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

BBefore every match, the ritual of any fan, expert, player or coach is to look at the lineups and lineups. Discussions of how a tactical battle might take place between one team playing 4-4-2 and the other working with 3-5-2, for example, but in modern times things are much more complicated and players don’t work in a rigid system. Instead, they have individual roles within a carefully designed scheme.

All systems are hybrid and dynamic nowadays and defining them in terms of conventional configurations is quite simple. How the team lines up at kickoff does not reflect what will happen in the next 90 minutes. Top-level football has become like the NFL, with coaches having specific plans for different phases of play. Players will know where they need to be when their team is in possession of the ball in order to get the ball to the most effective players at the end of the court action.

The best example I’ve seen of fluidity in gameplay lately was Chelsea / Tottenham. I really liked what Chelsea were doing when they were fifth: Rhys James was to the right of three defenders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the right-back. Within James’ jurisdiction he was heading towards Son Heung-min and if the South Korean went to midfield, James would go with him and the others would cover the space he cleared.

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

The Chelsea Women under Emma Hayes operate with the same philosophy. last Sunday, against LiverpoolThey were fluid in how they moved and rotated. The midfielders finished on the left and the attackers finished at the left-back position. There was a lot of rotation, maybe too much. Maybe it was a case of experimenting to see how they could use different plans throughout the season. This was their first match and they were trying to get used to the required levels of liquidity.

Teams often defend with four or five and attack with five or six. We’ve seen that a lot under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He used to have one full-back playing in midfield and now we see two pretty much. These two are part of his four defense and then his six attack.

Players like Kevin De Bruyne cannot be categorized as a single center. Drift to where it can make the most impact. Trying to define his role is impossible. He knows just where he needs to be to make the most of his amazing qualities, whether it’s outside or through the middle, and his hybrid attack system allows him to move into the right spots at the best time.

These are complex football theories and require great training to get the players to understand what is required of them. The best coaches can simplify things to allow information to be taken on board. If you’ve watched Arsenal’s latest documentary, you’ll know how Mikel Arteta breaks things with his vivid graphics and explanations.

Granit Xhaka has played big on the top of the pitch for Arsenal this season, continuing because someone behind him did the same. People think Xhaka is a defensive-minded midfielder but he is now moving into the right positions in more offensive areas.

If you look at his heat map, he’s a lot higher overall because Arsenal started in a four-way defense but when they control the ball they move to three players and Oleksandr Zinchenko or Ben White moves into midfield, allowing Xhaka to move up the field. Occasionally, both full-backs move, with Thomas Partey slipping back to cover a third centre-back.

Granit Xhaka celebrates after scoring for Arsenal against Leicester.
Granit Xhaka is playing more strikers with Arsenal this season. Photo: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Players need to be mentally strong and tactically smart to handle the demands placed on them and their understanding is really important.

One reason for these targeted changes in tactics is the increased – and vital – use of statistics. There is an incredible amount of information available to coaches, backed by teams of analysts who can help make the most of it. With improved fitness, tactics and data coaches can do different things. For them, it’s all about making the most of stats and heatmaps to craft plans.

Managers identify the opponent’s weaknesses and create an individual backup role to exploit. For example, if there is a fragility on the opponent’s right side, having an additional player with a specific role in that area can be critical.

The strange thing is that a lot of former footballers are missing out on the feedback. This is the method inherent in statistics in sports. Everything for us is driven by stats: how fast you run, how many passes you make, pass rate of success, fouls accepted, shots and saves. When you don’t have it in normal life, you miss it.

Football is a dynamic environment that adapts and changes for the better. Tactics are not limited to rigid formations. The best industries use research to improve, and football does so using statistics to make the most of your strengths and the weaknesses of others.

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