Saturday, 30 October 2010

Formlessness and the rise of strikerless formations

The Art of War is a military manual written in the 6th Centure BC bu Sun Tzu, a Chinese general. The key theme is one of winning by deception. Its application in war, business and politics has made it essential reading for many. I daresay not many in football have read it, but all successful coaches have an intuitive understanding of its key claims. War, it proclaims, is largely a matter of deception. "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness...thereby you can be the director of your opponent's fate". Football tactics have shifted this way over the past 5 years at an increasing pace.

Stability and structure are the foundations of a good defence. This is just as true when building a castle as a backline. Stability is achieved through a consistent centreback pairing. Successful teams have this. Understanding each other's movements, when to press and when to cover, tracking runs and organising others from a deep central position are all facilitated by having this stability. Ideally you want defensive players to have a set area of the field to operate in from which they rarely deviate. Consider Mourinho's comments after Inter defeated Barcelona on aggregate at the Nou Camp.

"We didn't want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position - I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn't want us to have the ball, we gave it away. I told my players that we could let the ball help us win and that we had to be compact, closing spaces."

The ultimate aim is to restrict space for the opposition to work in, particular near the goal. This results in many teams defending narrowly, thus forcing the opposition out wide (and away from goal). The classic "two banks of four" is a way of restricting space in terms of depth (as opposed to width). This is like having two castle walls (or a castle wall and a moat). You hit a defensive player sooner. It relieves some of the pressure from the backline.

Good attacking involves just the opposite. Unpredictability is the best way to break down locked defences. Whilst their players clearly exhibit more than one attribute, I shall explain a key element of good attacking play by using the Barcelona side that face Sevilla at the weekend.

Click on me to make me bigger.

There are three key elements to good attacking play. Good use of space. Penetration. Unpredictability. This final one is key. In order to unsettle stable defences they have to be unsure how you will attack. Predictable attacks are bad attacks. Lumping the ball up to a big man is bad as it is predictable. The fall of pedestrian playmakers can be attributed to this. Riquelme and Rui Costa were fantastically talented individuals but they had a tendency to slow the game down rather than speed it up. As the 2000s rolled on they both looked increasingly out of place. It is telling that Rui Costa's replacement in the Milan side, Kaka, was an exciting, dynamic player who ran at the defence with pace.

What Kaka's introduction achieved was an ability to play quickly on the counter attack. Counter attacks will always be popular as they exploit space, penetrate quickly and are unpredictable. Indeed the first two can be seen as a way to create unpredictability. During a counter attack the ball can be switched from one side of the pitch to the other very quickly, into space and so shifting according to the hastily arranged defence.

So much for you.

The best teams of the past decade have known how to control games, but they've also known how to turn defence into attack very quickly. In fact at times it can be seen as their defining feature. Mourinho's Chelsea with Robben and Duff playing outside Drogba. Arsenal with Thierry Henry, Pires and Ljunberg racing forward. Manchester United, pretty much always under Ferguson.

However in the past decade a new trend has emerged. It has been the result of two desires. Firstly, create unpredictable attacks. Secondly, to control the centre of midfield.

Mourinho's side did two things very successfully. Firstly it controlled the centre of midfield. When he arrived the 4-4-2 was still the formation of choice in the Premier League. Having an extra man in that key zone meant they could control play far more easily when with the ball, and disrupt the opposition without the ball. Have an extra man in midfield though, and you inevitably lose a player somewhere else. For Chelsea this meant fielding one less striker.

However, this was something they were willing to do. It hinged on having the perfect players to play that style. Jonathan Wilson argues in "Inverting the Pyramid" that formations are neutral. By this he means they are neither good nor bad in themselves. He is right. They depend both on the opposition and the players available. Chelsea had the perfect players to make this system work.

In attack they had Drogba. When they needed to - and at times they certainly did - they launched longs balls up to him. He is quick, strong and good in the air. A nightmare to play against and more than capable of flicking balls on or bringing it down and waiting for support. Playing off him were two speedy wingers, Robben and Duff. With their pace and trickery they were ideal players to latch on to any headed flick ons.

It was the midfield though that was really key. In Lampard and Essien/Ballack they had two box to box midfielders. Not only were they comfortable operating deep in midfield, they had an impeccable sense of timing when coming forward. Lampard regularly scored more than 20 goals a season. This is without playing as a typical attacking midfielder. Behind them was Makalele. He disrupted play magnificently. More than that though he was responsible for playing good, simple passes forward.

The defence too was important. They had three world class defenders and a very good one in Ferreira - who trusted Mourinho and had a lot of momentum at the time having just won a Uefa Cup and Champions League medal in consecutive seasons. In the middle they had a general who is good in the air and a ball playing centre-back in Carvalho, a feature of all Mourinho's teams. At Inter he made a big fuss over his desire to have one, and Inter's results dramatically improved with the addition of Lucio. Having a centreback who is genuinely comfortable on the ball allows you to start building attacks from your deepest outfield point with intelligence (Cech of course did launch attacks, usually directly up to Drogba). The fullbacks were key in attacking with width.

The results is Chelsea played with one striker but had 7 players who could attack from open play. Of the four I haven't included, Makelele and Carvalho contributed to the direction and launching of attacks, Terry was a major weapon from set plays scoring an incredible 15 goals in Mourinho's first two seasons at the club, and Cech's long balls stood Mourinho accused of bringing back an 80s style of play. But this ignores the fact that Chelsea's side were extremely dynamic. The threat could and did come from all over the pitch. In defending against Chelsea you had to cope with their relative formlessness in attack.

Knowing that genuine threats come from the left, right, and centre mean you have to be extremely disciplined in defence. It is no good trying to track individuals. Instead you have to hold your position. This is exactly the problem faced against Barcelona above. In fact Roma and Manchester United at times took this idea further by playing with no recognised centre forward. Manchester United, in the 2007/08 season they won the Champions League, played with a front trio of Rooney, Tevez, and Ronaldo with Rooney and Tevez playing off a central Ronaldo. The side was notable for its dynamism and interchange of that forward three. In away games they would often play Park, whose ability to press the opposition and break quickly, meant they would often break dangerously with four players. Here is a breathtaking counterattack from a season later:

Note the pace and penetration of the attack.

In the 2007/08 season they beat a Roma side in the Quarter finals 3-0 on aggregate. That Roma side were forced into playing with no strikers and it work surprisingly well. They had Totti in the centre with Vucinic and Mancini playing off him. Crucially, like Chelsea, they had box to box midfielders to make it work in Perrotta and De Rossi. Throw in a playmaker like Pizarro and you have a team packed with pace and creativity but incredibly difficult to mark against. Concentrate defensive resources on Totti and you leave the wingers free. Concentrate on the front three and their movement will inevitably drag you wide, and leave room for the central midfield three.

All four sides discussed in this post exhibit a degree of formlessness. They either ave no obvious focal point of attack or they can attack from so many directions that anticipating how they will attack at any given time is nigh on impossible. The success these sides have seen is a result of this formlessness and having the right players to play this formation. More static players would not work.

In this is a key point. The physique of Premier League footballers has changed as the game has become faster. It is no longer possible to tell where a player plays by his body shape. Wingers aren't all tall, gangly runners. Centre backs don't all look like John Terry. There has been a homogenisation of players' physique. This has been reflected in a loss in specialisation. We no longer have a need for goal poachers like Owen or playmakers like Rui Costa. We want out players to be able to link the play quickly, with everyone having a hand in creating and scoring. This is the future of football. Barcelona provide a potential blueprint.

The world was not ready for Total Football in the 70s, but if defensive solidity is respected, it might just be in the future.

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