Football Tactics and National Identity

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This is an excerpt from the book Soccer Tactics 2014: What the World Cup taught us By Ray Power,you can buy it here

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“Surprised to read negative Dutch media about defensive playing style. It’s about winning!” (Raymond Verheijen, Dutch Fitness Expert and Football Coach)

 

All football leagues around the world have teams with different philosophies, a different style of play, and different sub-cultures. We often find that national teams have distinct (sometimes unique) philosophies, play, and cultures. The beauty of World Cup competitions is the convergence of many of these different styles; all in the one place, in a one-month period.

In Brazil, some nations stuck rigidly to their national footballing identities. Some significantly moved away from their cultural roots in the game, while others, possibly still seeking to shape their own national distinctiveness, went about formulating their tactics based on: foreign influence (South Korea), their recent success (Greece), or their perceived failures (England).

There is a great video available on YouTube of a team talk from Pep Guardiola to his Barcelona team before extra -time of their 2009 European Super Cup Final. Even in the tough circumstances of a hard-fought win against Shakhtar Donetsk, he insisted on the team playing the game “our way”. It was steadfast, unwavering, and assertive.

This video is available to view at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRhVGSKVYMU

Spain

Before a ball was kicked at the 2014 World Cup, we all wondered whether this generation of Spanish players could emulate their successes from recent international tournaments. Although humbled by hosts Brazil in the Confederations Cup in 2013, a lot was expected of Spain. They had, after all, won three back-to-back international tournaments; their 2010 World Cup victory in South Africa sandwiched between the lifting of European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012.

We all also knew that Vicente del Bosque’s side would stick firm with the ‘tiki-taka’ style of play that had brought them such success. In Brazil, although they lasted a mere three games, they still believed that they would win by dominating the ball, predominantly using short, precise passes and pressing their opponents aggressively. Regardless of their early exit, Spain’s average possession from their three games was 61.4% – the highest in the tournament (whoscored.com).

Although the team contained nine of the same starting line-up that lifted the European Championships two years previously (and eight of the team who began the 2010 World Cup Final), questions into a lack of team evolution were always going to need answering.

There were, however, subtle changes to Spain’s approach, mainly with the abandonment of their ‘False 9’ striker system, something they had pioneered in the modern game. In the 2012 European Championships, this role was fulfilled by midfielder Cesc Fàbregas, but was replaced (for 2014) with the Atletico Madrid forward Diego Costa, who played as an out-and -out number 9. Whether this can be looked at as a step forward, in terms of modern tactics, or a step backwards (where a rigid centre-forward replaced a free-flowing false striker) is debatable.

What has been found over the last couple of seasons is that, as football evolves, opponents not only learn how to combat a particular tactical blueprint, but also learn how to combat the same players using the same tactics. More and more teams are now challenging the dominance of tiki- taka, which culminated in two comprehensive Spanish defeats against the Netherlands (5 – 1) and Chile (2 – 0) in their opening games.

Spain’s starting line-up in their opening game, a 5 – 1 defeat against The Netherlands. They stuck with their tried and tested 4-2-3-1 template, but used Diego Costa as a central striker, rather than Fàbregas as their ‘False 9’.
Spain’s starting XI in their 2012 European Championships Final against Italy. Nine of this team started against The Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup, the main difference being their use of Cesc Fàbregas as a ‘False 9’.

Choosing Winning Over Identity

 

The Chileans were arguably everyone’s second favourite team at the 2014 World Cup. Owing much to the influence of renowned former coach Marco Bielsa, who took charge of Chile at the 2010 finals, current coach Jorge Sampiola set about implementing a style that would stay true to the South Americans’ recent playing approach.

 

For the tacticians amongst us, watching Chile was, at times, quite surreal. They played with a high tempo both in and out of possession, attacking and defending as if their footballing lives depended on it. The former Manchester United right-back Gary Neville once commented that it seemed like a ten-year-old with a PlayStation controller was dictating the moves of the often fast-driven, erratic Brazilian, David Luiz. While watching Chile, one would be forgiven for thinking the same of the team as a whole(!), although there was a lot more craft and team synergy to their play.

 

Beyond their exciting, quick-tempo play was a tactical structure and organisation that rivalled any other team in Brazil. Apart from their opening game against Australia, they stuck with their three-at-the-back roots that had served Bielsa so well, lining up in a 3-4-1-2 formation, that contained the dangerous front two of Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez, and Napoli’s Eduardo Vargas – with Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal playing behind them.

Beyond this impressive front three, and left wing-back Mauricio Isla (who plays for Juventus), much of Chile’s team play their club football in quite moderate environments. Influential centre-back Gary Medel was relegated to the English Championship with Cardiff prior to the World Cup. His team-mate Gonzalo Jara played in the Championship before the tournament too. Deep-lying midfielder Marcelo Diaz plays in Switzerland with FC Basel, Silva with Osasuna in Spain, and goalkeeper Claudio Bravo – at the age of 31 – was signed by Barcelona mid-tournament with question marks over whether he would play regular football at the Catalan giants. The rest of the team play their football in South America.

If Chile did not have a squad full of household names, they had the single most important thing that would made them a real force in Brazil – a tactical blueprint – their blueprint – that all the players evidently bought into, and opponents struggled to handle.

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