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Expansive Football: Analysis on the Future of Football Tactics

July 10, 2011

Tactics are crucial to the game of football, as in any sport they determine strategy and prevent on-field chaos. The developments in sports science and a deeper understanding of the game over time has forced tacticians to move with the times and create new methods  in the way we play the game, just to keep up.

The game has reached a point of universality, where players are forced to adapt to a more expansive way of playing.

The history of the English game is associated with physicality, classically demonstrated in a rigid 4-4-2 formation that assigns each player a certain role to play in the game. Defenders would traditionally consist of full backs and centre backs, midfielders would consist of wingers, holding midfielders, creative midfielders and so forth. The game has moved on from specialised positional roles and formed a sport based around the ability to adapt to certain situations with players being able to contribute to all aspects of play, be that in an attacking or defensive sense.

The perfect example of this evolution in football tactics is the dominant force in club football right now, Barcelona. They are the pioneers of the perfect model of a 4-3-3 formation defined by passing and positional play.

We will start with the attack – usually the combined trio of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro. Not one of these three players spends the whole 90 minutes in a certain position on the field as Lionel Messi will often start out wide on the right but will regularly drift more central and swap positions with Villa for example. This gives the opposition more to think about and allows Barcelona to create opportunities through intricate passing and movement, allowing Messi more creative freedom in a match.

This is why Zlatan Ibrahaimovich was not incorporated into the philosophy. The Sweden international is a tall, skilful striker that holds the ball up well, which was a tool used to help Messi and Pedro play off him but it was his inability to adapt his game and move out wide that forced Guardiola to re-consider the system.

Ibrahimovich’s replacement was of course, David Villa and it is his efficiency at cutting in from the left or right as a drifting forward that makes him a perfect fit in this attack.

Xavi and Iniesta are the heartbeat of the side that dictate the creative aspect of the game but also press high up the pitch in order to sustain that positional balance high in the opposition half, allowing the attackers to create regular goal scoring opportunities. These two midfielders create the play as a pair, rather than relying on one playmaker to hold a high position and dictate the tempo. This is a role more suited with the old-style playmaker such as Riquelme or Rivaldo as these sorts of attacking midfielders meant team performance in a match would lie heavily on their contribution to the game.

These sorts of playmakers do not have as much involvement in the game as the modern playmaker as they sit higher up the field and only contribute to the offensive aspect of the game. This problem was demonstrated perfectly in Brazil’s recent 0-0 draw with Venezuela in the Copa America, as Brazil played poorly and created few clear cut chances due to their reliance on the performance of Ganso who put in a lacklustre performance in the hole between midfield and attack, a role associated with old-style playmakers such as Riquelme. It is not to say that Ganso is not a good player, as he is brilliant on his day but the performance of the team relies too heavily on his creative input. Modern football calls for a player willing to act as a box-to-box, ball winning play maker and that is exactly what Xavi and Iniesta do.

This is why Luka Modric is currently being linked with every big club in England because his diminutive figure gives him the opportunity to dictate the game in a more hands-on approach.

The new style of midfielder is a pure footballer, a more expansive one who can get from box to box, reminiscent of Roy Keane but who also possesses the vision and passing distribution of Paul Scholes at the same time.

It is also important to point out the contribution of Sergio Busquets in the Barcelona team as the supposed ‘holding’ midfielder contributes a great deal more than just protecting the back four. The 22-year-old acts at the starting point in the three man midfield triangle, distributing the ball to the naturally more creative midfielders. He plays a whole new role in the game than that of a classic holding midfielder such as Claude Makelele, who broke up play but played little role in the fluidity of the passing movement, like Busquets.

The midfield and attack are the creative force behind Guardiola’s Barcelona, which perfectly outline the future of the tactical game but it is also the defence that play a key role in this adaptability.

For starters, full backs were over time gradually becoming wing backs at the bigger clubs, due to their contribution in attacking play but with Dani Alves it seems as though he is almost a right winger at times. The Brazilian’s ability to control the whole of the right flank gives the attackers the opportunity press more narrowly and outnumber the middle of the park, as well as providing width at the same time. This adaptation of the right back brings a new dimension to the role as attacking prowess is becoming a key attribute in their play.

Unlike full-backs, centre-backs are associated with warrior-like figures such as Nemanja Vidic and Carles Puyol but it is noticeable that their partners in defence – Rio Ferdinand and Gerard Pique respectively, are both players with considerable ability on the ball who like to come forward and distribute play. This gives the team the opportunity to bridge the gap between midfield and defence by playing their way from the back. These defensive partnerships are not forged by accident but are down to the footballing philosophies of their respected managers.

Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola are innovators in the tactical world of football and it is no surprise that they are the mega managers in the world right now.

The future of the game is being conjured by this modern wonder team of Barcelona and their concentration on footballers actually being pure footballers rather than just a right winger for example. The game needs to be played in a more fluid fashion and although a physical and rigid 4-4-2 might be effective for a team like Stoke City, at the highest level of the game it is just becoming too predictable.

This future of the tactical game may insure that players work harder to press the ball and constantly create movement for their fellow teammates but it also means that like Barcelona, there will be more freedom for players to roam from positions and create the football as they see fit.

The game is evolving and the new breed of players are too, as they must be able to adapt to the match situations and be more tactically aware on the field, rather than just sticking to their position and basic positional roles. This revelation at Barcelona is the benchmark for all teams and is the definition of a team game, a team game largely controlled by tactics and the ability to be more expansive in their play and that is what the future holds for football.

Alun Vaughan

http://twitter.com/#!/AlunLUHG

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