Is It Time For a Rotational Change?

By John Cartwright

The ’flat back four’ defensive system has been used extensively throughout the football world for some considerable time and only very occasionally have we seen alternative methods used by Clubs’ and Countries. One must begin to question whether it is time a different approach to defending is required, what  this might be and how this might add specific changes to the game.


The flat defensive line was introduced by Brazil and was used to (a) increase central cover with a two central defenders and (b) to allow full-backs to get closer when marking opposing wide players. The central defenders’ role has remained much the same with defensive duties as very much a main responsibility. However, the role of full-backs has meant an increase in their attacking duties.  Throughout this period teams’ have devised different tactical shapes in mid-field and in forward positions in an attempt to maintain solidity in defence whilst increasing more attacking diversity Irrespective of these tactical modifications the flat defensive line has, in most cases, remained a major defensive, organised shape at all levels of the game.

Is this reliance on the ‘flat (offside obsessed) defensive style becoming more of a hindrance than an asset in the modern game?  Our game is choking on mediocrity and is in dire need of a newer, more ‘stream-lined’ game-style to be introduced.  Rinus Michels, the great Dutch architect of ‘Total Football’, developed a style of play that required expansive movement in team- play but we must go beyond his coaching brilliance and uncover an even more ambitious playing style for the future of our game. ‘Rotational Football’ should be the way ahead for our game;  in the street matches’ of the past, positions were exchanged constantly with even the position of Goalkeeper being filled by whoever was the deepest player at the time. I am not suggesting that ‘Rotational Football’ should go to those lengths but ‘fixed’ outfield positions should be less structured and preference given to a more ‘rounded’ football style.

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In order to achieve the changes described, a ‘revolution’ in development would need to occur in order to produce talented coaches able to teach the game and who in turn would produce talented players capable of playing the game towards a new football vision. Long established playing concepts would have to be dispensed with…. for example; the ‘stopper central defender’- the ‘defensive mid-fielder’ – the ‘attacking mid-fielder’ – the ‘winger’ –  the ‘front striker’……….. the ‘rotational footballer’ would cover all the roles described. For instance, players in central defensive roles must become capable attackers when opportunities occur. Instead of just full-backs surging forward down flank positions, those players that normally occupy rear central areas of teams’ must also be prepared to break forward to increase attacking play and any spaces that occur must be quickly filled rotationally by colleagues. Rotational movement by all players must be made both up and down field as well as across the field to provide cover and support for both defensive and attacking phases of play.

Straight defensive lines across the field of play, so prominent in the game today, would change and varying defensive shapes with different angles and depths would increase playing fluidity in both defence and attack. The present man-for-man ‘fight’ we see so often in all areas of the field would be a thing of the past as the frequent interchange of positions would create a more free-flowing game-style.  ‘Rotational Football’ would incorporate defensive situations throughout the field of play that would satisfy playing demands as they occur. From flat-lined to balanced cover; front or rear ‘sweepers’; pressure play or retreat followed by the counter attack, alternative defensive shapes would respond to the job in hand.  In conjunction with adaptive defensive play more creativity and imagination could evolve in attacking play from a system that allowed more freedom and opportunity to exploit attacking opportunities following successful defensive situations in all parts of the field. Fast overloading when defending and attacking in all areas of the field would be more achievable and more successful as players were freed from positional negativity.

We must begin to produce complete players to play fuller roles in a more dynamic game-style and discontinue with the ‘bit players’ who form the ‘patch-work’ positioned mediocrity so prevalent in our game today. ROTATIONAL FOOTBALL must be the way forward for coaches, players and fans. Intelligence and energy must be used more positively and more collectively; the day of limited ability, the big hearted 100% player who gives his/her all but who’s all contains nothing of quality, must be finally cast aside. Quality is quality and no more must anything be allowed as a substitute.

21 thoughts on “Is It Time For a Rotational Change?

  1. The concept of the ‘all rounder’, i.e. multi purpose player, was first conceived 60 years ago when Dr. Willy Meisl wrote “Soccer Revolution” following England’s first defeat to a foreign team at Wembley, 3 – 6, in 1953. England were torn apart by the switching of positions by the Hungarians, especially by number 9 Nandor Hidgekuti, who did not play as a centre forward, but in a withdrawn position in support of the strikers. England centre half, Harry Johnston, did not know who to mark or where to go, having always marked the centre forward who stood up the front in a central position. Many English centre halves still experience this dilemma when the opposition do not have a big central focul point leading their attack.
    Meisl foresaw the ‘Whirl’, a formation where 10 outfield players had no fixed positon but moved around the field, depending on the position of the ball. We have seen partial movements towards such a concept, most particularly with Ajax/Holland (1966 – 1974) and Barcelona/Spain (2008 – 2012). The demands on the development of brillant individuals, like Johann Cruyff and Lionel Messi, is of paramount importance to the fulfillment of this concept and so in England we have never remotely looked like taking a lead in the idea. However, in the sixties we had a player, Martin Peters, who, in myopinion, was capable of performing brilliantly in any part of the pitch and drifting into spaces, wherever they might be, at just the right moment.
    I still hear managers in England, at all levels, tell their players “to win their personal battles”. So a formation where players are in fixed positions, and you spend 90 minutes in close contact with the same opponent, is still the mindset which we have in 2013, just as it was in 1953.

  2. Surely it should be a game of ‘principles’ and not positions. In that manner, players can rotate individually and combine, or in blocks. Sadly we title players to old school positions or numbers at too early an age. We call a player as a striker or a back, when we should be classing the team as attackers and or defenders depending on the position of the ball. Your idea of the ‘rush gk’ is the perfect example, great! The greatest problem, i see, is coaches do not let the game flow and let the players play. they are so busy only seeing the ball and the negatives, the principles do not get the time to evolve and allow players sit into the roles, as an imprinted style. Coaches should coach their sessions in the planning stage, choosing the correct games and progressions, then facilitate, not coach, their session on the field and let the players discover the answers and be creative in their thinking finding the solutions through guided development from the side line, not coach controlling. Just a thought!

  3. In England we are so slow to learn from both our mistakes and the lessons given to us by the best foreign teams.
    In the 1966 World Cup, probabaly the best young player to emerge was the West German midfield player, Franz Beckenbauer. Up to the Final he was superb, with his superbly timed runs into attack and the opposition penalty area. But in the Final the shackles were put on him, when the West German coach, Helmut Schoen, gave Beckenbauer a man-marking job on Bobby Charlton. Consquently, the German attack had nothing like the impetus of ealier matches, although Charlton himelf was kept very quiet.
    Between the 1966 and 1970 World Cups Beckenbauer played the sweeper role for his club,Bayern Munich,behind a man for man marking defence. But in Mexico 1970, Beckenbauer was back in midfield and his brilliant performances took West Germany to the semi finals.
    It was what happened between that World Cup and the next major international event, the 1972 European Chjampionship, that had a major efffect on the course of football’s development but which we, in England, as in so many football aspects, have been painfully slow to take on board. West German coach, Shoen, was torn between utilising the defensive know-how and attacking brilliance of Beckenbauer, and so he developed his game so that West Germany could have the best of both worlds. Beckenbauer lined up in his sweeper position behind the defence, but whenever the opportunity arose, the German skipper pushed on into midfield in support of his passes which he played forward, and frequently ended up in the opposition penalty area in goalscoring positions.
    Largely due to Beckenbauer’s brilliance, West Germany won the 1972 tournament in superb style and followed that up two years later with a World Cup victory on home soil.
    The key to the use of Beckenbauer in this role was that as a free defender in a man for man marking set-up, which was German defensive policy at that time, he had no-one to mark because he was a ‘free’ player in every sense of the word. It hinged on his ability to read the game and correct decision making. Also, his defensive colleagues had to be comfortable and competent in 1 v. 1 situations.
    But years later, Franco Baresi performed a similar role for AC Milan and Italy in a zonal defence and so this flexibility is perfectly possible in any type of defensive organisation.
    Unfortunately, in England we have very largely kept our defenders fixed securely into their defensive positions, without allowing them the imagination, thought or invention to go forward and influence the game in forward positions. In his younger days at West Ham, Bobby Moore often went forward into attacking positions, obviously encouraged by Ron Greenwood, but for England, Alf Ramsey, a much more cautious coach, restricted his attacking intent and kept him firmly at the back.
    Similarly, when he was a young player, Rio Ferdinand went forward from his defending starting point, but as his career progressed and caution became the watchword, then Ferdinand became purely a defensive sentry, albeit a very good one.
    The standard of defending among English players is generally recognised as being very poor. If only we could recognise that defence is a spring-board to attack and develop the full potential of our young players.

  4. Interesting in theory but some problems with this, in my opinion…. 1) There’s a reason only ONE team is known for Total Football and only ONE team plays like Barcelona…. and that’s the Dutch and barcelona. They had(Dutch)/have(Barca) the players to do it. Stoke City would never succeed trying to play like Barca. … 2) Professional teams/players cannot play this way or understand it and we expect kids to grasp this? It’s too complex for them. The game of soccer/football is a simple game made complicated by coaches… 3) James Milner is an all-around player that can play anywhere in midfield or as an outside back and yet he can’t get into the starting XI at Man City. He’s good/OK at everything but not great at anything. There’s always someone more suited to start in a specific role than him. No one wants to be OK at everything and be someone else’s back-up because that player happens to be great at one or two roles (albeit terrible in another…. but then again he’ll never be asked to play his terrible position)…. 4) If Messi spent his youth learning to play a centerback-ish position as well as being an attacker, he wouldn’t be the Messi we know today…. 5) Teams with weaker technical players will never succeed playing a free-flowing game (even if any player can fill in at any spot at any moment). Too many holes/mismatches will open up for the more technical and athletic teams to exploit. Imagine Sergio Busquets being in an out wide position trying to stop Ronaldo or Messi. Sure, he would positionally be in the right spot but the much quicker and athletic players are simply going to run by him…. 6) If we had a nation of OK to good players in every position, who had the understanding to play any position, then we surely could surprise a few teams and even triumph over nations of similar technical ability(maybe even a few superior). But we’d still be technically inferior to the superpowers of football AND even the CONCACAF minnows would sit back and wait for a moment when the likes of Gonzalez, Beckerman, Goodson, (our bigger and/or slower players) were in open spaces and attack them because there’s nothing a bigger slower player can do against a smaller quicker player in the open field. You could argue if the USMNT went this route, we wouldn’t have bigger but slower players in any position. We’d have average height players all over the pitch…. but then any team with bigger players in their roster will physically boss the game and give us fits on set-pieces. Any team with smaller quicker players, will give us issues. There’s no fix-all solution. I agree our nation needs more of a soccer identity, but going with what is simply “pleasing to the eye” doesn’t mean we’d succeed. The Italians have been winning World Cups the ugly way, but it’s their identity and it works. It is also their downfall in other World Cups. Brazilians win World Cups the “joga bonita” way, and yet it is their downfall in other World Cups. There’s one constant though….. they win within their style when they have the technically superior team.

  5. I think that the role of the modern full back has become more difficult to define. For years, when the ball was on the right in our posssesson, our right back went forward to support. The back line moved across to maintain compactness with the left back tucking in. The distance in space between each back player always remained the same. When the ball went out to the left then the left back went forward to support and make runs,and now the defensive line moved across to that side with the right back tucking in. I understand that when Don Howe was the coach of Arsenal, he spent many hours coaching his back four with a length of rope, which they had to hold and so the whole unit was continuously dragged across the pitch to maintain a consistent distance, whatever the position off the ball.
    When the full backs became wing backs then they both adopted high positions on the field. This placed extra burden and responsibility on the centre backs. To counter-act this, when the centre backs split to build up from the back, the central midfield player dropped in between them.
    My question is: does the full back still have a responsibiloty to defend the back post? Is more reponsibilty now on the keeper to take more crossses at that area as well? But i have noticed that many keepers position themselves nearer the front post and further off their line than they used to, because more crosses are now whipped in to the near post and they must adopt that position to have a chance of getting the ball.
    So does the answer lie in the rotational idea, where a dangerous situation at the far post is read by another player, other than the full back on that side, and he gets himself in there quickly to deal with a ball put into that area which the keeper cannot reach.

  6. I can strongly recommend a recently published book called “The Way Forward – Solutions To England’s Football Failings” by Matthew Whitehouse, which Steve The Seagull mentioned in a posted comment not long ago. Much of what is in this book has been well aired elsewhere and discussed at length Nevertheless, the book is well put together and and consicely puts down on paper where we are at the moment and there are good suggestions for improvement.
    There is some very interesting research from coaching developments used abroad and I was particularly interested in reference made to the German club, Borussia Dortmund. They are one of the best producers of young talent in Germany, of necessity, because they do not have the financial power of a club like Bayern Munich. Their Development Chief is very critical of the English youth develpment system where clubs takein boys from the age of 7 and 8 years. At Dortmund they do not take in anybody until they are between the ages of 11 and 13. They believe that before then, children should experience as wide an experince of different sports as possible to develop their motor skills which produces ‘physical literacy’. They believe that such early specialisation as we promote in England does not provide such a wide, diverse motor skill experience because football on its own does not deliver all the movements which you get from a wide divergence of sports. In addition, our early specialisation often leads to ‘burn-out’ which they are careful to avoid in Germany. In Germany, they have just the same negative influences on decrease in childrens’ activity than was prevalent in previous nerations, but they are more aware of how to deal with the issue.
    On the same theme, I have just been on an FA Coaching Course where there were many coaches from professional clubs’ academies. Many of these coaches said that in a squad of players for a team they spend more time with the players who they know will not make it in the game than the few in the squad, usually about 3 or 4, who look to have sufficient talent to have a chance to succeed. This is clearly a ridiculous situaton, and confirms another point which the Germans make, that we have far too many acamedies and academy teams than is necessary for a very limited number of players who have a realistic chance of progressing to the highest levels.
    If a coach is having to devote an excessive amount of time with players and their parents, i.e. having to explain to them that their son will not make the grade, to the detriment of the better players, much fewer in numbers, then clearly this is an unsatisfactory situation.

  7. I heard the FA’s new coaching supremo, Dan Ashworth, speaking on the radio this morning and he mentioned the need for a national game style and how the FA is working hard at producing this. This is another example of ideas which Premier Skills have been suggesting for at least 10 years now, being adopted by the National Association. But I still do not see the FA making a proper inclusion of the Premier Skills methodology into its coaching courses. Also, has anyone detected a national game style being produced via coaching courses, coaching demos etc?
    I did think there was some cause for orptimism last Friday, though, when Ross Barkley came on for England for the last half hour. This was the first time that I have seen Barkley play ‘in the flesh’ and it was therefore possible to identify strong points in his game better than on a TV screen where, of course, the camera exclusively follows the ball. I was impressed by the way Barkley looks for, and finds space,how he uses it, and i was left with the impression that his academy development coaches at Everton must have used methods either explained on Premier Skills courses, or, at least, something very similar.
    So, together with Wilshire, we have two young players who, if joined by other young players of a similar quality, could give England some hope of international success in the foreseeable future. But is their development more due to the good work at their clubs, rather than new ideas form the National Coaching Department?

    • Hi Dave. I have long thought that it would be a great experiment to set a team out of mid-field players. rather than having positions nominated to each player they would change positions according to playing circumstances. It would mean producing high quality individuals from day one who were capable of reading and playing the game from whichever position they moved into.

  8. Great article. I’ve been harbouring these thoughts for a long time, but often get laughed at by ‘more experienced’ and ‘more established’ coaches. This gives me hope for the future of our sport.

    I’m sure this will come off as pure Grammar Nazi, but your articles could use some editing. Lots of grammatical errors and mis-spelled words (ducks for cover).

    Otherwise, they’re great!

  9. In Matthew Whitehouse’s book “The Way Forward”, he states that out of 10,000 young players going through the academy system, 100 will ultimately achieve the success of obtaining a professional contract, i.e. 1%. He is referring to the whole of the League, and so that is clubs in the lower reaches of League 2, and perhaps even Conference, as much as the Premier League elite.
    The influx of foreign talent into our League is not going to end any time soon and if improved coaching and talent identification is now coming under the microscope, the result of any improvement will be some years down the line. But I think that even though the vast majority of young players eventually leave the academies with their dreams unfulfilled, it should be the aim of all academy coaches that they are introduced to a football culture and way of playing that stays with them for life, whatever level they finally play in.
    But I wonder if this is actually happening? In the senior grassroots team which i coach, I have two players, one who played through the academy teams of a French league team and the other similarly in Spain. Neither came anywhere near receiving a professional contract, but their football ‘culture’ is quite clear as soon as you see them play. This contrasts with a number of the English players, (late teens, early twenties), who were associated with professional clubs when they were younger. In so many cases, they want to play ‘fight-ball’ at 100 mph, while the two continental boys want to stroke the ball around to feet in a much more relaxed, patient manner, looking for space to exploit and waiting for the right moment to play the ‘killer ball’.
    The whole of English football needs to develop a cultural change and game style, and it’s just as important at the bottom as it is at the top. All those vast numbers of young players who leave academies having failed to make the grade, can have a profound, positive effect, when they play for teams lower down the grades, by helping to introduce a new culture, just as the two foreign boys in my team are having a positive effect.

  10. Hi all. I was pleased to see that Greg Dyke has raised the question of poor player development… it’s about time! The problem as usual is that there are numerous people saying what’s wrong but i don’t see anyone saying how to put things right.

  11. I notice from the newspaper coverage given to the recent coverage of the transfer of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid to Arsenal, mention has been made of the ‘football cage’ in which he played his early football in his home town of Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
    In Brazil they have the favellas – small, enclosed concrete areas for kids to play football. In some European countries it is the cages which, from the outset, provide a tight playing area for developing the ability of playing in limited space which develops them in their free play. I understand that Van Persie had a similar upbringing in Rotterdam..
    Could we not provide such amenities in England, with the emphasis being on a tight, limited space area? The corners of recreation grounds and play areas would be ideal. There have been some developments in this direction in some areas but there are not enough and they are surely cheap and easy to provide.

  12. Hi Steve. The .Acedemics’ in charge of our game are too busy churning out unnecessary statistics and paperwork and have no understanding of real development requirements. They continually fail to see the huge importance of limited space practice on players’ ability.

  13. Some years ago, in what i think was his first managerial appointment after many years as a player, Glenn Hoddle became player-manager of Swindon Town. I recall that he had returned from France after a couple of years playing for Monaco, under the coaching of Arsene Wenger. At Swindon, Hoddle set up a 3-5-2 formation, and he played at the back as a spare player between two marking defenders. Whenever the opportunity arose, Hoddle came out from the back with the ball to initiate and join in attcks and he developed an attractive, passing style for the team, with everyone encouraged to attack when the opportunity arose.
    From what i have seen, few teams in England attempted to follow Hoddle’s example and Hoddle, himself, when he got jobs in the Premier League, did not follow up this type of approach with higher profile clubs. I don’t recall him developing anyone other than himself to be an attacking sweeper.He knew how to play it himself, when to go forward and when to stay, but he could not coach another player to take on that that role. Looking at current British players, I wonder if Aaron Ramsey could be coached and adapted to play that way. But most teams seem happy to stay with the orthadox back four.

  14. I am still of the thinking that a sweeper/libero system is still a great way not just to break up attacks but to overload into midfield and further up the pitch… On another thought… everyone talks about overloading going forward, well what about overloading ‘coming back’ – ie flooding back into midfield to outnumber the pressing. Using the principle of coming back late into ‘free pockets’ of space to outnumber the second back etc of pressures??

  15. Hi Brazil94….
    I think that we see something along the lines of overloading ‘coming back’ from the way Bayern Munich played last season. Out wide, Robben and Ribery worked feverishly: getting forward as ‘out to in’ wingers when Bayern attacked and then sprinting back into midfield when possession switched to the other side. This meant that the Bayern back four played as a very tight central unit most of the time, about the width of the penalty area. It was really noticeable in their Champions’ League matches against Barcelona.

  16. `The Whirl’ – From the Danubian School to Leicester City

    Rotational football has been played in the Football League before and not just under Glenn Hoddle. The Leicester City side of the early 1960s, managed by Matt Gillies and coached by Bert Johnson also played a version of the `whirl’ system, which Johnson had apparently picked up by observing Austrian and Hungarian sides. I saw it once and was hooked for life. However, this relied on having a squad of players with highly developed ball skills. In Leicester’;s case, they were largely recruited from the Scottish Football League by Gillies. I don’t see any evidence that today’s footballers are sufficiently comfortable on the ball to be able to play in this way. Coaching that back into the English game would take (a) an entire change of mind-set and (b) a generation at least. Personally, I’d be prepared to wait. But given the low-level utilitarianism of the current England establishment, I’m not going to hold my breath.

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