In the early years of football, the game was mainly about running, and there was little perceived need or use for tactics. However, as the sport has become more organised, it quickly became clear that how the team lined-up on the pitch, the positions that they took, and the roles they were given, could have a major impact on the result of a game.
Tactics, though, are constantly evolving, because what may work for one generation may be out-dated for the next. And individual coaches will have their own preference, having a style that works for them. This can prove problematic when a team that was successful playing one tactical formation under one manager is asked to adapt when somebody new comes to take his place.
There is no perfect tactical solution, and some teams can change formation not only from one game to another, but even sometimes in the course of a match.
The Evolution of Football Tactics over the years
The 1 –1 – 8
In the early days of football it was not uncommon for teams to line-up with one just defender and one midfielder, with everybody else (apart from the goalkeeper) nominally an attacker. This because the offside rule before 1925 prevented a player being ahead of the ball, so there was a great emphasis put on dribbling the ball forward.
The 2 – 3 – 5
The pyramid, as it became known, offered a more balanced tactical formation, and became the standard line-up, especially for British teams, for many years. And it also led to shirt numbering corresponding to where the players lined-up on a pitch.
The W – M
Widely credited with being the brainchild of Herbert Chapman during his time as manager of Arsenal in the early 1930s, this was a variation on the more traditional line-ups, with the attacking players in a team corresponding to the letter W, whilst the more defensive players formed the letter M.
The 3 –2 -5
The offside rule was changed in 1925 to benefit the attacking side, so formations changed to adapt, with often a third defender added to a team. Ahead of the three defenders and two midfielders, were five attackers, with wingers on either flank.
This has become one of the most standard if rigid formations, with every player given a defined role in the team and largely expected to stick to it. This tactic gives strength at the back and midfield, with width either supplied by one or both midfielders, or by overlapping full-backs.
Variations on this can see some teams play with a diamond formation in midfield.
The 4 -3–3
The other most common formation used by teams nowadays, with one of the front three act as a central striker, whilst the two either side of him will play wider. One of the midfielders will play just in front of the back four, whilst the other two will be encouraged to take up more advanced positions.
Catenaccio (The Chain) is primarily regarded as a defensive tactic, and has often been used by Italian and Argentine teams, particularly in the 1960s. Sides take to the field with a 5 -3 -2 formation with the primary objective being to stop the opposition scoring, relying on occasional counter-attacks at the other end.
It also made use of a sweeper whose job it was not only to protect the backline, but also to start play from deep after winning back possession.
Also known as the Verrou tactic it actually started as an offensive formation, but gradually became a more rigid defensive structure.
It is sometimes confused with the tactic colloquially known as ‘parking the bus” but Catenaccio is more structured than that.
Although often credited with being the brainchild of Rinus Michels, the Ajax manager of the 1970s, versions of the style of play that became known as Total Football dates back much further than that., with the Austrian wonder-team of the 1930s, the Magnificent Magyars of Hungary, and even the Burnley side that won the Football League in 1959 all playing an early version of it.
The theory was that every outfield player could play in any position on the pitch, with notional defenders encouraged to attack, whilst strikers and midfielders could drop further back to receive the ball.
The player best associated with it was Johan Cruyff for Ajax and the Netherlands, who was allowed a completely free role, allowed wandering into areas of the pitch where he could influence the game the most.
Tiki-Taka is a derivation of Total Football, and was developed by Cruyff when he moved to Barcelona. It is based on short, quick constant passing between players, and is best exemplified by the Barcelona side of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta who carried it with them into the Spain side that won the World Cup in 2010 and European Championships either side of that.
This tactic relies on quick recovery of the ball once it is lost through high pressing from the front.
However, although Tiki-Taka is an offensive tactic, a team needs to have strikers willing and able to take shots on goal. Otherwise, just passing the ball can be sterile.
Gegenpress is closely associated with Jurgen Klopp, and his teams at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool. The aim of the tactic is to defend by attacking, with at least five players pressing the opposition in their own half when they have the ball.
Also called “Heavy Metal Football”, it requires a high level of energy and application.
Whilst Tiki-Taka is all about building out play in the middle of the park, the long ball tactic often by-passes the midfield altogether. Instead defenders are encouraged to play the ball to two tall strikers up front, who will try and win it, and then either have a shot at goal themselves, or knock it down for others.
Whilst derided by football purists, playing the long ball game enabled teams like Stoke City and Burnley to survive in the Premier League for years, and to often upset more cultured opponents.