Recent Developments and Beyond
Just as Francis Fukuyama questioned whether we have reached the end of history in the early 1990s, some have recently started to question whether there will be any further changes to tactics. Roberto Mancini suggested that rather than a change of systems the developments of the future would be all in preparation of players. In reality the first decade of the 21st century saw an unprecedented level of tactical tinkering combined with an increased awareness of the importance of systems.
An obvious example of this has been the increasing trend towards more layers within a team, so that now it is common to express a system not with reference to three areas (ie a 4-4-2), but to four or more (ie a 4-2-3-1). Whether this reflects an increasingly subtle distinction between positions or merely an increasing appetite among the public for tactical analysis is unclear.
One of the most pronounced changes has been the move away from two out and out strikers. Whereas it was common to have a pair of goalscorers up front, it is now far more common for there to be only one or even none. In some cases, such as Scotland’s trip to the Czech Republic in 2010 where they played a 4-6-0 formation, this has been a genuinely defensive switch. In others the change has counter-intuitively allowed the team to attack more effectively.
At Roma under Luciano Spalletti, the team operated for some time without any recognised centre-forward. Leading the line was Francesco Totti, a trequarista or withdrawn forward, who would drop deep into midfield and allow the midfielders to break in behind him. The great advantage of this system, as well as overloading the midfield, was that it left the opposing defenders with nobody to mark. Roma thus used the absence of a recognised striker to their own advantage, and were able to twice finish as runners up in Serie A with Totti enjoying some of his most prolific goalscoring spells.
A further interesting development has been the increasing use of wing-forwards. By the 1990s outside of Holland and Barcelona, the 4-3-3 appeared dead, yet in the 2000s the use of a three pronged attack has been resurgent. In some cases, like at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, the system has operated more as a 4-5-1, with the wingers quickly dropping back into midfield when out of possession in order to give greater defensive solidity. In others, such as at Barcelona under Guardiola, it has been a distinct 4-3-3, with the wing-forwards being given minimal defensive responsibility, resulting in epic goalscoring.
Even at Old Trafford, the traditional home of the 4-4-2, Alex Ferguson flirted with more adventurous systems. Lacking a central strikers in a similar way to Roma, United would frequently start with a forward trio of Rooney and Tevez, both support strikers, in tandem with Cristiano Ronaldo, nominally a right-winger. Yet again the movement of the three left defences in shreds and enabled United to reach consecutive Champions League finals, as well as winning a hat-trick of Premiership crowns.
Another major change has been the loss around the globe of the traditional playmaker. With the loss of the sweeper from formations due to the change in the back-pass rule, and the increasing employment of defensive midfielders to stifle attacking playmakers, numerous managers chose to combine the two roles and use a deep lying playmaker. Sitting just in front of the defence, the deep lying playmaker enjoyed the protection of his defence, and was far enough away from the opposing defensive midfielders to have time and space with the wall. Fernando Redondo of Real Madrid showed how the role should be played, while Andrea Pirlo, previously a trequarista, helped both Milan and Italy to considerable success in the 2000s.
The most recent tactical change has been a challenge to the unquestioned pre-eminence of the flat-back-four at big clubs. Since 2002 the idea of three at the back had fallen by the wayside in favour of the defensive quartet. At the start of the 2011-2 season Inter’s Gian Piero Gasperini experimented with the back-three system he had used to significant success at Genoa, before his sacking after just five games. Pep Guardiola has also opted to use three at the back on occasion for Barcelona (albeit in a very different way to Gasperini), although that was primarily driven by an injury crisis which deprived him of a host of central defenders.
Given the level of possession enjoyed by teams such as Barcelona and Spain, it would appear that the back three may be due for a revival. As team move away from the use of two strikers using a pair of central defenders means that they are likely to be underemployed throughout large numbers of matches. By adding an extra midfielder or forward to his team, Guardiola is, for the time being, employing a low risk strategy as his opponents rarely have the chance to stretch his defenders.
If the back three does return to the mainstream, how long will it be before some enterprising manager uses a two (or more) striker system in an attempt to catch out teams sacrificing a centre-back? Indeed smaller teams may actively choose to concede the midfield to the likes of Barcelona and focus on defending the penalty area while stretching their opponents via long balls to attackers.
Whether Mancini was right in that there will be no further tactical changes or whether yet more tactical revolutions are soon to take place remains to be seen. What is certain is that tactics are back on the map as a mainstream subject of interest. Managers will always seek to gain an edge on their opponents and as can be seen through this brief history, almost every great team has made some tactical innovation which has helped them on their path to glory.