Is Universality the Newest Tactical Trend in Football? Part I

Carlos Alberto Perreira's bold prophecy of football moving towards universality may be coming true.
Carlos Alberto Perreira’s bold prophecy of football moving towards universality may be coming true.

Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. The words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. hold true when it comes to football’s ever evolutionary tactics.

It was Carlos Alberto Perreira whom once predicted that football tactics were evolving into a state where there would merely be four defenders and six creative players allowed to interchange and intertwine into attacking menace. That prophesy seemed to have held true when at Euro 2012, Spain successfully utilised a system that had four defenders and six other players combining.

And yet it seems, football in the 21st Century has gone further ahead. Of course, the evidence seems to be in that Spanish squad. Whereas there were four defenders, Jordi Alba at left back was effectively a wing back, allowed to do so because Alvaro Arbeloa at right back did not have the same attacking threat and thus the balance of defence was upheld whenever Alba went on his forward forays. Adding onto that, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in the double pivot provided the perfect balance for a team that could attack and defend almost simultaneously and seamlessly.

Balance may be the word, but in actual effect, football is approaching that point where it will be all about roles rather than positions. Formations are already proving so. Their numbering is but just a crude method of designating the static positions in which we expect players to be in. But football is a game of motion, and in that commotion, it is co-relation that matters in the search towards efficiency.

On New year’s Eve, Michael Cox wrote an excellent piece titled ‘the Masters of Universality’. In it, he describes what came to the fore from a tactical standpoint in 2013. It was the year when finally footballers became appreciated for the interpretation of various positions in as much as they were for their execution of those roles.

It is also Cox’s tactical analysis of that year’s Confederations Cup semi-final between Spain and Italy that provides further evidence.

In that game, Italy ended with Daniele De Rossi — normally a holding midfielder — at center back in a back three while Spain had Javi Martinez — normally a holding midfielder — as their furthest forward player, with instructions somewhat to operate as a number nine.

Italy's Daniele De Rossi (16) challenges David Silva of Spain
Italy’s Daniele De Rossi (16) challenges David Silva of Spain

There was also the fact that there were no out and out strikers on the pitch, and also that of the 22 players on the pitch, only the goalkeepers were relied upon to remain in fixed positions. Even then, considering just how well Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon perform on pass accuracy and completion among goalkeepers, they can also be considered to be new age footballers.

Of the 20 outfield players, around nine had the ability to play in more than one position.

And as Cox concludes, it seems in all likelihood that the tactics battle is becoming one giant midfield triangle.

There is logic in the fact that more often than not, it is midfielders who personify universality more than most.

Ever since the liberalisation of the offside rule and the enlarging of the playing area, it is the midfield that has seen most development. This is the area that has been largely responsible for the move from three-band formations to four band formations — or in other words, from 4-4-2’s and 4-5-1’s to 4-2-3-1’s and 4-4-1-1’s. The need to cover space in midfield has ensured more players are now been crammed in there.

To avoid congestion, sophistication becomes an advantage. Specialists thus become superflous.

It is why Arturo Vidal provided the most intriguing displays of 2013. His all round performance means that he can play anywhere in midfield — and as per his Chile days under Marcello Bielsa, defence as well.

Bielsa does have some sort of idealistic look on football, and his insistence of ball players across the park meant that at the 2010 World Cup, Guy Medel — a holding midfielder — played at center back in his back three.

That is the same model Bielsa used at Athletic Bilbao, with Javi Martinez occupying the center back role — this time in a back four. It was probably an echo of one of his disciples — Pep Guardiola — who had already started playing holding midfielders in defence before Bielsa’s reign at the Basque club.

Javi Martinez in his Athletic Bilbao days
Javi Martinez in his Athletic Bilbao days

Yet it is Bielsa whose thinking probably influenced Guardiola to do so. In turn, Martinez’s time at Bayern Munich under Guardiola has seen him play at his preferred holding position with the occasional center back appearance.

Guardiola however, ever the innovationist, went a step further and has played Martinez as an attacking midfielder in a game or two. But that is not where Guardiola’s imagination ends. His time in Bavaria has seen him turn club captain Phillip Lahm from a right back into a holding midfielder.

Lahm, already a versatile player for his adaptability at playing either right back or left back for both club and country — has clearly adapted. And yet, it is not just a gamble that paid off for Guardiola — it was a calculated trial. Guardiola speaks of Lahm as the most intelligent player he has ever worked with. In that case, it seems no problem for him adapting to new roles.

Is that a step in the new direction? Are defenders going to become the next set of universal players after midfielders and forwards?

Probably. If so however, it is an innovation that was not invented by Guardiola himself.

(Part II will tackle the definition of universality and give examples of footballers)

[images courtesy of zimbio]
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