Universality, specialists, and the future of football

There is a saying in literature: “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.” The works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Jules Verne may (and may still) have seemed like completely unrealistic depictions of the future whose only value was entertainment, but their names today evoke not thoughts of crackpot writers but of great literary minds. Extend this idea to football and the concepts of a false nine, ball playing midfielders regularly becoming central defenders, and inverted wingers (sometimes being combated by inverted full backs!) were not exactly common fare 10 to 15 years ago.

Consider this statement: The future of football will be converting the pitch into one large midfield zone. Who said this? Some blogger who has never played 90 minutes of football? A journalist who gets readers based on outlandish claims? In fact this assertion was made by one of the greatest managers in the history of football, Arrigo Sacchi.

Arrigo Sacchi: football's H.G. Wells?

Sacchi was a large proponent of the idea of ‘universality’, and while many people say it is the future of football it is a concept that has been around for decades. There are many buzz words in popular football discussion that many consider an ideal way of playing – total football, for example, has this aura as some perfect style of play that, if you could implement it completely, is the end game of football. It would be a system that marries the aesthetics of passing, pressing and interchangeability with the results that deliver trophies. Certainly sides like the Ajax of Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs along with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are some of the teams that have come closest to this ideal, but what kind of ‘universal’ player are we talking about?

Sacchi opined about universal players versus specialists. What’s the appropriate balance between throwing on players full of skill and talent who can do almost everything on the pitch and sprinkling in footballers who specialize in a certain aspect of the game to protect them? Egil Olsen might tell you that specialists in one attribute all over the pitch are most effective while a manager like Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay favours versatile players – center backs who can mark a man and zonally and switch between a back three and a back four, and wide players who can play full back, wing back, or wide midfield. Are their philosophies categorically different, or are they better understood as occupying different places on a continuum? Given the choice would you want a player who is great at one aspect of football or a player that is good at multiple? And theoretically wouldn’t a player who is great at all aspects of football be the player you want; the perfect example of a universal player?

Yet when we look at the most successful current team, the side that is most universal, maybe we are asking the question incorrectly. It’s not necessarily about being maximally good at one aspect or about being great at multiple aspects; it seems that certain aspects of football are being highlighted more than others. Pep Guardiola is a direct descendant of the Michels school of thought via Johan Cruyff so it is no surprise that his Barcelona squad is often cited as the premier purveyors of the total football vision. He plays central midfielders at centre back, full backs high up the pitch, strikers who drop deep into midfield, and natural goal scorers out wide.

However, Barcelona is not a team of players who display universal mastery of all footballing skills. They are world class at passing, moving off the ball, pressing, and reading the game but you would be hard pressed to find someone who says they are great at heading the ball or tackling. These are attributes that people value as players often get praised for being a towering header of the ball or a fantastic tackler. But are all skills equal? If you were to ask Xabi Alonso, the Madrid player who most identifies with Barcelona’s style, he would tell you that tackling is not something you want to do often and practice, that it is a last resort. Sure, it would be great if you were a good tackler but not at the expense of being able to read the game and block passing lanes and intercept through balls. Thinking about this in an extreme hypothetical the idea of some skills being better than others makes sense. Imagine two teams who are average at all aspects of the game with one team possessing eleven great headers of the ball and the other containing eleven brilliant passers. What side would most likely triumph?

So maybe the question isn’t how do we get a team of players who are good at everything and can play all positions – such an idea is impossible anyway. Maybe the future of football is about everyone being great at specific things that most contribute to winning and the key is finding what those skills are and training them. If that is true, and as Sacchi basically said the future of football is the pitch being inhabited by players who display attributes of midfielders, then maybe the future isn’t actually about universality. Barcelona have players who can play multiple positions but they aren’t universal in terms of their attributes. In fact, when you look at it that way, Barcelona are a team of the most extreme specialists on the planet.

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Brescia, Barcelona, and Bartosz Salamon

The wind is increasing in the second half as Brescia nurse a two goal advantage against the home side. Livorno are a few places ahead of Brescia before the match and both are mired at the lower end of the table in Italy’s Serie B. The weather is getting atrocious; the winds are farcical. Boarding behind the net has found its way onto the field and the match has to be stopped momentarily for Livorno’s keeper to pull it off the pitch. Placards and debris are flying around the stands while goal kicks and set pieces have to be reset numerous times because the ball keeps rolling away after being placed stationary.

Brescia’s approach in the second half is simple. Playing in a 4-3-3 they sit back and let Livorno have the ball. The four defenders and three midfielders stay very close together and they break with only their front three on the counter  — occasionally a midfielder joins in support. Who could blame them? They are away from home, battling relegation, up two goals, and playing in some of the worst conditions you could play in before a match has to be abandoned.

At this point there is no beauty to Brescia’s game. They stack the dangerous areas with multiple players, get men in the way, and launch the ball forward whenever they get the chance. That’s not to say Livorno are playing aesthetically themselves, they are devoid of any creativity and, seemingly intimidated by the gale storm and Brescia’s compactness, resign themselves to launching looping balls into the box. The approach for both sides at the surface makes sense. Ugly conditions call for ugly play. There’s no intricate passing to be found here, only strength and grit can see this type of match through.

In the 72nd minute Brescia’s young Polish anchor man, Bartosz Salamon, finds the ball at his feet in his defensive third. He looks left, looks right, then forward, but no one is in a position to receive a pass. Resigned to hitting the ball forward away from goal, Salamon sends a long wayward pass high in the air. The wind carries it into touch and Brescia lose possession once again, but not for Salamon’s lack of trying.

Who is Bartosz Salamon?

Brescia eventually saw the match out and ended up winning 2-0, but they rarely completed multiple passes in the second half. It’s one thing to concede possession and hit your opponents on the counter when you have the lead; it’s another to admit that a strong wind renders you unable to make a short, simple pass and that long aerial balls will be more effective. The fact is that any pass over 15 yards, be it in the air or on the ground, was affected by the wind. A Brescia player could aim a long pass and hit it with the perfect weight but inevitably it would be strewn well off target. Only shorter passes had any chance of being regularly completed, but with the lead Brescia decided the onus was on Livorno to complete those passes.

Bartosz Salamon is a young, tall midfielder who has been an ever present player for Brescia this season. The Polish youngster was brought to Italy from Lech Poznan. He has a slow, languid style that is not appealing to every football fan. Some interpret it as laziness, others say that those who don’t appreciate it are simple minded, but the truth is that if a style is effective then it is effective – what makes it effective is a different point entirely.

The Barcelona link

Perhaps it is not surprising that a club like Brescia has found a player such as Salamon a key part of their starting eleven this season. In the early part of the new millennium a 30 year old Josep Guardiola spent time at the club. Guardiola the manager is maybe the most impressive boss in football today, but Guardiola the footballer has become a representation of the evolution of football over his career. A skilled, diminutive, ball playing central midfielder, Guardiola played deep and relished the ball at his feet. However the game began to change over his career, or at least the perception of what could be successful changed, and physical, combative defensive midfielders became in vogue. Guardiola left Barcelona in 2001 and moved to Brescia where he played alongside a young midfielder who showed similar qualities to him – Andrea Pirlo. Guardiola has been public in his praise of Pirlo, a small, relatively unathletic but immeasurably smart footballer who exhibits supreme confidence when he has the ball at his feet.

When watching Bartosz Salamon play the immediate comparison one thinks of is Sergio Busquets. No one is saying Salamon is as talented as the Spaniard, his exploits at such a young age are incomparable, but the basic qualities are similar. Both are tall, both play mainly in front of the defense but have been deployed as central defenders (note: since I wrote this article Salamon has been played almost exclusively at center back), both prefer a calm passing game, and both rely on smart positioning and economy of movement rather than tireless running.

Inevitably there are differences, and some of these are what lead to the gulf in class between the two players. Salamon is more of a tackler while Busquets favours intercepting passes and pressing in order to force mistakes in order to win the ball back. Salamon is more ambitious in his passing but his ability often fails to catch up to his brain and he loses possession too easily sometimes. Busquets on the other hand is much smarter in his passing choices and rarely loses possession of the ball. What’s undeniable though is that both are what you would call ‘Guardiola type’ players.

What does the future hold?

Taking Guardiola’s connection with Brescia and Salamon’s similarity to Busquets into account it is perhaps not so shocking to hear that Guardiola was reportedly interested in bringing Salamon to Barcelona recently. Polish football fans have learned to be cautious when it comes to transfer rumours regarding young players. Having highly touted prospects such as Maciej Korzym and Marcin Burkhardt being linked to Chelsea and Inter Milan only to end up becoming nothing more than Polish league level players will do that to a fanbase, but the Salamon to Barcelona speculation seems a little different. It is a fact that Guardiola visited Brescia’s training grounds, so it is true that Guardiola saw Salamon play, and it is not hard to imagine that of the Brescia players he saw that a young, deep lying ball playing midfielder caught his eye. That being said, it is hard to imagine the best club in the world has legitimate interest in any second division player, let alone Salamon specifically.

Perhaps Guardiola won’t have to buy Salamon in order to manage him one day. After his visit to his old club, the same one where he remarked that Brescia have some interesting young players, Guardiola said he wanted to one day manage the Italian side. Granted, he also said he would do it for free, so what he said should be taken with a grain of salt. Even considering that if Guardiola does go to Brescia at some point after great success at Barcelona, mirroring his playing career, there is a good chance Salamon will no longer be at the club.

Salamon is not a player who stands out at a mediocre club. Brescia are fighting to stay in Italy’s second tier and in the win against Livorno he was solid if unspectacular. He can function well in different styles but a patient, possession based system will bring out the best in him. Those types of teams are typically not the relegation fighters, and Poland as a nation are not one of the stronger teams. They currently rely on countering and winning the ball high up the pitch to facilitate their offense. But who knows? Maybe Brescia are on their way to such a style with Salamon a key cog for the future. Maybe he will be bought by a team that sees his potential. Or maybe, although Polish fans won’t hold their breath, Salamon will herald a new focus for the Polish national team, one where they attempt to play the modern style that the very best teams in the world play — the style so fiercely reintroduced to the footballing world by Salamon’s alleged admirer Pep Guardiola.

Trabzonspor 0 – 1 Besiktas: Resolute defense earns visitors the win

A stingy backline helped lead Besiktas to a crucial away victory as Trabzonspor suffered only their second defeat in the league this season. A frantic opening 20 minutes gave way to a more methodical 70 and just when nil-nil seemed to be on the cards a penalty handed Besiktas the victory.

Starting XIs for the match. Toraman often dropped in defense to form a back five.

Formations

Trabzonspor lined up in a fairly discernible 4-4-1-1 shape. Burak Yilmaz was alone up front with Alanzinho behind him trying to link up play and find space between the lines. In central midfield both Didier Zokora and Gustavo Colman sat deeper with the latter having a bit more freedom to get forward. The right wing was patrolled by Serkan Balkci while the left saw an inverted Halil Altintop who liked to cut in, but there was nothing all that exciting about how Trabzonspor played.

The real intrigue was how the visitors lined up. At times it looked like a regular 4-3-3 but there were some interesting tweaks. The first thing to notice was the difference between the two wingers. On the right Ekrem Dag stayed wide and helped out his midfield defensively, playing a fairly functional role. On the left, however, Ricardo Quaresma was basically given a free role. It seemed as if he had zero defensive duties and he often found himself in the middle of the pitch and was very dangerous on the counter. In this case it definitely made sense to have the more responsible Fabian Ernst on the side of Quaresma with the more attacking Manuel Fernandes on the right side of central midfield.

Besiktas let Trabzonspor have the ball

The home side enjoyed having the ball for most of the game as Besiktas stood off them. This seemed a deliberate ploy and Trabzonspor had a very difficult time breaking Besiktas down. Besiktas basically defended with eight players (and the keeper). As mentioned previously Quaresma wasn’t expected to drop back along with Deg and form two banks of four which is what many 4-3-3s who concede possession do. He stayed very high up and was actually decent at pressing the back four, but overall that wasn’t his team’s game plan.

When Trabzonspor had the ball in Besiktas’ half the visitors retreated in a deep and compact shell. The interesting feature to note was the positioning of their captain, Ibrahim Toraman. Usually he played in front of his back four but when Trabzonspor had sustained possession he dropped back into defense and formed a back five. Toraman is no stranger to playing as a central defender and he had a good game alongside Tomas Sivok and Egemen Korkmaz, the latter having an especially fine match.

Usually when a team plays with three central defenders they are doing it to counter a team playing two out and out strikers. This was not the case here as Yilmaz was the only striker in the line up, although with the quality of his off the ball movement a defender must feel at times like he is marking two men. In this match Besiktas seemed content to give Trabzonspor the ball, clog up the dangerous areas, and dare the hosts to break them down. They couldn’t and Besiktas constantly looked dangerous on the counter with Quaresma given so much space and freedom.

Trabzonspor need more than just Yilmaz

Trabzonspor have scored 17 goals this season in the Turkish Super Lig. Yilmaz has scored 13. It is an astonishing ratio, even taking into account that he takes his team’s penalties. You cannot fault a player for being such a prolific scorer, and indeed Yilmaz is much more than a simple poacher, but such a statistic must raise some alarm bells. Against Besiktas no one else was able to step up and provide an offensive spark as Besiktas’ deep line and three central defenders neutralized Yilmaz, who still managed to have a decent game thanks to his great movement. The wingers were predictable with Altintop cutting in and Balkci unable to beat his man, Alanzinho had an awful time finding any space, and Colman was unable to show any thrust from midfield. Perhaps their best offensive player was their deepest midfielder, Zokora, as he got forward and passed to decent effect, but he’s not the player you want orchestrating attacks.

In fact, Yilmaz’s best chance came after a golden opportunity for Quaresma was saved by Tolga Zengin. There was lots of space behind Besiktas’ back line and Yilmaz brought down a great ball from substitute Adrian Mierzejewski but he fired his strike too close to Cenk Gonen.

Conclusion

Stout defending in numbers, dangerous players on the counter, and being compact and narrow; it doesn’t sound like an exciting or revolutionary strategy to win a match but Besiktas were interesting in applying it. First, they were able to free their most dangerous attacker from defensive duties without compromising the integrity of the side, and secondly they utilized a versatile and talented defensive player to frustrate the opposition’s key man.

On the other hand, Trabzonspor need to do more to get their star the support he deserves. Yilmaz did have some talented playmakers behind him, but one is tempted to think that a tall, strong figure such as Robert Vittek could help lay the ball off for and create space for the tricky striker. It would mean sacrificing a midfielder which would usually mean sacrificing some possession, but if they face a side who stands off them and concede the ball then the extra man doesn’t mean as much.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Dortmund: Hosts pushed back but eventually break through

Both managers played their expected sides as Dortmund came to London looking to get back into the group. They both lined up in 4-2-3-1 shapes but there were differences in individual instructions and pressing.

Starting line ups

Dortmund press high

Jurgen Klopp said before the match that the way to stop Robin van Persie was to stop him getting the ball. Dortmund are known by their pressing and they did well here, harrying Arsenal at every turn and forcing multiple turnovers in the opening 15-20 minutes. The Germans couldn’t capitalize, however, and eventually Arsenal settled in and had an easier time keeping the ball.

This didn’t mean that Arsenal had the upper hand, however, as much of their possession was deep in their own half. Shinji Kagawa joined Robert Lewandowski in pressing Arsenal’s central defenders which pushed the entire Arsenal defensive line, which usually likes to operate very high, quite deep. Klopp’s plan was working; Dortmund basically were 4-4-2 without the ball as Kagawa and Lewandowski pressed the centre backs, their wingers were on the full backs, and Dortmund’s central midfielders pushed up to meet Arsenal’s.

Theoretically this should have left Aaron Ramsey free in the hole but often in the first half he was too far away from the ball to make a difference. As a result Arsenal looked best when they managed to manufacture possession in Dortmund’s half (via throw ins or free kicks) or when they went more direct; Theo Walcott was the home side’s most dangerous player of the half with his runs in behind Dortmund’s defense but a combination of good keeping from Roman Weidenfeller and great reading of the game by Mats Hummels kept Arsenal off the score sheet.

Dortmund lacking creativity, Arsenal find it

While the Bundesliga champions were doing well in their pressing they were unable to turn that into offense. After the frantic opening where Dortmund were routinely winning the ball off Arsenal their pressing was mainly meeting the player on the ball and jockeying, so they weren’t going to score by winning the ball in an advantageous position. They also lost Sven Bender and Mario Gotze to injury in the first half which severely reduced the amount of attacking talent they had on the pitch. Gotze is obviously a big loss in the final third and Bender has emerged this season as a force going forward. Last season he was the ‘vacuum cleaner’ alongside Nuri Sahin but when the Turk left Ilkay Gundogan was brought in to create from deep. When it became apparent Gundogan wasn’t suited for that role Klopp inserted Sebastian Kehl beside Bender and asked Bender to do more in attack, which he had been doing recently.

On the other side Arsenal’s attackers had started coming deeper and closer to the ball which allowed them to keep it better and to get it into Dortmund’s third. The goals themselves were not exactly created by Arsenal’s sustained pressure by their creative players in the opposition half – Alex Song popped up in an unexpected area with an unexpected bit of skill for the opener and the second was off of a corner kick. However, as the game went on Arsenal did look the more likely to create a genuine opportunity. Klopp tried to get his side back into the match by adding Lucas Barrios and pushing Kevin Grosskreutz back into central midfield but Grosskreutz isn’t exactly the type of player you want to have creating in the middle of the park when you’re chasing a game.

Conclusion

Dortmund did well at first to stymie the supply to van Persie but eventually the Dutchman found the ball at his feet (and head) to score a brace. Injuries and a lack of creativity hampered the visitors but they will be buoyed by Marseille’s loss as they still have a chance to qualify for the next round.

To be successful they will need to:

1) Have their key players return from injury

2) Continue to press intelligently and use it to foster their attack

3) Have their high line withstand the inevitable counters – an in form and cerebral Hummels coupled with a quick rest of the defense (Santana, Schmelzer, and Piszczek) are capable of this

Overall a decent showing from both sides but Dortmund will be disappointed as they desperately needed the three points more than Arsenal.

A Different Look at TFC’s Unconventional Formation

After Toronto FC’s home draw against the New York Red Bulls mlssoccer.com’s designated tactical guru, Steve Davis, wrote an article about how it gave the Red Bulls fits. You can read the article by clicking here, and I recommend reading it before reading this article as I will be referring to it often.

While the formation is unconventional these days, and while it did give the visitors fits, there are a lot of points in the article that I either disagree with or there are important observations that were omitted.

First off though, a conclusion that I do agree with. When Aron Winter drops Torsten Frings into central defence, the German captain becomes the initiator of attacks from very deep. However, although this seems like a somewhat extreme ploy, it isn’t necessarily, especially not when you consider Winter’s Ajax background.

When Rinus Michels transformed Ajax from relegation battlers to title winners in the 60’s a large part of that success was a Yugoslavian defender named Velibor Vasovic. Vasovic was a great ball playing center back that was often deployed as a central midfielder. Dropping a central midfielder into defense is becoming more in vogue recently. Davis mentioned Barcelona at the end of his article, and Pep Guardiola, who is almost directly influenced by Michels, is probably the most proactive proponent of this tactic regularly employing natural midfielders like Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano at the heart of his back line, not to mention that he started Yaya Toure at central defence when Barcelona defeated Manchester United in the Champions League final of 2009. Marcelo Bielsa often played central midfielders in defense with the Chilean national team and continues to do so at Athletic Bilbao, while Villarreal have experimented with this concept as well.

So while that can help explain or at least shed some light on to the rationale behind dropping Frings into defence, why does he employ three central defenders?

Perhaps the most glaring omission from Davis’ article is the simple, wide spread concept of a spare man at the back. When a team plays three central defenders against two central strikers, like New York did in Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers, it allows two of the central defenders to man mark them while leaving the third man as a spare sweeper. Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay, probably the best national team manager at the moment, used the philosophy of a spare man at the back (3v2 and 4v3) to help his side win the most recent Copa America. Davis touched on this when he said Ty Harden and Andy Iro were “locked on early and aggressively, often following Henry high up the field” but he continues by saying that this created gaps that weren’t exploited by Teemu Tainio or Rafa Marquez because they didn’t have “the willingness or energy to push into those areas”. I think Davis is missing the point here. If Toronto were playing a standard back four then these gaps would indeed have been created, but the entire idea of a spare man at the back is that the man markers can follow the strikers and the sweeper fills in the gaps that would have been created.

1. Red has 3v2 at the back, SW is free to initiate attacks with ball and fill gaps without as DCs man mark. 2. Wing backs push up high against midfielders taking away time and space

He also mentions how New York’s speedy right winger, Dane Richards, seemed confused by Toronto’s set up. A large reason he was so subdued is because of Ashtone Morgan’s positioning. When a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2 comes up against a flat back four he has time and space when he receives the ball and to a player like Richards this makes him dangerous because he now has the ability to accelerate against the full back. In Winter’s 3-4-3 the wide players are basically wingbacks whose main job is to mark the opposing wide midfielders high up the pitch so they don’t have a chance to accelerate, while at the same time providing support to their own wingers.

Davis’ advice to New York was to have Richards come inside and force Morgan and Iro to make a decision on who marks who. New York’s wide players often do this, it’s why Jan Gunnar Solli has so much space to get forward and provide the team with his many assists, but really this probably would not have bothered Morgan or Iro much – Morgan would just have followed Richards.
A good example of how Toronto’s defence was unsuccessful would be to compare the recent 1-1 draw with New York’s 5-0 thrashing of TFC earlier in the year. In that match Hans Backe played his usual 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation while Winter played a 4-2-3-1. This meant Toronto didn’t have a spare man (two central defenders vs. two central strikers) which in turn meant that if a central defender was pulled out of position his defensive partners now had to cover for him. It also meant that New York’s wide men found space easily and allowed their full backs to get forward well. In the 1-1 draw Toronto’s defence had insulation and as such was less prone to being bent out of shape.

Backe’s best bet was probably to push his wingers up and drop a striker for a central midfielder and go a 4-3-3. This would give New York a spare man in midfield while at the same time forcing Toronto’s wing back’s backward and making one of their central defenders redundant. In fact, the advent of three man attacks is largely responsible for the decline of three man back lines. The beauty of playing Frings as the sweeper, however, is that Winter can move him forward into midfield and change his side from a 3-4-3 into a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 – all without making a substitution.

1. Red has 3v1 at the back making a player redundant. 2. Wide forwards exploit space behind high pushing wing backs. 3. DM is spare man in midfield to control possession.

The final point I will make is when Davis mentions that the “3-4-3 isn’t some crackpot scheme to frustrate another team’s talent; the world’s best team just made a similar switch, albeit mostly because Barcelona’s first-choice center backs, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, are injured.” In fact, Barcelona did play three at the back to frustrate another team’s talent, and they didn’t exactly play a 3-4-3. Guardiola lined up his side in a 3-3-1-3 formation. The difference may seem subtle, but it’s important because he didn’t employ wing backs specifically because of Villarreal’s narrow tendencies. It also seems an odd conclusion that Barcelona were forced into playing three central defenders rather than two because they had multiple central defenders unavailable.
If the author wanted to cite a modern, high profile side playing a formation similar to TFC he could have mentioned Serie A darlings Napoli. They are fairly similar to Toronto’s 3-4-3 in terms of base positioning, but there are differences in individual instruction, philosophies on pressing and countering, and of course skill, but a similarity Davis would have enjoyed is Walter Mazzari’s stationing of Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left wing as an inside forward.

In conclusion, there were some points I agreed with, some I disagreed with, and some points that I thought were omitted. Overall I was pleased that there was a more in depth discussion on Winter’s use of Frings at the back beyond the obvious statements of ‘he’s gone to a back three (or back five)’ and ‘Frings can distribute from the back’ that most media outlets make, but I don’t think the discussion is yet adequate.

Vancouver 4 – 2 Toronto FC: Direct hosts pummel visitors

Vancouver Whitecaps FC resoundingly won their first ever match in MLS and they did so by playing simple and capitalizing on the mistakes of Toronto FC. Vancouver manager Teitur Thordarson lined his side up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation with two powerful strikers while Aron Winter had Toronto play in their preseason favoured 4-3-3. He did spring a surprise, however, playing Adrian Cann at left back. Even though Cann played there in their final friendly no one realistically expected the center back to line up on the left side.

Toronto control ball early

Early on in the match the visiting team did well to keep the ball and get it forward. Emotions were high and the pace was electric but Toronto did well to pass it around. On goal kicks Toronto’s two center backs would go very wide, being to the side of the vertical lines of the 18 yard box. This allows for the full backs to push up much higher than usual however Toronto could not use this strategy effectively for two reasons: 1) Their full backs are not mobile or technical enough to support the attack, and 2) Nathan Sturgis was having trouble finding space deep. Both of Vancouver’s strikers did well angling the TFC center backs away from the middle. Once in a while when Sturgis did drop deep and find space he had no one to pass to forward — De Rosario and Peterson failed to drop deep as well.

That being said Toronto found a little joy with the ball in the opening 15 minutes. This is because after knocking the ball around at the back they fired quick, long diagonal balls to the wings. This helped stretch a compact Vancouver defense but for some reason they did not continue to exploit this tactic.

A final interesting tactical note to observe from a Toronto point of view was the switching of positions between Maicon Santos and Dwayne De Rosario. Maicon would often drop very deep creating space where he began the move. De Rosario is naturally a more forward player than his deep starting position and so he was naturally inclined to find this space.

Whitecaps play direct to win possession high up the pitch

Vancouver on the other hand did not care much about building from the back. Their main strategy was to hit balls forward toward Eric Hassli. However, these weren’t long hopeful balls praying for a flick on. Rather than passing through the middle where TFC enjoyed a 3v2 advantage, Vancouver bypassed the midfield and had Hassli (and less often Atiba Harris) win the ball with his strength and reset possession — this time 40 yards further up the pitch. This is exactly how Vancouver scored their first goal. A long ball was well held up and Vancouver reset possession high up the pitch, Chiumiento put in a cross and Hassli finished for Vancouver’s first ever MLS goal.

The key here is that Vancouver’s long balls were not aimless thumps. Clearly they had a plan to hit it into Hassli and support him. They weren’t running ahead of him, rather they expected him to hold it up rather than flick it and they supported him to reset their move nearer the box.

Quick pace eventually dies but pattern remains

After a frantic start the match eventually started to slow but Toronto’s goal came from the aforementioned Maicon-De Rosario swap. Maicon found himself near the half way line and De Rosario found himself in a forward position. While neither of Vancouver’s center backs was actually drawn out of position it is not a stretch to think the confusion of De Rosario suddenly bombing from deep into space usually filled by Maicon made it difficult for them to pick up the move. A fine diagonal ball into a diagonal run made for a great ‘pattern’ goal — an algorithm of sorts in football. However Toronto rarely found the ball in a good position to make a good final pass because their midfield had trouble finding space and showing for the man in possession.

However Vancouver answered quickly in a familiar way. A long ball was won by Vancouver, their midfield supported Hassli and Chiumiento played a delightful ball into the streaking Dunfield. Toronto FC simply could not cope with the physicality of Vancouver’s forwards or the mobility of Vancouver’s midfield, Cann regularly being dragged around by Chiumiento.

Pace lessens in second half, TFC can’t crack Whitecaps

The pace and pressing of the second half was much less than the first which was to be expected. Vancouver stood off much more than in the first 45 minutes and made it difficult for Toronto to break them down. Offensively they kept their game very direct and physical, winning corner after corner as the visitors just couldn’t cope with the strength and tenacity of the hosts. Eventually one of the corners dropped for a Vancouver player, it’s no secret that the chances of scoring off a corner go up with the higher number of corners you have.

Winter responded by subbing on Mikael Yourassowsky and Gianluca Zavarise, two players who instantly added more mobility to the side and Toronto immediately looked better going forward. This of course had an effect defensively and Toronto were more exposed at the back with Toronto’s back four playing higher and with less midfield support. This was suicide for Toronto as 3/4 of their back line (Gargan, Harden, Cann) show well below average pace and Toronto was constantly torn apart by simple balls. Vancouver scored on the break and could have had more had they capitalized on tired distribution (especially from Harden) and Toronto scored after good work from fresh legs on the left but the damage was already done, Vancouver were never going to lose this game.

Conclusion

Toronto and Vancouver came into the match with two opposing styles and one prevailed over the other. One cannot claim from this that one style is inherently better than the other, there are other variables to consider. First, both sides had major roster turnover from last season and both are still very unfamiliar with each other and so a simple and direct game is easier to play than a possession based game relying on intricate off the ball movement. Second, Winter made a couple of baffling personnel decisions that hampered the athleticism of his side which played right into Vancouver’s hand. Vancouver fans can be happy they won and that their designated player looks like the real deal however they should refrain from getting too excited. Toronto fans should hope Winter learns from this match. A real left back and Julian de Guzman will help but Toronto really need to work on their off the ball movement if they want their team to be successful. Regardless, there is much to talk about this Toronto side and it will be interesting to see if and how they evolve.


My coaching experiences: Tactics work at all levels and ages

For the past three summers my friend Philip and I have been coaching a competitive youth soccer team in Kingston, Ontario. It is one thing to write and talk about tactics but it’s a whole other thing to run a team. So many other factors come into play such as man management and fixture management, not to mention the issues unique to youth soccer such as scheduling practices, dealing with parents, and maybe most importantly balancing development and results. At a young age the focus should be on developing skills of players as well as their tactical awareness. I remember helping run a  local tournament and I watched over a game of teams that couldn’t have been older than 10. One of the teams were short a few players and not only that but they were also obviously of lesser skill. The coach of the better team with a full 11 simply wanted the best result. In that situation I would not play a full 11 as I don’t think it would teach my team much but I admit I would be in the minority there. However, this coach not only played a full 11 but he played his best 11, rarely making substitutions, and yelled derisively at his players the entire match. He was not teaching them anything with his screams he was simply pushing them to run faster and harder and motivate them. Rather than passing the ball around, working overlaps, letting players try different positions or learn new formations he was attempting to rack up the biggest score. In my mind that is something reserved for higher levels and age groups and even then it is questionable.

This article will focus on a match Phil and I coached this past summer. To give you a background of our team we were a U18 squad (17 and 18 year olds) playing in the Level 3 ERSL division in Ontario. For those not familiar with the soccer pyramid in Ontario the winners of Level 3 ERSL win promotion to OYSL, the highest level of amateur youth soccer. We finished the season mid-table which was fairly successful for us given our squad. This specific match took place in a tournament in Montreal. It was our second match of the tournament and we ended up winning 5-2 against a team that was fairly similar to us in skill level. In fact our entire group was evenly matched and it was a shame we missed out on advancing by a single goal. The following is a sort of tactical review of the match I wrote a couple of days after the match itself. (Note: We are the blue/yellow team in the diagrams)

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In our second game of the Brossard tournament we put in a fantastic performance where we created chance after chance and thoroughly outclassed a team and it showed on the score sheet. There were many factors that came together to create that performance, from individual ability to determination to luck, but one of the factors was tactics.

In the first match of the tournament we lost 2-0 to a very solid team in a very even game. In that game we played a 4-3-1-2 against a team that played a fairly traditional 4-4-2 shape. In that game I feel that our most dangerous and best player was the 1 that found some space in between the lines between their midfield and defense. Their team was very solid at the back (they lost 1-0 to OSU, the eventual winners, in the semi-finals) and we created the best chance of the match. Unfortunately we weren’t able to beat or draw a very similar team, but the performance was decent enough and with the success Phil had been having in the season with the 4-3-1-2 we decided to keep with it for the next game.

As the teams lined up for the second match it was surprising for us to see Falcons line up with a sort of 3-5-2. The midfield five was lined up with a bit of a defensive midfielder but the back 3 was very traditional. Instantly we saw that they had the tactical advantage. The two outside backs would man mark our two strikers leaving their most central defender free. One of the three central midfielders would drop back and mark our attacking midfielder. In possession their central defender would step up and it was obvious to see he had good ability on the ball.

Fig. 1

Figure 1 shows how the teams lined up at the start of the match. You can see how the Falcons D C is free to cover for his defensive partners when we attack and how their extra man in midfield lined up to mark our AM.  When they had the ball their comfortable on the ball D C stepped up and our midfield was overrun. Quickly Philip and I made the decision to switch to a 4-3-3.

Fig. 2

This figure shows how we lined up with our switch to the 4-3-3. The first thing to jump out is the difference in arrows between the two figures. In figure 1 Falcons have their D C stepping up, but in figure 2 our F C is basically man marking him giving him no opportunity to join the midfield in possession. The arrows indicate our desire for our wide forwards to drag their outside backs wide. Usually Phil and I prefer a narrow formation because it is so difficult to score from crosses at this level, but that was not the goal of the arrows. Their goal was to drag the defender out of position so that the other two forwards or one of our central midfielders could fill that space and be 1v1 against his defender.

Defensively we retained a basic 7v7 shape. Our fullbacks tracked their wingers, the two center backs marked their strikers and we had a 3v3 in the middle. The advantage for us was that when we broke forward we had a 3v3 while when they attacked they had a 7v7. It was easy for us to retain possession by bypassing the midfield because a quick pass forward meant we had three forwards battling three defenders. We clogged the middle so that when they tried a quick ball forward they had more defenders to deal with. In the end, less attackers v. defenders (assuming an equal number) is better. A 1v1 is more dangerous than a 10v10. Their coach never made an adjustment and his team paid for it. He yelled at them for not giving an effort but he was at fault for never switching his tactics.

In the end there were many reasons we won the game. Our first goal was a well taken set piece, our second was a bit of luck, and those two goals gave us the confidence to go on and win the game. But that match showed the tactical superiority a 4-3-3 can have versus a 3-5-2. It also showed the growth of Phil and I as coaches being able to recognize when we were at a disadvantage. But maybe the best thing it showed was the growth of our players. When we switched to a 4-3-3 from the bench the players immediately knew what we wanted and when we gave individual instructions to subs they carried them out perfectly. Overall in my three years of coaching that was my favourite match to coach and one of the best performances from any team I’ve been a part of. What this match showed is that when two teams are evenly matched skill wise tactical awareness of the players and coaches can win the game, even if you’re 18 years old and playing youth soccer in Ontario.

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Being with the same squad for three years allowed my friend and I to train our players’ tactical awareness. At this level coaches usually teach one or two formations and they are usually a 4-4-2 with a flat midfield and a defense consisting of a sweeper and a stopper or a 4-3-3 that is flat in all three bands with little fluidity.  Players don’t learn different formations and if they are skilled enough to play at a higher level they are at a disadvantage. It also robs them in general of one of the joys of the game, that is different strategies and formations facing off against each other. Often they go out with zero instruction and simply fill the space indicated on the chalk board where their name is. My hope is that youth clubs start hiring coaches based on their actual soccer knowledge rather than parents of children who are on the team. I understand that sometimes a team has no option for a coach and unless a parent steps up that team will fold, and that is admirable, but the onus is on the club to find coaches and give them training and for local coaches to  put in the time and effort to teach a group of strangers.