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

Comments (10)
Comment by tratorello 2010-03-02 10:06:02

Good article, but I have to take issue with the statement "Phil Dowd, the referee at Wembley, made an excellent call on Vidic's challenge".

In what way was it "excellent" the fact that he gave the clear cut penalty which was obvious to anyone watching? Or that he completely ignored the laws of the game and failed to send Vidic off (or even give him a yellow card) effectively giving him another couple of "free hits" at the Villa strikers?

Comment by imp 2010-03-02 13:46:17

Fair point. But there's refereeing by the book, and refereeing by 'feel'. To my mind, a penalty was fair punishment - it wasn't a vicious foul, just a bad tackle, with the question of intent arguable. A yellow would have been more than enough, and for one side to be down to ten men so early in the game would have been too harsh. It already takes courage for a ref to give a penalty against Man United in the fourth minute of a Wembley final, without adding a red card. I imagine Dowd was taking a bigger picture view of the game (didn't want to "ruin the spectacle" etc.), rather than applying the letter of the law.

I realise there are very strong counter-arguments to what I've just said, especially if you're a Villa fan. But I prefer to view refereeing as a human activity, not the work of a rules-fixated robot.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-03-02 15:49:50

To the letter of the law Dowd was correct not to send him off as he wasn't heading directly to goal, but then what do refs know about the rules? Give Lawerenson a microphone that is rigged up to the stadium speakers, then he can officiate from the commentary box and stop all this nonsense of referees officiating who have been doing it all their lives.

Comment by tratorello 2010-03-03 10:50:23

"The offences that warrant a red card are defined in FIFA’s Laws of the Game

Being guilty of ‘serious foul play’ (for instance, a very dangerous tackle).
Spitting at an opponent or other person.
Denying the other side an opportunity to score by handling the ball.
Denying the other side an opportunity to score by fouling a player.
Offensive or abusive language or gestures."

Where does it say anything about "heading directly to goal"?

Agbonlahor was inside the penalty area and preparing to shoot with only the goalkeeper to beat, if that doesn't constitute an "opportunity to score" then I don't know what does.

I don't see how anyone can claim that Dowd was correct not to send Vidic off, the arguments about "ruining the spectacle" are completely spurious.

I must admit though that I find the hypocrisy of pundits continually wanting referees to use "common sense" and then castigating them for not applying the laws consistently is annoying.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-03-03 12:07:00

Law 12, a player is sent off if he denies an obvious goal scoring opportunity to an opponent moving toward's the player's goal. The guidelines from FIFA complicate this by adding that the player must be heading directly towards goal. In Dowd's opinion he wasn't, and it appears he was not heading directly to goal. Obviously you missed that guideline being sent to you

Comment by tratorello 2010-03-03 15:40:07

Thanks for clearing that up, I'd missed out on that FIFA memo.

So if the player is not facing the goal (as an extreme example. he's just gone around the goalkeeper but has gone a bit wide and is about to turn and put the ball into the empty net) and the defender brings him down in the area then it's just a penalty?

Comment by Lincoln 2010-03-04 13:13:52

Same here.
Probably not, but then that didn't happen here. The player was going straight ahead but not towards the goal and was brought down.

Comment by tomwfootball 2010-03-04 17:35:42

Interesting. I think the League Cup final was such an engaging game precisely because of the tactics adopted by both sides. For once, a high-profile game between two big English clubs saw both teams take to the field in a 4-4-2, with two proper wide midfielders (Young and Downing for Villa, Valencia and Park for United) and two central forwards (Agbonlahor/Heskey, Owen/Berbatov) on each side. The reason there was so much space to run into was largely because neither team made a priority of dominating the centre of midfield, which is what happens when teams line up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.

Comment by The Brain 2010-03-04 23:23:51

This article highlights the lack of detail or understanding of tactics in England. The game was old fashioned , yes, always when Villa play and especially against United - two sides who like to stretch the pitch.

The problem in England is there is a lack of question - why is this happening.. and continuing asking the questions. Crouch scored two goals for England but many were still stuck in their pretentious views of his advantages and relative weaknesses that didn't quite relate to England's tactics.

Comment by phnompenhandy 2010-03-06 01:53:14

Thankfully the last two posts got on topic. I think Ian is confusing 'tactics' with 'formation', assuming they are synonyms. 'Tactics' includes formation, but also HOW the game is played - tempo, pressing etc; indeed the examples described in the Cup Final. To say how the game was played was entirely dependent on the pitch, referee and players' "remit to express themselves" is disingenuous. Even Shawcross' challenge was part of a Stoke tactic you see week in week out - the tactic of stifling the more skillful opponents' creativity. My point is that this is all part of a manager's tactical template; it is not in spite of him. This is also the bread and butter of lively in-game discussion. In short, long may 'talking tactics' continue.

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