Football is played with the head. Our feet are just the tools. – Andrea Pirlo
Il Professore couldn’t have defined it any better.
To the most of us, football is all about scoring goals. A player rattling the net with a scorcher is a joy to watch, isn’t it? And if we move further beyond that element of the game, it is perhaps a sumptuous pass or a well-executed build-up play that has the ability to leave us lost for words.
But football is more than just technique or vision on the pitch. In a game of 90 minutes and the scoreboard that determines the outcome, there are scads of things unravelling on the pastures – those that are visible to the managers better than anybody else in the entire stadium.
The job of a manager is no cinch, for he has to devise a system that each of his players acclimates to, given their individual characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. In the fullness of time, a fine number of tacticians have changed the way the beautiful game has been executed on the pitch.
On that note, let’s have a look at the 10 greatest strategic innovations that made football as magical as it seems today.
#10 The Raumdeuter (Bayern Munich)
“Müller has lost more balls than any other Bayern player over the past two and a half years. He doesn’t dribble particularly well and he’s never been the fastest guy. His headers are unexceptional and he could use some work on his shooting. He loves to press but often does so with his head turned towards his own team-mates. And yet this is a prodigiously talented footballer.” – Marti Perarnau (Author of Pep Guardiola: The Evolution)
Perhaps a majority of you might not be aware of the term ‘Raumdeuter’. And, after reading the aforementioned quote, most of you folks will definitely visit Youtube and watch videos of Thomas Mueller to know whether the things said by Marti Perarnau actually stand true.
However, you can’t be blamed for that, can you?
After all, we know Mueller to be one of the most consistent players and probably amongst the 10 or 15 best footballers of our generation. Currently, in his 11th season with Bayern Munich, he has failed to notch double-digit figures in front of goal only in two seasons (1 goal in 5 games in season 2008/09 and 9 in 42 games in season 2016/17) in all competitions.
If Perarnau’s description of the German does have any veracity, what then, is the secret that makes Thomas Mueller so special and an indispensable part of the Bayern Munich and German national team setup?
It’s the Raumdeuter role. A term coined by Mueller himself in an interview in 2011, the Raumdeuter is a new tactical invention that translates to ‘interpreter of space’ or ‘space investigator’ in English. The Raumdeuter, Mueller in this case, is a player who continuously tries to interpret spaces in the final third and exploit them so as to score goals and create chances for his teammates to score as well.
For a Raumdeuter role to be carried out to perfection, a player needs to have a positional sense and tactical astuteness of the highest pedigree. Thomas Muller, though deployed on the right flank as seen in formations, is given the freedom to roam around and look for spaces. His intelligence enables him to see things normal footballers don’t, which is why he is always present in the right place at the right time to score goals.
Simply put, the German forward’s intelligence makes up for average physical and technical aspects of the game. Tottenham’s Dele Alli and Napoli’s Jose Callejon can be considered as other examples of Raumdeuter. Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino is also said to have a shade of Mueller’s style of play as a space interpreter.
#9 The Guardiola Philosophy (Manchester City)
The swashbuckling brand of football that Manchester City executed on the pitch and the beauty that it emanated surely won’t be forgotten for a long time. It is nothing short of injustice to know that with such beautiful football, the Citizens couldn’t lift the Champions League title, albeit they did dominate the English top-tier like never before.
The Spanish tactician used a three-man midfield consisting of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. It’s the use of the latter two for which Guardiola needs to be lauded.
Knowing that Silva and De Bruyne were natural No.10s, he used them in deeper roles, giving the team a plethora of creativity in the centre. Playmakers aren’t much useful while defending but Guardiola efficiently managed to instil tactical and defensive discipline in both Silva and De Bruyne, a factor that helped the team in their domineering style of play in the Premier League.
Next comes the Spaniard’s use of false full-backs, a tactic he used sparsely at Barcelona but densely at Bayern Munich. In this strategy, Guardiola instructed his full-backs Walker and Delph or Zinchenko to move into the half-spaces(closer to the pivot) and create extra passing lanes so as to confuse the opposition midfielders and draw them out of their position to create spaces. The use of false fullbacks also helped in ball retention and nullifying or guarding the counter-attacks by crowding the midfield.
The third and the final tweak behind City’s success was the use of Ederson as a sweeper keeper. Instead of ordering him to kick the ball aimlessly, Guardiola used the Brazilian shot-stopper’s ball distribution abilities to a devastating effect – as an extra attacking threat. The fact that Ederson misplaced only 2 of his 624 short passes and had the best long pass accuracy(50.9%) amongst EPL goalkeepers shows how he was used as a useful means of build-up play from the back.
The bald-headed genius does deserve an applause for his brilliance, doesn’t he?
#8 Catenaccio (Inter Milan)
Popularly known for its use in Italian football, Catenaccio has been quite misunderstood and is widely known only for its defensive part of the game, although it boasts a very specific system. Meaning ‘door bolt’ in Italian, it does emphasize heavily on the defence but also has attacking characteristics that have been ignored.
As a strategy, Catenaccio evolved gradually after being put to use for the first time by Karl Rappan in the 30s, the coach of semi-professional club Servette based in Geneva. Further, Nereo Rocco of Padova brought the system to Italy in 1947.
However, Catenaccio actually shot to fame when it was used by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan. Herrera, often regarded as the finest exponent of the tactic, tweaked Rocco’s version by introducing the libero, also known as the ‘sweeper’. Normally, the sweeper was positioned as a spare defender behind the usual three-man defence and was tasked with the duty of clearing loose balls and double marking the opposition striker whenever necessary.
Herrera, however, used a four-man defence who were assigned man-marking duties. In his system, the left full-back Giacinto Facchetti was given the freedom to overlap during attacks. Facchetti is regarded as the first true attacking full-back in the history of the sport, as he garnered 10 goals in season 1965-66. The right winger, Jer, in this case, tracked back during defence to provide resilience and cover during the defence. Picchi was used as a sweeper in the system.
Inter Milan clinched two European Cups in 1964 and 1965, thanks to the effective use of the Catenaccio.
#7 The WM formation (Arsenal)
Back in the 1920s, a majority of teams used the 2-3-5 system, putting great emphasis on attack and minimal on defence. However, two tweaks in this system due to the newly created offside law saw a new formation known as ‘WM’ come to existence.
In the earlier ages, in order to be exempted from the rule, an attacker was required to have at least three players between himself and the opposition goal (1 goalkeeper and 2 defenders). However, a change in the law meant that only two players were allowed between the attacker and the opposition goal (1 goalkeeper and 1 defender) – that is precisely the rule we follow today.
Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman noticed that the use of offside rule became more difficult and risky to use, with just two at the back. Hence, he shifted his centre-half and dropped him deeper, forming a 3-man defence.
However, with only two men in midfield, this left a creative void in the centre of the park. To tackle this problem, Chapman shifted the two inside forwards in his five-man attack into the midfield, adding more creativity in the middle. The system looked like a 3-2-2-3 and resembled the two letters W and M.
Using this system against teams that played the 2-3-5 formation, it was easier for Chapman’s Arsenal to take mark the opposition forward line with the help of their forwards and attacking midfielders. Also, it gave them an added advantage of transitioning from defence to attack in the split of an eye, as they had a greater number of players in the midfield in contrast to their opposition. That is precisely how the concept of ‘counter-attack’ as a deliberate attacking ploy also came into existence.
Arsenal won a two First Division titles and an FA Cup title under the tutelage of Chapman and his WM formation.
#6 The 3-3-1-3 formation (Ajax)
Back in season 1994/95, a young Ajax team consisting of would-be legends took the world by storm with their enthralling style of play. They operated in a modified 4-3-3 system that pushed the boundaries of attacking football to new extremities. Louis Van Gaal, the then-coach of Ajax, used a 3-3-1-3 system with a bunch of graduates from the club’s youth academy and executed this new technique with perfection.
Like many others, this system too has its roots tracing back to the Total Football philosophy. A high defensive line and intense pressing up the pitch were the hallmarks of the 3-3-1-3 borrowed from its ancestor, but Van Gaal arranged it in a way far contrasting to that of Johan Cruyff.
While Cruyff used a wider midfield so as to protect the flanks, Van Gaal used a narrow diamond with a playmaker connecting the attack to the midfield. This system requires players to have a great technical ability and high-level concentration since even a single misplaced pass can lead to a vulnerable counter-attack situation on the flanks.
Using the 3-3-1-3 format, Ajax won the Dutch league unbeaten and scored 106 goals in the process. They also clinched their fourth European Cup title by beating AC Milan in the finals. They are regarded as arguably one of the best teams in the history of the sport.
#5 Sarri-ball (Napoli and Chelsea)
Sarri-ball is based on possession-based football similar to Guardiola’s Tiki-Taka. However, it puts greater emphasis on verticality in contrast to the Catalans’ style to move the ball horizontally up the field. The possession-based style of play is executed using quick, short passes and also focuses quick transitions from defence to attack.
Also, Sarri’s strategy attacks heavily down the left flank. The right flank trying to make an impact with a few touches. The deep-lying playmaker in the three-man midfield, Jorginho in this case, is the heartbeat of the system as every build-up play runs through him.
Sarri also prefers his defensive line to be high up the pitch so as to leave little space for the opposition to exploit between the lines. However, the risk comes at a price, since mistakes by defenders carve the system open due to counter-attack from the opposition. Up front, the system requires a lethal finisher flanked by two speedy wingers who can work in tandem with the midfielders to score goals.
Initially formed at Empoli and refined at Napoli, Sarri-ball gained prominence at the latter in season 2017/18. Napoli played a highly brand of attractive football and remained at the top of the league table for the most part of the season. Although they lost out to Juventus in the dying embers of the Serie A, their inexperience in those stages is more to blame than the flaws in the system.
Now at Chelsea and blessed with a better class of players, it remains to be seen if Maurizio Sarri’s ingenious philosophy can actually bore fruits and stamp the watermark of ‘successful’ across the strategy.
#4 Gegenpressing (Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool)
‘Gegen’ in German roughly translates to ‘counter press’. Gegenpressing is a type of pressing technique popularised by current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp since his days at clubs Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund.
As Klopp himself explains, “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
Gegenpressing is precisely based on this idea of pressurizing the opponent by pressing heavily against him and compelling him into making a mistake after he has just won the ball. Though ‘pressing’ as a tactic has been in practice since Total Football was born in the 70s, different managers have different ways of using it for different purposes.
Legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi used the pressing style of play at AC Milan back in the late 80s. Pep Guardiola is also known to use this technique to win back and keep control possession. Klopp, however, uses the idea of pressing as an attacking tactic, by pressing the opposition incessantly so as to create easy chances for scoring goals.
The technique involves players moving into close packs by using short passes so that if they lose the ball, they can retrieve it back immediately by surrounding the opposition player who possesses the ball.
The technique, however, has its own set of pros and cons. Firstly, each and every one of the players needs to carry out his duties while the team is not in possession. Also, the players need a positional sense and intelligence of the highest pedigree so as to understand when to stop the press and regroup in a defensive shape.
If even one player shies away from his pressing duties, the opposition may be afforded the space to move the ball out of tight areas and start counter-attacks which may lead to a collapse of the structure. Since it requires the players to be continuously on their toes and barely gives them time to catch a breath, stamina also becomes one of the crucial aspects required to implement the technique.
Liverpool’s drubbing of Manchester City in the Champions League can be cited as the best example of Gegenpressing in recent times. Only time will tell if Jurgen Klopp is able to bag significant achievements using this technique.
#3 Tiki Taka (Barcelona)
Probably the greatest tactical innovation of the modern times, the Tiki Taka has its roots in the Total Football system used by Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team at Barcelona in the late 80s and early 90s.
The Dutch legend had already popularised the concept of creating and using space to a devastating advantage. His compatriots Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard further made developed the concept using their own ideas such as the 3-3-1-3 formation used by Van Gaal.
When Pep Guardiola was appointed as the steward of Barcelona, he used his vision to create a system based on Total Football, but one that relied heavily on passing. They partly shied away from exploiting the space every time and focused more on retaining the possession of the ball by passing it around in order to control the game.
Tiki Taka emphasises heavily on making short passes all over the pitch in triangular patterns. It requires exquisite passing abilities and a panoramic vision that was displayed by the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. The system borrowed Total Football’s use of high defensive line that helped the midfielders to form patterns suitable for short passing. It also used the concept of the positional interchange.
Initially, Guardiola had instructed his players to stay rooted to their positions until they reached the final third of the field. The build-up would start from the goalkeeper itself, with the ball being moved over the pitch in triangular patterns. Once they breached the final third of the opposition, Guardiola afforded his players the freedom to leave their positions as suitable and score the goals using sleek one-twos or through individual brilliance.
Barcelona’s sextuple in 2009 stands followed by another Champions League title in 2011 stands as a monumental testament to the system. Another prominent tactic that Guardiola put to use to a devastating effect in the same system was…
#2 False 9 (Barcelona)
In modern football, False 9 has gained tremendous popularity thanks to its perfect demonstration by Barcelona’s legendary hitman Lionel Messi. However, False 9 is a technique that, like so many other tactics, has its roots in the 1930s.
The false 9 is completely opposite to the traditional no.9, a player who plays on the back of the defenders as a centre-forward, tasked with the duties playing on the back of opposition defenders, making runs for through ball, getting at the end of crosses and scoring goals. In contrast, the false 9 is a player who actually drops deeper to create and exploit the space between the midfield and defence lines of the opposition.
The false 9 creates an uncertainty in the defence, as the defenders get bamboozled over the idea of following the striker deep into the midfield. Should that happen, the void that gets created in the opposition defence is exploited by the attacking wingers, who move inside and score goals.
Dropping deep also means the forward provides extra options for the midfielders to form triangles in the centre of the park – precisely the duty Messi was tasked with by Guardiola in the tiki-taka system at Barcelona.
False 9 was first used by striker Matthias Sindelar for Austria in the 1930s. Hungarian forward Nandor Hidegkuti was deployed as a false 9 later in the legendary team of Hungary, the Mighty Magyars of the 1950s. It is important to note that this tactic usually uses players that aren’t physically fit to be a traditional no.9 due to their stature and strength.
As the finest enforcer of the tactic, Lionel Messi has developed into an immensely talented playmaker as well as a brilliant goal-poacher, bagging an insane number of goals and assists throughout his glorious career.
#1 Total Football (Ajax, Barcelona and The Netherlands)
Total football is perhaps the greatest evolution of tactics that came into existence in football. It is also regarded as the base on which the possession-based style of play is built.
Initially brought to fruition by Rinus Michels’ Ajax in the 70s, Total Football was based on two key concepts: the utilisation of space and the tactical flexibility of players. The main idea was to continuously interchange positions so as to confuse the opposition and break the man-marking.
Total Football was influential in exposing the weaknesses of the Catenaccio – the system that relied heavily on man-marking. With players continuously interchanging positions, the opposition defenders were often found out of position in an attempt to mark the assigned player, creating spaces for the attackers to exploit and score goals.
In this system, the players were required to have an astute sense of positioning since it involved changing positions frequently. It was also sort of mandatory for them to be versatile to be able to play in defence, midfield and attack so as to use the system to its full effect.
The system usually used a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3 formation, with positions being interchanged vertically down the flanks. Horizontal switching was rare.
Johan Cruyff is regarded as the finest exponent of Total Football in history, both as a player and as a manager. Cruyff functioned as deep-lying forward and created spaces with his exquisite vision for his teammates to exploit spaces and score, drifting wide and inside at will. Finding space was the most crucial factor behind the success of the system. As a manager, he built the Dream Team at Barcelona in the late 80s using this system, which is regarded as one of the greatest football teams of all time.
The influences of Total Football are still visible in the coaching styles of modern-day managers Pep Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri and Marcelo Bielsa.
Using Total Football philosophy, Ajax won 4 league titles in a row and a European Cup title between 1965 to 1970 under Rinus Michels. The Netherlands, also managed by Rinus Michels, reached the 1974 FIFA World Cup final using this system.