Tactical Evolution at Euro 2012

With the UEFA Euro 2012 having drawn to a close, pundits decipher the new trends in football. While some tactical displays have caught the eyes and might just pave the way for future of football, some strategies simply did not work and will pass on like a fad. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings it all under one roof here

Azzurri turn the clock with a three-man backline

The Azzurri started the tournament with an abandoned 3-5-2 formation. Their three-central-defender ploy worked to an extent as they were able to hold on to a hard-fought draw against the mighty Spanish team. They must have been influenced by Juventas and Napoli, who deployed a pure three-back system successfully last season in Serie A. Such was their influence, 16 other teams had experimented with this strategy sometime or other in the last season.  Elsewhere, Barcelona also plays with a lop-sided 4-3-3 where Dani Alvez pushes further up the flank to make it similar to 3-4-3. Major criticism of this system has been its tactical deficiency especially playing against a solo forward. One of the central defenders marks the lone striker when another one covers him. The third member of the back trio now becomes redundant and hence the opponent gets a man advantage. This is exactly what happened when Spain had a focal point in attack in the form of Fernando Torres as he exploited the high line of Italy. Yet Cesare Prandelli used the system well as a shock element and bamboozled his opponents. It allowed the strikers to play further up the pitch and their interlinking with the advanced central midfielder duo became more dangerous. As the tournament went on, Prandelli reverted to a traditional back four but the opposition teams were always guessing which strategy they will be up against in the next match.

 Three Lions deploy two banks of four

Roy Hodgson, the newly appointed England coach admitted before the tournament started that they do not quite belong to the group of big boys at this moment. Also, he made no secret of the fact that England lack a midfield maestro who can influence the game like an Andres Iniesta or Andrea Pirlo.  So he thought, “If I cannot play a free flowing attacking game, let me stop the opponent from doing so.” In came the (in)famous Chelsea model – implement two rows of four men to counter the attacking threat of the opponent. To start with, it was a 4-4-1-1 but the midfielders dropped back without fail when England lost possession. The graphic blow was a regular occurrence for the Three Lions when the midfielders provided an extra shield to their defenders. The front men also tucked in as Hodgson was keen to keep the shape. No English player was caught offside in the group stages – a statistic which shows their lack of desire and ambition. This is a model which is used for smaller teams playing against more accomplished opponents, but they invariably get broken down due to superior skill of the stronger team or as the fatigue creeps in due to humongous work rate during the closing stages of the match. Once in a while, this defensive strategy might just work, but do not expect this system to appeal much to the football lovers.

German counter punch to the flavour of the season

With the beginning of this century, holding midfielders have grown in importance in world football. With the commencement of this decade, teams have started using two of them to counter attack threat of opposition and thus 4-2-3-1 seems to be a favoured option for most of the teams. Having two men anchoring the midfield in the form of destroyers frees up the full-backs to venture forward. It also allows the coaches having to find only one decent striker in the starting line-up as they have been an endangered species of late. Some teams look to play a midfield diamond but very rarely have we seen any team starting without a defensive midfielder. Joachim Löw figured out if he starts with two proper box-to-box midfielders, then it will be very difficult for the opponent to mark them. Thus if Samir Khedira lunges forward to join the likes of Mesut Ozil, Mario Gomez, Lucas Podolski et al, Bastian Schweinsteiger will stay back. If the opportunity comes, he can join the attack and Khedira will automatically drift back. This kind of strategy works brilliantly as the midfielders will have a roaming role and neither of them is being restricted to merely hold the fort.

Khedira with Schweinsteiger

I’ll have them all – La Espanyol style

Spain is undoubtedly the team of this generation, if not the greatest national team ever to have embraced the game. So powerful is their current squad that Vicente Del Bosque can easily field two teams against each other and it will be very difficult to say which team will emerge victorious. Well, Spain did use their squad depth to some extent when they had as many as six midfielders in their starting line-up. Playing Cesc Fabregas in a ‘false nine’ role was a decision tempted by the injury of David Villa, indifferent form of Fernando Torres and inexperience at the highest stage for others around. This was the toast of the season with all the teams baffled by this striker-less formation. It will be interesting to see if teams worldwide can reproduce this system – having a strong team where each player can play different roles will be a must – but Spain did come up with a master class as they went on to lift another major trophy with some ease.

Spanish Armada in Euro 2012

Passing Thought

Teams have become more fluid now. Micro Tactics, as they call it, defines the minutes of movements of a player during the course of any particular match. This may sound like making the game more mechanical which prevents the creative players from showcasing a moment of magic. Of course not! Top class players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will roam around the pitch to influence the game as much as possible. But it will then be the responsibility of others around to fill in different roles to augment their main playmaker’s movement. This allows coaches to change shape during a match without bringing in any substitute. Sometimes this can be done to create an impact in the match – as Real Madrid tinkers around from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 – or to exploit any susceptible weakness of the opposition – as Joachim Löw assesses the match to shift from one formation to another. This is exactly how a football manager game is played – players will have a starting position but their role will keep on changing continuously.

Attack Wins Games, Defence Wins Titles

The concept of sound defense winning titles is preached in almost every sport, from the junior game right up to the professional level and one which can help mould a style of football on the pitch. However, with the likes of Barcelona creating ‘a new breed of football’, can the foundations of defence over attack be applied in today’s game?
The principles of defending haven’t changed since the sport became what it is today, but what has changed is the game itself. The modern game is visibly quicker, more fatiguing (an average of 32% more games played now than 15 years ago) and some argue, more psychological. What this implies is that traditional tactics are changing, and with that, the type of players who fulfil various roles.
Is defending the sacred ground for winning championships? The statistics would have you believe they are. If you look at the last three years of clubs winning in their respective countries of England, Spain, Italy and France, you will note a ringing truth, fewer and fewer goals are being conceded.
So what’s the cause for this? If we were to look at the tactics, then the answer is not so simple. The traditional 4 – 4 – 2 required little to no attacking play from the centre backs. Attacking if any, from the back would come from corners, where a defender’s general height and strong heading ability would come into play. Movement was mainly lateral with only the wing backs bringing play forwards directly from the keeper.Today however, a defender has to be as versatile as a Swiss army knife. Comfortable with the ball at his feet, he needs athletic ability to bring the game forward, quickly and consistently from the keeper. Fullbacks are used more frequently providing runs, crosses and overlaps, and centre backs are no longer the nose bleeding sufferers if they venture past the 30 yard mark. Possessed with greater physical and technical ability they are makeshift playmakers on counter attacks.The partnership of the Milan centreback duo last season was a pleasure to watch. Both Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva contributed to this level of play. In the final Milan Derby last season, they played a high line to nullify the threats at ease and to launch easy counter attacks.
What about goalkeepers? They are after all the ‘extreme defender’. Gone are the days of ‘vanilla’ goalkeepers, now you have to be a ‘sweeper’ goalkeeper. Distribution is the key and releasing the ball quickly and accurately, both with hands and feet is even more important today than when the back pass rule was introduced. A good release and you allow the team to quickly build momentum, retain possession and expose space. A late or misplaced pass can come back to bite you. One may consider Víctor Valdés, Edwin Van der Sar or Iker Casillas as the best exponents of the quick pass.
To conclude, the modern game leaves gaping holes in defensive capacity rather than add to them.
The Bigger Picture
Defense doesn’t end or rather begin with the players nearest the keeper; if you analyse any match in the modern game, the defence begins in the middle of the park. If you don’t believe me, think of the space between midfield and defence, and ask yourself, why are midfielders more exposed to overloading defensive duties?
The modern approach to allow the full backs full freedom to go up and down the pitch as much as possible requires that you have at least one midfielder providing suitable cover that opens up when either central defender goes to cover the full back, effectively creating a fifth defender, but one that evens the playing field when faced with a counter attack.
So the conclusion is defending has become something of a united focus rather than a single tactical instrument in a match. The question then remains, ‘does a good defence really win you leagues?’
If we go back to my earlier example of all the teams in those 4 leagues, yes, they all had a low number of goals conceded, but they also had very high goals scored. So strikers, creative midfielders and yes, even defenders are earning their money in getting the goals to win the coveted titles at the end of the season.
But this is where the beauty of the modern game lies. No longer are talented defenders limited to clearing attacks. They are becoming responsible for them. They can dictate rhythm, pace and orchestrate movement throughout the game. The technically able can provide passes through the middle of the park. The physical defenders can provide further attacking options whilst possessing the ability to track back and stop play from building and the tactically minded ones can read the game from the back and implement changes.
So does defence win leagues? Yes, a disciplined defence can win you leagues, but by being better in attack….if that makes sense!

Gino de Blasio studiously analyses Italian and English football. He has recently become a qualified coach and talks tactics until the cows come home. You can follow him on twitter @ginodb