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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Cut To The Cliche


It’s fairly obvious to us that there is considerable disparity between the likes of Jonathan Wilson, Zonal Marking and chalkboards – regularly offering proper analysis – and Andy Townsend, Jamie Redknapp and Alan Shearer – regularly offering the feeling of being stuck in a small room watching paint that will never dry – in their analysis of the nation’s, or the world’s biggest football matches. Messrs. Cox and Wilson are the thin end of the wedge too. Should everyone have an in-depth knowledge of formations and tactics? Well no, probably not. Do they really matter? Yes, but – certainly in this country – you wouldn’t always know it.

British football in general appears to have a mysterious aversion to tactics and innovative formations; it is still a sniffy subject (see the ‘Redknapp for England’ lobby if you need convincing. We don’t need tactics. We need spirit and belief and speed and bravery). This isn’t a new suspicion and the ongoing courting of Redknapp for the national job proves that the promised ‘total review’ in the wake of South Africa amounts to nothing more than reinforcing England’s high opinion of itself.

The Premier League in particular is a storm in a teacup. It’s trapped on a little island. It flails and thrashes and does everything at breakneck speed, enthralled by its own frenetic physicality and competitiveness. ‘This is being ALIVE’, it screams, poking its head out the sunroof of its speeding (ludicrously expensive) sports car and failing to notice the oncoming low branch. The technical shortcomings of its national players, their lack of fluidity, are now the stuff of caricatures. The natives hardly ever leave. The rest of Europe, if not the world, watches on, content to let the balloon inflate itself to a preposterous size, before sticking a pin in it every four years by having the ability to pass forwards. On the ground. For five minutes.

The last time England surprised the world in footballing terms at a major tournament was 1966, when Alf Ramsey departed from the widely used 4-2-4 and deployed Nobby Stiles as a holding midfielder in a 4-3-3 – which in practice was actually more like a 4-1-3-2 – giving England an extra physicality and defensive solidity for the first time. The last time England surprised the world in any other way at a major tournament was in 2010, when no one could quite believe that John Terry could be quite so brave even though he wasn't captain.

Traditionally though – and ever since ‘66 – British football’s formations have either remained entrenched, or been playing drastic catch-up. An inability to innovate has marked its teams out, rather than displaying the skills inherent in the Dutch’s development of total football, in the Italian catenaccio, in West Germany’s 3-5-2 – which England hastily adopted in Italia ‘90 – and now in the rest of the world’s embrace of 4-2-3-1 and Spain’s tiki-taka.

It’s shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that British football retains a certain predictability. No matter if you start with the best of footballing/attacking/defensive intentions, you can more or less guarantee that whichever team is losing a tight game will, in the final five minutes, 'tactically' throw a centre-back or big man up front.

You can also guarantee a measure of panic or edginess among the defensive side in this 85th minute witching hour – when the ghosts, ghouls and relics of football’s past rear their heads. 'Oh forget trying to run past the opposition. Let's just leather the ball away from them/leather them/leather the ball into the crowd in desperation'. The inevitable frenetic nature of the end of an English football match is basically the equivalent of a lot of pushing and shoving in a club at 11pm turning into a full-on clout, and then all hell breaking loose just after midnight.

The problem is, to labour an analogy, you could just as easily impress a bird as get bottled. For a successful example, we can take Birmingham’s Nikola Zigic against Manchester United (disregarding the foul/handball), or even Roger Johnson and Scott Dann combining late on for the same club against Blackpool recently. Just smash it at the big man lads. It’s bound to drop somewhere.

Why is this tactic, because you can certainly describe it as such, only ever employed in the dying stages of a close contest? What if it just happened at random intervals in a match – teams just sent a centre-back up front after 20 minutes and started peppering you, then went back to normal after 28 minutes? Or they start with four up front and just start hammering the ball into the box from the off? It might work, though perhaps it depends on the fitness of the defence. They're more inclined to get the ball down and try playing through you on the counter after 28 minutes than they are after 88, I suppose.

If British football is so predictable in terms of ebb and flow, of onslaught and manning the barricades, why does it persist within the same structure? All teams go to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge with no intention of playing, when surely some adventure wouldn’t go amiss (especially as no one’s playing particularly good football this season for more than two consecutive matches). At Anfield in previous years, you knew you’d get a battering from Benitez’s Liverpool for the first half an hour, no matter what. Similarly with Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham, who regularly come flying out of the blocks at White Hart Lane and play with mostly reckless abandon*. Surely ‘Arry, most of all, has proved you don't need to be a genius – his clipboard is famously blank and a footballer’s instinct should enable him to find space when the whole team is piling forward and your wingers are as rapid as Bale and Lennon.

The paralysing fear of defeat away from home meanwhile, means it’s not uncommon to see a fair few 4-5-1 setups in the Premier League. A well-drilled 4-5-1 away from home is generally perceived as sufficient evidence that your manager is thinking about his line-up. But it isn’t really. In the Premier League, 4-5-1 away from home most commonly signifies you’re going defensive and trying not to concede. I would love tactics and innovation to be adventurous, to yield ways of winning matches, but they seldom are. Games are more often than not defined by the standard of player involved. Notts County chief executive Jim Rodwell, talking about his club’s win at Sunderland in the FA Cup – a riposte to the quality player argument – talked about their fitness and commitment, rather than Paul Ince’s tactical masterplan.

A controversial statement this, but a lot of successful lower league managers do little more than alter personnel in a 4-4-2. They might have a style ('direct', normally), but that's about it. Here’s a measure – in the four League One games I looked at while writing this, all eight teams were playing 4-4-2. Somewhat surprisingly, admittedly, only one of the four League Two teams playing was. West Ham were playing Birmingham in the Carling Cup and BOTH were playing 4-5-1. If there was ever a time to avoid defeat - which is what 4-5-1 tends to signify these days - beleaguered clubs contesting the first leg of a semi-final is it.

Could the more specific areas of tactics therefore be a luxury of those managers with more able players at their disposal? Even then, beyond ascribing formations, tactics are very hard to define. Sir Alex Ferguson’s use of Park Ji-Sung against Andrea Pirlo is often cited as a tactical masterstroke (albeit by the man himself), but without Park’s energy and diligence the point would have been totally void. It’s difficult to argue that Park’s natural game is particularly creative too – if anything he is a machine built for following instructions. Which was exactly what, if the players are to be believed, serial tactician Rafael Benitez wanted them to be at Liverpool.

Beyond formations, a lot of the seemingly tactical instructions we hear are clichés: "press high up the pitch"; "cut their supply lines"; "midfield and defence tight together"; the famous ‘two banks of four’. Players still find space ‘in the hole’ and ‘shield the back four’. They’re concepts, and while they obviously work, they are quintessentially British. In the same way that every manager talks of a clean slate and the need for time when he arrives at a new club, so the rule seems to be ‘keeping things tight for the first 20 minutes’. There are now, ridiculously, good and bad times to score in a game – I never knew you could score TOO EARLY – and of course the final five minute onslaught is a rule rather than the exception. Entrenched concepts have become impossible to shake. A Premier League manager might reach for his box of shiny apples every Saturday, but he always ensures there remain one or two onions for him to pluck out and fling at the opposition in the dying minutes. This scenario doesn't look like changing any time soon.

*THIS is why the public love Redknapp, and rightly so. They would do well to remember that the main cogs in his gloriously exciting wheel are Croatian, Dutch and Welsh.

COMING UP: As we've now ruled that tactics are cliches and players' attributes more relevant to winning matches, we'll soon be telling everyone how to beat Barcelona. Watch this space.


  1. Nice piece. It is aggravating when certain pundits in TV studios sacrifice any kind of content in favour of mindless clichés. (Maybe not a cliché but Hansen last night - "West Ham are a fine side".. They're BOTTOM of the EPL!!")

    But I'd be wary of going over the top - some clichés are correct and genuine. You can score too early in some circumstances! For example an underdog scoring against a lazy, complacent upper tier team - it may frighten them into life. Two banks of 4, when deployed correctly can be devastatingly effective.

    So yes, christ clichés can be yawn-some and predictable, but there is a time and a place for correct usage.

  2. Really good article, but just a couple of things. While you make a fair point on not enough teams not going to Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge with the intention of playing, there have been a few teams really setting out adventurously at Chelsea this season (Sunderland springing to mind as the most successful).

    Also, I don't get why Ferguson's point on his use of Park against Pirlo would have been void "without Park’s energy and diligence". Surely these characteristics are what led to Ferguson deploying Park in that role...

  3. @lhsaan
    Re: Park - yes, I agree. But that's what I mean by those kinds of 'tactical' decisions being the luxury of managers at clubs able to acquire the very top players. Lower down the Premier League and football pyramid it's difficult to find players as able in that role as Park. We'd all love to shut the opposition's playmaker out of the game every Saturday, but resources don't always permit.

  4. The last five minutes are usually so hectic because the losing team (or sometimes even if they are drawing) has little to lose by throwing everyone forward and pumping the ball into the area. Using that tactic in the first half wouldn't be too wise. Fairly logical. Muppet

  5. The argument being that they're no more likely to score by doing so then as they are in the first half. Throwing everyone forward and pumping the ball into the box results in missing the goal as often as you presumably miss the point. Which means it isn't logical at all.

    And if you're going to start with 'muppet', at least kermit your name to your comment.