Do Tactics Have to be One-Dimensional?

Do Tactics Have to be One-Dimensional?
July 6, 2012 Mihail Vladimirov

By Mihail Vladimirov.

Football is a world-wide phenomenon, and everyone has an opinion. However, far too often those opinions are based on perceptions. Too often, these perceptions have nothing to do with reality.

For example: some argue 4-4-2 is more attacking that 4-2-3-1 because it has two strikers rather than one. But Hodgson plays very often with a 4-4-2. Is he more attacking than Guardiola? Or Benitez? Another is that a three-man defence is more negative than a back four because there are only two centre backs in a four-man defence. But what about Napoli’s 3-4-2-1, or Barcelona’s 3-3-1-3 – are they negative and defensive?

But my favourite misconception is this – in order to attack you need to play free-flowing football, giving the players tactical freedom. To defend you need to be as rigid as possible (note: for most British pundits this means “two deep banks of four”), play with no creative freedom and fight with a Dunkirk spirit.

And the cherry on the top of this particularly maddening cake is this – football must be played in one style or the other. Either you play with total freedom, or you play rigid and conservatively. I despair…

Does it really have to be total freedom or rigid discipline, or is there something in between?

Tactical freedom

Many understand “tactical freedom” to involve relentless waves of attacks. But what does that actually mean? Few will bother to dig a little deeper and think about the implications of this belief.

In football there are two crucial elements: what you do with the ball and what you do without the ball. In other words – what actions you take in possession and what movements you make when the opposition has the ball.

When we talk about “tactical freedom”, therefore, we’re talking about the freedom for the individual player to make decisions about what they do with possession and where they go once they no longer have the ball. In general terms, the more freedom a team has the more they will look to use their individual creativity. They will move fluidly in relation to their team mates and utilise flair-based passing combinations. They will interchange with their team mates and take up new positions constantly as they have “freedom of movement” as well as “freedom of action”.

There are no hard and fast rules about the tempo such a team will play. They could go slow, recycling the ball and trying to dominate possession. Then they can kick into gear when the opportunity to break through presents itself. Or they can play much more direct football, quickly moving from defence to attack and trying to catch their opponents off guard before they can get into their defensive positions.

Both options are legitimate, the difference is how they interpret the idea of “tactical freedom”. The slower version – the “Continental approach” if you will – is exemplified by Guardiola’s Barca or Del Bosque’s Spain. The quicker version is a more “British approach”, epitomised by Ferguson’s United, Redknapp’s Tottenham and Dalglish’s Liverpool(s). And, as ever, there are exceptions. Klopp’s Dortmund, Rafa’s Liverpool and Wenger’s Arsenal were all (at their peak) able to mix up both of these styles depending on the circumstances. They were just as devastating but in a different way. Still – if we’re looking for “ideal types” for broad categorisation, the “British” versus “Continental” distinction will fit most teams.

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