December 23, 2009


The Question: How will football tactics develop over the next decade?: The end of the goal poacher and the rebirth of the libero are two trends we are likely to see during the next 10 years (Jonathan Wilson, 23 December 2009, The Guardian Sports Blog)

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Vivek Ranadive, who coached his daughter's team of 12-year-olds into the US's national championships despite having no previous knowledge of basketball. Baffled by the way, as he saw it, basketball teams effectively took turns to attack, Ranadive applied the principles he'd picked up from football and encouraged his side to press the opponent in possession high up the court. I have no idea whether that would be effective at the top level of basketball, but my point is that if there is to be a revolution in football tactics, it will almost certainly come from another sport, or at least from a culture in which another sport predominates.

It always strikes me when reading US and Japanese accounts of football that there is a dislocation, not merely in vocabulary, but in the way of thinking about the game. This is a generalisation, of course, but broadly speaking Europeans view football more as a continuum, the US and Japanese as a series of discrete events. Japanese magazines are full of intricate diagrams that look good but I'm not sure reflect the game as a whole, while I often detect a frustration from US commentators that football doesn't lend itself more readily to the sort of statistical analysis that predominates in American football and basketball.

One of the oddest comments on Inverting the Pyramid came from a US reviewer who expressed surprise that 140 years of tactical history seemed to have produced nothing more sophisticated than moving a player a little bit forward or back, and speculated on the impact an American football offensive or defensive coach might have on football. I would suggest that the anarchic nature of football, the lack of set-plays to be replicated and practised, militates against the sort complex pre-rehearsed moves he was talking about.

But I don't know for sure. It may be that the approach does eventually yield something profound and new and – at the moment – unthinkable, just as Allen Wade, the former technical director of the FA, instituted a new way of thinking about the game when he broke it down into multiple phases for his influential coaching course which produced a generation of coaches that included Roy Hodgson and Don Howe. He faced early opposition for being overly functional but, as the Swedish academic Tomas Peterson puts it, he introduced to football a "second order of complexity", a knowledge of its own working such as Picasso brought to painting or Charlie Parker to music.

If the next coach of team USA brought in Pete Carrill and Tex Winter, guys who understand that what matters is how you utilize the space in which the game is played, we'd revolutionize the game overnight.

Here are just a few examples to consider:

(1) The EPL has four teams that have dominated in recent decades (Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool & Arsenal) but all four are looking sketchy (if not mediocre) this year. Why? They all suck in central defense.

Where do most goals come from? Directly in front of your goal. Where must your defense be stoutest? Where are they weak? Duh?

(2) Tottenham Hotspur has a guy, Peter Crouch, who's about 6' 7". With the ball at his freet he's Jerry Lewis. With the ball in the air he's Wilt Chamberlain playing pickup against the Munchkins. Innumerable managers have failed to figure out how to use this fact to best effect.

(3) Combining those two, maybe the most important skill in soccer is the ability to head the ball decisively and on target. Typically, it is forwards and defenders (the guys who play in front of goal) that develop this skill the most fully. But whoever it is on your team that does it best needs to be in the box.

Roy Hodgson at Fulham realizes that on his team that means Clint Dempsey is a goal scorer, not a midfielder. The USA coach, Bob Bradley, forgets this from game to game. Likewise, Jozy Altidore, our big young striker, is also one of our best defenders on set pieces, yet Bradley takes him out of games when we're defending leads (which is how we lost to Brazil). Nor is he alone in making the mistake of pulling the striker late in games when that's actually when they may be most useful to you.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2009 7:06 AM
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