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Evolution of football tactics

03 Apr 2024


In the world of football, there are countless tactics and strategies that teams employ depending on their playing style, strengths and preferences.Some of them bear specific names and have become well-known. Let's introduce the most common strategies influencing the course and development of football matches.

Dynamic and flexible tactic Total football

The football tactic called Total Football is an offensive strategy where players do not have fixed positions. Except for the goalkeeper, any player can take on any role of another player in the team. The fluid system without firmly established positions was also designed to confuse the opponent.

Back to the history

The foundations of the Total Football tactic were laid in the 1930s by Jimmy Hogan, who was influenced by the Scottish combination game. The Austrian national team, whose coach Hugo Meisl collaborated with Hogan, was the first to apply the new strategy to their play. His influence extended to Hungary, where the Total Football tactic was used two decades later.

Similarities with the aforementioned strategy appeared in other countries, from Austria and Argentina to the Netherlands, where its development was taken up by Vic Buckingham.

In 1965, Rinus Michels became the manager of Ajax, and after 1970, he developed the Total Football tactic. A significant player in the new strategy was the central forward Johan Cruyff. Michels encouraged him to move freely across the pitch and to exploit the opponent's weaknesses through technical skills and intelligence. Cruyff's teammates adapted to the play as well, also changing positions to ensure consistent coverage of all roles within the team.

Michels and Cruyff achieved eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, and one Intercontinental Cup with this tactic.

The advantages that Total Football brings

In Total Football, no player is limited to just one position; every player is capable of taking on the role of an attacker, midfielder, or defender as needed. This flexibility allows players to quickly and efficiently adapt to the situation on the pitch.

Another advantage is creating numerical superiority in different parts of the pitch. Due to the constant movement of players and shifts between positions, space often opens up for finishing or playmaking. This way, the team can confuse the opponent's defense and create an advantage.

Spanish football technique Tiki-taka

The football tactic Tiki-taka primarily emerged from Spanish football and is based on quick combinations of short and precise passes, off-the-ball movement, and emphasis on ball possession. Players aim to control space through quick exchanges and to confuse the opponent's defense with circular movement.

How did it all begin...

With the Tiki-taka tactic came at the end of the nineties coach of FC Barcelona, the mentioned Dutch player Johan Cruyff. He built upon the then-existing Total Football system and adapted it for Spanish players, who, at the expense of athletic predispositions, boasted individual technique.

The players were led to a high defensive line, combination play in the midfield, and a gradual transition into attack. The term Tiki-taka was coined by Javier Clemente based on the name of the click-clack toy. Its establishment and popularization were credited to television presenter Andrés Montes.

Thanks to Tiki-taka, at the beginning of the 21st century, a team built from graduates of Barcelona's youth academy La Masia dominated European football. The tactic was also utilized by the Spanish national football team, which achieved success by winning the UEFA European Championship in Switzerland and Austria in 2008, the FIFA World Cup in 2010, and also the UEFA European Championship in 2012. This era was dubbed as the golden age of Spanish football.

Advantages and disadvantages of the tactic

The technical skill of players combined with short and quick passes allows the team to maintain possession for extended periods and control the pace of the game. Another advantage is the ability to deceive and, to some extent, tire out opponents through prolonged ball possession and waiting for the right moment to attack. The tactic is based on player cooperation and movement, creating unexpected situations and opening up spaces in the opponent's defense.

Given that Tiki-taka requires a high level of technical skill and game intelligence from players, its training and implementation into a team can be somewhat demanding. At the same time, the tactic can be vulnerable when facing stronger teams with aggressive pressure, as they seek to disrupt fluidity and break up combinations.

Italian Catenaccio

Catenaccio is a term for a playing style originating in Italy, which emphasizes a solid defense and a quick offensive approach. It is a highly organized and effective defensive strategy focused on suppressing opponents' attacks and subsequently scoring goals.

The history and origin of the Italian tactic

The tactic originated from the original WM system, in which players stood in a 3-2-5 formation, and was replaced by a layout of 1-3-3-3. Behind the trio of defenders standing in one line and marking the opponent's attackers, another player acted as a so-called "sweeper." His task was to intervene in situations where the defensive line could be disrupted, according to the current need.

In 1960, Argentine coach Helenio Herrera introduced what he called an "improved Catenaccio" at Internazionale Milan by withdrawing the game to two classic strikers, three midfielders, and five defenders. One of them was tasked with launching attacks as a false winger. Under Herrera's leadership, the team won three Italian titles in 1963, 1965, and 1966, won the European Cup twice, and won the Intercontinental Cup twice.

The decline of Catenaccio and the transition to Total Football

After these successes, however, the popularity of Catenaccio declined, as the Inter Milan team turned their victories into losses against Celtic and Ajax. The term Catenaccio even acquired a derogatory meaning for any defensive play, which had nothing to do with the original tactic.

Many coaches utilized the Italian strategy in a modernized form enriched with elements of the Dutch tactic called Total Football. Among them, we can mention Giovanni Trapattoni, who, as the only coach in history, won all three European cups with Juventus Turin.

The German football tactic called Gegenpressing

Gegenpressing, also known as "gegenpress" or "counter-pressing," is a football tactic that focuses on immediately regaining possession of the ball after its loss. It involves applying intense pressure on the opponent in their own defensive third to force a mistake, and upon winning back the ball, immediately initiating an attack.

Historical overview of Gegenpressing

Původním strůjcem zmíněné strategie byl německý manažer, výkonný ředitel a bývalý hráč Ralf Rangnick. Při svém působení v německých klubech, včetně Stuttgartu, Hannoveru 96, Hoffenheimu, Schalke a RB Lipsko, vždy povzbuzoval hráče, aby hned po ztrátě zkusili svůj míč získat nazpět. Strategii Gegenpressingu poprvé použil při přátelském utkání proti Dynamu Kyjev v roce 1984.

Rangnick's thinking influenced other coaches who continued in his game scheme. Certainly worth mentioning are Ernst Happel, Jupp Heynckes, Arrigo Sacchi, or Zdeněk Zeman. Among the current coaches, we can name Thomas Tuchel, Jürgen Klopp, Julian Nagelsmann, and Ralph Hasenhüttl.

The advantages and criticisms of the tactic

One of the main advantages of Gegenpressing is the ability to regain possession high up the pitch and in dangerous positions, subsequently leading to scoring opportunities. German coach of Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp, stated that it is only through Gegenpressing that you can win the ball back and get closer to the opponent's goal. He even added that no defender can be better than any well-executed gegenpressing situation. Probably for these reasons, clubs like Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, and FC Liverpool are so dominant and effective when employing this strategy.

However, due to the significant physical demands, there is an emphasis on the players' physical fitness, which quickly diminishes during Gegenpressing, leading to a noticeable decline in performance and condition.

"Park the bus," coined by Portuguese coach Mourinho

The "Park the bus" tactic is often associated with a defensive approach, where the team focuses on ensuring a solid and unbreakable defensive formation rather than ball possession. Only a small number of players transition into attack, while the rest of the team forms a strong defensive structure that the opponent struggles to penetrate upon regaining possession. This method can lead to significant frustration for opponents, whose opportunities for action are limited in "Park the bus" scenarios. They often resort to shooting from long distances. Probably the most popular and effective formations associated with the "Park the bus" tactic are 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1.

How did the "park the bus" tactic originate

The "Park the bus" tactic is often associated with Portuguese coach José Mourinho from the years 2004-2007. During his tenure at Chelsea, the team surpassed the record for clean sheets in a single Premier League season and won the title with just one defeat.

Throughout his career, Mourinho became renowned for employing defensive tactics, especially against stronger opponents. His teams, such as Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Manchester United, were occasionally criticized for their overly cautious and defensive approach.

What does the "Park the bus" tactic bring?

"Parking the bus" entails preventing opponents from finding space in your own defensive third. Maintaining a solid and compact defensive line with limited space for attacking opponents reduces the number of scoring chances. The defensive shape relies on horizontal and vertical cohesion, allowing teams to create a strong barrier in front of their own goalkeeper. In this tactic, defenders must suppress the urge to move forward. Instead, they should drop back, wait for the opponent's move, and deny them the opportunity to find space.

Scottish Route One Football

The football tactic Route One involves kicking the ball high and far in a direct line towards the attackers. It's an attacking movement where the goalkeeper or central defenders kick the ball straight to a lone forward rather than passing to nearby teammates.

Currently, the influx of technically skilled players has rendered the direct kicking tactic outdated. Instead, concepts such as ball control, passing, and skills have made a comeback. An exception is seen in the Scottish Premier League, where the number of passes in a single game has been limited to a record low of nine. The Route One tactic is now relegated to the background as a plan B.

A brief return to history

The football tactic known as Route One represents a proven British approach that emerged in the post-war period. Since footballs made of leather were very heavy, it often took as many as five players to kick it at once. They aimed to conserve energy by minimizing passes. Additionally, limitations and a shortage of workforce at that time meant that football matches were only allowed for one hour. Therefore, it was crucial to get the ball from one end of the pitch to the other as quickly as possible.

Benefits and Risks of the British Scottish Tactic

One of the main advantages of this strategy is the rapid transfer of the ball from the defensive third to the attacking third through long, direct passes. This can surprise the opponent and create unexpected goal-scoring opportunities. With a minimal number of passes, the risk of losing the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch is also reduced.

On the other hand, the Route One tactic may be perceived as less attractive by spectators who prefer the technical and combinational aspects of football.

Diamond Formation

The Diamond formation in football is known for its characteristic arrangement of players on the field, creating a diamond shape. The positioning of players is akin to the standard 4-4-2 and finds specific usage in modern football. It was last seen in Liverpool under the management of Brendan Rodgers in 2014, instilling fear in other Premier League clubs. It also found application in the Netherlands national team under Louis van Gaal during their unexpected journey to a bronze triumph at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

And what do the history books say?

The most famous example of the Diamond formation was Carlo Ancelotti, who won the UEFA Champions League final with Milan in 2003 and finished as runners-up in 2005 with the same team. Milan was forced to adopt the arrangement to field the talented central midfielder Andrea Pirlo at a time when the offensive midfield position was occupied by Rui Costa and later Kaká. The strategy was gradually abandoned after Andriy Shevchenko's departure from Milan in 2006, when the team began to transition to the "Christmas tree" formation.

Over time, the Diamond formation, due to its flexibility and ability to provide a strong central core, adapted to various playing styles and coaching philosophies, ensuring its enduring place in a wide range of football tactics.

Advantages of the Diamond Formation

One of the main advantages of the tactic is its ability to provide a strong central core. With players arranged in a diamond shape in the midfield, the team can better control and dominate the center, aiding in ball retention, distribution of passes, and limiting space for opponents.

The arrangement also allows for combining a strong defensive midfield with attacking potential. The defensive midfielder at the back of the diamond can provide support to the defense, while the attacking central midfielder and offensive midfielder can be key players in creating and finishing attacking moves.

False Nine, also known as the "false nine"

False Nine, also known as the "false nine," is a football tactic associated with a forward who positions himself deeper on the field than a traditional number nine striker. The main aim is to get the ball outside the positions of the opposing center-backs, thereby causing disruption of positions and disarray in defense.

Where does the False Nine originate from?

According to available information, the False Nine was first used by the Corinthians team at the end of the 19th century. The center-forward, GO Smith, preferred to deliver passes to the wingers through diagonal balls. This was a change from the traditional approach, where the striker would stay as high up the pitch as possible.

Among other teams, there was River Plate in the 1920s, whose center-forward acted as a "conductor" in a formation with five attackers. In the Austrian national team of the 1930s, Matthias Sindelar appeared as a dropping center-forward, and later, the same role was utilized by Nándor Hidegkuti and Péter Palotás in the famous Hungarian team of the 1950s.

However, the term "False Nine" began to be used in more modern times. The idea is that the forward may have the number nine on their jersey but move into false positions – where you wouldn't typically find a number nine.

Advantages and disadvantages of the False Nine

The false nine, when repeatedly dropping deep towards the ball from the initial position, can effectively create gaps in the opponent's defense. If the opponent's center-back steps up to the forward, space is created for other players, especially for the winger or attacking midfielder, who can exploit the gaps. When the defender retreats while the center-back steps up to the forward, space opens up for an attack around the narrowing defensive line. If no defender follows, the false nine can receive the ball and freely move between the lines.

Playing with the false nine requires a forward with excellent ball control, who is also capable of receiving under pressure between the lines. Without these abilities, the false nine becomes practically ineffective.


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