Football

This will be a shorter one today as I just want to piggy-back a little on Jonathan Wilson’s excellent tactics column this morning to make a small but important point. If you haven’t read it yet, have a gander. In it, Wilson argues that you cannot separate formation and players, and that player formations are merely clunky expressions of the relationship of specific, individual player attributes:

As another example, take Manchester City, who on Wednesday night, in their 2-1 victory over CSKA Moscow, played as they have for much of this season, in what is probably best described as a 4-4-2. The back four was relatively straightforward. Fernandinho and Yaya Touré sat deep in central midfield: both have the capacity to spring forwards, although Touré has more licence. Jesus Navas played wide on the right, his pace allowing him to cover almost the entirety of the flank: his heat map extended from the edge of his own box to the CSKA goalline.

On the left, David Silva was tucked in and had a range of movement that was more lateral and less longitudinal than Navas’s, allowing Aleksandar Kolarov to overlap (Gaël Clichy may be a better defender than the Serbian, but Silva’s tendency to drift infield means he is a more natural tactical fit with him than Clichy).

In other words, it’s the relationship of player attributes gives us a tactical framework, not the formations themselves. It’s an important point.

Even so, the first, top-voted comment pinpoints a major issue with this approach to football tactics. From campbellpaul:

My problem with football analysis is that it tends to work from the result backwards. A lot of scorelines come down to luck – little things like hitting the woodwork rather than scoring, shots being deflected to take them past the keeper and fouls going unnoticed by referees – but the analsyis of teams’ performances usually start at the result and try to explain the game from there.

It’s true. Much of what is normally written about tactics, whether ideal formations or the relationship of player characteristics on the field, is post hoc. In a sport like football, an incredibly fluid, turnover-driven game where players can go wherever they want, this leaves tactical analysts open to confirmation bias. Toure has license to move forward, yes? We know this because he often charges forward quite confidently at various stages of the game. But how did he get this license? From the manager? Or himself? Is this forward movement part of a tactical master plan, an individual habit implicitly encouraged by the manager, or just Toure going rogue?

And that’s the thing. We have an idea, through a glass darkly, but we don’t know. Managers, for obvious reasons, don’t often advertise their tactical intentions to the public. So we only have the fruits of their labour on the pitch to go on. And I don’t mean the scoreline necessarily, but when one team is clearly more effective than the other in any area of a single match. In a game as luck driven and fluid with as many turnovers as football, that poses an interesting problem.

None of this is to say we should not, therefore, discuss all things tactical in the sport of football. That would be both boring and dense. Nor does it mean that tactics writers themselves are unaware of this issue themselves; I’m sure most of us would love a sneak peak at the Pellegrini whiteboard ahead of a crucial Champions League match. Most of us also realize a lot of what tactical analysts do is a kind of artful hermeneutics.

But there is a missing link here—managerial intention. Without it, we are left only with the independent movement of twenty-two people and some past quotes from managers and players themselves from which to draw conclusions. That’s not a crippling blow to tactical analysis, but it should be something we keep in the back of our minds while either writing it or reading it.