Of tactics and trends

thumbThis is coming from a big fan of football tactics but I am still a light year or two away from possessing the sort of tactical nous of the various known/unknown figures in the game. With whatever basic and limited stuff I possess in my peanut of a head, I still consider myself among the millions and billions who fall under a very special category of what is called ‘football fanatics’. And without much ado, I begin with something that’s very close to the game and also to my heart: tactics.

This is some sort of an opinionated piece; but I try to bed in every other aspect that has caught my fancy after years of straining my eyes watching football on tele and my laptop. Trends are something that do not remain in one place for long. In a country like India, where it would be difficult to define a footballing philosophy or even a stereotype, trends don’t get blown out of proportion. In fact their existence in these parts is questionable.

Tactical trends follow a certain course, depending on the existing conditions and even depending on the personnel involved. You surely wouldn’t imagine Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ playing tiki-taka a la Barcelona. A far-from-impressed Franz Beckenbauer made it clear that he didn’t want his beloved Bayern to become a Barcelona; Bayern have been an eternally maverick side and it would be sickening if they lost their identity and become too Barca-esque. Too much of everything tends to bring in clumsiness, a sense of lax and ultimately complacency and fall.

Not too long ago, it was an age of the fearsome, physical, man-mountain box-to-box midfielders. The time when the likes of Michael Essien and Patrick Vieira ruled the roost. That was a trend that has long been bucked; replaced by something more fashionable and chic. But such things run in cycles and it could well be the dawn of a similar trend in time forthcoming. Most people talk of high-pressing these days as the new tactical revolution in the game. There’s more to the game than just one, as I touch down on them one by one.

The most talked-about facet these days is the high-line pressing first championed by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. It eventually rubbed onto different places but the relentless pressing by the all-conquering Barca of yore laid the foundations; foundations which more or less define the game these days. It seemed easy on the eye and easy on paper, but such physical commitment over a period of 90 minutes isn’t that easy a task; such a tactic made for a regaining of the ball closer to the opponent goal and a glut of goalscoring chances. Even the defense gets a better leverage to break out of jail if you have a certain Leo Messi pressing up the pitch like a terrier.

Then there’s the case of inverted wingers which has gone a bit under the radar, but a very effective tactic nonetheless. This tactic became common as a mitigating measure to stop the growing tactical trend that was the rise of the wing-backs. Full-backs were becoming less functional and added only a few dimensions to the attacking play when the concept of highly-energetic and marauding full-backs came into the fore. And this same threat of wing-backs when started causing trouble, inverted wingers were the solution.

Wingers rarely operate in traditional roles these days. Ashley Young’s fine performances on the left of the Aston Villa wing bought him the ticket to Manchester United. Young’s the archetypal English winger (or so considered); but when he caused havoc by playing on his unnatural left-side, he quickly jumped rungs and eventually became an England regular. Hardly do we see wingers John Barnes-esque these days. Inverted wingers operate with dual productivity: they stop those bullish full-backs (or close down space) and are a vital cog in his team’s final third.

Holding midfielders tended to garner more attention towards the middle of the noughties; but it was a trend clearly not kept confined to measurable proportions. This spelt a low-key doom, not that the deep-lying midfielder is not a key man on the pitch anymore. Energetic box-to-box midfielders were stifled by flamboyant and intelligent ball-playing playmakers sitting in front of the defense. The role seemed to be the perfect twilight sun-dance for the veterans; players nowadays tend to play deeper with advancing age. This is a growing tactical trend; a low-risk strategy that allows managers to field one-time dynamic players like Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso to sit back and dictate tempo.

Bielsa1-1

Marcelo Bielsa: One of the greatest tactical wiseheads in the game.

That’s not only it; this season’s success stories like Atletico Madrid and Liverpool base their game on quick transitions resulting from high-pressing and functional midfielders. Their playing styles have striking similarities; young, energetic midfield runners in Koke and Jordan Henderson, creative hubs in Arda Turan and Coutinho, experienced midfield pivots in Gabi and Steven Gerrard and lethal finishers to finish teams off. Diego Simeone and Brendan Rodgers might not get their due adulation in the face of people like Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho, but their tactical know-how is impressive, if not better.

The days when teams based their games on a single star player are long dead; it’s now more of a team game with room for enough flexibility and control. The ebb and flow of football tactics is so smooth that you do not notice it until the bells ring. Nothing remains in one place for too long, but the enormous amount of football matches played in a single season is enough to mask the bigger picture. Hype is generated with success; you are brave if you win with unorthodox tactics and you are crazy if you don’t. That is the state of the modern game.

Love it or hate it, there is nothing more pure than tactics that can take the beautiful game away from the vulturous frenzy that so often engulfs the sport. When you dig deep into the caverns, you find gold. I’m on such a mission; a mission to take myself away from the conventions. That’s when you experience how beautiful it is. That’s what football is all about.

 

Abhijit Bharali.

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