1 March ~ Tactical talk is all the rage nowadays thanks to books like Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid, an enlightening read on the history of tactics and the philosophy of formations that taught me many things I never knew. World Soccer magazine sometimes runs a double-page spread outlining one coach's tactical history with every club he's managed. It's all fascinating stuff. However, I confess that I recently let my decade-long subscription lapse. Such features made my heart feel heavy with a sense of duty rather than of joy when I picked the magazine out of my postbox – I could frankly not care less how Frank Rijkaard's 2001-02 Sparta Rotterdam team lined up.
Tactics are something that you can choose to discuss both before and after the game, when your head's clear. During the game it should be a minor distraction at best. Having someone dissect the game as it happens is like listening to a virtuoso pianist while an expert whispers in your ear exactly which chords he's playing. It's all relevant in its own way, but you don't want someone droning on about the technicalities while you're in tears at the beauty of Beethoven or a Lionel Messi five-man slalom run.
It's not that I'm uninterested in formations as such. But thanks to the information super-structure and the global movement of players, tactical innovation has become less of an issue and football's evolution means there remain only a few variations on generic, largely defence-oriented systems. There will be few tactical surprises at the World Cup, unless the North Koreans have been working on something special behind closed borders (a 7-2-1, say – the ultimate reversal of the pyramid aimed at becoming world champions without scoring in open play). In the end, if your players aren't good enough it won't matter what your formation is. It's pretty much a given now approximately where on the field they'll play. The main question is how they'll play.
Tuning in at kick-off, I didn't see the formations before yesterday's League Cup final but what struck me during a lively opening half hour was not how the teams had lined up but how many players were attacking space and taking opponents on. Gabriel Agbonlahor won Villa's early penalty by aggressively running at Nemanja Vidic. Manchester United players like Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park opened up space by having the gall to dribble at speed, adding an extra dimension to United's default attack method of serial fluid passing. The day before, adventurous individual runs by Craig Bellamy and Carlos Tevez helped Manchester City expose the limits of Chelsea's back line. Franck Ribery won the game for Bayern Munich against Hamburg on Sunday in similar fashion.
It would be nice to think that this reflects a stylistically retro but exciting trend, rather than just a fluke weekend when an above average number of class players were at the top of their game. Phil Dowd, the referee at Wembley, made an excellent call on Vidic's challenge and was correct to book James Collins for clattering Evra early in the game. But flair players rarely enjoy much protection from referees, who for years have been lax in implementing the game's laws on persistent infringement. If they ever give out as many yellow and red cards as they should do, they are swiftly lambasted by pundits, nearly always ex-players, for "spoiling the game". Unlike the henchmen who hack players down or pull them back by the shirt of course.
Tactically, football has little room for growth in a results-obsessed era and it's naive to expect more than a handful of privileged teams to adopt enterprising approaches to the modern game. But football can continue to develop if it alters or properly implements its laws to discourage foul play and an on-field culture that leads to a leg-breaking foul like the one Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey suffered at Stoke on Saturday. There was a lot of space at Wembley not just because the players tired on a wide, heavy pitch, but because they had the remit to express themselves beyond the customary straitjacket of caution and make space, and also because Dowd punished foul play early in the game. The element of stylistic surprise combined with strong officiating made for an entertaining, though not spectacular, game. Its best practitioners were rewarded with a shiny silver cup. Perhaps this revolutionary idea of running with the ball at your feet will catch on. Ian Plenderleith