Are Tactics nonsense?
Brian Clough - probably the greatest manager ever at a small club
The problem with tactics is that in soccer, everything happens simultaneously. In chess, you can have tactics because it is one move at a time. In soccer, there are 22 players all moving at the same time, or at least thinking about moving. 22 minds all with what is going on in their own head. You cannot get 11 players to have the same tactics because they often interpret instructions differently or they decide to do their own thing.
"I always threw the ball in, because then if I got the ball back, I was the only player unmarked" Great strategy by Johan Cruyff
I believe that many of the tropes of tactics are illusory. What exactly is 4 4 2? Or 4 3 3? Or a high press or a long ball game? Let’s take 4 4 2 – it ostensibly means 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 attackers. But in the modern game players are attacking and defending and winning the ball in midfield. Plus for a set-piece, all players from both sides are in or around the box rendering 4 4 2 or any other a farce.
Watch any game from the stands and you will see that generally, all players are in one half or the other, with the exception of goalkeepers. The ball gets forward normally in 2 ways, a fast break often heralded by a long ball, or a patient slow build-up. I feel that formations are rarely adhered to, and if they are rigid, are easily exploited by the opposition. A patient build-up allows players to get into position to defend and a long ball game can be countered by keeping some players back to attack the long ball.
11 minds and one formula?
This is the crux of what I am saying, trying to make tactics work across 11 minds is close to impossible. Even if you manage it by a miracle, then all the opposition has to do is figure out your tactic and counter it. A high press is vulnerable to a long ball and the vagaries of offside. As a defender, you may take risks with offside by very fine margins by having the press as high as possible only to find that you got that margin wrong. You must have both fast players and ones with clever antennae to make a high press work. And of course, you need to have players willing to run very hard for a whole match. This can only happen when your adrenaline is high, and the match important.
This cannot be replicated in friendlies as there is nothing at stake. The same with training. But I wish to get back to this later as it is essential.
Bottlers? Prove them wrong next season
If I was to criticize Mikel Arteta’s tactics, it is the rigidity which makes it easy to counter. He likes a slow patient build-up in which all players move into the opponents half with the aim of keeping it until a goal chance occurs. Normally the ball is moved out to the wing to Saka or Martinelli with the main intention being a pullback to an attacker coming from deep. The obvious counter to this is a park the bus approach with 2 banks of 4 and 5 with only one lone attacker. This allows a levelling up of inferior teams who hope for a win but are content with a draw. If we don’t get an early goal, it becomes a hard slog of a match with both sides cancelling each other out like tic-tac-toe.
Strategies are the key to greatness
I believe that instead of tactics, you are better to have strategies depending on the opposition and what is actually happening in the match. Ten Hag did that with his Manchester United team at Old Trafford this season, relying on a long ball to counter the Arsenal high press. They won 3-1.
He knew a bit about soccer, this guy
But the biggest example was Arteta’s mentor, Mr Pep himself. For the recent Arsenal game he resorted to a long ball game with one objective, get the ball to Haaland. The Arsenal players didn’t know what hit them. City allowed Arsenal to press forward then hit them with the startling speed of De Bruyne and Haaland. City could have had 10. Arsenal needed to park the bus, crowd the attackers and rely on a fast break themselves. They needed to accept that a goalless draw was the target. Frustrate City and they had a chance. Guardiola knew how Arsenal would play but Arteta assumed wrongly he knew how City would play. City had the perfect strategy for a team that will come at them.
Teams learned how to deal with us
Brighton did very similar, allowing Arsenal to come at them but turning their high press against them by not allowing Arsenal’s wingers to cause mayhem. Nullify Arsenal’s wingers and you nullify Arsenal. Always Saka, Martinelli and then Trossard had a fullback devoted to reining them in. Arsenal weren’t allowed to play their normal game and couldn’t adapt. Jesus ran around like a headless chicken, frustrated at not getting the ball.
"I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer stats. Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities technique and vision, are not detectable by a computer." Johan Cruyff again on the modern day obsession with making football complicated
So this is my main point, teaching players strategies should be the main focus of training. Players need to be able to change tack when needed. Arsenal were too predictable and teams were, at the end, able to turn it against them. You need to mix everything up, sometimes play a long ball, sometimes play through the middle, sometimes through the wings. Sometimes a patient build-up, sometimes allow the opposition to come at you, and frustrate them by not giving them room. All strategies are good, if used in moderation.
Simplicity is best
In one sense, football is a simple game. Pass the ball to your own player and things will always go well for you. And that is what you can work at in training, and in friendlies, finding each other. Arsene Wenger was famous for insisting on this, short one twos, knowing where your colleague was and being able to find him. He didn’t care so much for tactics..
It is far better to train players to do different things depending on what is happening on the pitch. A strategy for this scenario, a strategy for another scenario. It has to be better than trying to get 11 players to keep to a tactic when the opposition is not doing what they expect. And it makes it more like chess, you take into account what your opponent is doing and act accordingly.
I started with a quote from Brian Clough and he was one of the most successful managers ever, and probably the best ever at a small club. He believed in getting the best player for every position, that a defender must defend above all, that a midfielder must win the ball and distribute it wisely above all, and attackers must score above all. He didn’t do too badly. He had 2 more European cups (Champions league) than Arsenal.
The opposition must never know how you are going to play. Train strategies, always based on players finding each other, and keep mixing it up throughout matches. Leave the rigid tactics to the park the bus merchants whose objective is to hope for a win, but play for a draw. That can work for them because they know they can never be contenders. True champions can mix it up. We must also.