It’s not just the transfers that transform a team, it’s the tactics too.

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.

Tales from Untold 

Wenger ponders whether Yaya Sanogo will ever really be good enough for Arsenal. 

Referee Appointments and Results Matchweek #10 complete with video evidence

Why Linekar and Collymore should be applauded for their stands against the media

Arsenal Ladies – Reflections on the season

Stadium reforms: away fan positioning to change and safe standing proposed

Referees – First quarter Report. This isn’t healthy.

10 reasons why England fail and will always fail in international football

Commons Committee questioning of Greg Clarke, Chairman, The Football Association,

Open letter to FIFA on Remembrance Day

Violence and corruption in Greek football, humanity and respect at Rochdale


15 Replies to “It’s not just the transfers that transform a team, it’s the tactics too.”

  1. the reason you got so little comments is because like i said before some of our fans are the most clueless when it comes to knowledge of the game,you can see it by reading their comments on different arsenal sites,the arguments they use if you can call them that are what they read in newspapers or online,using the same old cliches with nothing to back them up once you ask them to explain in more details what you get are silly,childish insults anyway i enjoy your articles,COYG!!

  2. Don’t mind our fans , as for me untold is the best place to get and have full and good knowledge about Arsenal.. Everything you need to know about the club.

    God bless your hardwork.

  3. My bete noir is not just the bus but fans who don’t understand the challenges it presents.

    People who could watch us tear Ludogrets apart in the home game, then be angry when we play nothing like that in a game soon after against a jam-packed deep defence.

    Or, likewise, people who watch Ramsey in his Wales role, frequently breaking into in the last third, with lots of space around him and licence to explore it, with two sitting behind him, who then bemoan the fact he doesn’t play the same way for us.

    For me ,we will at least be able to take it close to the wire in our title challenge, or fall short of that, depending on how we fare against that damn bus challenge. Fingers crossed

  4. Beautiful write up Tony nd kudos for ur insightful deep knowledge of football issues nt just Arsenal per se; I wish those moaning fans nd commenters wuld learn some lines frm ur articles wich are classics.tanx bro more of d gud works ua much appreciated!! Shallom!!!

  5. Are you seriously suggesting that Mesut is more effective than Pires was. Where is the evidence?

  6. The main part of Leicester’s change in fortunes is that last season opposing teams saw them as a club they would beat. With the confidence the PMGO had given their players in the first 5-10 games and the knowledge they could use rugby defensive tactics, it resulted in a team that successfully converted a higher portion of their ‘on the break’ goal chances than they would normally do.
    Now many teams are setting themselves up in a slightly more defensive manner and together with the initial change in officiating (which seems to have been forgotten), Leicester aren’t running on the crest of a confidence wave, so they aren’t scoring the way they did.
    When will Mahrez decide to move on, as he surely will do …

  7. Tactics imply the constant movement and displacement of traditional playing positions AND an emphasis on one or two areas (attack,midfield) where a surplus of players can effect some significant results. Tactics also can change within a game, with a team dropping players forward and backward depending on the flow of the game and even the specific time-frame (end of first half, last 5 minutes of a game).
    It also implies that over a week, a team can field different players and can substitute certain players during a game to alter the tactical impact on the result. For example, a keeper can be told to come out further into the field (even leave his box) in order to make a long pass to forwards, in order to pressure opponent’s defenses or to try and get an important shot(s)on net.
    Playing a high line is also a tactical decision, as is using a guy like giroud to setup a shooter like Theo or Sanchez, Ozil or even Xhaka. Shooting more from distance is a tactical decision as well, and trying to get crosses into the area from your attacking fullbacks is a typical trait of the Arsenal.

  8. It appears most tactics are done pregame and sometimes does not work against the oppositon tactics.
    But tactics are cool, especially when tweaked mid game if coming up against a brick wall. They have to be dynamic, a slight shift in position of a player, or even as far as a sub(of course there are only 3 which is why we tend to see them so late).
    Of course a complete rotating midfield across the game is another thing, as long as the players are aware of where each other is, this can completely foil the opposition.
    Looking forward to the new innovations by managers/coaches, this is part of what makes football great.

  9. Tony, as a historian, you should know that Tom Whittaker and Joes Shaw, did the tactics. George Allison, from all accounts, was – George Allison!

    Arsenal, in the Invincible season, was 4 – 4 – 2.

    In all 22 players were involved. Lehmann, played in all 38 games.

    Defence Ashley Cole Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Lauren.

    Midfield was Pires, Silva, Viera and Ljungberg. Edu, must be mentioned, with 29 appearances, 13 as a starter. As many appearances, as Viera.

    Pires, played as a right winger, if Edu, appeared on the left wing position.

    The forwards, were of course Henry (38 games) and Bergkamp (21 appearances). We know that Dennis was replaced on the 70th minute, because of declining powers!

    Currently, it would seem that players constantly changing positions and responsibilities, is the goal?

    What is the average time, any player, actually is playing the ball rather than ready to receive it? 45 seconds each game, really??

  10. Notoverthehill

    I looked a little, and some person said 2 minutes at most (fullbacks and midfield), but offered no proof or references.

    Slate has a good article about possession.

    If a player takes the ball to the corner flag, and keeps possession for 10 seconds (which is hard work), that would be 1/4 of his total ball control in a game? What about players that go on extended dribbling runs?

    That Slate article looks at how Opta measures possession. Bleacher Report has an article, which could be looked on as an advertisement for Opta, and all the statistics they generate (for sale, of course).

    People have asked how much of the 90 minutes is the ball in play. Here is a blurb on that.

  11. OT: Injuries

    Most of us have heard of the odd heart problem suffered by players in a game.

    Tonight (it is Monday night for me), I ran across an article about a 16 year old football player (gridiron I believe, probably high school football), who apparently suffered a stroke in a game.

    Other than he is in hospital, there are no details.

  12. The average time any player is in control of the ball is a trick question.

    If all of the 90 minutes was devoted to the ball being under the control of some player (could even be just a single player), the average would be 90/22=4.09 minutes. As a game actually only involves a bit less than 60 minutes of playing time (it varies, subject of 3 link above), the average would be something like 58/22=2.64 minutes.

    What would be more interesting to know, is how much time the top 1 or 2 players from each team, have control of the ball.

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