Tactics and team talks: Changing face of the Beautiful Game

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Anand P

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The Evolution of Formation and Style of Play in Football

Football is a strange game, filled with more changes during the course of history than any other sport. From basic rules to modern-day tactical complexities, the evolution of football is breath-taking. This evolution or change in generations makes it impossible to compare Pele, Di Stefano, or George Best with Ronaldo or Messi because of the change in style of play during all these years.

Earliest Formations

Modern football as we know is a by-product of tactical evolution, something which happened during the course of the last 100 years. In the early days of football, there used to be around 7 forwards, 2 half-backs and 1 full back as in a basic formation. The presence of midfielders and their role weren’t introduced during the time as formations were a free form of offensive players and defensive players. These kinds of formations were widely used across countries during the 1880s with slight variations here and there. It was also during this time, the famous Preston North End team of “Invincibles” introduced and popularized the “Scottish Style” of football. The team went on to win the championship and won the 1889 FA Cup. The formation they used was a 2-3-5 with two full-backs, three half-backs, and five forwards. The formation prevailed during the era and was later adopted by many sides until the offside rules were introduced in the 1920s. This resulted in the formation of a style of 3-3-4 by Arsenal during the same time. The formation was formed on the idea of using offside traps against the teams with more attacking forwards. This system devised a more prominent structure allowing more creativity in the middle of the park and gave defenders more flexibility at the back. This formation is today recognized as one of the earliest forms of counter-attacking football.

The Passing Game and Introduction of Midfielders

One of the most influential styles of football we have seen in modern-day football could be from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team who played direct attacking football adapted from the famous ‘Total football’ of the 1970s. But the history of Pep’s formation at Barcelona was something that was introduced way back in Italy during the 1930s. The Metodo System, as we call it today, was introduced by Vittorio Pozo, coach of the Italian National Team during the 1930s. A 2-3-2-3 formation with, two full-backs, a half centre back, two half backs, two midfielders, and an attacking three with a centre forward in the middle. The formation introduced the idea of midfielders rather than earlier formations with half-backs progressing the ball into attacks. Pozo introduced inside forwards (midfielders) and used short passes to move players forward. Not only did it create a more modern counter-attacking football, it also solidified the defence as a unit. This system was the key to their success in 1934 and 1938 world cup wins.

Uruguay played 4-2-4 in historic 1954 World Cup (Gustav Sebes)

During the 1950s and during the time of Pele, the 4-2-4 formation overtook other formations of the era including WM, WW formations.

The 4-2-4 was a well-balanced formation with the idea of having a strong defence and a strong attack. The defenders move the ball forward and play a more important role in the team moving forward. This gives rise to a high line in defence, which enables the player to swiftly move through the opponent’s midfield quite easily. The formation was notably used by the Brazilian National team for their historical triumphs in the 1950 and 1970 world cups. It was later adopted by many sides across the world and various new styles were created out of this structure of play.

Modern-Day Football

Modern-Day football can be first noted with the introduction of the 4-4-2 formation, which is still being used widely as a basic form these days. England is largely recognized as the home of this formation and they are possibly the side that overused this formation as well. Fabio Capello is one of those noted managers who favoured and developed 4-4-2 during his time with Milan and later with the England National Team which didn’t end well as England were outclassed by a German side who played 4-2-3-1. The 1990s saw this formation coming into play with the importance of midfielders began to change shape in football. The idea of a holding midfielder and an attacking midfielder is the product of this formation. The role of Defensive, box-to-box midfielders began to take shape during this era with supporting left-backs working as wing-backs were also used variably during the 90s and early 2000s. Several variations include a target man up front with a second striker playing as centre forward began to take shape during this time.

The famous Milan side, who won three European Cup and several other accolades between 1988 and 1995 was the first team in top-flight football to use this formation.

The 4-4-2 diamond, 4-4-2 block, 4-4-1-1, and 4-5-1 were later adapted to the game by many teams. Even the historic Leicester City Premier League triumph of 2015/16 season is a by-product of 4-4-2 used in every possible manner by manager Claudio Ranieri. Meanwhile coaches like Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger further developed formations that were better in shape and structure than 4-4-2.

The iconic Manchester United team, managed under Sir Alex Ferguson, struggled to deal with his side’s 4-4-2 formations during the 2000s against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side, and the 4-3-3 style of play devised by Mourinho at his first Chelsea stint. Around the world during the 2000s saw the rise of three-man midfield as it gave a 3Vs2 advantage in the midfield over 4-4-2. This results in multiple formations to develop including 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, and more. But 4-3-3 was not a product of this generation as it was previously used by several teams including Uruguay in the 1950 and 1954 world cups and later by several Latin American countries. But the most famous of them all was the Dutch team of 1974 and 1978 world cups, and the Ajax side of Johan Cruyff during the 1980s. In modern football, this formation is widely used variably by Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and occasionally by Klopp at Liverpool. Meanwhile, the 4-3-1-2 formation, which was indeed a variation of 4-3-3 was used by Allegri for Milan and later by Ancelotti at Real Madrid. Another formation of the time to be rightly mentioned is the 3-3-1-3 played by Barcelona which found its way from Cruyff and the beautiful Dutch football of the 1970s and 80s.

Formations to look out for today

As football developed tactically over the years, teams began to change shape during the course of the game constantly. This shift in shape was not something new in football but became more visible in modern football. This was pretty evident in the 2005 Champions League Final in which Liverpool overcame a three-goal deficit with a change in formation. Rafael Benitez with an adaptation of a more counteroffensive 3-4-3 formation went on to win the title. Change in team structure, and the introduction of makeshift players, have further developed the idea of positional play. The 4-6-0 formation is a pivotal example of such a formation, with no active out and out striker. The presence of a makeshift striker in midfield would do the job of a striker thus denying opponents to man-mark players without a change in their own shape. Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the pioneers of adapting this style in his game during his successful 2007-08 season. Today, change is already on the horizon as the attacking football has found its way back into a more compact style of the team play over high intensity game that ruled the game for the last couple of years. This resulted in more counter-attacking football being used widely across the globe with various variations. As football developed, formations began to be less relevant on paper as the role of players are becoming more and more diverse. 

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