By John Cartwright
In warfare, time is usually achieved for Infantry to reach forward, attacking positions with the support of Artillery. Long range, heavy guns targeted on enemy defensive systems, allows armoured units followed by attacking foot soldiers to traverse no-man’s land and close on the enemy before they can recover from the shock of shell bursts falling amongst them.
Association Football also has ‘long range Artillery’ – the long forward pass. Correctly delivered, this type of pass creates time for an attacking team to move quickly up-field towards the back of their opponents. ‘Direct Play’ of this type is seen regularly here in the UK and is largely criticised for its over-use in the game. The long, forward pass is simply one of the ‘ tools’ in football’s tactical ‘box’; correctly used it provides a useful and powerful addition to attacking play.
Successful military tactics must be carefully co-ordinated to allow selected units to perform their individual skills and tasks in the battle zone at the correct time. The ‘flow’ of a military offensive must begin powerfully in order to gain the initiative in the battle. Once achieved it is vital that this initiative is retained and, if at any time it looks like being lost, it must be regained quickly if ultimate victory is to be achieved.
Well positioned machine-guns destroyed many long standing military beliefs, especially the belief that the army with the most soldiers would always beat an army with lesser troop numbers. New methods had to be developed from the ‘over the top’ tactics that sacrificed so many lives in previous conflicts and astute Generals introduced more flexibility, movement, deception and organization into the tactics of modern warfare.
Unfortunately, ‘the Artillery’ in football is used to an extreme as skilful alternatives are too often sadly missing from modern players. A lack in quality when passing, receiving and running with the ball, by players in general, but especially by those in rear defensive positions, has forced coaches to place more emphasis on tactical simplicity being a necessity and not a tactical option. Opposing teams, realizing weak skill levels can be pressurized with great success; have developed fast, guiding and closing-down methods to win the ball in mid-field or close to their opponent’s goal. Generally, the single answer to this pressure from teams in possession has been to hit longer, higher passes forward over on-coming opponents. From the earliest days of organized coaching, tactics and team formations that would increase space and time for attacking teams has generally been ignored by the coaching fraternity. At all levels of the game, here and in many overseas countries, tight, confrontational team formations are preferred to more fluid systems of play. Skill inadequacy in players is not the only reason that coaching has failed to implement more sophistication into the game; a fear of losing and poor coach education are also important factors. Consequently, the ‘weapons’ of the past are still used in the football battles of today.
‘Football’s a team game’, is an often heard and generally accepted remark. However, it should be understood that individualism is a prerequisite of togetherness in team sports. How frustrating it must be to be skilful in today’s game in this country. The game-style, historically imposed on generations of players, restricts ability rather than embellishes it. Effort and structured conformity are the ingredients displayed by too many players in too many games. The importance of effort and togetherness are vital in successful teams, but over-reliance on these alone will not provide the attractive and effective brand of football the game will need in the future.
The game must be able to display skills. Coaching must prescribe more tactical subtlety to allow individual and team skills to flourish. Space and time denial must not be allowed to exact the damaging effect it presently exerts on the game.
So how can skill, the ‘jewel in football’s crown’, be re-embellished?
- Each player, irrespective of size or shape must be individually skilful. The ball must not be a problem to any player playing in any position in a team.
- Every player must be capable of playing roles other than his own during a game…. Both defensive and offensive.
- Coaches must be prepared to produce these players for the game and employ tactics that allows the qualities of each individual player to prosper and the team to be successful.
- Coaches must develop tactics and systems of play that create time and space for their players whilst providing marking problems for the opposition.
- Time positions must be ‘found’ and utilized tactically for the benefit of individuals and teams.
Where are these ‘time positions’? Well, at the last count I managed to find 8 positions that could be used within a game that would create space and time on and off the ball, thereby creating marking confusion for opponents and improved playing options for attackers.
- The ‘sweeper-keeper’ goalkeeper. A player able to receive, run with and pass the ball to alleviate the pressure on his/her closed-down defenders. Yes, run the ball between opposing markers to offset their closing-down ability on his back players!
- The ‘defensive sweeper’. A player who is capable of doing all the defensive jobs he is called upon to do, plus be prepared to take a more active role and be much more creative at and from the back.
- The ‘front sweeper’. A player who can combine the roles of def/att. equally well.
- ‘Tucked-in full-backs’. Positioned so that they can move easily to counter or join wide play on their side of the field as well as being positioned to cover their own midfield players and join in attacking play through central areas.
- ‘Deep mid-field player’. Able to play the roles of marker or supporter of attacking play.
- ‘The deep-lying front striker’. Who doesn’t allow himself to be marked by opposing central defs. He must be an ‘architect’ of attacking play. A finder of forward ‘space,’ as well as a filler of defensive ‘holes’.
- The ‘Roamers’. Player or players drifting from defence to attack in a no-central attacker formation.
- ‘Tucked-in wide forwards,’ able to move inside to positions from which wide or central defenders have difficulty marking.
I have recently written a book entitled, ‘Football for the Brave’. In it I have tried to champion skill in the game. The quality of the game in the future is dependant on the bravery of those in charge of the game at all levels. My concern is that greed and fear will continue to hold the aces in the fight to bring about the changes that are so urgently needed.