Systems - Tactical Flexibility

Posted by Vulmea on January 8, 2013, 03:29:45 PM

Tactical flexibility

In the UK, probably since the 60’s the majority of sides have fielded a simple 442 formation. Ok there have been dalliances with 433, 451, 4321 and even 352 but for the most part, here we play 442.

Look abroad and it is not so clear. Italy have a variety of styles, so to Spain and Portugal. They show far more flexibility and imagination. They can switch styles between games, even during games. It’s always largely been thus.

Benitez coaching his Valencia side in several defensive tactics is an anecdote which triggered much appreciation on his arrival but in essence was a more common trait abroad than we’d want to appreciate.

442 not only defines our teams though, it defines our players. We create players that fit ‘our system’. Our fullbacks play on the side of their chosen foot, are centre backs are good headers of the ball, not so good with it at their feet, our midfielders industrious, wide players fast, forwards either big target men or fast goal scorers. Those that don’t fit are simply discarded. That has long been the way. It is an incredibly wasteful use of what little talent we produce. Where in there do we see tactical awareness, football intelligence? The likes of Gascoigne, if they make it, are generally seen as luxury players that can be accommodated but rarely enhanced.

Our selection processes mainly focus on results rather than potential. We look at size and fitness over skill and flair. Players are limited as to where they can be used – he’s a big unit he must be a centre back, he’s skinny and fast put him on the wing etc etc.

There is not only a formation but a template for the players that play in it. It means mercurial talents like Hoddle and Le Tissier even where their talent transcends the barriers are left unappreciated, unloved and sidelined for the most part because our tactical knowse just can’t accommodate them.

Maybe you can take the view that so what, the cream will always rise to the top but would the likes of Xavi, Pirlo and Del Piero have survived and made it to the professional game in the UK? Do we have any real evidence to suggest we even breed them like that here?

Having a set style, a set template of player means for the most part football intelligence is not required. You are drilled in how to play, you play that way from the age of 5 to 35 legs permitting. Play your role well and you can get great results……

That approach though as we’ve discovered time and again will only get you so far. Of course if 11 good English players, motivated and confident and playing very well, even playing 442 could win whatever competition it was in, especially if there were a couple of Scousers present but the odds are largely stacked against it. We generally don’t have 11  good enough players,  the good players we do have are often one dimensional and 442 can be predictable and easily counteracted. Add to that the players know all of that so confidence and motivation are lacking……throw in the fact we know we are technically inferior, other teams have better more skilful players, our managers have been pretty dire and all in all we’re lucky to get out of the group.

So we have some inherent problems here in blighty in developing our talent and then utilising it to its maximum.

Now you may ask, what’s that got to do with me, I’m a scouser not English….well part of the problem is we play in the English league and the majority of our developing players, even now, are English not Scouse. It’s our main pool of young players.

Yeah but once we’ve got them we can develop them our way, you cry – maybe but the majority of teams we play against still play an English style, that means our options and education are limited, that means our clever young runts would be demolished week after week and their confidence left in tatters next to their brown shorts.

Don’t get me wrong I loved the hurly burly of the English game. To be honest though it ain't really hurly burly any more. Yes it is still more direct than on the continent. Yes, possession is still viewed as an aside. Maybe there is still a little more aggression allowed but on a daily basis it grows increasingly clinical, sanitised and intellectual. The tactics are gradually switching from 442 to different, less predictable variants. The dominance of foreign players and the increasing number of foreign coaches is changing the landscape. The development of players though is lagging seriously behind. Some academies have laudable intentions, some scouts are switched on but for the most part the development side is a decade behind the actual game and the game itself is still struggling.

Look at our expensive teenage signings at the club – Jordan Ibe, skilful fast, direct, Raheem Sterling, skillful fast, direct……….Sinclair skilful fast direct……erm……..

BR has stated his intent for players with football intelligence - Dan Smith maybe a bit more in that mould but until we start to prize players who understand the game rather than simply participate (whether that’s on an instinctive level like Gascoinge or intellectual level like Alonso) then we are scupered in terms of development. We do though have the chance to lead, to innovate, to get an advantage over the other clubs.

Barca and Arsenal to some extent have moved this one step on. They’ve introduced a model through their club. They play a common structure at all levels that allows players to understand the game. As at Ajax they try developing players in different positions so they understand the different roles and demands of each role. They teach the lads the why they are playing not just the how. Those three clubs have success in different ways, Barca are pre-eminent, Arsenal claim success financially and Ajax regularly produce quality players.

Barca is can be argued have been fortunate to have three of the best players of their generation at one time Xavi, Iniesta , Messi. Is it their golden age like Beckham, Scholes, Giggs at United or is it systematic, probably too early to say. Arsenals financial success is staggering for their level of achievement. No net transfer spends but consistent Champions league football for a decade. Ajax remaining competitive in a league stripped of players and finance.

Clearly there is something in the developing your own option but Liverpool need to take it one step further. Playing a single style achieves major results but each style has its time, each its own weaknesses. The key ability needed is the ability to not only be able to implement a style but be able to switch styles to counter whatever the opposition and probably more importantly the game does.

We look to have a dearth of intelligent centre backs at the moment, defensive intelligence is often portrayed as simply reading the game, organising the defence, we’ll need players capable of doing that and of bringing the ball forward and using it intelligently. We’ve seen Barca use the diminutive Mascherano at the back, Cannavaro showed his worth for Italy maybe we’ll need to break the mould again or think outside the box to achieve the flexibility we need, we can't simply rely on Dagger to be a game changer.

If we do simply try to replicate what the current leading clubs are doing by the time we get there they will have moved on. We need to aim beyond them and get there first.

We know the game moves on, we know any advantage is only ever short lived. So for sustained success, as in any walk of life the key is evolution and adaptation. Barca could be the cockroach of its day, brilliantly evolved to survive but eating shit and concrete all day.

So we need to develop players and a system that go hand in hand. A system that can switch between attack and defence seamlessly but allow individual players to express their full talent.  To do it we’ll need players that can switch to whatever position is needed at the time in a game and with whatever team mates they have around them. Sounds easy enough.

To do that though we need to set realistic goals. We are not going to get there overnight. So we need to spot and develop players that have the intelligence to allow those transitions, as well as the ability to deliver them. There is a balance to be struck. Some players will be superb at delivery but poor on recognition. Some players will be comfortable in several positions others will not. Coaching will help but that’s also were team work and leadership evolve. The team structure will need to evolve along with the team and the squad will be essential as much to maximise our options as provide cover.

It was obvious under Rafa for example, that most of our players couldn’t change the game, they needed to be told how and when, at half time or via a substitution. Under kenny the players were allowed to express themselves too much and consequently often looked lost. Under Hodgson we had a simple plan........ It is often easier from the sidelines or the stands to spot the problems or opposition weaknesses, so management will continue to be important, complete autonomy on the pitch is unlikely. Likewise some transitions between styles may only be possible using different players, so substitutions will continue to be important but effectively to be successful we need to build in flexibility.

I’m not sure how you spot or develop ‘game intelligence’ the level of ability required at the highest level whilst it can be improved by coaching seems to largely be instinctive. It doesn’t naturally come with quick feet or superb balance, the combination seems to be freakishly rare. I’d suggest you’ll get more success training the physical abilities rather than the instinctive ones, so it is that game intelligence we should be on the look out for rather than foot speed or athleticism but neither is going to be useful without the other.

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