How important is it to understand tactics?

Mike Tuckerman Columnist

By Mike Tuckerman, Mike Tuckerman is a Roar Expert

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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
    Mike Tuckerman

    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 has been a leading Roar football columnist from December 2008.

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    The Crowd Says (70)

    • October 26th 2012 @ 5:17am
      AVictory said | October 26th 2012 @ 5:17am | ! Report

      The Fourfourtwo forums can be full of drivel and trolls, I wouldn’t take it personally to be honest and you generally make good points and discussions in your articles. There was a period last year where some of your articles were just provocative and had nothing of substance, when the majority of your readers here on the Roar were complaining you went back to discussing the real issues (the problems and the good) in football which is what many readers like to discuss and contribute their input into.

      As for tactics, yes and no, they are important as to how a match is going to be played, such as which area’s of the pitch each team is going to try use or exploit, how they are going to play the ball and what they’re general game plan is, for example if you saw Kate’s tactical analysis of Western Sydney and why they are not scoring, it is excellent. Tactics gives an indication and explanations to why things happen, but it’s certainly not everything as you’ve pointed out, all it takes is a moment of individual brilliance or a calamity (refs?!) and the whole game plan gets turned upside down.

      Katie’s link if anyones interested

      http://katecohensoccer.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/wanderers-goal-scoring-woes/

    • October 26th 2012 @ 5:23am
      Bondy. said | October 26th 2012 @ 5:23am | ! Report

      I’ve never coached but I just use standard procedure, is the ball being kicked out of play “without great pressure”,is it a dynamic game plenty of attack and goalmouth action,effective and non effective dribbles,how many touches of the ball does the player need”more than two”,shots on target to off target,zonal marking,can they maintain and control possesion.

      I dont claim to be an expert in the field of tactical sophistication with football,I just do my best.

    • October 26th 2012 @ 5:40am
      MichaelWilson said | October 26th 2012 @ 5:40am | ! Report

      Mike, in my opinion formations are overrated, as the fluid nature of football resists any attempts to make it into a structured encounter. It’s not totally without merit, but is by no means as important as it’s made out to be.

      It’s basically what coaches use to have some illusion about being in control, while many fans will attribute changes in teams performances to a slight adjustment of a players theoretical position by a few metres when there are so many other factors in play. Not least of which is the opposition players, the bounce of the ball, the wind direction, whether a keeper is good enough to save an attempt that another may have let in.

      Moreover, it’s pretty boring too

      • October 26th 2012 @ 8:43am
        George said | October 26th 2012 @ 8:43am | ! Report

        When Hiddink coached the Aust national team the players knew what to do when to do it and were to move and he had drummed it in them so much so that it became second nature to them, and we saw how good the team went under his reign.

        When he left and Graham Arnold took over we saw the exact opposite, a novice coach who gave players liberties and we saw his gig didnt last long.

        Tactics make or break teams, the players need to believe in them or your on a loser right then and there, but more so the spectators also need to at the very least, try and understand to a point what is going on aswell.

        • October 26th 2012 @ 9:59am
          jmac said | October 26th 2012 @ 9:59am | ! Report

          Hiddink was the catalyst for the education of many Australian punters like myself regarding tactics. Wilson’s book also is an incredible read.

          The things I’ve learned in the last 8 years or so, I really wish I knew about when I was playing. I think kids these days have more tactical awareness than we did in the 80’s, in part as their coaches know more and also the access to more high quality games on tv, including a domestic league beginning to hold it’s own regarding tactical sophistication (lets hope for some FTA soon).

          Great points in the article Mike as yes despite all this, football will always have the potential to produce an underserving winner which is a great part of its appeal. Its not a one-dimensional beast, there’s a lot to love, and long may that continue.

          • October 26th 2012 @ 1:08pm
            Matsu said | October 26th 2012 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

            I should preface this comment with two observations:
            – First, I have a tendency to be a bit of a tactics “snob” myself, at least in terms of being extremely interested in and intrigued by the impact of formation, organisation and tactics on the way that a football game plays out.
            – Second, I “employed” Mike as a writer for about three years, doing short pieces that analysed the condition and competitiveness of several J.League teams, so I know first-hand that he doesnt lack the CAPABILITY to analyse and discuss tactics. It is simply that he chooses to focus on a different aspect of the game.

            Nevertheless, anyone mean-spirited enough to actually criticise Mike in public (or anyone else for that matter) for not dwelling on tactical issues in his articles needs to grow up. I also have been writing a “blog” about the sport for over 12 years now, and I am well aware that the pieces that dwell on tactical aspects receive far less traffic and far fewer comments than the ones which deal with the aspects of the game which Mike writes about so well – the colour, the pageantry, the personalities, the dynamics of the people, coach and crowd. While tactics “snobs” have their place and their audience, I suspect that comments like the one that set Mike off are merely the petulant dummy-spit of someone who is jealous of the size and scope of Mike’s audience.

            A close friend of mine has longstanding contacts with Phillipe Troussier – a bit of a “tactics snob” himself – and even wrote a book in Japanese about the French “witch doctor”. While Troussier was coaching the Japan NT, I spent a lot of time discussing his flat-three system with other fans and amateur pundits, and one of the analyses that several people noted (I myself was a strong proponent) was that Troussier’s system was essentially a deception. He called it a “flat three”, but 90% of the time it actually played like a four-back formation. One of the nominal “midfielders” (Kazuyuki Toda, Tomokazu Myojin and Takashi Fukunishi were the players who usually filled these spots) was always dropping back to support the centre-back regardless of whether Japan was on attack or defending, while the two wide defenders not only played like fullbacks – they actually were used as fullbacks by their club teams. Some newspapers and football magazines typically listed five defenders in the formation, including both of the two deep midfielders (the ones who tended to drop back into the back line)

            Anyway, I was curious to know Troussier’s own reaction to the debate, so I asked my friend to query him on the issue the next time they met. Troussier (as relayed to me by my friend) responded as follows:

            “These formation analyses are all silly discussions. Everyone just throws numbers around. You can call my formation three back, four back, five back. It doesnt matter. What matters is that every player knows where he is supposed to go in a given situation. If they know how to respond to the run of play, then the numbers really dont matter. The reason why I call it a “flat three” is because I want opposing coaches to target the channels, where our defence is actually strongest, and to give Koji (Nakata) and Naoki (Matsuda) space to use on the flank, when we attack. If I called it a “rotating four”, the other coaches would react it in a different way, and my tactics would be less successful. The numbers and formational theories are unimportant as long as your players understand where they are supposed to move.”

            That comes from a person who I consider to be the very epitome of the “tactics geek”. It is advice that I always bring to mind when I am tempted to launch into a detailed tactical analysis in one of my articles. Yes – there is something there to discuss, and it does have a very central impact on how the game plays out. But your interpretation of what is happening may not be what the coach and players are actually trying to achieve. As the game becomes more fluid and players become more multidimensional each year, that simply becomes increasingly true.

            So by all means, enjoy your tactical discussions. But dont slag those who are more enthralled by the tifo displays and the fan chants – at least those actually mean exactly what they appear to mean. (^c,^)

            • October 28th 2012 @ 9:38am
              Damiano said | October 28th 2012 @ 9:38am | ! Report

              Matsu, I admire your spirited defence. But Mike Tuckerman, your critic is right. You are still a hack. You may have an understanding of tactical issues but most of your articles are sensationalist tripe.
              You clearly love the game, but mediocre writers and pundits in this country are holding the sport back. Perhaps you’d better consider if you are part of the problem or the solution?

              • October 28th 2012 @ 5:00pm
                whiskeymac said | October 28th 2012 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

                Matsu’s post is admirable. Articulate and well written and a joy to read.
                ..
                To say Mike’s articles, or those like his which discuss the game, are hindering a sport verges past the ridiculous – are you suggesting kids will stop playing in the park, the roos wont qualify, the expansion problems and Bridge being the first player to score for WSW are because Mike prefers others like Tony Tannous to write about inverted christmas trees and fullbacks overlapping and false 10s and the rest o fit all? Really?
                ..
                How is it holding the sport back? (and what a rude and stupid statement on the other hand.)
                ..
                In my opinion, one of the biggest hinderances to the sport are “fans” who do not embrace different views, aspects and levels of interest and support in the game. You dont need to have Johnny Warren tatooted across your beliefs to have an opinion on the game, you dont have to just watch football 24/7 andnot care for anything else to be a fan, not blindly believing in Barcelona or shitting on Stoke or caring or uncaring for the Aleague, EPL or Bundesliga doesn’t mean you are wrong and preferring to discuss the fabric of a game over the tactics is no less valid. Wilson’s Guardian also has an amusing Rumour Mill section – for a reason.
                ..
                The game is broad enough, multifaceted to reflect a lot of views, tastes and opinions. If you don’t embrace one aspect, so be it, but don’t ridicule or belittle others if that’s their preference or they write about something you disagree with. Its an arrogant and boorish trait all too familiar at times.

    • October 26th 2012 @ 7:05am
      jbinnie said | October 26th 2012 @ 7:05am | ! Report

      Mike – I suggest you do yourself a favour and read Wilson’s book with more than just a casual flick through. It is probably as good and well researched book as I have ever read on the evolution of tactical football.
      I am extremely fortunate to have lived over the time span that allows me to remember when teams played a fixed 1,2.3.5 formation and to have watched live many of the teams that Wilson credits with having changed that fixation to what we have today,that mix-mash of numerical combinations many of which I feel are rooted in the minds of coaches who in some way or other are trying to justify their existence.
      Wilson does not belittle the individual talent he only dissects what has happened in a certain time frame in the game and attempts to explain why certain formations worked for individuals.The truly great changes have been made by little more than two handfuls of coaches of whom more than a few lived behind the Iron Curtain (as you suggest) but get very little recognition in today’s popular media,a media which in itself tends to ignore the facts and push the more modern version of “improvement” talking about “super coaches” who in fact have done little to change the game other than become travelling mercenaries plying their trade wherever there is mega dollars.
      Wilson does mention the man who could be regarded as the “father” of modern coaching,Hugo Meisl,(how many of your readers would recognise that name?) a name that I first heard,not in a football forum, but in a college class studying “human movement in the workplace”. Meisl’s theory has often been put forward as the factor that started the revolution as to how much could a coach get out of a player and, having accomplished that, as to how that gain could be combined into benefitting a team,ie placement & combination.
      During the late 60’s and early 70’s we saw the demise of probably some of the most entertaing sights in football,the Garrinchas,the Mathews’s ,the Johnstone’s,the Gento’s but there is little doubt in my mind,and Messi and Ronaldo are proving the point, that these individuals can never be kept out of the game for long.So I like to think the circle continues to turn and in our own backyard there is more than a little evidence that the individual as I have described is alive and well,Oar,Leckie,and others creating interest again. jb

    • October 26th 2012 @ 7:26am
      Steve said | October 26th 2012 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      For me it’s not even so much about formations but general football knowledge. Just last night I went along with a cousin to his training session – apparently with some elite coach, one of the best in the country. I knew my cousin was a good player, I was keen though to see how he was being coached.

      And I kid you not, they spent the full 2 hours practising long passes and controlling them. I though it was strange, were they taught how to find space, where to be when a teammate is under pressure, what pass you should make in a certain situation? I asked my cousin after training and he said, “nah we don’t really learn that stuff”. I was staggered.

      For me, while he is a grub of a player and a bit of a punce, more kids should be looking at how Sergio Busquets plays. Him, along with Xavi, are by far the two best players in the world at exploiting space. Neither has much pace and while they have impeccable touch and some skill – they are no Messi.

      You look at the elite players, and one thing stands out -their ability to exploit space. It’s true that they also have great touch, but it’s often the case that the first touch takes them into space, so even if it’s not exactly an impeccable touch it looks like it because they are in space. The next time you watch a game, pick a central midfielder and watch how many times he looks over his shoulders to see where everyone is. For the elite players, it’s basically every second.

      It’s quite astounding how as the quality declines, so does this fairly basic concept. It’s amazing how often skillful players in Australia basically ball watch, never constantly assessing the whole pitch.

      Once these sorts of concepts are understood, you then try to understand things like ‘when as an attacking fullback do I go forward?’, ‘how do I cover in defence as a defensive midfielder?’, ‘what run do I make as a winger or AM when the striker comes back and draws players to collect the ball?’, ‘when do I take on a man on the dribble?’. I watch the A-League, love watching it actually but it’s eternally frustrating how it seems like these basic concepts are not adhered to (Brisbane Roar aside). Once you know about all of these things (which are important regardless of the formation), then you can talk about the formation that either suits your game or disrupts the other teams.

      A tactical solution is a short term one, like how Chelsea won their CL last year. A strategy is long term. Knowing how to create space, make runs, when to dribble, when to cover etc. should be longterm knowledge.

      • October 26th 2012 @ 12:05pm
        jbinnie said | October 26th 2012 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

        Steve – A well put together offering posing many questions that a well taught 12 year old should be able to attempt to answer. You do not say how old your cousin is and at what level he is playing so it is hard to judge just what damage or otherwise was being done during your mis-adventure last night.
        I often watch kids (under 15’s) during their pre-game warm up,line up in front of goal and take pot shots at the goalkeeper.When I approach them and ask how many times in a game they get to place a ball,go back four or five paces,then run forward to blast the ball goalwards,they look at me as if I was mad,but, under pressure, begin to realise what I am asking and admit “almost never.”
        I then point out that if a team-mate stood wide and practised a pin point pass in front of the ball stiker,who in turn,moving forward, strikes the moving ball goalwards ,how much more beneficial this practice would be to both players in improving skills(passing,shooting and touch) that they could use in a game situation,the comprehension begins to dawn on their faces.
        Tactical football should not become part of a coaching curriculum until the levels of the basic skills have been achieved by the players in a training squad.It makes me squirm when I hear of junior coaches at all age levels talk about “the formation my team plays” when in fact their focus should be on how the individual is progressing on his journey of learning basic skills.
        Cure that problem and Australian football will take a huge leap forward,but let me warn you it is a malaise not only being suffered in this country.I have just returned form Europe and North America and can assure you they have their well-meaning,but sadly mis-informed Dads,Mums and Uncles, practising the same type of “coaching” over there. jb

      • October 26th 2012 @ 1:58pm
        whiskeymac said | October 26th 2012 @ 1:58pm | ! Report

        Steve, is that tactics or technique though? technique for me is the players ability on the pitch, tactics are the managers positioning and reaction to the players and game? Whereas coaching is imparting knowledge and improving the players game. (these are my u/s and not necessarily what is found in the Guardian’s excellent football tab)

        • October 26th 2012 @ 4:44pm
          Steve said | October 26th 2012 @ 4:44pm | ! Report

          whiskeymac – I think it’s both. You need to understand these basic skills that are not purely technique (i.e. passing, dribble, control). The person with the best technique/control I’ve ever seen of a football juggles it hanging off a pole at the bottom of the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris for tips. That is technique, it’s the nuances of the game that need to be taught by a coach i.e. when to make runs, how to make them, how to make through balls, how to defend.

          The tactics then come in how and when you do those things in a game against a certain opponent. If you’ve got a great fullback who usually makes great runs and crosses but next game is coming up against Ronaldo, he may provide the tactical solution of holding back and not providing those runs so as to limit Ronaldo’s effectiveness. That affects the way the whole team plays so they will implement a tactical solution for that game. And then vice versa madrid will need to implement a counter tactical solution to combat it. That of course needs to be gone through with the players by the coach correct.

          Ultimately though I believe the coach should be about using his players to define a strategy the team will implement, and provide tactical tweaks depending on the opponent/situation. And the strategy revolves around using what the technical/physical strengths of your players to the max. So Barca payers who a small and have good control and spacial awareness use possession and exploit spaces as their tactic, while Madrid use their strength and speed to launch lightening fast attacks as their strategy.

    • October 26th 2012 @ 8:07am
      clayton said | October 26th 2012 @ 8:07am | ! Report

      Good Tactics is a bit like good reffing. Get it right and it pretty much goes unnoticed. A good ref keeps the game flowing and under control, and no-one talks about them at the end of the game. We are too busy talking about the teams and the great game we just watched. Good tactics allows a team to make the most of its talent, lets a team be more than the sum of its parts.

      That great work that Virghilli did to set up the goal for Heskey wouldn’t have happened if Virghilli was under instructions to stick to the byline and whip in crosses for Heskey’s head. or if he had instructions to stay back and help clog the midfield. That doesn’t mean that a coach could send anyone out there and get the same result. The coach made a framework that made good use of Virghilli’s talents. The table was set for Virghilli to go to work and make good stuff happen.

      What is good tactics? a combination of team formation, player instructions and player’s abilities/personalities …

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