Evolution of Tactics
I have been rereading “Inverting the Pyramid” by Johnathan Wilson for the umpteenth time. The book gives an overview of evolutions in soccer tactics over the century plus of such things and is always enjoyable and occasionally enlightening. One near constant of English football since international matches began has been the belief in an inherent superiority of the English at “their” game balanced against the increasingly contrary realities of international friendlies & tournaments. “Inverting the Pyramid” has a few sections where the tactical state of the game in England was contrasted with that of other parts of the world and what struck me was was how little has changed in 60+ years.
““You in England are playing in the style we continentals used so many years ago, with much physical strength, but no method, no technique.”
Excerpt From: Wilson, Jonathan. “Inverting the Pyramid.” iBooks.
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That’s a quote from the manager of Barcelona upon arrival in England for the second leg of a quarter final in European competition when his team had a 4-0 lead from the first leg. Barcelona win the second leg 5-2 for a 9-2 aggregate win and went onto lose the European Cup semi-final to the great Real Madrid team. The Barcelona manager was Helenio Herrera and the year was 1960, seven years after England had suffered their 6-3 defeat at the hands of Hungary at Wembley. There had been some changes domestically, the “Revie Plan” being the most famous, but there were still those who advocated the robust “English Style” and believed that the key was that players were not as “committed” as their hallowed predecessors. Hmm that sounds familiar.
The 1966 World Cup Final saw England defeat West Germany 4-2. England’s best tournament performances since that victory have ended at the semi-final stage in two Euros, 1968 & 1996, and the 1990 World Cup. That covers 25 tournaments, and England failed to qualify for 5 of the tournaments. The same 25 tournaments saw (West) Germany has reached twelve finals and five semi-finals with a single failure to qualify. Strangely enough December 17th, 2016, is the 48th anniversary of the last time (West) Germany failed to qualify for a major tournament. That date West Germany faced Albania in Tirana needing a victory to secure the group over Yugoslavia on goal difference. The match ended 0-0 and that was the last time Germany failed to qualify for a major tournament.
Which brings us back to England and Germany. Regardless of their record Germany entered a period of relative mediocrity in the late 90’s thru early 00’s. Their performance in the 2000 Euros had seen them go out at the group stage, setting off alarm bells in spite of finishing runners-up in the 2002 World Cup. Initially many amongst the pundits, media, fans and assorted “experts” declared it was a lack of “heart” but fortunately for German soccer those inside the game realized the issue was how they developed players, including tactical comprehension, and that meant improving coaching as well.
The program began in 2003 and has seen results in the Bundesliga as well as the German national teams for men and women at range of levels. The goal was to raise standards in all facets of the game but particularly those all too often neglected areas of tactics and tactical thinking. A decade after the program began, and 18 years after Germany’s last tournament triumph, the men’s national team won the 2014 World Cup with an average age of 26.3 and 12 players under 25 years of age. That was the reaction to what was seen as a “crisis” in German soccer.
Meanwhile England keep plodding along. It seems as tho many England fans and some media begin the qualifying process prepared not to qualify, forgetting how it gets easier every time the number of teams is expanded. Once qualification is achieved the build up begins until there is a segment of the English media and supporters who “dare to believe” and even begin to talk up their chances. They appear to have a mindset that doesn’t allow for the possibility that Iceland could possibly defeat England in a tournament match, certainly not at the knockout stage…until it happens.
Then we heard the usual claims that it’s the “heart” not the quality, the belief being that the English players are just as skillful as the best foreigner but no longer have that grit or edge or whatever you want to call it. The excuse is usually that they make too much money and don’t care, which is bullshit. When that claim was posited in Germany as the reason for their decline the people in the game knew that wasn’t the problem. Unfortunately for England they don’t appear to be willing to discount such absurd beliefs and instead are willing to accommodate those who believe the simple hard running game is still the best way to play, just like the good old days.
The thing is that the 1966 World Cup wasn’t won playing the way for which so many pundits and supporters seem to yearn. Alf Ramsey was a tactical innovator willing to adjust his formation and players as necessary to get the result. His lineup for the 1966 World Cup alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-1-3-2 depending on the quality of the opposition and what kind of match he anticipated. Somehow that aspect of Sir Alf’s work became lost over time and instead the image is one of a dour practitioner of the more orthodox 4-4-2. Amazingly, many in the English media still insist the national team should be playing like the they believe did in the “good old days” of the World Cup victory, apparently unaware of the flexibility of Ramsey’s approach in to 1966.
There is something strange about how the English collectively view football that has traditionally neglected or even ridiculed foreign ideas, influence and involvement in the English game. The distrust of “foreign” methods in the Premier League has gone down since Arlene Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal 20 years ago but it hasn’t disappeared. The recent troubles faced by Pep Guardiola’s Man City squad have been met by criticism from pundits and media that his methods and style won’t work in the “English” Premier League. The argument invariably posits that somehow the very “Englishness” of the PL makes the passing and possession game less effective than in “lesser” leagues.
Isn’t it quaint how English media and punditry can still claim the PL is an “English” league beyond purely administrational terms? It is a fantastic league with great teams and some very good football. It is more competitive by most measures than other top flight leagues but how “English” is it? An English manager has never won the Premier League title and in the 2015-2016 season only 31% of starting players in the PL were English.