All about tactics

ENGLAND should consider themselves lucky to have escaped with a 2-1 win against Slovakia at Middlesbrough, in a European Championship qualifier.


England's Michael Owen scores the equaliser from the penalty spot during the UEFA European Championships 2004 Group 7 qualifying match against Slovakia. Owen headed another goal later in the match as England won 2-1. -- Pic. GARY M. PRIOR/GETTY IMAGES-

ENGLAND should consider themselves lucky to have escaped with a 2-1 win against Slovakia at Middlesbrough, in a European Championship qualifier. In some journalistic quarters, their manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, was surely given quite undeserved credit for his supposed tactical astuteness. At half time he had abandoned — even though he would say he hadn't — his so-called Diamond Formation for a more orthodox and workable 4-4-2, the most familiar tactics in English soccer.

The Diamond Formation had supposedly worked very well in the previous Euro win against Turkey at Sunderland. Broadly speaking, it features a defensive midfielder operating just in front of the central defence, attacking full backs, no acknowledged wingers, but midfielders deployed on the flanks, with a penchant for moving into the middle. My own view at the time that the Diamond Formation per se, with the pedestrian Manchester United full-back Phil Neville occupying the role of shield to the defence, and the vigorous Liverpool midfielder Steve Gerrard used — despite his right foot — out on the left — had very little to do with the win.

One player above all, in my view, had engineered it, and that was the just 17-year-old Wayne Rooney, playing his first full game for England, up front beside Michael Owen, but commendably eager to drop back into midfield, pick up the ball, and get things going when they seemed in the doldrums.

Against Slovakia, who should have had three goals rather than one by half time against an England defence which left astonishing gaps, and whose full-backs, Mills and Ashley Cole, were ludicrously vulnerable, the Diamond Formation was a dead loss. Only when Mills was taken off (with Phil Neville taking his place as a full back) and the promising young Bayern Munich mid-fielder, Owen Hargreaves, brought on to the right and, to be fair, an unhappy Wayne Rooney replaced by Villa's Darius Vassell did things begin to move. Owen procured one of those non-existent penalties for which he has long been famous, headed a second goal, and England had squeaked through. So much for the Diamond tactics.

Which leads one to ask, just how important are tactics in football? Over the years, since the change in the offside law in 1925, we have seen the birth of the Third Back Game with Arsenal, catenaccio, first practised in Switzerland but eagerly embraced in Italy 4-2-4, brought in by Brazil in the 1958 World Cup, modulating in time to 4-4-2 through 4-3-3, and the exciting years of so called Total Football, introduced by the West Germans and the Dutch in the 1970s.

Total Football was glorious while it lasted, with Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany and Bayern Munich, Johan Cruyff's Holland and Ajax, but may be it was just a bit too good to be true. The idea that everybody should be able to do anything, attackers defend, defenders attack, was marvellous in concept, difficult in execution. As Danny Blanchflower, the elegant, intelligent and inventible right half of Spurs and Northern Ireland once remarked to me, he was unconvinced by the idea "because people are different". Though having skippered Northern Ireland in that 1958 World Cup which Brazil won with 4-2-4, he was in high favour of the four in line defence, which would soon sweep Europe, bar Italy, such as the third back game had conquered England in the 1930s. Yet, though practically every other league club fell slavishly into line with Arsenal, using a stopper, or third back, centre half, pulling the wing-halves into the centre, pulling the full backs out of it and on to the flanks where they pivoted on the third back, Europe largely didn't buy it. Indeed the amazing thing is that Italy, in post World War II years to be so obsessed with tactics, didn't seem to know what was going on till England drew 2-2 in Milan with the azzurri in 1939: the third time Italy and England had met in the 30s!

Then, by an odd irony, Fulvio Bernardini wrote an explanatory article in the newspaper Corriere Dello Sport, calling the third back game sistema and the Italian tactics — shared by almost every major European power but Germany — methodo. With the attacking centre half of which Bernadini himself had been an elegant and shining example. Till team supreme Vittorio Pozzo replaced him with the far less technical and far more combative Argentine Luisito Monti. Yet it is doubtful whether England or any of the other British countries, had they entered the World Cup between the Wars, could have won it against these supposedly old fashioned tactics.

The Brazilians turned to 4-2-4 for the simple reason that they just couldn't implement the third back game, which they turned to after sensationally losing the 1950 World Cup decider in Rio versus Uruguay when their so called Diagonal Defence broke down badly. But for some time it had been clear that the flaw in the third back game was that when the full backs pivoted to cover their centre-half `policeman' as he was nicknamed, space would inevitably be left behind the back who covered. So the four-man defence swept Britain and Europe, but not Italy.

There catenaccio, or sweeper defence became the ever more negative rule, with a still greater emphasis on counter attack than with the third back game. For some years cateneccio — with a bit of judicious referee bribing by Inter — worked. But the system of using a highly defensive sweeper behind man marking central defenders was exploded by Franz Beckenbauer — curiously enough inspired by the raiding of Inter's full back Ciacinto Facchetti — who showed that a sweeper could come out to attack. So to Total Football and ere long to a tactical revolution in Italy led by Roma and Milan, going over to a four in line back formation and to zonal defence. Marking the space rather than the man.

Obviously, then, tactics can make a difference, and today, not least in England, the popular formation is 3-5-2, with attacking wing backs — who in fact are simply the old school wing halves reborn! There were those who thought that Arsenal, so successful between the Wars, had the talent to succeed with a far more adventurous strategy than the third back game. And the old question, should the players be subordinated to the tactics or the tactics to the players, will ever remain. And though perhaps it was just chimerical, Total Football surely remains the most exhilarating and fascinating strategy that has ever been devised. Even if you need the kind of stars thrown up by the Dutch and the West Germans in those halcyon years.