Stop thinking about rigid formations: football is too dynamic for that now | Football

BBefore every game, a ritual for every fan, pundit, player or coach is to look at the lineups and formations. For example, a tactical battle between one team playing 4-4-2 and the other 3-5-2 is discussed, but in modern times things are much more complicated and players don’t work. in a rigid system. Instead, they have individual roles in a carefully designed blueprint.

All systems today are hybrid and dynamic, and defining them in terms of traditional formations is too simplistic. How the team lines up for kick-off does not reflect what will happen over the next 90 minutes. Professional football is becoming like the NFL, where coaches have specific plans for different phases of the game. Players know where they need to be when their team is in possession to get the ball to the most effective players at the business end of the court.

The best example I’ve seen recently of the flow of play was Chelsea v Tottenham. I really liked what Chelsea did in the back five with Reece James on the right of the three centre-backs and Ruben Loftus-Cheek at right wing-back. It was within James’ authority to turn tight to Son Heung-min, and when the South Korean moved into midfield, James went with him and the others covered the space he vacated.

Sometimes James was in a back three with Loftus-Cheek at right wing-back, sometimes the roles were reversed and sometimes James was a central midfielder or right-back. He and Loftus-Cheek had three or four roles in one job. These are the multifaceted aspects of modern football.

Chelsea Women, led by Emma Hayes, operates with the same philosophy. Against Liverpool last Sunday, they were fluid in their movement and rotation. The central midfielders ended up on the left, the forwards on the left defense. There was so much spinning, maybe a little too much. It’s possible that they were experimenting with how they could use different plans during the season. It was their first game and they were trying to get used to the level of fluidity required.

Often teams defend with four or five and attack with five or six. We’ve seen it a lot under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He used to have one full back coming into midfield and now we see almost two; those two are part of his four on defense and then six on offense.

Players like Kevin De Bruyne cannot be considered one position. He drifts to where he can make the most impact. Defining his role is impossible. He simply knows where he needs to be to make the most of his incredible attributes, whether out wide or through the middle, and his hybrid attacking system allows him to move into the right positions at the best of times.

These are complex football theories and require a great deal of coaching for the players to understand what is required of them. The best coaches can keep things simple to allow information to be incorporated. If you’ve watched the recent Arsenal documentary, you’ll know how Mikel Arteta breaks things down with his drawings and clear explanations.

Granit Xhaka has played significantly higher up the pitch for Arsenal this season, continuing to have someone behind him do the same. People think Xhaka is a defensive midfielder, but he is now moving into the right positions in more attacking areas.

If you look at his heatmap, he’s generally much higher as Arsenal start in a back four, but when they’re in they move to a three and Oleksandr Zinchenko or Ben White move into midfield, allowing Xhaka to get up the pitch. At times, both full-backs move up, with Thomas Partey dropping back into cover as the third centre-back.

Granit Xhaka has played as a forward for Arsenal this season. Photo: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Players need to be mentally strong and tactically astute to cope with the demands placed on them and understanding that is really important.

One reason behind these targeted tactical changes is the increased – and vital – use of statistics. Coaches have an incredible amount of information at their disposal, supported by teams of analysts to help them make the most of it. With improved form, tactics and data, coaches can do different things. For them, it’s a case of using statistics and heatmaps to make plans.

Managers pinpoint where the opponent’s weakness is and create an individual role for the substitute to exploit it. For example, if the opponent has a weakness on the right side, having an extra player with a specific role in that area can be critical.

The odd thing is that many ex-footballers miss the feedback; that’s how ingrained statistics are in sports. For us, everything is driven by statistics: how fast you sprint, how many passes you make, pass completion rate, mistakes allowed, shots, saves. If you don’t have it in your regular life, you miss it.

Football is a dynamic environment that adapts and gets better. Tactics are not limited to rigid formations. The best industries use research to improve, and football uses statistics to make the most of its strengths and the weaknesses of others.