Before club football became the globalised phenomenon it now is, it was international tournaments that provided the tactical creativity and diversity we take for granted today.
It was at international tournaments that players such as Pele, Cruyff and Maradona could put on an exhibition against opponents who not only had not come across players so talented, but playing in a different way, appearing in different parts of the pitch, doubling up or running away from their own players in directions defenders just weren’t familiar with. And it was international tournaments that saw the innovations in formations truly take off. In 1958, Brazil successfully implemented a back four on their way to World Cup glory, as Argentina did in 86 with a 3-5-2. Both relatively new, unfamiliar formations at the time that confused opposition players and managers alike.
Since the expansion in television and scouting networks, however, club football has been at the forefront of tactical development, with international managers taking a back seat and selecting a team setup that favours the domestic familiarity of the players afforded to them. International teams can no longer turn up with a wacky formation or barmy offensive strategy. Considering this, we may be looking at a Euro 16 much like Brazil 14, Euro 2012, South Africa 2010 and Euro 08; tournaments dominated primarily by the tactics prevalent at Barca and latterly, Bayern. I.e; club football on the international stage. It would be easy, therefore, for a person interested in the tactical side of the game to already be dismissing the upcoming euros as predictable.
A surprise stirs, however. And it stirs in London. A recent football fan would be forgiven for thinking that 4-2-3-1 was legally the only way teams are allowed to set up. However, no teams around the world have transformed as positively as the London clubs recently have. Mauricio Pochettino has virtually reinvented Tottenham Hotspur to play in what essentially boils down a 3-3-2-2, utilising Eric Dier as a versatile defender, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose as wingers and midfielder Dele Alli as a support striker. What is also so obviously handy about this is they they help (along with Harry Kane) to form the spine of the England team. Whilst the likes of Germany, France and Spain will be used to defending a ‘traditional’ 4-2-3-1, Poch’s variation could prove a surprise. Teams are used to seeing full backs doubling up as winger, but almost never on both sides simultaneously. Dier’s slotting into defensive and Eriksen and Lamela moving centrally allows this with virtually no defensive compromise, as Spurs’ stingy 35 goals conceded this season attests.
But it’s not just at the Lane that London is innovating. Over at the now defunct Boleyn Ground, the Hammers are making headway. Few clubs have transformed their playing identity as successfully as West Ham have in recent years – from long ball experts to a creative side that plays on the ground and even, shockingly, through the centre at times. This derives partly from the brilliance of Payet of course but it’s foundations are laid by Mark Noble. It is his urgency on and off the ball that demands every passage of play to be decisive, and it is a testament to his grit that he has remained a stalwart in this evolving West Ham side. Whilst teams around the globe (and as we’re likely to see at the Euros) persist with technical, defensive, possession based football, it is the likes of Noble who offer tactical salvation where there is often little. Given Croydon-born Woy Hodgson’s inexplicable decision to abandon both him and Danny Drinkwater (formerly of Watford), the refreshing approaches of West Ham and Leicester this season are unlikely to see the light of day in France.
It is another (formerly) London based player that could provide some tactical entertainment in France this summer. Gareth Bale may not be much of a tactician himself, but his brilliance demands compensation from the team around him. As Villas Boas did before him, Chris Coleman has built his team around Bale, significantly bringing them to their first major tournament in 48 years. By utilising other attackers as ‘space makers’ rather than focal points, and a five man defence, the team allows Bale to take risks, make mistakes, and showcase his talent. Seven qualifying goals for the former Spurs man supports the notion that Bale and his Welsh contingent may be the most value for money, surprising team to watch at the Euros. Could Wales spring a surprise with an unexpected system, that gets the best out of a talented goalscoring winger, for the first time at a major tournament since they we knocked out by a team with an unexpected system, that gets the best out of a talented goalscoring winger? (Google anything Brazil/Pele 1958 related for details).
With Chelsea’s non brazilian contingent largely failing to impress this season, and Arsenal’s star European players returning to German/French/Spanish teams with their systems already in place, we genuinely could be in for a Euros in which England are the tactical revelation; the team that, when France 16 is looked back on as Sweden 58 is now, London will be the origin, the initial singularity, of a tactical revolution. Maybe that’s pushing it, but England’s core of London players could be the surprise of the tournament, and a surprise no defender wants to be facing.
By Joseph Cohen.