How important is it to understand tactics?

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Sydney Fc and the Wellington Phoenix are both desperate for a win. (Image: Supplied)

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The A-League appears on the cusp of a boom and more fans than ever are engaging with the competition, particularly when it comes to talking tactics.

Blogs on tactics abound and it’s not unusual to overhear fans discussing the finer points of the game inside A-League grounds.

But a comment made about me at the start of the week got me wondering about the importance of tactics and whether or not their influence is overstated.

“Mike Tuckerman is another of this country’s mediocre football hacks,” wrote a perpetually grumpy critic on the FourFourTwo forum in response to a piece I wrote for the Football Federation Australia website.

“No decent analysis, no tactical variations, just well written, regurgitated gossip.”

The criticism aside, what struck me was the term ‘no tactical variations’ – which I interpreted as meaning I’m not usually one to launch in-depth tactical analyses.

There are reasons for that. For one thing others are better suited than me to do so, not least The Roar’s Tony Tannous.

But the simple truth is – and though I think it’s risky to admit it – I’m simply not that interested in tactics.

Many years ago I bought Jonathan Wilson’s outstanding Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football and read it within a couple of days.

It contained everything I love about the game – history, culture, travel – and with each chapter I actually imagined what it was like to be in the stands in Moscow or Kiev to see some of the historic matches and players Wilson was writing about.

I hold a degree in History and European Studies, so it stands to reason I’ve got a deep-seated interest in the history of European football.

But though I bought Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics shortly after it came out, I still haven’t read it.

I’ve flicked through and got the gist of it, but somehow reading chapter after chapter about the evolution of tactical systems just doesn’t appeal to me.

It’s not that I have zero interest in tactics, it’s simply that things like the creation and development of clubs and leagues, the personal histories of players and coaches, stadium architecture and general football culture interest me much more.

These are the sorts of things I have in mind when I sit down to write, but for a certain type of reader that’s not enough.

I’m tempted to call these folks ‘tactics snobs’ – those who discuss team formations and strategies with almost religious fanaticism yet remain largely silent when it comes to many other facets of the game.

There is certainly a market for tactical analysis, as evidenced by the rise of Michael Cox and his impressive Zonal Marking website.

But maybe it’s a time and a place thing, because I feel like part of an older school which accepts that while tactics are important, there are plenty of other decisive factors in a game of football.

Though he was also referring to statistics, The Age journalist Michael Lynch suggested as much in a Twitter conversation with regular Roar contributor Katie Lambeski yesterday, when he talked about the “randomness” of football.

To borrow an example from last weekend, what explicit tactics were required for Newcastle midfielder James Virgili to take it upon himself to simply dribble past the Central Coast defence and set up Emile Heskey for a tap-in?

Was Virgili’s decision to run at the Mariners defence a deliberate tactic in and of itself? Do tactical analyses give enough credit to the great dribblers of the game?

And what about defensive tactics? Two of last weekend’s games were hugely influenced by penalty decisions, which was surely not in the remit of the defenders who committed the fouls.

So is the influence of tactics overstated? Or is tactical knowledge the key to better understanding the game?

Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he settled in Brisbane, and was a leading Roar football columnist from December 2008 to July 2014.
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