Tactical Theory: The relationship between individual dynamics, principles and systems – tactical analysis
Modern-day football is perhaps exposed to the largest diversity of tactics witnessed in any given time period. Diversification of coaching philosophies, combined with what are simply higher standards than we’ve ever seen before in fitness, coaching and mentality, has induced this phenomenon.
This breadth in tactics has become more apparent not just for the reasons above, but because players are adhering to the coached philosophies – they have the capabilities to do so, and tactically deficient players, teams or coaches aren’t sustainable at the top level – they won’t last. Effectively, and very simply put: what we see is what is coached. At least, more so than ever before.
When watching a Pep Guardiola side, we can say with confidence which players are meant to be where, and when there’s a moment of individual inspiration – an off-the-cuff action, which historically may have been harder to decipher whether it was individually impulsive, or a coached ploy. And anyway, if we’re ever unsure whether a player’s actions are individualistic or coached, the player’s manager often sign-posts this post-game anyway – Guardiola in recent weeks has been incessantly banging the drum that says his fullbacks aren’t inverting enough.
With the diversification of tactics on show at the top level, classifying the different philosophies and facets down could be interesting. In that vein, contrasting Juego de Posicion to automatisms, insinuating that they’re completely distinct philosophies can be reductive, and hinges on semantics.
A more liberal approach can be adopted here, and applying a sliding scale ranging all the way from individual actions to all-encompassing systems could work, particularly because as discussed above, individual actions now generally fall under the coached framework, and strict systems are also obviously coached. From here, we can get an appreciation of the variation in coached philosophies at the top level, and discuss whether principles or systems are better suited at the top level, and where future trends could lie.
Coached principles are hard to identify for a viewer, as they manifest in many different forms, often on an individualistic level rather than a systematic level, and are often conducive to fluidity, rather than presenting themselves in an obvious and consistent form. In order to explain principles in a holistic fashion, while paying respect to the immense complexities of micro-actions, case studies are necessary.
Ten Hag’s Manchester United aren’t bound to a strict positional setup, yet generally exemplify optimal angles and spacing in possession, much akin to a good positional system. The gold standard coaching of principles that ten Hag offers is the facilitator for this to happen.
Building from the back, United adopt a fairly fluid approach. The fullbacks aren’t pinned to an inverted position, nor are they sent into depth to create a vertical threat while maintaining width for the team. Players aren’t sacrificed on an individual level to generate downstream opportunities for teammates – at least not on the same level as seen in certain all-encompassing systems.
The fullbacks hold a regular position, similar to their nominal position in a four-at-the-back system. They have licence to push on, to become a diagonal chipped ‘out ball’ from the keeper.
They can be better suited dropping very deep to offer a ground ball in the ‘security ring’, which is effectively the row of players who can recycle possession laterally to ensure United can keep the ball – the back four and goalkeeper in this scenario.
The players aren’t just coached to problem solve within the framework – they are also coached on an individual level. These individual principles include but aren’t limited to body orientation players have when receiving, the number and type of touches the players can take and the amount of pressure an individual can attract in certain positions on the pitch.
Ten Hag’s United have exemplified how these micro-principles on an individual and more macro-principles on a team level translate from theory to practice. In a recent match against Nottingham Forest, United’s first line of build-up showed their ability to be dynamic and adapt to breaking down Forest’s mid-block, while adhering to the overarching principles. In other words, United’s players had the freedom to problem-solve, while maintaining the best tactical practice. It’s the perfect blend of coaching and control over the system, and versatility and dynamism. It allows players to play with freedom, instil their own individual inspiration, yet have total clarity surrounding their teammates’ actions, and have transparent principles to fall back on when the pressure is on.
One example of the scope of freedom players are given within the principles is how centre-backs are allowed to take several touches to strafe horizontally across the back line. Lisandro Martinez was highlighted taking these touches to move across, probing Forest’s defensive block to pry for a gap to make a progressive pass through the lines. Typically centre-backs are encouraged to take minimal touches (mainly two, maybe three touches) to ensure the ball is constantly shifted across the first line of build-up. Furthermore, centre-backs taking a significant number of touches in one go is not only a common pressing trigger but also a sign of panic and lack of intent and clarity.
For Martinez under Ten Hag, taking these touches is a statement of intent. He has total clarity surrounding what he can get away with, and where he should be aiming to play the ball. He isn’t dictated to by his manager in an overly strict manner, and he has room to adapt to the problems Forest defenders present in this instance. If the principles were so strict that the only ‘best practice’ options in possession were blocked off, Martinez could very easily hit a brick wall, face problems, and perhaps even panic in possession too. Alas, these principles are balanced perfectly in order to prevent this scenario from arising.
From Juego de Posicion to Automatisms
Positional play (JDP) and automatism-based systems are both all-encompassing styles for a team to play in. Players are less encouraged to problem solve – the system hands them the tools to succeed – at least ideally anyway. This isn’t to say the systems aren’t subject to adaptation or change over the course of a season or even game-to-game. Managers such as Pep Guardiola actually tinker with their systems most weeks, both with personnel and structural changes, and this is often done with an eye on the prospective opposition. Likewise, a manager who coaches principles rather than a strict system will also make adaptations from game to game. But generally, for strict systems, the onus is on the manager to problem-solve (before or during a game), whereas, for more dynamic tactical sides, the onus is on the players to problem-solve within the game.
In recent years, strict systems have seen huge success in league campaigns. The consistency offered by such systems is conducive to controlling games, preventing dangerous defensive transitions, and sustainably creating chances through combinations and rotations.
Antonio Conte has won a league with Inter, ending Juve’s long-standing domination in Serie A, as well as winning a 93-point league title with Chelsea. Pep Guardiola has won four league titles out of six since moving to English football in 2016/17 (which incidentally was the year Conte won with Chelsea).
A tentative judgement on Conte and Guardiola’s relative lack of European success could be that their systems are reliant on pre-game organisation and planning, and it is harder for their teams to problem-solve within games. More dynamic teams such as Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have had more success in recent years – as has Thomas Tuchel with Chelsea.
To elaborate on how strict systems are, Guardiola’s Manchester City are a topical example of a JDP system. No more than two players are encouraged to align in each vertical zone, although rotations allow players to move between zones in a circular manner. Kevin De Bruyne is notorious for his activity in the right half-space but is frequently seen overlapping in the wide space if the system permits. This still allows him to access his favoured crossing angles, from which he so consistently creates.
City use a wide triangle in fact, which aims to use these rotations to find a spare man. If the spare man is Mahrez for example, he can use his 1v1 abilities to create – likewise, if the spare man is De Bruyne, he can use his crossing to create.
The downside of having such a methodical playing style though is that teams can quite easily predict how City will play and can make adaptations to defend against them. When City’s style was relatively new to the league, this was virtually impossible to do, however more and more, we are seeing teams learn how to cope with each iteration of Guardiola’s City. Guardiola himself has even stated in fact, that he must always adapt and change, regardless of whether City have a good season or a bad one.
Another factor that is worth considering is that players can easily become burnt out, when heavily involved with strict systems, over a period of time. Most recently, Joao Cancelo has been disillusioned at Manchester City, being left out of the starting line-up having put in a number of variable performances in late 2022. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that one of City’s more impulsive, inspirational creative talents (rather than robotic, methodical ones such as KDB or Haaland) has cracked, and fallen short of Guardiola’s standards. Strict systems can sweep all before them to break league records, but they also introduce some self-inflicted problems to a team, and we’re seeing the limitations of strict systems more and more in the modern elite game.
The same notions can be transposed onto Antonio Conte’s experiences with automatisms at Tottenham Hotspur. His side aren’t faring particularly well, and Spurs have put in a number of overly insipid performances where they have effectively been nullified by the opposition. Coaching a team to play in a clockwork manner, along with having top players isn’t quite enough in the modern game, and opposition teams are becoming better at crafting plans to defend against the repeated combinations automatisms provide. A level of problem-solving, individual inspiration or sheer unpredictability is needed.
Because no two coaches are the same, even if they coach a similar style of football (JDP for example), we can plot the strictness of a system on a scale. A coach who believes in socio-connections between the players will lie towards the ‘less strict’ side, principles lie in the middle, and JDP and automatisms lie on the ‘strict’ side. What is interesting about this though, is that some coaches believe in a hybrid approach. This doesn’t simply mean that they coach some areas of the game in a strict manner and some in a more freeform manner (i.e. defending in a strict shape and attacking in a free-flowing shape), but more so that one phase of the possession is strict, and another is reliant on individual actions and problem-solving.
Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea were a great example of this approach. The build-up in the 3-2 shape was incredibly disciplined, with the back three and double pivot forming a very compact structural component. When the players were on song, this structure was almost unplayable because they were so compact and so precise in their passing. But in the wide and attacking areas, Chelsea were encouraged to problem-solve by Tuchel. Mason Mount was encouraged to roam to find spaces down the side of opposition blocks, particularly on the left and in the left half-space. The wingbacks were expected to be dynamic, by offering out balls for the 3-2 in build-up, as well as making well-timed, rampaging vertical runs down the line, and also attacking the far side of the box to overload opposition defenders.
Structure in the build-up and problem-solving in the attacking phases seemed to provide Chelsea with a successful foundation – stability in the higher-risk possession areas, and an unpredictable edge in areas where they could more comfortably risk losing possession in order to play. The execution of this system may have wavered over time, and Tuchel wasn’t an entirely resounding success, but his balanced approach certainly seemed like a logical one – balancing a strict structure and dynamic football in one team was quite the contrast to witness.
The idea of placing coached aspects on a sliding scale from individual micro-actions to all-encompassing, systematic, entire-team actions is an interesting one. Discussing coached principles helps us understand that players under certain coaches are problem-solving within a framework, and upturn in form under good coaches, who haven’t implemented an all-encompassing system can be understood through this idea – compare United’s improvement under ten Hag to Spurs’ initial improvement under Antonio Conte for example.
Using this discussion to also gauge why certain styles of coaching are faring the way they are is topical, and we can extrapolate these tentative conclusions to predict future trends in coaching. In this tactical theory article, there is certainly an argument for principle-heavy coaching, rather than a disciplinarian, systematic style of coaching. A level of dynamism is healthy in the modern game, and with the right players, can raise the ceiling for a team beyond that of mere automatisms or rigid positional play.
Automatisms are an instruction booklet, while principles simply hand players the tools, and this is more frequently becoming optimal in a healthy team environment.