Before I launch into this one, there are some observations I’ve made over the years which give some perspective. Here in India, we have next to no interest in Football, the game. Without doubt there is an increasingly large population completely and utterly in love with a plethora of football clubs from England, Spain, Germany, Italy etc. But the game itself, its intricacies, the nuances, the dynamics and the systems rarely generate any interest in the heated debates amongst the ‘true’ fans of various teams. Transfer talk dominates these discussions with statistics about goals scored and assists being tossed around and conclusions being drawn about whether player X is worth the money Chelsea (inevitably!) have spent on him. Tactics are never a concern.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with debating transfers and statistics. Knowing who your favourite team is going to buy and what he’s been doing before has never been easier. The internet has a way of making Emile Heskey look like Pele, and I’m not talking about photoshop. Youtube compilations with intensely emotional soundtracks, likening players to Gladiators, have a way of influencing public opinion like never before. They even had Fernando Torres believing he had the finishing ability of a three year old on drugs. The point is, if you want to believe something, Youtube will give you video evidence of it. Never mind that the suggested videos in the side pane will probably also conclusively destroy your argument.
TV punditry isn’t very different with the added ‘tactical discourse’ on formations thrown in. This is what I’ve been taking a closer look at, and it seems formations are about as useful in understanding a team’s tactics, as Samir Nasri is in getting a grip on club loyalty.
Why everybody seems to deliberately leave the goalkeeper out of their description of a formation is something I’ll never understand, but its become the norm now and the goalkeeping community is just going to have to live with it. But there are more fundamental issues that make it seem quite pointless to describe a team’s approach to the game with a simple set of numbers.
4-2-3-1 is the new 4-4-2
If you’ve played any version of a popular EA Sports video game you know that the formations used to be described in 3 bands of numbers adding up to 10. Later versions, in keeping with the shift in descriptions have moved towards 4 bands of numbers to better illustrate the way a team sets themselves up.
With the evolution of the game, the roles that players were asked to play changed towards being more specific. The development of ‘the Makelele’ position and deep lying playmakers, created the need to split the midfield into two bands. Thus, what might have earlier been called a 4-5-1 is now a ‘modern’ 4-2-3-1, which was almost the standard template at the 2010 World Cup and many managers prefer it over the erstwhile 4-4-2. Now, I’m not old enough to know whether its just the nomenclature that has changed or have the roles actually become that much more defined, but I’m inclined towards believing its the former. Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid” is a brilliantly written book, which helps understand the evolution of football tactics from the early 1900’s.
The Need for Context
The problem with formations isn’t whether they’re accurate or not. Its that they really only tell you where a player stands when the teams spread out in their own half, waiting for the referee to blow the whistle. I’m not suggesting that they are completely useless. Just that they need to be more specific about the context in which the players take up those positions. That is one of the things that stands out about a good football blog such as Zonal Marking. Every time a formation is mentioned, the context is too.
The overall course of play can be broadly classified as defensive or offensive phases, and most certainly involve the same team shaping up very differently in both phases. The generic use of the word ‘Formation’ generally alludes to the average positions the players take up in the attacking phase of play. Even those aren’t really very accurate as players move and look to create spaces to carve out goal-scoring opportunities. Very often, the wingers are swapped by the managers to gain a tactical advantage. With that in mind, to describe the system a team uses over the course of 90 minutes in a football match, merely by 4 numbers strung together, is to rob it of its immense beauty. I have almost never heard a manager describe football in as crude terms as some of our illustrious ‘pundits’ on TV do. Maybe there’s a clue there for all of us.
Another aspect of a formation which is misleading is the apparent connotation it has as an attacking or defensive formation. “They’re playing a 3-5-2? Oh that’s so dangerous with only 3 defenders!”. The truth is a 3-5-2 can be deployed as an extremely defensive system as well as an attacking system.
Spain were described to have a 4-2-3-1 formation at Euro 2012, while the same representation was also used for the way Chelsea set up against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals earlier in the season.
Smoke & Mirrors
Evidently, the formation per se, hides more than it reveals. It tells you nothing about whether a team pressurizes the opposition. Whether they are proactive in trying to regain possession of the ball, or wait for their adversaries to make a mistake. It does not tell you if they are patient in building up their attack or believe in swiftly moving the ball up the pitch, and trying to catch defenders out of position.
There’s just so many other variables that lend themselves to the idea of a ‘system’. The TV producers use the numbers as a convenient way to make the starting line-up look attractive on the screen, but so often it isn’t even the way the team sets up. The subsequent discussion is somehow based on that one graphic and often makes as much sense as Joey Barton on twitter.
Undoubtedly, it is an essential tool in representing the structure of a team while describing it, but all too often, the formation is mistaken for the basis of a system, when in reality it’s just one aspect of the system that it is a part of.