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Football tactics have got out of shape

When, and why, did the international game lose its tactical innovation?

When Hungary came to Wembley in 1953, England had no idea what to expect. They knew Ferenc Puskás’s side were Olympic champions, unbeaten in three years, but they had little idea of how they played. That was partly because that sort of thing tended not to interest British football then – the notion of tactics still being scorned by many as pseudo-intellectualism that would collapse in the face of British pluck – and partly because the technology didn’t exist to allow coaches to pore over videos of previous games. England lined up in the W-M (or 3-2-2-3) formation that had been the default for 25 years or so but Hungary did something shocking (at least to those who hadn’t seen them play in the previous three years): they pulled the centre-forward Nándor Hidegkuti back into a playmaking role at the front of the midfield.

From that unfamiliar, undefended space, Hidegkuti picked England apart. He scored a hat-trick, making late, unchecked runs, and was the centre of a whirl of passing and movement that left England bewildered. “What do I do, Billy?” Harry Johnston, England’s central defender, asked his captain, Billy Wright. “I don’t know, Harry,” Wright replied. “I don’t know.” Follow his man and he left a space in the defensive line; stay back and Hidegkuti had space to run the game. England were extremely fortunate to lose only 6-3, their first defeat to Continental opposition on home soil.

International tournaments used regularly to throw up such scenarios. World Cups served not merely as competitions but as conferences for the exchange of ideas. For a time, World Cups were won by countries that best executed a new way of playing the game, taking on ideas current in their club football and presenting them to a new audience.

Brazil won in 1958, for instance, not just because of the ability of Dida and a 17-year-old Pelé but also because they employed a 4-2-4 system that liberated the fullbacks – Nilton and Djalma Santos – to attack, creating an unanticipated point of assault. That 4-2-4, though, had become increasingly familiar in Brazilian club football since the Paraguayan coach Fleitas Solich had used it to win three successive Rio state championships with Flamengo between 1951 and 1953. (Arguments still rage in Brazil over who actually “invented” the system: while it clearly evolved from the ideas brought to Flamengo by Dori Kürschner, who fled anti-Semitism in Hungary in 1937, and was developed by his successor, Flávio Costa, the man who first self-consciously fielded a 4-2-4 seems to have been Martim Francisco at Vila Nova, a small side from Nova Lima near Belo Horizonte).

By 1962, as the rest of the world came round to the benefits of a back four, Brazil had evolved, pulling a winger back to make a 4-3-3, giving them an extra man in midfield and allowing them to dominate possession. Four years later, England won the World Cup by doing away with wingers altogether, a 4-4-2, giving them control of midfield. In 1974, came the Dutch and “Total Football”, the first great embodiment of systematised football. They didn’t win the World Cup but it was their rigorous pressing, high offside line and regular interchange of positions that caught the global imagination.

That was probably the last great innovation to come to the world’s attention at a World Cup (and even then it was familiar to anybody who had watched Ajax, whose players formed the bulk of the Netherlands side, winning the European Cup three times in a row between 1971 and 1973). To an extent, that’s because these days we know more. Even without internet streaming or bespoke satellite dishes, it’s possible in Britain to watch league football from England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and the US. Unless North Korea suddenly do something extraordinary, it’s just not possible for a team to stun the world with an entirely new incarnation of football – and even North Korea would become familiar through Asian World Cup qualifying.

But it’s also because international football, since the early 1970s, has lagged behind the club game, both in terms of quality and tactical evolution, precisely because of the latter’s systematisation. Just how systematised is perhaps best explained by the Guardian’s “Secret Footballer”, an unnamed Premier League player, who, from behind his anonymity, speaks with unusual openness about the professional game. “We memorise every single set piece,” he wrote.

We even memorise this for the other players so we know where everyone else will be at any given time. You know that pass when you say to yourself: “How did he spot that?” Often he didn’t need to; he knew the player would be there because, the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making. It’s exactly the same pass after which sometimes you might find yourself saying: “Who was that to?” The receiving player either forgot to be there or was taken out of the game by a tactical manoeuvre by his opposite number. Football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside.

At club level, players have weeks to learn those moves. They train together day after day and play perhaps 50 games a season. Over time, a mutual understanding develops, the chess-like moves become instinctive. At international level, though, in the limited time available, it’s impossible to achieve that sort of coherence. The consequences are twofold. For one thing, passing moves are less slick, because players are constantly having to look for team-mates rather than knowing intuitively where they’ll be – a difference of a fraction of a second that is compounded over the course of a long move, making it easier for defenders to get into position and cover.

With time limited, most managers start with the basics, packing men behind the ball. If defenders or holding midfielders go forward, there’s a risk of leaving spaces that, at club level, would be filled almost automatically by team-mates. At national level, that instinct is very hard to develop. As a consequence, most players are far less adventurous for their countries – perhaps also fearing the consequences of a mistake, the effects of which are magnified by the relatively small number of international fixtures played.

The result is the “broken teams” that characterised the last World Cup: teams that set up with six or seven defensive players whose job is simply to stop the opposition and then get the ball to three or four forwards, without any of the interplay that gives football its sophistication and aesthetic appeal. Even the Netherlands, with their total-footballing tradition, effectively played with six defenders and two forwards, linked only by the industry of Dirk Kuyt and the creativity of Wesley Sneijder.

Teams such as Spain, Germany and Russia, heavily based on players from one or two clubs, can perhaps find a measure of the fluency of the club game, but even they lag well behind Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Zenit St Petersburg. England, depleted by injuries and having botched their preparations to the extent that they appointed a new coach, Roy Hodgson, only a month before the championship, will go back to the most basic system possible: a 4-4-1-1 in which eight outfielders will spend most of their time behind the ball. It won’t be pretty or exciting but it’s probably the only option.

Meaningful tactical innovation is all but impossible for national sides. The most intriguing recent trend has been the return of the “false nine” – that is a centre-forward who, like Hidegkuti, drops deep, leaving a vacuum that confounds marking schema and facilitates intermovement. At Barcelona, who with Lionel Messi have taken the system to new extremes, he is complemented by “inverted wingers”, which is to say left-footers who, contrary to convention, play on the right and vice-versa, allowing them to cut infield into the space left by the false nine and shoot on their stronger foot. Russia may play something approximating to a false nine with Aleksandr Kerzhakov dropping deep, but most other sides will stick to a far more conventional set-up. The most common system, in fact, is likely to be the 4-2-3-1. That was the formation used by three of the four semi-finalists at Euro 2000, and a shape that was common at club level – in continental Europe at least – in the 1990s.

The lack of preparation time and emphasis on the club game means that international football is inherently – unavoidably – conservative.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of “Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics” (Orion, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare