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Strategy innovation on sports: football

Published by under Articles,Politics / Management categories on May 20, 2011

Hand marking the strategy on the blackboardLong go the days of pure innovation in football. Some advances have been made in training and sports medicine, but tactics have stabilised for more than a decade now. In fact, the best football has to offer in way of innovation is the approach on training and the relationship managers develop with their players; but a lot could be done by small and medium clubs to overthrow the current hegemony of a few. By Joaquim Duarte.

Let’s take a look at History for inspiration… How do apparently feeble armies, or isolated nations have been able to surpass difficulties and achieve victories unprecedented? Some might say motivation, others perhaps through a careful strategy or still by making massive use of the element of surprise. They are all correct. And beyond that there’s also the impalpable and the imponderable. Too complicated, it seems? Not so. We only need to take a deeper look at the elements that usually are deemed unimportant to collect the clues we need.

One interesting example which I’ll sum up for quicker understanding of my parallel is that of the battle of Aljubarrota on the 14th of August, 1385, in which the Portuguese defeated a much larger army of Castilla. On that day the portuguese Condestável decided to barr the enemy’s route to Lisbon by meeting them on favourable ground. He chose a terrain in between streams and slightly steep. Orders were issued so as to build a palissade through which one man could pass but not a horse. Since the army of Castilla brought a heavy french cavalry, that was a fundamental problem to be dealt with. Forcing the enemy into cramming inside the space defined by two small rivers, being targeted by crossbowmen from higher ground and making the passage to horsemen virtually impossible, the portuguese army diluted the difference between contingents: 30.000 for the Castillians, little over 5.000 for the Portuguese.

What can we take from this that may concern football? Well, that smaller teams must not fear their adversary and stick to defending passively but that the clash must be precipitated on their own terms. Reinforcing areas where the adversary might find their way to scoring and having them playing where one has the strongest assets is primordial to success. In many cases we see weaker teams successfuly blocking crosses from lateral attacks and controlling the centre field where spaces are easier to fill. From there it is easier to launch deadly counterattacks when the opponent is fully engaged in piercing the iron embrace into which they have fallen. But resisting a broad attacking team may not be enough to win a match and that’s where strategy comes in.

We’ve seen how weaker teams find advantages in reinforcing their lateral corridors. That is achieved by having a wide formation with backing side-midfielders that can turn to wingers if the game comes to allow it. This takes four out of ten outfield players. The question now is how to display the remainder six players so as to keep the pressure on the adversary or even counterstrike effectively. We’ll assume the usual two central defenders; now the manager is left with four players to fill in the midfield, help the defense and try to launch “venomous” counterattacks. Usually one sees a defensive midfielder, one striker and two players to engage in the centrefield battle, more or less advanced.

The error here is the virtual anihilation of the most advanced player on the team for quite a lot of time in the game, forcing him to come pick up the game far from his post. In the end the strategy is nullified by the tactics. Here we have a 4-5-1 which in fact is a 4-3-3 in defensive guise. In practical terms it ends being a 5-5 with the defensive midfielder playing nearer his defense than his midfield. So what can one do and where is the parallel with Aljubarrota? By subverting the tactical principles and inventing the crossbowmen who will decimate the enemy whilst they’re fully engaged in their centrefield battle. What the weaker team will do is play with three central defenders and two false defensive midfielders. Where’s the catch? In the versatility of the players who will perform different tasks and baffle their adversary, taking them by surprise.

When the opponent has relinquished a continuous offensive by the flanks because they encounter a double defensive line with virtually four side-defenders, that formation transforms itself like the two rivers containing the castillians and the arrows piercing the heavy cavalry’s armours. The defensive midfielders fall back, occupying the central defense and pushing two of the back-men to the sides, acting as left and right defenders, who in turn will push their mates forward by the flanks. Simultaneously one of the three central defenders will step up closer to his striker and fill the midfield with the two side defenders coming from the back. The striker will play his role or act as a classical 10 and the central defender climbs up a little higher to be the focal point of the crosses from the wingers.

Why would this be so? Because if you need a tall man inside the adversary’s defensive area, with heading hability and a powerful kick you will find these characteristics easily in central defenders. The striker will take advantage of his dribbling and passing skills to launch the ball or distribute it to the flanks while illuding his markers who will believe him to be the tip of the arrow when in fact he is part of the stem. As a complement, the two defensive wingers will show on more advanced grounds feeding the third central defender who will make use of his stature and the element of surprise. If this culminates on one or two goals, the team will still have a strong palissade to resist the enemy’s assault with the return to their initial formation. And if the condition arises, swift classic counterattacks will continue the work of the arrows falling on heavy armoured horsemen.

This has been hinted mostly by Italian teams playing with what is known as a Libero or sweeper and mobile side defenders. The difference lies on the unfolding of the team which never really rolls from the centre to the sides but advances as a mobile block covered by the sweeper. Nowadays we see more of the defensive midfielder or midfield anchor performing that task whilst cutting the passing pathways of the adversary. This strategy has been tried timidly by some teams with various degrees of success, mainly because their players aren’t versatile enough or because managers haven’t the ability to develop this with their teams. This is the result of a certain degree of academicism in recent years. One learns what the Masters teach at the football academies and from there they are unable to deviate or innovate. And so football has little novelties to offer and it is no surprise that only a small elite of about ten clubs will win the Champions League periodically…

By Joaquim Duarte, writer expert in History and Strategy.


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