Last Friday, the Champions League winners FC Barcelona bored the world to a 1-0 win over the last ever UEFA Cup winners, Shakhtar Donetsk on a rutted field in Monaco. Beyond the usual turgid affair we get in Europe’s most over-blown pre-season friendly, however, it was interesting to see the classic Spain versus Ukraine philosophy battle. The age-old decision between individual and system
What happened in the Super Cup
Short answer – not a lot. The first 45 minutes consisted of Barça passing the ball around the midfield with neat two-touch passing that never actually got anywhere. In reply, Shakhtar pressed their opponents into the midfield, and occasionally tried the quick counter-attack, usually losing the ball in the process. In the 115th minute, Pedro saved us from penalties after an amazing run by Messi, considered by many to be the best player in the world.
In a nutshell, this is the historical difference between Spain and the Ukraine
In Spain, the best and most influential individuals tend to be prized. The most obvious conclusion of this philosophy is the galactico policy of Real Madrid, the most successful club side of all time, who during the early years of the century signed marquee names to dominate their domestic and international opponents. Moments of individual brilliance from a Kaka, a Zidane, or, to go back even further, a Puskás can unlock football matches. It is vital, then, to get the ball to these geniuses to unlock the opposition defence, to score goals and win football matches.
Pellegrini’s new-look galacticos II at Real have started La Liga with a similar disregard for system, starting the season with a 4-2-2-2 formation. Kaka, Ronaldo, Benzema and Raul all given free licence to roam and create as their hearts see fit. So, how can you harness that sort of individualism (albeit to an almost absurd scale in this case) in FML?
Well, this can work in several ways. You could make use of a playmaker, such as Zidane was at Real Madrid or Iniesta in the modern Barcelona side. By channelling the ball through the creative individual, the coach hopes he can use the ball to deceive his opponents and create chances for his team mates.
Second, the team can make more use of creative freedom, either for key individuals or for the whole team. The use of flair and ingenuity should, in theory, provide more outlets for the attack, create more space and score more goals. Jinking runs, tricks, turns and audacious passes unpick defences using individual brilliance.
Third, the possibility exists to use more free roles on certain players. This way the players can roam and create space for themselves and do as they see fit. The same effect, to a lesser extent, could be made through using “swap position” instructions on attacking players to confuse the opposition and utilise the skills of one or two individuals in key positions. Messi and Henry were doing this quite a bit last season, and Arsenal and Manchester United have been using similar tactics of late.
The Ukrainian system isn’t just the polar opposite of this, however
Whilst it’s obviously true that no playmakers, lower creative freedom, fewer free roles and no position swapping is likely to create a more defensive and more robust system, it is not a prerequisite systematic tactics.
The difference is not in creativity or in attacking threat, but a difference in philosophy.
Lobanovskyi’s conception of “system”
Individualism hopes to use the creative instincts of an individual to unlock a team. The club’s tactics are built around them. Winning football matches will come through the utilisation of the brilliance of a couple of individuals, and the formation, play and style will be built around this.
Systematic play, however, works on the basis of utilising eleven men working together towards a common goal. Every player works for the others to win the game. There is no point in having galacticos or individuals looking for personal glory if the system is not working. This requires having an ordered defence as well as an ordered attack, and the whole team needs to work as a unit with and without the ball.
Because of this, Lobanovskyi, one of the most influential coaches in Soviet football, invented position swapping, the “4-4-2” and the defensive system of “pressing” – now almost taken as a given in modern professional football. Players had to cover each other if someone ran forward to make sure the system held its shape. And once the ball was lost, the team had to close down the opposition quickly in order to regain possession.
Sounds a lot like the Netherlands’ Totaalvoetball, doesn’t it?
The difference, however, is that Lobanovskyi (unlike, say, Guardiola last Friday) was incredibly strict on how and when players should switch positions, counter-attack, press and move. Everything was practiced on the training ground and drilled into the players from a young age. Ronaldinho would be useless to Lobanovskyi. However, Andriy Schevchenko (who claims Lobanovskyi made his career) was perfect, because he fit the Lobanovskyi Dinamo Kiev system as the “number 9” striker.
So, a tactical philosophy based on system isn’t necessarily defensive. But it requires players to play as a unit, work hard and score goals through working together rather than relying on individual brilliance.
Obviously, any successful tactic will need a mix of the two
It is said that the Brazil side that won the Jules Rimet trophy in 1970 didn’t need tactics – they were just told to go out and play. There is, perhaps, some justification for that, even if it is driven by romanticism which harks back to the days of amateurism – when football wasn’t over analysed, players weren’t paid, when even training was considered a form of cheating and when goals were scored with gay abandon. Sadly (or not, depending on your own personal preferences), no modern professional side can get away with that.
The opposite, however, is also true. Even the best systematic managers and clubs come unstuck when they lack an individual spark and creative edge. The best such example of recent weeks is probably Liverpool – who have a reasonably strong and ordered system based on drill and a solid midfield and backline, but struggle when the three main creative outlets (Gerrard, Torres and Alonso) are out of form, injured, or sold to Real Madrid.
The solution for most managers, therefore, is to utilise a system which can let individualism thrive.
It’s a tricky thing to get right. But a solid defence and shape, with enough flexibility to allow for creativity and individual brilliance will overcome most obstacles. This sounds obvious, but how far the manager weights the scales between individual and system can make a massive difference to the fortunes of a club. System can be very good for masking over individual inadequacies and a technically inferior squad, but only up to a certain level. Similarly, great individuals can wreak havoc with their running, passing and shooting abilities – but again, at a certain level a well-ordered side will destroy them easily.
In FML, it is worth playing around with the following:
- Philosophy: more rigid philosophies tend towards more systematic tactics, more fluid ones allow players to break from their shape and look for more space.
- Creative freedom: CF allows players to use their own flair more. This can be useful for key individuals, or for the team as a whole. Obviously, lower CF tends towards sticking to the system and your tactical instructions, higher CF allows individuals to express themselves.
- Free roles: Free roles allow players to roam. Fewer free roles keep the system solid, more free roles allow players to make individual decisions on where to go to find space.
Also remember that if you prize the system over individuals, it is important to buy players who will fit your system. There is no point in buying Cristiano Ronaldo to play on the right wing if your system is set up for a player in the MR position to tackle hard and never run forward.
As with real, life, FML tactics need a good mix between individual creativity and a solid system and game plan. Which way do you want to go? Spain or Ukraine?
|Written By Gareth Millward
"Millie" is a long-standing member of the FM community and a co-founder of Gameworld One.Com. As part of FM-Britain, he was a contributor to TT&F and involved with the new tactical interface in FM2010.