injured – or comes as an epiphany to a lucky coach, so trying to predict them is most likely a fruitless exercise.

With these caveats in mind (particularly point two, I don’t genuinely think that any of these will happen over the next year – it’s just an attention-courting title for the new year – but I do think many will happen over the next decade, a boat I missed last year), let’s get on with being right know-it-alls.

A frustration of mine over the last year has been trying to explain to friends the differences I see between entertaining and quality football, which inevitably ends up going back to the argument that Liverpool are rubbish. 2010 has been entertaining (Spurs getting into the Champions League bla bla bla) but notably lacking in quality – purely off the top of my head I can think of just two games that have been top quality, and unsurprisingly both involve Barcelona. Maybe it’s just that this Barcelona side is among the best in history, but outside of their class of one there’s not really much to rave about.

Since Barcelona are so good, it’s hardly shocking that people want to emulate them. Roman Abramovich’s swiping of Txiki Begiristain shows the Chelsea owner’s looking at the long-term, as was Rafa Benitez when updating Liverpool’s youth system with the additions of Rodolfo Borrell and Jose Segura, while Bayern Munich’s more patient build-up play is a much quicker imitation.

Barcelona were among the first teams to play their wide attackers on their “wrong” side with their full-backs expected to provide the width. Now, Manchester United aside, no top club plays with proper wingers.

With most of the top teams looking to play a possession-orientated game, a striker has been forced to make way for a midfielder, putting extra pressure on the midfield to support the lone frontman. The simplest way to do this is by inverting the wingers, forcing them into the middle. In the year’s flavour formation 4-2-3-1, there’s essentially four attackers, alleviating the need for the holding midfielders to support the attack, in turn allowing the full-backs to push on and provide width.

However, the main thing that everyone wants to copy from Barcelona is a philosophy. It goes beyond playing pretty a la West Ham, Rinus Michels’ Total Football template is entrenched at the club. Several clubs have tried to ape Barcelona’s method, especially the new breed of German coaches such as Jurgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick (although it is Arrigo Sacchi usually named as their inspiration), pressing high with a collective responsibility to both attack and defend.

Universality is the ideal for football, so it could be that more teams will push towards this over the next year. The problem comes in the fact that, for the system to work, the players need to be able to both attack and defend and of similar quality. To set up the system you risk sacrificing better players simply because they don’t fit it. Then, say you do get the right squad, it’s near-impossible to get the same quality players as Barcelona, yet you’re playing them at their own game.

Barcelona’s brilliance could see a renaissance in the broken teams that were so prevalent in Serie A during the nineties. Attackers attack and defenders defend – it might lose some of the unpredictability of the universal method, but doesn’t restrict the creative players by burdening them with defensive duties. The best example of the benefits of this can be seen once Sacchi left Milan, his side had rightly gone down as among the best in history but Fabio Capello arguably did better, winning three Scudetti and the Champions League. Up front he played the lazy genius Dejan Savicevic and in midfield former defender Marcel Desailly - neither player could have existed in Sacchi’s side, Savicevic wouldn’t defend to the expected standard and Desailly wouldn’t create to the expected standard, but both players did well for Milan. As long as you get that balance right, it doesn’t necessarily matter.

In the summer, we saw Argentina and the Netherlands playing similarly pragmatic systems to moderate success, should someone pick up on this, there could be a way of rivalling Barcelona.

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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