Before I begin, here are some awesome people and sites to follow on twitter, as well as other paces to find their work on the internet:
Total Football Analysis - @TotalAnalysis on Twitter, publishes analysis focused articles on players, teams, and matches
Breaking The Lines - @BTLvid on Twitter, publishes articles about players, their stories, and analysis of their skillset on the pitch, also check out co-creator of BTL, Zach Lowy, who discusses a lot of Spanish and French football, as well as other leagues
I got inspired to do this series on tactics from Paul’s segment about data analysis and it’s role in modern football (Westfalenstats), and I wanted to talk more about the tactical side of the game which is something that aligns more with my interests. Please check out Paul’s work, it’s really interesting, really nerdy, and a lot more cutting edge.
Now let’s begin:
The primary objective of any tactician is to put a given squad in the best position to win. While the sub-objectives can range from what shapes allow certain players to flourish, assessing which players work well together, which positions get the most out of players, mitigating and protecting the weaknesses of your players and the formation which has been chosen, and exploiting your opponents’ various weaknesses, all of those things contribute to the success your team will have on match day. And all of those things will be decided before the match has even started, limiting potential adjustments after the starting XI has been announced.
Looking at tactics throughout the history of the sport, the game has changed significantly since its first organizational games in the second half of the 19th Century. While the 2-3-5 gets recognition for its relative stability as the primary shape used by teams from 1890 until the first World Cup in 1930, the first international game consisted of England utilizing a 1-2-7 shape, and Scotland taking the pitch with a much more defensive 2-2-6.
Back then, the games resembled much more of variation of rugby than the game we enjoy today (sportskeeda). An example of this is how the offside rule came to be, as in 1863, the English FA created the rule saying that any player in-front of the person passing the ball is offside. This rule contributed to a play style that directly resembled rugby with long balls being played upfield and dribbling head on being the two ways to move the ball downfield. I wonder how much a difference VAR would have been back then.
As the game evolved until the 1930s, the game as we currently know begins to take place with various schools of thought. Consistent variations of the game’s preferred 2-3-5 formation took place, as the Austrians played the formation with a deeper center forward and relying on the small triangles that the shape created. The Hungarians, a footballing powerhouse until after the 1954 World Cup, played primarily in a 2-3-2-3 shape. Herbert Chapman, in the 1920s, created the 3-2-2-3 for Arsenal after a change to the offside rule, when it reduced the number defenders needed to be behind the ball for a pass to be played from 3 to 2.
It’s hard to understand the nuances that modern coaches try to bring out on the pitch without understanding the overall theme and use of a shape. Especially with the players at a coach’s disposal, it is entirely possible to attempt to utilize a shape a certain way while another coach will do so for entirely different reasons. Different coaches will emphasize different philosophies in the modern game, with Thomas Tuchel placing an emphasis on ball progression, Jürgen Klopp on eliminating opposition half spaces, Guardiola on a full pitch press and maximizing half space usage, Lucien Favre on absolutely destroying your faith in xG, and Peter Stöger wishing for every fan to fall asleep. While formation is definitely not the sole focus of tactics, it is an important vehicle for managers to deliver across the ideas that will encourage their team’s success.
In the future, what games, players, or formations would you want me to analyze? I am going to try to do my best to make this a weekly column and there are a lot of ideas that I want to get through too, but I am very open to suggestions.