Players surely before tactics

The very old question of does a team adapt its tactics to its players or does it impose its tactics on the team continues. It raises the question of versatility. How adaptable should a footballer, especially a leading footballer, be? Brian Glanville analyses.

Recently, after Manchester City had been taken apart in Amsterdam by a previously modest Ajax team, a sharp stand-off took place between Micah Richards, City’s England international right back, alas doomed soon after to succumb to a serious injury, and his manager, the ever contentious Italian, Roberto Mancini. Richards insisted that things went wrong for City in that 3-1 defeat when Mancini rang the changes on the defensive formation, switching to just three men at the back. Mancini responded scornfully.

What actually and indeed expensively for City happened was that Mancini in fact shuffled his defensive pack no fewer than three times. Richards complained, of three at the rear, “it is something that we have not worked on very much and it is the second time we have conceded after going to a back three.

“I think the players prefer a back four but it is what the manager wants. It’s something we have not worked on a lot. We are used to a straight back four. It is a hard system for us because we are not used to it, and the players prefer a 4-4-2.”

To which Mancini brusquely responded, “I don’t think that is important. Three, four, five, six or seven defenders, if someone wants that as an excuse, then okay, but it’s not the reason….I don’t want to have this. … If you have spirit and quality, you can play in the Champions League; if you don’t have it you can’t. When you play this game you must have spirit, and quality, and it is my fault, because I should have prepared differently for this game.” He didn’t explain what he meant by this last self-criticism.

The embarrassing fact was that a City team which had cost its Abu Dhabi owners GBP175 million had been comprehensively thrashed by an Ajax side which cost a negligible GBP3.5 million! Something, you might think, of a triumph for soccer democracy. But one leading sports columnist came out strongly on the side of Mancini, proclaiming that the Richards admission that a simple switch to a back three left him puzzled is “startling.” Then deploring the supposed tactical shortcomings of English footballers. How far was this justified?

It raises the very old question of does a team adapt its tactics to its players or does it impose its tactics on the team? It also raises the question of versatility. How adaptable should a footballer, especially a leading footballer, be? The brief but brilliant era of so called Total Football in the early 1970s is surely a case in point.

You might say it was invented as a young defender at Bayern Munich by Franz Beckenbauer, destined both to captain and manage German World Cup winning teams, Watching Internationale play when a teenager, he was impressed by the surging runs from left back, of the dynamic right footed Giacinto Facchetti, often a goalscorer, Franz reckoned that what could be done from the left flank of defence could equally well be done from the sweeper or the libero position. So it was that he conceived and exploited the role of the attacking libero, himself, coming out from behind the defence to join in attacks.

It worked extremely well for Bayern though it would be years before the Germany manager Helmut Schoen allowed Franz, a star as a 21-year-old right half of the 1966 World Cup, to enact the role for Germany.

But now Total Football with its emphasis on versatility was born; and adapted in Holland by the Ajax and Holland teams, both inspired by a supremely versatile, ubiquitous and dominant centre forward in Johan Cruyff. His Holland and Beckenbauer’s Germany would meet famously in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich. Meanwhile, first Ajax then Bayern won the European Cup three times in a row.

After Ajax had comfortably beaten Inter in Rotterdam in the European Cup final of 1972, I remember a leading French journalist saying to me that though Total Football might not last, it was football’s new reality. And how exciting it was! Full backs attacked, position rapidly and excitingly interchanged.

There was the odd dissenting voice, from the implicit proposition that in football, anybody could and did do anything. Danny Blanchflower, an outstanding right half and captain of Tottenham Hotspur and in the 1958 Swedish World Cup once told me he didn’t believe in the new philosophy, “because I think people are different.”

He surely had a point. Even when Total Football was at its zenith, you could hardly expect even Johan Cruyff to drop deep to centre half or Beckenbauer to move up as centre forward. Players like the astonishingly ubiquitous Alfredo Di Stefano, inspiration of the great Real Madrid side which won the first five European Cups, covering huge areas of space almost from back to front, were the exception who proved the rule. As did the huge Welshman John Charles who developed from a precocious teenaged centre half to a prolific Juventus centre forward.

Total Football had its exciting day, but the concept of total versatility, whatever Dutch and West German brilliance, was never going to endure, depending as it did on the emergence of a set of gifted players.

Perhaps a player like Micah Richards should ideally be more adaptable but if he isn’t it is surely incumbent on his manager or coach to see that he is used to best advantage. Players surely before tactics!