Everyone in soccer is constantly talking about tactics. In recent years, we've gushed over the development of conservative 11-men-behind-the-ball approaches, the growth of tiki-taka and passenaccio, the rise of the mythical 4-2-3-1, and the spread of gegenpressing and counterattacking. I love this stuff. My friends will tell you that I'll never open up to anyone like I will during a conversation about high-pressing defensive schemes. A good tactical plan for a game can encapsulate everything beautiful about the world: artistry, hard work, intelligence, and the sudden harmony of different minds. I'd be better off if I described the girls I date like I do soccer.
As much as everyone talks about them, though, there's a gap between how fans and players understand tactics. Fans see them as broad strokes and buzzwords, a way of making distinctions between different teams. ("Those Germans play some beautiful counterattacking football.") Players see tactics as instructions, a few lines of code, the specific details on how to achieve our goals. "Counterattack" isn't a specific or clear enough instruction. If I hope to make a shorter pass on the ground, but my teammate expects one long, incisive pass in the air, I'll pass the ball short to no one, while my teammate takes off running long. We're both trying to counterattack, but counterattacking means something different to each of us. Consequently, we both look stupid, and some overweight guy with a beer in his hand yells at me from the fourth row. (Fuck that guy.)
For players, tactics are a way of arranging the gears and springs and sprockets beneath the often very pretty game you see on your television or from the stands. If you're going to understand tactics, you have to understand all that ticking machinery. There's one element in particular that bears a little elaboration: individual clarity. And to be honest, I made that term up just now. It doesn't actually mean anything in soccer. The ideas exist, but nobody has coined the phrase. So I did.
Individual clarity refers to a player's understanding of his role at any given moment. It is the most important part of a tactical plan. If each player doesn't understand his role at every moment, the plan means nothing. It's just words thrown out in the locker room.
There are a thousand decisions to make in a game. A team's tactics tell a player what to do in each of those thousand moments. Where on the field do we win the ball? Where should my first pass go when we win the ball? Where does the player on the far side of the field move after I make the pass? Every player understands every other player's thousand jobs. It's less important that the single player knows his individual job than that the 10 other guys know what he's going to do so they can plan accordingly. As the players improve their understanding of their roles, the cogs in the machine start to align, and the picture on top gets more attractive.
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Lahm to Mueller to Kroos ... goal! Just like that. So fast, so beautiful.
Let's use Bayern Munich as an example. When Bayern wins the ball in the middle of the field, you often see Robben make an arcing run toward the sideline. He keeps his hips facing the middle of the field, but gets wide to open up space. At the same time, Mueller will check to the ball from a forward position. Ribery will run directly in behind the space that Mueller has vacated. Sometimes we see Lahm float the ball over Mueller to a seemingly empty space until Ribery enters from off the screen attacking the ball. Or Lahm will play it wide to Robben, and Mueller will peel off his run and overlap Robben while the angry Dutchman dribbles inside toward the top of the box. Robben either curls it far post or lays it off to Mueller.
None of this is coincidence. These guys have practiced these movements tirelessly in training. Robben knows he needs to create width for the team at the moment of gaining possession. Mueller knows he needs to be an option short to receive the ball on the ground. Ribery knows he needs to attack the space behind the defense. They are clear on the their roles. As a result, Lahm on the ball knows where they will be and can put the ball where they want it. Each new pass and movement occurs seamlessly. Seconds later the ball is in the net and we are tweeting, "#SCTop10 put that shiz on SportsCenter!!"
What makes a team great isn't its tactics as a whole. It's the team's ability to get those thousand parts turning instinctually. The team that wins the World Cup won't do so because it has the best game plan. It would take tremendous balls to say that gegenpressing is inherently better than tiki-taka or a traditional 4-4-2 block, and history has shown us that each game plan can work. The winning team will simply execute whichever game plan that it chooses well. Both Spain and Brazil tried to keep possession with a pass-and-move philosophy in 2010, but Spain's players understood how to pass and move with each other better. "Tiki-taka" means nothing unless the players in the midfield know what space to find to become an option. Tactics demand clarity, a player understanding his role within the tactic at any given moment. The taka has to be there for the tiki.
Every team accomplishes this differently. Some coaches spend hours on it on the training field. They devote entire sessions to going over every detail, having their players run to defend cones acting as the opponent, carefully explaining everything. They tell the center back exactly how far to move up and precisely when. They rerun the session every week to hammer it home. Some coaches get 11 intelligent players with similar tendencies who will naturally figure out how to play together, and let the players sort it out for themselves. They put 4-4-2 on the board and trust they have selected the right players. Some coaches make 100-page packets full of little circles and diagrams and associated bullet points, and go over it with the players in the meeting room. Each approach has won a championship; there isn't a perfect blueprint.
The difficulty for a team is ensuring that all of the players have one mindset. The different players on the field, the different cogs in the machine, were molded in different ways when they were growing up. All of their coaches in the past had different views of the game. One coach might want his pressing wingers to force the ball inside to the crowded middle of the field. Another might want his pressing wingers to force the ball outside to the line with his outside back in support. If the player isn't clear on his job for his current team, he'll make wrong decisions. The winger will force the ball down the line when his defender behind him expects him to push the opponent toward the middle, waiting back. Lack of clarity. The opponent easily plays the ball down the line and breaks the pressure. The opponent gains an advantage. The present coach must make the players forget their old ways and accept the new.
It's particularly difficult to get players from different languages on the same page. It's tough for a British coach to tell a young kid just off the plane from Portugal that he always needs to push the opposing defender to his outside foot. "Not there. Here. HERE. This side. THIS SIDE. Dammit. Michael, come here. Translate this for me." Then the confused kid turns to his Brazilian teammates and says in Portuguese, "What the hell is this old man talking about?" Then the old man has to do it again for the other 999 parts of the game. There's no easy way to do it. It takes time. There are a lot of hand signals and imperfect translations. It's a challenge. Some teams do it well. Others don't.
When it comes to international competitions, players are coming together from different club teams. The U.S. will probably have Landon Donovan and Graham Zusi on the wings. Graham comes from a high-pressing, up-tempo scheme in Kansas City. Landon is used to a more methodical, patient plan in Los Angeles. Graham spends 10 months of the year pressing all out; Landon often drops back into team shape and waits for the opponent. If Graham steps to his opponent, Dempsey and Bradley need to move up with him, or else Graham will be bypassed easily. If Dempsey and Bradley do the same on Landon's side but Landon doesn't step, there will be gaps behind the midfield. Taylor Twellman will say the U.S. midfield is in disarray.
The fans watch on TV and wonder what the players were thinking. How could they let him get by so easily?! Get your shit together, guys! Remember, though: When the picture on your screen doesn't look right, there is a problem in the machine. It's not any one player's fault. The cogs aren't coming together properly. Landon is doing his best, making what he thinks are the right moves. The problem arises because it wasn't made clear to Landon what exactly is right in that moment.
Even with the best teams, the best systems have leaks. Sometimes players mess up. Maybe they read the situation wrong. Maybe their technical ability lets them down. Maybe they get tired and their brain doesn't register what it needs to do. I talk about clarity like it's simple; the truth is that it's extremely complicated. It takes thousands of reps to make even the simplest ideas second nature. But the team that gets its stuff right more often than the other team does—regardless of the tactics in use—wins the game.
We're not talking about tactics as the playthings of managerial genius. It's the players who win and lose games, as the saying goes, not the X's and O's on a dry-wipe board. But it's the roles that define the parameters in which they get to operate. And it's to the player's advantage to have a clear role. It helps the player show his best. For one thing, he can play quicker. He doesn't have to think about what to do. He doesn't have to waste milliseconds thinking about what his team needs. He knows the instant something happens what is expected of him. He can just act. He gets to where he needs to be and does what he needs to do quicker. It's a game of inches, isn't it?
More than just playing faster, a player who properly understands what he's supposed to do can play harder. When he knows that he is supposed to win the ball in a certain area, he can tackle with everything he has. When he knows that he is supposed to get to a certain space, he can run as fast as he can. He doesn't have to look over his shoulder to know whether his teammate his coming to support him. He doesn't have to worry about doing the wrong thing. His body instinctively knows the right thing to do. He knows that what he is doing is correct, and he can apply himself entire to the decision and action. It's a liberating feeling. It brings the most out of us.
Keep all this in mind later today, as you're watching Robben go wide against Real Madrid—just one of the thousand moving parts in a game. Watch those pieces. Notice how the cogs work together and move with each other, and how, very often, they do neither. All of that goes into making the picture on your screen. The smoother the machine, the prettier the picture. Done right, it can be beautiful.
Bobby Warshaw graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science, and then was drafted in the 1st round (17th overall) by FC Dallas in 2011. Bobby currently plays for GAIS in Sweden, and sometimes contributes stories to his hometown newspaper, the Patriot-News, in Mechanicsburg, PA. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @bwarshaw14.
Image by Jim Cooke.