Stoke City v Liverpool - Barclays Premier League

Or maybe not so skeptical anymore?

Despite my misgivings, as I wrote here a couple of years ago, football cannot exist without football tactics. Whether detailed or vague, good or bad, effective or ineffective, all football teams try to play a certain way to win.

What I take issue with however (and what I’ve been bleating on about for far too long now) is the tendency of some tactics writing to draw a direct link from tactics to result, and the temptation to reverse engineer a match outcome to reflect a tactical interpretation of what the winning side “did right” and the losing side “did wrong.” Even today, various pundits are weighing on Arsenal’s ‘ineffective performance’ against Napoli. Here, for example, was Jamie Redknapp’s take:

“I think you have to credit Rafael Benitez because he changed it a little bit tactically, certainly in the second half when he pushed the two full-backs Maggio and Armero high up the pitch.

“That forced Arsenal back and Rosicky and Cazorla then had to become more of a defensive unit. That change is where the goals came from. That made a big difference in the game because Napoli were a bit more passive in the first half but they really pushed onto Arsenal in the second and gave them so many problems.

It all sounds so convincing. And yet there is no room in this simple theory for player fatigue, for the away game effect, for Arsenal’s red card to Mikel Arteta shortly after Napoli’s late goal, for blind luck. It’s written as if it’s a direct cause—”That change is where the goals came from.”

On that score, last week I had an interesting Twitter exchange with Rene Maric, who is the co-author of the German tactics site Spielverlagerung.de. It started after a post I wrote a few weeks ago on Pep Guardiola’s paranoia over their dressing room leak. Maric took the position that Bayern’s game day tactical prep was essential not only to their success against Dortmund in the league, but in each and every Bundesliga or European match up.

Since then, I’ve had the chance to peruse his site and while it includes a lot of individual match analysis, there is also an incredible wealth of interesting and useful background theory, including a subsection actually titled “Tactic theory (sic translation)”. Here for example are two of the most extensive posts I’ve yet seen on the both zonal and man-marking defense, even through the awkward lens that is Google Translate.

There is not enough of this in English language tactics writing (although there are compelling exceptions). Much of what we read in English assumes the reader already comes equipped with a wealth of knowledge, whether the role of the libero in a strict man-to-man marking situation, or how a 4-2-3-1 formation traditionally shifts from a defensive to attacking transition.

Not only that, but claims are often and repeatedly made without any reference to any reliable source texts. Tactical concepts and theories are too often written about as if they are conventionally accepted, but by whom? We sometimes get managerial quotes, but they are vague, off-handed. Surely there is something out there, considering coaches must complete UEFA courses to receive their badges. This lack of precedent gives some tactics writing a faintly pretentious air, a know-it-all-ism in which we are expected to trust the authority of the writer.

An ideal solution might be for UEFA to introduce an online course which references coaching educational materials but is more geared for the amateur fan, a kind of Kahn Academy for football tactics. Here the reader could go as in-depth as they wish on any number of subjects first on a theoretical level (similar to Maric’s posts), and then move onto examples from actual games.

There could be a host of benefits. For one, it would help establish a clear, conventionally accepted view and encourage more public interest and debate. It might also help fans to understand the limits of tactical preparation, to distinguish between general tactical errors from the cruel whims of chance. It could also force some accountability for amateur interpreters to ground their conclusions within conventionally accepted tactical theory.

But really in the end it would just help fans to better enjoy the sport. It’s long overdue—there needs to be an authoritative online source for public education on football tactics.