The Question: what is the relationship between players and tactics? | Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson

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Aug 1, 2010
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Can players ever be freed from tactics? Or are players instead governed by their manager's strategy?
A few weeks ago, on a stage in Milan, I found myself being asked by a senior official from the Italian football federation (FIGC) whether we'd ever see football again in which players were freed from tactics and could just play. It was an awkward moment. The lights were bright, I was working through a translator and in the front row Demetrio Albertini, Ferran Soriano and Adriano Galliani were staring at me.
I wasn't quite sure I'd understood the question correctly. I'm aware that words don't necessarily map exactly from one language to another and this clearly wasn't an occasion to go off-piste and risk upsetting anybody – particularly when I wasn't quite sure I could articulate what I thought (which is another way of saying that the thought itself wasn't articulate). So I mumbled some guff about how the players are the tactics and the tactics are the players and when the translator nudged me I shut up. But the issue the question had raised is pertinent. I've been aware of it for years; a nebulous, unnerving presence, always waiting, always avoiding being directly addressed. It is perhaps the most fundamental question of all: what are tactics?
It occurred to me again watching Borussia Dortmund's thrilling comeback against Málaga on Tuesday night. It was a game without logic, and tactics surely are an attempt to impose order on the chaos of football – to an extent they are the vocabulary of football – so to what extent did tactics apply?
Dortmund were far from their best. Málaga defended well. Twice in the second half, Dortmund did slice them open, but both times ***** Caballero saved. Yet even that isn't quite precise enough: he didn't save the ball in the sense of making a wonderfully gymnastic leap, of timing the flail of his arm correctly and deliberately diverting the ball away. Rather, he got himself in roughly the right position: Marco Reus's shot hit him and bounced wide, while he flicked a foot at Mario Götze's effort and got a sufficient toe on the ball so that the ball was diverted just past the post. He takes credit, yes, for maximising the possibility that the ball would hit him and not go in, but there was also a large element of luck involved and perhaps also a small element of failure on the part of the forwards.
And then there was the crazy last 10 minutes. Dortmund, desperate for a goal, leaving themselves vulnerable to a counter. Júlio Baptista taking advantage and Eliseu from a manifestly offside position tapping in. Dortmund, eschewing their passing game, lumping the ball into the box. Málaga's offside trap, so efficient until then, going awry. Neven Subotic squared the ball, Málaga's Jesús Gámez somehow made an astonishing challenge on Felipe Santana who looked certain to tap-in, before Reus rolled the ball in anyway. And then Dortmund's winner: four players offside as the cross came in, Santana offside again as he tapped in. Chaos. Mayhem. The final three goals were rooted in desire and emotion and error; beyond the very basic idea of where roughly to rub in certain situations, they seemed to have almost nothing to do with tactics – and yet even in that basic description, tactical terms spring up. Dortmund left themselves vulnerable to a counter, Málaga tried to play offside, Subotic went up from the back …
After 90 minutes I felt sorry for Jürgen Klopp. His side hadn't played up to their high standards, but over the two legs they had probably just about shaded the tie; moreover, Dortmund seemed likelier winners than Málaga and so their presence in the semi-finals made it more probable those games would sparkle. By the 93rd minute I felt sorry for Manuel Pellegrini. His team had also missed chances. Tactically, they'd probably had the better of the second leg, pressing hard and forcing Dortmund into mistakes. Or had Dortmund been sloppy? Subotic said afterwards he thought the pressure of the occasion had got to Dortmund and that their passing hadn't been up to speed as a result. So tactical plan or emotion?
The truth is: probably both. "Pull a thread here and you'll find it's attached to the rest of the world," as Nadeem Aslam put it in The Wasted Vigil. And that is where the answer I gave in Milan has some truth. Tactics make players and players make tactics and the relationship between them is vital. To give a very simple example of that, you can't play a pressing game unless you have very fit, disciplined players. But it's not the full truth; it's a simplistic version of the truth.
[h=2]Base and superstructure[/h]The example of ***** and his two second-half saves seems significant. For both there is a two-stage process of appreciation. The goalkeeper, using his reading of the game and his physical capacities, got himself into position to maximise his chances of making a block. That is the base. He did what the training manuals would teach him. He put himself in a position that, if you were plotting the game with models, you would put him in best to cover his angles. The superstructure is what comes next, the part that it's impossible to plan in advance: it's the reflexes, the luck, where the forward places the ball.
This seems analogous with the match as a whole (and analogous if not congruent with Marx's theory of society). There is the base: the underlying structure, the distribution of players on the pitch and their relation in opposition to each other. The base is what leads to, say, one side dominating possession, or a right-winger regularly isolating the opposing left-back, or to a side facing two solid banks of four. The base creates the shape of the game. The superstructure is what comes next: can that right-winger make the most of isolating the full-back? Can he beat him for pace or for skill? Can he deliver accurate crosses? Can he create chances?
And then of course there's the next level: can the centre-forward take those chances? Can he beat his marker to win the header? Can he direct that header on goal? With what power? And then there is the next level: can the goalkeeper save the header? And of course the forward's capacity to take the chance is in part conditioned by the base: is he in the right position to attack the cross? Has he been caught, tracking an opposing midfielder? Is he challenging with the bigger or the smaller centre-back?
Or let's try to make it even simpler. Base governs which side creates more chances and what sort of chances they are; superstructure determines whether those chances are taken. But while that is an adequate definition, it disguises the full complexity of the situation, of the inter-relatedness of base and superstructure. There is always a stage before: superstructure doesn't govern whether chances are taken, but whether the chances to create chances are taken, and whether the chances to create chances to create chances are taken, and so on in a potentially infinite regress (not to mention whether the chances to make interceptions and passes are taken). And this complexity, of course, this inter-relatedness of all things, is part of the reason why football, for all the fine work that has been done on the subject, continues to resist statistical analysis.
[h=2]The nonsense of an ending[/h]So, to return to the original issue of the relation of players and tactics: tactics are what govern the base, players are what govern the superstructure (while acknowledging that the two are at times so interrelated as that the distinction feels academic). Managers can alter the base with tactical changes; all they can do with the superstructure is ensure players are in the best condition physically and emotionally to play to their maximum (and to get the 'best' players on the pitch in the 'best' positions – although again that begins to seep into the base).
Quantifying that is almost impossible, but perhaps, given the infrequency of goals, the best way of assessing match dominance is chance creation. This is only a rough guide since it assumes all chances are equal (which clearly they're not – although Egil Olsen, having analysed games dividing chances into three categories of difficulty, concluded that it happened so rarely that a team created only hard chances or only easy chances that it wasn't worth considering), but imagine a match in which Team A would be expected to create 20 chances and Team B 10. If Team B's manager can shift that to, say, 14-8, he has done a good job, whether or not his side wins the game or not. Whether it does or not is determined by superstructure. Perhaps Team A's centre-forward is on a hot streak and they still win 4-0 – or perhaps Team B's goalkeeper has a blinder and they win 1-0; in assessing the tactical job the coach has done, the result almost – almost – becomes irrelevant: what matters, as Juanma Lillo said in his interview with Sid Lowe in Issue One of The Blizzard is the process.
"The objective is the journey, the process; the work matters. In a race you can be first, miles and miles ahead of anyone else, and then, metres from the line, fall over. And? Are you going to write that race off? You ran brilliantly. And it's far more complex than saying: win, good; don't win, bad … . What enriches you is the game, not the result. The result is a piece of data. The birth rate goes up. Is that enriching? No. But the process that led to that? Now that's enriching. Fulfilment comes from the process. You debate the game not the results. Results are not debatable, they are. Do you buy a paper on a Monday morning for a euro and the only thing in it is list after list of results? Do you go into a football stadium, in the last minute of a game, have a look at the scoreboard and leave? You watch 90 minutes, which is the process. You can't validate the process through the results. Human beings tend to venerate what finished well, not what was done well. We attack what ended up badly, not what was done badly."​
So, to return to the original question: will we ever see players freed from tactics? No, because – at least as the terms are understood in English – there's a confusion of category. Players can no more be separated from tactics than workers can be separated from, as Marx put it, "the relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production". Even the term "free" seems erroneous: even players given "a free role", even players given no more instruction than being told to run about a bit, cannot but exist in relation to other players (which of course was Arrigo Sacchi's great insight: positions have no meaning other than in relation to team-mates, opponents, the ball and space). Can players be given more freedom within a tactical system? Well, of course, but they cannot escape the base – not even in the chaotic final minutes of last night's quarter-final.
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Another great article, I just finished your book inventing the pyramid and I feel it's a must read for any football fan. Great work.