Sunday, 4 September 2011

Midfield Tendencies

The video I linked to in the last post was a fantastic demonstration of Barcelona's style. What most of you would have missed is the significance of the opening segment. Watch the opening 60 seconds of the 1974 World Cup final between the Netherlands and West Germany.


The Netherlands kick of. The ball comes back to the defence. The fullbacks are pushed up as far as possible. Under pressure from the Germans the fullbacks push back in to provide support for the centrebacks. At no point do they attempt to play the long ball. The ball goes short to the rightback who then plays it straight back. These opening passes are exactly what we might expect from Barcelona. Short, simple, good movement and with a generally aggressive layout. Possession is key.

Then something really interesting happens. At 12:34 in the video a man comes running back to provide support to the centreback, just inside the leftback.He comes right the way across and picks the ball up in the centre of the pitch. The centreback then makes a darting run forward. This is not a casual jog but a concerted effort. Even Piqué would rarely make such a bold move so early on.

The man on the ball then points right. He has received support from the rightback (again). That option is closed off and so he comes inside, having complete faith in the centreback to deal with the ball. It is already clear, less than 30 seconds into the game, that we are dealing with exceptionally competent centrebacks both technically, and in terms of movement.

How many modern sides can claim such proficiency?

The player who had initially provided support reveals himself to be number 14. This player is not a defender. He is not a midfielder. He is not a winger. He is their centre forward: Johan Cruijff.

The ball is played forward and the other centreback runs forward ball at feet. The modern game perhaps has Lucio as a parallel. Regardless, the centreback looks like a midfielder on the ball. Confident, aggressive, and with a good touch. After some good interplay down the left-hand side the ball is then played back out to Cruijff at the 13:00 mark. At this stage he is the furthest outfield player back for the Netherlands and is still in the opposition half. Let's be clear here: the centre forward is the player furthest back whilst in possession. From there his dribble is as scintillating as anything Messi has put in. He wins a penalty less than 60 seconds into the World Cup Final.

What is the point of all this?

There is nothing in football that is new today. Sacchi probably made the last great tactical innovation through his holistic approach to both attacking and defending. Since then there has been nothing new. A lot has been made of the False 9 position made famous by Messi. As this video shows, it is tame compared to Cruijff (himself the driving force behind Barcelona's philosophy) and the Netherlands. Similarly attacking fullbacks, centrebacks who are good on the ball, and versatile players are all hailed as important reasons behind successful modern teams. All these are correct. None of them are modern inventions.

Having said this, one aspect of the game is very different from the 1970s. The physical conditioning of players (though Arsenal fans may sometimes wonder) is much improved. Players are expected to lead more professional lifestyles, adhering to good diets and refraining from excesses mid-season. The effect of this is to allow heavier pressing for longer. If this had been available to the Total Football experiment of the 1970s then it might well have been more successful. If you want to understand the direction the game is headed in, then one could do worse than consider the following: all players are exhibiting greater midfield tendencies.

Barthez, France's World Cup and European Championship winning goalkeeper, spoke of national training camps where every player - himself included - had to practice a variety of long and short passes. A level of technical proficiency was required of each player. Distribution from the 'keeper is becoming increasingly important. Long hoofs up the pitch are becoming increasingly rare, even from the floor.

As fitness improves forwards are increasingly being encouraged to press from the front. This means defenders are required to have a better first touch, greater awareness, better movement, better passing and greater composure. In short, they have to display midfield tendencies. Lucio, Piqué and David Luiz are the future. And this is just the centrebacks. The preponderance of 4-3-3 style formations mean that it is vital for fullbacks to be able to provide attacking width. I can't think of a technically competent fullback at a top club. Note that this is still not new. Both sides in the 1974 World Cup final played a 4-3-3 with technically sound fullbacks.The difference is that sides now are becoming increasingly forced to develop technically sound defenders as sides press from the front and defences are becoming harder to unlock. Previously these talents were a luxury. Now they are a necessity.

Let's be clear what this means: attackers are pressing and defenders are attacking. Every player must be able to dabble in every part of the game. Everyone must display midfield tendencies.

The effect on academies is strong. At Spurs - and this is by no means exclusive - players are only assigned a position when they are 15. Before that everyone must understand all the key elements of the game to a strong level. This reflects the demands of the modern game. Forwards must learn how to jockey and defenders must be comfortable playing one-twos. This broader understanding of the game also fosters a greater collective empathy. It also produces pros who can adapt to any given situation.

Have a look at the England U21s training:


It's a great move (see point 2 for the conditions)

So far I have referred to technical competence. By this I mean not just classic competencies such as passing, controlling, and shooting. I also mean good movement, intelligent decision making and team understanding (the social aspect). As a coach this can be done simply by imposing conditions on games. Here are two quick examples.

1) Set up a 3 v 3 (with or without additional goalkeepers). Each side can only have a maximum of 2 players in a half at a time. This ensures that players understand that if one player goes, another must stay. They also have to decide whether to track runs of the opposition or create controlled overloads. This involves decision making and good communication.

2) More simply, impose two touch. Players must then focus on their first touch and where they play it with their second. It also encourages players to think about where their teammates are constantly as if they start looking when they receive the ball they will almost certainly lose it. The space of the pitch and the number of touches players have can be modified to make it harder or easier, as appropriate.

The focus on positions from a young age is destructive to the development of our young players. This mindset must be trained out of both players and coaches at all levels if England are to compete at the highest level. Every player needs to have midfield tendencies. The seeds are there. They must be allowed to grow.

1 comment:

  1. As a quick comment. When Barcelona lined up 3-4-3 against Villarreal they played with 8/9 midfielders: Check it here