Tactics that have shaped the great game

Different routes to the same goal

Tactics that have shaped the great game

Spain had just taken the lead against France in the round of 16 in the 2006 World Cup and they were odds on to go through. 

After all, 'La Roja', hadn't lost a game in two years since Luis Aragones took over. But France found a way to get back into the game and consigned Spain to yet more disappointment on the global stage.

Aragones' job was on a knife edge. And the first thing he did? He dropped Raul Gonzalez, one of the biggest institutions in the Spanish football industry. He then developed a sense of unity and decided to play a possession based game to take his team forward. 

Spain had the diminutive midfielders to do it but many people at the time dismissed the notion as fanciful saying the game needed physical monsters, not welterweight midfielders. 

Elsewhere, Barcelona's Frank Rijkaard was given the boot. The Catalan club's star man, Ronaldinho, was also cut off. In came Pep Guardiola. 

Barcelona's approach, which was based around the Brazilian, now centred around Andres Iniesta and Xavier Hernandez. And before we knew what was happening, 'tiki-taka' was born. 

While many commentators use the phrase in a positive sense, one of the term's earliest users, Spainish TV commentator, Andres Montes, described the term in a pejorative sense.

One could even argue that the use of tiki-taka - the form of play when one team keeps hold of the ball, probes the opposition patiently and looks to exploit space - use in the Spanish national team and its increased focus in Catalunya overlapped. One supplemented the other. It first came into prominence because of the club. The national team benefited from it.

That, historically, has been the case with the most radical of football tactics since Hungary's 'Aranycsapat' (Golden Squad) first graced the playing fields. One of the main reasons for that being Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Czibor, Jozsef Bozsik and Sandor Koscis – four of the more prominent members of the Mighty Magyars – all played for Honved at one point of time.

The Magyars, went into the 1954 World Cup with an improvement of the W-M formation (their formation was largely a 3-1-2-4 which would later evolve into a 4-2-4) that former Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman designed in the 1930s.

The next radical football theory that caught the imagination of the masses and was widely used at the World Cup because of its raging success in club football came from the Netherlands via Ajax. 

While the accepted wisdom is that totaalvoetball (Total Football) came from Ajax, the totaal represented a wider understanding of Dutch everyday culture, especially architecture.

English journalist, Jonathan Wilson, who has been reading the game for more than a decade, explains further. “JB Bakema,  one of the theory's prime exponents, argued that all buildings should have individual characteristics but should be designed with their place in the overall environment in mind.”

In short, total football, which was invented by Rinus Michels, was a system designed to be anarchic and thrilling at the same time – defenders could attack, attackers could defend. Ajax and Netherlands enjoyed great success as the club won three consecutive European Cups (1971, 72, 73) and reached back-to-back World Cup finals (1974 and 1978).

The other major tactic that was borrowed from club football in the 20th century was ‘catenaccio’ (doorbolt in Italian) where there is a huge emphasis placed on defence.

While the Azzurris haven’t used catenaccio over any extended period, that has been one of their tactics in World Cups – and they famously ditched it against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup semifinals when they won 4-2 and infamously resorted to it against Australia in the round of 16 game in 2006.

Tactics, these days, seem to be far removed from the 1980s and beyond. There is more emphasis placed on results (six goalkeepers have kept clean sheets in the final of a World Cup since 1990, while none of the 13 finals which preceded it witnessed a clean sheet from either side).

The most successful international side, Brazil, have also stopped being hedonistic. While most of their football at one time resembled the glorious qualities of Garrincha , it’s now largely functional aimed to get results.

They do start the tournament as favourites – not because they have the best squad but because they haven’t lost a competitive match at home since 1975. Most of the play will go through Neymar and if he fails, the Selecao will have their task cut out.

There is greater desire on maintaining shape and hitting the opposition on the counter attack – this is also viewed as one of main weapons against Spain’s death by passing routine.

While teams with disciplined but limited players will resort to that tactic, sides like Spain and Germany, who have a never ending supply line of No 10s but a dearth of No 9s, have been playing without a central striker for quite sometime and that looks to continue at the Finals.

Again, this trend was started in club football with the likes of Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Thomas Muller all used as false nines in the last five years (a psuedo striker who will drop deep into midfield and create space in the final third). 

The term has existed in football lexicon for the last 70-80 years but it was seen as more of hipster speak before Messi made it mainstream.

While Spain now have the added advantage of throwing in Diego Costa, a more rugged nuisance creator and a typical, bustling No 10 if the need arises, Germany could struggle without the injured Marko Reus, whose interpretation of the lines and forward roles for Borussia Dortmund are a delight to watch.

Not many coaches name their formations but Louis Van Gaal is not your typical coach and he has been on record saying that Orange will be playing a 5-3-2 formation (because of the injuries suffered to Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart).

Most teams will open their campaigns with a ‘should not lose’ formation and it will be 4-2-3-1, which Spain used for the majority of games in the last World Cup, that will again be used with different configurations to suit their system. 

While possession is still king, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, two teams who live and die by it, have been humbled in the last two years. 

What about Spain? They are going for a fourth consecutive title push at a big international event (nobody has ever done it) and If they do manage to succeed, it may not yet be tick tock for the tiki-taka.  But like every other tactic, there will be a sell by date for this.

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