By Tony Attwood
Earlier this season Untold published a match preview based on tactics. It didn’t get too many comments and one of those that did come in said, “this is the most boring article I have ever read.”
Now I don’t take those sort of comments as indicative of everyone’s view, but the article seemed to do little to stir interest, so I put the idea on the back burner for a while.
But it does seem to me that tactics is a key issue in the PL today – at the very least as important as, and possibly far more important indeed than, transfers – which occupy a million times as much space in the media.
Man U can transfer in a load of players for shed loads of money and get little improvement, but Leicester can change their tactics and find themselves a mid-table club. Some players can make an instant impact, some (like Henry and Bergkamp) can take far longer to come to the boil – and that is usually because of tactics.
Manchester United’s problems with their new signings are endlessly discussed, but Leicester’s issue (in which the defensive approach was primarily based on shirt pulling of Morgan and Huth) is less mentioned, although a few have picked up on it for it is fairly simple. Leicester have been disrupted by the fact that the most recent upgrade to refereeing standards penalises shirt pulling far more than before, and they can’t find an alternative tactical approach that works with the players they have got.
However when it is got right, the great advantage that tactical change has over transfer change is that tactical change can be endlessly tweaked and adjusted, whereas with transfers once the club has spent its £100 million in the last days of August, that’s pretty much it.
Herbert Chapman as Arsenal manager was the classic top man who knew about both transfers and tactics, and that is what brought him so much success both at Huddersfield and at Arsenal.
When he first arrived he brought in Buchan who delivered 19 goals in 39 games in his first season – a step forward as the season before the top goalscorer had got 12. But he also started to work on a new tactical system of playing after Arsenal were beaten 7-0 by Newcastle, and it was the tactical change that affected Arsenal more than the introduction of Buchan.
Arsenal ended up second in Chapman’s first season, but it took him another six years (and the offer of his resignation which Henry Norris turned down) to win a trophy – and that was six years of trying to match his squad with the tactical system he had evolved at Huddersfield, and which was now tweaked to meet the requirements of the new offside rule.
Most people know that Chapman gave Arsenal the WM system, and some know Chapman developed a counter attacking system, but in my experience not too many people realise quite how that worked beyond pulling the centre half (number 5 in the classic line up) into the middle of a back three.
The tactic which worked so brilliantly but took a few years to get just right involved the defence
- Breaking up the attack with the classic tackle or big defender’s header
- Moving the ball immediately to a half back who could
- Instantly make an accurate pass to an inside forward who would
- Quickly move it on to one of the three attacking forwards.
At least one of the third and fourth steps would be a long pass which would catch the opposition.
One of the most interesting points is that it worked brilliantly both home and away, and in Chapman’s greatest years both at Arsenal and Huddersfield the clubs’ home and away records were virtually identical. This was something that Allison, Chapman’s successor, found hard to get right, although the fact is that both Chapman and Allison won identical trophy cabinets (two league titles and one FA Cup). They just did it with different tactics.
Now I think this is highly relevant to Mr Wenger’s position. His brilliant tactical move in his early years was allowing Henry to spend his game out on the wing, where Pires was supposed to be playing. Two defenders followed Henry, Pires drifted inside unmarked, and was the perfect recipient of the ball.
Today one of the main tactics is much less exciting – endless pressing in order to win the ball back quickly, and to disrupt the playing of the ball out of defence. Thus when the opposition break up an attack, the attacking side does not obliging back off ready to intercept a long ball forwards – but instead stays upfield trying to win the ball back for an instant counter.
It can work, but can also be dangerous if the other team has the perfect defensive player who can get the ball and immediately pick out the perfect long ball pass to the running forward. Hence Xhaka.
This tactical approach is then aided by having a deep lying centre forward as opposed to a Giroud type figure in the classic number 9 mould.
Alexis Sánchez is the new type of centre forward – stretching the play. When he has Theo playing alongside him in the forward line it gives the defence an extra problem. If Theo is standing as far forwards as the defence will allow the defence has to watch his runs. If Alexis is deeper they can put two men on him, but still don’t know if it is Theo who will get the ball. If Alexis plays out wide and Giroud moves into the centre the defence has to change again, but still has to worry about Theo.
But there is another approach – and that is to go against the grain. For several years creative midfielders have been given free range, but in the new approach to strict adherence to a tactical model, these players are out of fashion.
Except at Arsenal where there is no point in having Mesut Özil unless he is given the chance to do what he wants.
This change started to happen last season where he racked up a huge number of assists and was spoken of as the man who would beat the assist record, but then stopped giving assists, as new approaches were explored, including Mesut the goalscorer. Now this season we see the ultimate: the assist master who scores as opposed to Pires was the decoy who scored.
The problem is that these are subtle issues, and although they can be discussed at leisure in the heat of the match we are more likely to get the crowd shouting “shoot” at Xhaka each time he gets the ball, rather than appreciating the more subtle moments of his play.
It is rather like corners. In the UK the corner is cheered like mad as if it is a semi-penalty, but really the number of corners that result in goals is very low. In fact you are more likely to see a corner turn into a goal if a short corner is taken – largely because the short corner draws out a couple of defenders, whereas the long corner see the defenders all remain in the area exactly where the ball is likely to go.
What’s worse, the corner that is headed away by the big number 5 (in classic terms) can set up a rapid counter attack in the style of Chapman’s WM.
In the sides I played in (The South East Dorset League for Boys who Can’t Play Football at All, Division 9 (south)), as a lad who took corners I always banged it up and over to drop into the middle of the goal where general chaos then ensued and the ball could end up anywhere and often did.
That was about all I could do, but I got picked for that skill (and because we usually had a problem making up the XI). I think the issue is still the same today – and on the odd occasions when I watch a match in the Northern Premier League I see the same sort of approach.
But my overall point is simple: tactics have to be arranged to fit to what players can do, and players are bought because it is thought they can fit to tactics. Just because a player can do well with club x playing system y that doesn’t mean the same player will do well in club z where a different tactical approach is used because of the players already there.
It’s just another reason why the transfer rumours are so nonsensical. The players touted might be quite good, but they’d never be able to fit with the rest of the team already there.