Is formation talked about too much in terms of tactics?Posted: November 8, 2011
by Jonny Mullins
Back in May, the whole of Europe was hyping up the ‘rematch’ of the 2009 Champions League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona. A chance for Pep Guardiola’s side to give themselves a creditable claim for being the best club side ever, a chance for United to beat them on home soil and dismiss that idea.
While Alex Ferguson sought help from Jose Mourinho on tactics, the internet was aglow with suggestions of how United could beat the Catalan side. Message boards were flooded with a barrage of formations, line ups and ideas that could defeat the challenge that lay ahead - “4-5-1”, “play Nani on the left to take advantage of Alves going forward”, “Man mark Messi with Carrick”.
Initially this could be seen as a good thing – recently there’s been more tactical debate between fans, largely because of the import of foreign managers to the Premier League who have had more focus on the scientific side of the game than the previous British counterparts (compare Villas Boas leaked scout report whilst chief scout for Mourinho at Chelsea with Harry Redknapp’s instructions to Roman Pavlyuchenko) and also with the popularity of Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Inverting The Pyramid’ and Michael Cox’s zonalmarking.net.
One thing this does is inform the fans that there is much more to the game than what 11 individuals do instinctively on the pitch. This leads to a far more intelligent debate than “Oh he’s crap, why’s he being picked?” or “That was a good goal” that was more prominent before (And is still prominent now if you pay attention to some of the punditry on television). It helps fans to understand the ideas of a manager of why he’s playing that particular player or why he’s playing that particular formation etc.
However it goes both ways. Frank Herbert, a science fiction novelist in the 1900s once said “The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.” Indeed while many start to discover the idea of tactics used in football, many of them don’t realise how big a field they are stumbling into. There’s so much more to tactics than simply formations on a sheet of paper; game plans have to be thought out, strategies with certain players drawn out, line ups to best fit these ideas and getting the players into a mentality where they know as much as they can about the opposition and can, crucially, put it into practice.
And there’s where many people fall short in debates. Formations are fairly simple to see. To tell where each player is and to find the shape of the team is fairly simple. This is not to downgrade the importance of formations in games. They play a massive part, both in stopping another team’s strengths and taking advantage of your weaknesses. A 4-3-3 in general will allow more options in the centre of midfield than a 4-4-2 whereas a straight 4-4-2 will often allow a second option in the forward positions. They play a big part, it’s just that there is so much more to a team’s strategy than that. A formation is just the main basis for a team to implement their tactical game plan.
For example if a team is playing a 4-2-3-1, widely regarded as one of the best if not the best formation in football, do you think that every single player moves up together in harmony in a perfect 4-2-3-1 shape? Of course not. It is the basic shape but that doesn’t mean that when the winger goes and closes down another player that the other two in his line have to follow his line or that the full back cannot move forward from his position in the back line.
If you took screen shots for every single second of a game, the chances are that a team would not be perfectly in their formation for most of the game. And ultimately it’s what a team does in the whole game that shapes the performance and the result.
Managers are often a lot cleverer and more knowledgeable than people think. Going back to the build up to the Champions League Final in May, many pointed out a 4-3-3 for United to try and take advantage of the space left by Alves at right back for Barcelona. Well, do you think Mourinho hadn’t realised that the Brazilian often leaves space when he gallops forward? Or that Messi is a fairly good player that needs to be stopped?
Tactics have to be thought out all over the pitch, considering every strength and weakness of different players, patterns, moves and ideas and from that a manager puts out a team and a strategy that he thinks is his best chance of getting a result. He doesn’t just put out his 11 best players in a formation (well some do but that’s not the point!) If that worked faultlessly, then there would be no need for training or watching videos and studying statistics. But it doesn’t and there is.
Have a look at this video of one of the most organised tacticians in the game Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool back in 2009 against Aston Villa. If you don’t understand Spanish it doesn’t particularly matter, it’s fairly easy to understand from the arrows.
That sort of thing comes from direct strategies such as what line to press and which players pick up which other players. It doesn’t just come from a formation; the formation, as already said, is the basis for it.
It’s not often you see people mention things like that. But it’s an equally important part of the game as the formation and probably deserves equal coverage.
It’s of course much harder to see how a team presses or the specific combinations in a team’s possession play. In an interview with the telegraph Villas Boas does just that:
“Barcelona play horizontally only after a vertical pass. See how the centre backs go out with ball, how they construct the play. They open up (moving wider), so that the right or left-back can join the midfield line.
Guardiola has talked about it: the centre backs provoke the opponent, invite them forward then, if the opponent applies quick pressure the ball goes to the other central defender, and this one makes a vertical pass.
Not to the midfielders, who have their back turned to the ball, but to those moving between lines, Andres Iniesta or Lionel Messi, or even directly to the striker.
Then they play the second ball with short lay-offs, either to the wingers who have cut inside or the midfielders, who now have the game in front of them.
They have an enormous capacity not to lose the ball, to do things with an unbelievable precision.
Another thing about Barcelona, there is always a full-back who arrives earlier in the attack, the other stays in position initially but then progressively joins the attack, as the ball circulates on the other side of the pitch, so he can be a surprise element. When you least expect he arrives. He chooses the perfect timing for the overlap.”
It’s a lovely analysis from an excellent piece but it shows the level of analysis that many top level managers go through and what lengths they will go to win a game. As fans we have the capability to see far more games than we could 20 or 30 years ago and we also have access to chalkboards, stats and heat maps to help us analyse further. As we start to gain a better grasp of this knowledge, we will be able to gain a much better understanding of tactics as a whole, not just the simpler side and from there our debates will have so much more weight behind them. We don’t have to be as detailed as top level coaches and scouts but if we rely merely on formation then we can’t really criticise a manager’s tactics. If we add more weight to the debate then the understanding will gain hugely.