Tactical Baloney

This article originally appeared on BackPageFootball.

As Howard Webb’s whistle pierced the air inside the Estadio do Dragao last night, a beaming smile (revealing more than a touch of relief) broke out on the face of Andre Villas-Boas. It’s turning into quite a debut year at FC Porto for the youngest manager in Portugal. A pulsating 1-0 defeat to Sevilla secured an away goals victory for Villas-Boas’ team and granted them safe passage into the next round of the Europa League. Porto currently sit comfortably, and increasingly regally, atop the Liga Zon Sagres. Having won 18 of their 20 games thus far and yet to taste defeat in the league, the club’s 33-year-old manager has been drawing plaudits, and covetous glances, from every corner of the footballing world. This praise has been tempered by some, who insist that European success must be the barometer by which he be ultimately judged. The Europa League victory could thus prove pivotal in the ongoing development of this club, and this manager.

Villas-Boas’ is quite a unique story, he assumed the manager’s role at Porto at the bewilderingly young age of 32 and with less than one whole season’s experience of running a team. This coming at Academica, where he guided the club from bottom of the league in October to the relative comfort of eleventh place and a League Cup semi-final appearance against his future employers. Villas-Boas won the Academica job on the strength of his success as an assistant to Jose Mourinho, for whom he worked at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. He had developed a reputation as a keen tactical intellect and was renowned for his scouting reports on opposition teams during his time with Mourinho and once he decided to indulge his own lofty ambitions, the comparisons would be inevitable. Yet it would be unfair to cast Mourinho’s considerable shadow over his former assistant as, despite adopting his 4-3-3 formation, Villas-Boas has certainly departed from the now Real Madrid manager’s style of play and is fully implementing his own vision.

The 4-3-3 of Villas-Boas’ Porto is a particularly fluid and attack-orientated formation. Its key is its energetic and creative three man midfield, generally consisting of holding midfielder Fernando sitting behind Joao Moutinho and Fernando Belluschi. Villas-Boas likes his team to get the ball into midfield and utilise a high-tempo build-up centred around the interplay of his three midfielders. They are a constant hive of activity, working for space in order to play their one-and two-touch football and work the ball across the pitch. They are adept at operating in a congested midfield and their quick passing allows the ball to be worked to the wings, and especially the right-wing home of the team’s undoubted jewel, Hulk. The Brazilian is an outstanding talent and his pace, strength and trickery allow him to operate down the touch-line as a traditional winger or to come inside and create from a central position. Porto’s main striker, Falcao, will often drop deep in order to offer himself as a wall pass to a centrally-arriving Hulk or to an onrushing midfielder. If the latter, a defender’s attempts to stay tight to Falcao will often allow Hulk or fellow winger Varela to make a run into the space which has been vacated and create an excellent goal scoring opportunity. When the ball is being kept in midfield, Hulk can drift infield and operate just off of Falcao, the onus then falls on the right full-back to maintain the team’s width down that flank. This extra man in the middle allows Falcao to threaten the defence in behind while Hulk becomes a deep outlet for the midfield, or vice versa. This interchangeability creates a very unpredictable and fluid attack.

The team’s goalkeeper, Helton, looks to feed his centre-halves when in possession, allowing the team to build from the back and benefit from the generally diminutive stature of the team as well as their skilled short passing game. However a noticeable weak link is Helton’s distribution when the opposition has cut off the short options. His kicking is highly erratic and often inaccurate. Villas-Boas is not however averse to a more direct build-up and employs this during games in an attempt to catch the opposition off guard. Falcao can threaten with a run in behind the defence and Porto have numerous players adept at playing a deep through ball. On occasions when a long ball is played to a winger, the midfield are quick to reach the man in possession in order to offer a short passing option and begin their high-tempo passing from a more advanced position on the field.
Defensively, Porto can be quite vulnerable, this due to their offensive philosophy. With such an emphasis placed on movement and supporting forward players, the team is naturally liable to be caught out if possession is lost. The sheer energy of the midfield can sometimes make up for this lack of defensive discipline due to being able to get back into position once the opposition steals the ball. Holding midfielder Fernando is an exceptionally mobile player and contributes well in the offensive side of the game but his defensive positioning can leave his back-line exposed to runs from deep. The midfield and forwards operate a tight pressing game when the opposition begins to enter the Porto half. They seek to get close to the man in possession without committing to tackles or being overly aggressive, instead waiting to capitalise on a mistake.

Porto are currently in possession of the best attack in the Portuguese league (46 goals scored) and the best defence (7 goals conceded) and their only losses this season have come in cup competitions, whether domestic or European. Villas-Boas continues to be lauded as the brightest young star in the managerial firmament and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from his tactical acuity, he maintains an impressive demeanour. He almost struts around his technical area, more confident than arrogant. A pondering look upon his face and his hands pushing back his suit jacket as they rest upon his hips. It is said that a team’s personality is a reflection of its managers’, it is no surprise then to see Porto’s confident, assured and expressive play mirrored by the sight of Villas-Boas’ calm gesturing or nonchalant sipping of a bottle of water. He exudes an air of controlled enthusiasm which appears to translate to his players. Despite his focus on the tactical nuances of the game, the Porto native has also stated his belief in the importance of individual expression from players. He does not orchestrate the every note his musicians are to play, rather he has created an environment akin to a jazz ensemble. He names the song but his players are free to improvise and express within it’s confines. Surely it won’t be long before he creates his first masterpiece.


This article originally appeared on BackPageFootball.

The word ‘libero’ has all but evaporated from the footballing vernacular in modern times. In its glory days of the 1970s, it was a position glamorised and pioneered by the incomparable Franz Beckenbauer. It is somewhat curious, then, that the position played by one of the greatest defenders of the last century, has all but disappeared from the game a mere 30 years later. In this article I will examine the demise of the libero and the modern semi-incarnation, the ball-playing centre-back.

The libero’s parentage is diverse and far-reaching. The word comes from the Italian for ‘free’, but the idea of a spare defender did not originate in Italy. Various coaches had flirted with the idea of a sweeper, a defender who sat as the deepest outfield player, relieved of his traditional man-marking duties. This player would be tasked with roaming horizontally across the back-line and acting as a safety net for his team. It was the Austrian coach Karl Rappan who first employed this system on a regular basis, during the 1930s. Rappan had enjoyed success at club level with his system, given the name verrou (meaning ‘bolt’), and it’s sweeper (verouller) was key to it’s efficacy. The verouller was the forefather of the libero, and Rappan’s system was the forefather of the infamous Italian system of catenaccio, which would follow later. Rappan’s philosophy as the Swiss national team manager in the late ‘30s was that if a team does not have eleven naturally gifted players (he cites Brazil as an example), then discipline and tactics become extremely important. This philosophy would become hugely influential over time, with managers of so-called weaker teams setting out to stifle and frustrate their more talented opponents.

This is the point where philosophy defines a position. Under verrou or catenaccio the sweeper was generally given little licence to move up field, instead hanging back and sending long clearances upfield. However not all teams accepted this as the sum of the libero’s potential. Beckenbauer is a perfect example of this other style, a player at ease with the ball at his feet and capable of marauding forward from the back. This ‘attacking’ libero could be a deadly weapon if a team had a player capable of its demands. A knowledge of the game was key, the player had to know when to move forward and when to hang back. With the opposition not anticipating a defender arriving in their half, the libero would find himself unmarked, as confusion reigned amongst the ranks of the opposition defence. A defender striding forward to carry the ball out of defence allowed a quicker transition into attack.

This was the libero’s peak, it began to diminish in usage from the 80s forward. Coaches recognised the system’s major flaw, creating a spare man at the back required removing a player from another position. This allowed a team playing a libero to be overrun in midfield. This development effectively destroyed the ‘attacking’ libero but the more naturally defensive sweeper lived on under catenaccio. As a system mostly employed by weaker sides, the concession of midfield superiority was irrelevant – since these sides were unlikely to control possession anyway. Thus having an extra defender remained a viable option, allowing the team to sit deep and invite the opposition forward and rendering them vulnerable to the counter-attack.

And so to the modern game, where the vast majority of teams operate a flat back-four. Football may have witnessed the demise of the libero, but the idea of a defender who seeks to join and support attacks lives on. A ball-playing centre-back is a generic term for a style of defender who doesn’t solely concern himself with defensive responsibilities, though they remain his priority. There are a number of examples in the modern game; Lucio of Inter Milan, Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United, Daniel Agger of Liverpool (though heavily hampered by injuries, he is a good example of this concept). Perhaps the most obvious example though is Gerard Pique of Barcelona. A supremely gifted player with the ball at his feet, Pique is given significant licence to move forward out of defence and create a more fluid style of play. Without a defender capable of such play, a team often requires a central-midfielder to drop deep and collect the ball from his centre-backs. As Newton informs us, this action has an equal and opposite reaction. If a midfielder drops deep, then his team mates must follow in order to be in position to receive the ball. This reasoning is predicated on a team’s desire to play short passes, some teams may prefer to allow the midfielder to drop deep and then play long, sweeping balls to the flanks or directly to the striker(s). Xabi Alonso was often employed in this way during his first years at Liverpool, which is why I thought to include Agger in my earlier examples. Agger’s presence in the Liverpool team allowed the midfield to push on further and pen the opposition deep.

With so many teams employing a holding midfielder these days, a centre-back can be allowed more freedom. Modern managers are loathe to sacrifice such space at the back but a holding midfielder, by nature a deep-lying and often not technically gifted player, can slot into the space left by his advancing colleague. Sergio Busquets is often employed in this manner at Barcelona, dropping back to cover Pique’s forays forward.

Only time will tell if this more dynamic breed of centre-back flourishes and becomes a mainstay in modern systems. Given the emerging trend of teams employing a lone striker and therefore leaving a spare man at centre-back, perhaps we may see a return to the days of the libero.

This article originally appeared on BackPageFootball

The classic scene. A series of movements buried deep in the subconscious of a sporting culture. The quarterback accepts the ball and drops back, surveying the developing picture with an expert understanding. He is always aware of the oncoming pressure of the defence, peripheral vision honed to a complex radar by years of practice; experience. He goes through his development, almost instantaneously assessing the merits of each individual runner; weighing the odds of success, of failure. Then the decision, the instinctive technique to send the ball 40 yards through the air to find his man with devastating accuracy. They score. A wild celebration from the receiver, a briefly indulgent fist-clench from the passer. He is already focussing on the next passage of play. A scene so simple in appearance, yet years in the making. But this is not a gridiron touchdown on a sunny Texas afternoon. We are in Madrid, the ball is round and the quarterback is Xabi Alonso.

The comparison has been made before between an American Football quarterback and an association football (’soccer’ would push the Americanism a step further than I’m comfortable with) central midfielder. I recall a few years ago reading an article suggesting Michael Carrick’s influence in the Spurs team of the time was similarly worthy of the allusion. I would suggest however, with apologies to Mr. Carrick, that Alonso is the archetypal midfield ‘quarterback’. I mentioned the Madrid playmaker briefly in my piece last week, and those early days at Liverpool are a good place to begin charting the player’s progression.

Having caught the attention of the Madrid hierarchy in his Real Sociedad days, Alonso instead elected to join Rafael Benitez on Merseyside. In the first couple of years there, Alonso rose to prominence through his tremendous range of passing. It was his long-passing in particular however, which brought him the most attention. Benitez utilised Alonso as a deep-lying playmaker, with instructions to attack the opposition with direct passes. Alonso would drop deep to collect the ball from his centre-backs and then turn and survey the field. From here he might play a safe short pass or, if a suitable run was found, launch a searching pass to the wing or beyond the defence to find a runner. His midfield partner, Steven Gerrard, provided the dynamic ball-carrying and relentless energy while Alonso cut a more disciplined, calculating figure. His movement focussed on clever positioning to find pockets of space to receive the ball and be able to turn. The very basics of the midfield position you might say, but basics which were often overlooked by players in the hustle and bustle of English football. It was in this role that Alonso made his name as a supreme playmaker, the ‘metronome’ as Jose Mourinho dubbed him.

He was the man through whom all of the team’s build-up play inevitably travelled, but he had his weaknesses. Alonso was, at the time, something of a luxury player. He was a joy to watch with the ball at his feet but could be a liability when called upon to protect his defence, alongside the often positionally-challenged Gerrard. This was perhaps most evident in the Champions League Final of 2005 when, with Liverpool 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan, Dietmar Hamann was brought on to partner Alonso in midfield and provide the much-needed stability and protection. This need to partner a playmaker in midfield with a destroyer has become a prominent practice in modern football. Indeed Benitez soon devised a new system for his Liverpool side, purchasing Javier Mascherano to partner Alonso and thus give him the freedom to create without the burden of such heavy defensive responsibilities.

Alonso has consistently matured and developed through the last few seasons, becoming a European Championship and World Cup winner with Spain while moving to Madrid to become the fulcrum of the team in this latest era. The quarterback comparison has continued to hold true, as Alonso’s deep-lying style has remained the most evident constant of his career. It is here that he differs from his fellow national-team midfielders, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. The three Spaniards are among the elite passing players in world football but the latter two prefer to operate in positions more advanced to Alonso’s traditional stomping grounds. While the Barcelona duo are famed for their delicate, weighted final-third through-balls, Alonso’s natural positioning necessitates a different approach to playmaking; hence the quarterback similarities.

Due to his role as a transition player, responsible for linking defence to attack, Alonso automatically becomes central to his team’s success. For the team to be effective and perform as intended, he must be efficient in his distribution and consistent in his decision-making. In American Football, the quarterback is the undoubted leader and hub of the team’s offence. He is responsible for moving the team forward with his passing, which must be of enormous quality, and he must also be an exceptional decision maker in order to prevent turning the ball over to the opposition. This description could almost be the very definition of Alonso’s style. He is the type of player who could continue to play at the highest level for many years, his game relying so much on what happens inside his head and much less on athleticism. Alonso’s reading of the game, positioning and decision-making will all continue to develop with every passing season. The phrase ‘franchise quarterback’ is used extensively in the NFL. It refers to a player around whom a team can be built for many years to come and they are by far the most sought after players in the sport. Happily for Madrid, the similarities just never end.