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6 Incredible Football Tactics That Revolutionized the Game

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Belinda is a freelance copywriter who is on a mission to add sparkle to boring web content.

Tactics in Football

Football tactics have evolved over the years and continue to do so today. Early football games were largely based on physique instead of on style. Passing and team harmony were rare. Players would receive possession and move forward with teammates following as backups in case the ball lost control, and individual dribbling skills were the highlight of the game. The following tactics changed football forever and transformed the style of the game to make it more interesting.

1. The Combination Game

The combination game is an alternative approach that pioneered the passing of the ball instead of individual dribbling. It emphasized teamwork and cooperation.

Why It’s Called the Combination Game

The playing style involved a combination of dribbling and passing skills.

When It Was First Used

The Queens Park FC of the 1870s used Combination in the FA Cup against the Wanderers. Even though the game ended 0-0, the opponents were impressed by their style.

The Rise of the Scottish Combination Game

The Queen’s Park playing style spread across other Scottish clubs. In the annual international games, Scotland won 10 times and was defeated twice by England.

The Scottish style would further influence notable teams across England such as; Liverpool FC, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Fulham, Arsenal, Southampton and Derby County.

Why It Was Successful

The combination game offered a greater advantage to the rudimentary style of football.

Scottish players worked as a team maximizing both talent and cooperation giving them the upper hand.

Liverpool FC

Liverpool FC

2. The WM Football Formation

Until the 1920s, the 2-3-5 formation was widely used. This “pyramid” system changed when an offside law required attackers to have only two opponents between them and the opponent’s goal.

The then-manager for Arsenal, Herbert Chapman, popularized the 3-2-2-3 formation or WM to comply.

Why It’s Called the WM Formation

Chapman put an equal number of players on the defensive and offensive ends. The defender’s arrangement on the pitch forms the letter W while that of the forwards is M.

How It Works

The WM involves 3 defenders staying close to the goalkeeper when in defense. To prevent long ball counterattack, the defenders are to spread out. It also includes 2 central midfielders with speed and 2 wingers with good crossing ability to lie ahead on both sides of the pitch.

Teams with high endurance midfielders can play seven defenders and seven forwards at a time. This can be achieved by halfbacks moving up in offense and inside forwards dropping back in defense.

When It Was First Used

Arsenal is the most renowned team to be associated with WM. The formation helped the club win 5 First Division titles and 2 FA Cups. This was between 1931 and 1939.

The Rise of the WM

Arsenal has been an unsuccessful club. Their achievement was noticed and this led to the adaptation of the WM by other clubs across England. Chapman then went further to move the inside forwards further back. This move allowed his teams to control the midfield.

Why It Was Successful

The gap in the center of the WM formation allowed Arsenal to have effective counter-attacks.

Counter moves on the WM: The WM formation was susceptible to fast interchanges against teams with fast players and midfielders who could pick a long pass.

3. Hungary’s WW Positioning

The most memorable game in football history is the 1953 Hungary vs. England game. Hungary’s 6-3 win at Wembley was a shock as England had never lost an international at the field. This football match is popularly known as the Match of the Century.

Why It's Called WW Positioning

It was derived from the WM formation. Hungarian coach Marton Bukovi strategically turned the M upside down by creating a 2-3-2-3 formation.

How It Works

WW works with 3 defenders, 2 halfbacks, 3 forwards and two wingers. The key player is the withdrawn striker. His role is to draw out the opposing center back to make room for the other strikers.

When It Was First Used

The tactic was used in the Match of the Century with the English team lining up in the usual WM formation and the Hungarian team took the WW formation.

Hungary scored within the first minute when Nandor Hidegkuti powered a shot past Gil Merrick.

WW eventually overpowered the rigid WM as it was flexible. Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Puskas managed to draw English players out of position allowing the Hungarian players to bypass their markers.

The Rise of the WW

WW destroyed the then famous WM formation. Tottenham Hotspur in 1961 and Porto in the 2005-2006 Primeira Liga modified the formation to a 3-3-4 formation with success.

Why It Was Successful

Hungary’s win popularized the strategy of getting attackers cunningly into space then playing directly against them.

4. The False 9

It is a term that has mostly been associated with Guardiola-era Messi. The false 9, however, is an old idea that can be traced back to the great Austrian team of the 1930s.

The false 9 is basically a striker who can also drift back into midfield.

Why It's Called the False 9

Back in the old football days, the traditional center forward would wear the number 9. When this player did not play the assigned number 9 role, he was referred to as the false 9.

When It Was First Used

It was first used in the 1930s by the Austrian national team, Wunderteam. Matthias Sindelar was a striker who dropped deep and confused the opponent’s defense. The Hungarian team in their match against England later used it. Nandor Hidegkuti was the deep-lying forward.

In the modern game, Francesco Totti became the false 9 for Roma in 2006-07 under Luciano Spaletti.

The Rise of the False 9

Roma had great success with Totti playing as a false 9. This led to managers around Europe experiment with the idea. Sir Alex Ferguson created strikerless formations with Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. Arsene Wenger made Robin Van Persie a false 9 in 2009.

It was Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi who used the false 9 to change the traditional setting for forwards early in the 2010-11 season.

Pep ensured Messi stayed subtle enough to represent a goal threat no matter the scheme employed.

Why It Was Successful

The false 9 concepts saw Barcelona achieve a 5-0 win against Real Madrid. Messi easily tore apart Real’s defense. False 9 became mainstream when Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain lineup in Euro 2012 gave the false 9 an official status. This marked the first time in football history that a huge international final would start without a striker. Cesc Fabregas played as a center forward for Spain instead of his usual role as an attacking midfielder. They won 4-1 against Italy.

The basic element that made the false 9 powerful was that traditionally, a center forward would have one center backtrack him while the other center back covers for him.

When a false 9 is in play, both center backs are left free during the buildup. The center backs on the opponent’s side become confused. They get stranded between maintaining the defense line together or following the false 9 into midfield.

Counter moves: One way is to adopt the 4-2-3-1 formation. When played with a good double pivot and a deep line, it limits space for the false 9. The congestion lets the false 9 lose their target. This is the Parking the bus strategy.

Another move is to allow the center back to follow the false 9 around the pitch and have the remaining three center backs hold the defensive line.

5. Catenaccio

Catenaccio is the Italian word for door bolt. The major focus of this style of football was to tighten the defense. Catenaccio changed the style of defense for teams.

Why It's Called Catenaccio

Catenaccio had a philosophy that if the opposite side cannot score a goal, then they cannot win the match.

The objective was therefore to block any passage towards the goal. This was achieved by strict man-marking and an additional defensive player known as the sweeper. His role was to freely roam in front of the goal and prevent any advantage by the opponents from scoring.

How It Works

The main principle is in the use of an additional defensive player called the sweeper. The objective is to remove a midfielder and put him behind the defense.

The sweeper has three major roles;

  • Nullify the forwards.
  • Picks up loose balls to initiate an attack.
  • Sweeps throughout the pitch.

The other key aspect of Catenaccio is the counter-attack mode which employs long passes from the defense.

When It Was First Used

Austrian coach Karl Rappan was the first to try out a sweeper behind the line of defense. Nereo Rocco popularized the concept in Italy with Triestina by changing the formations but always retaining the sweeper.

The Argentine coach, Helenio Herrera used a similar strategy with Inter Milan. His style was different as it used a sweeper behind a back four. They were given strict marking roles and counter-attack roles.

The Rise of Catenaccio

Herrera brought Internazionale Milano to 3 Serie A Championship titles and 2 European Championship cups with Catenaccio. He then won the Italian Cup while in AS Roma. A notable accomplishment was when Inter Milan defeated the legendary Real Madrid 3-1 in the 1964 Championship Cup.

Many Italian teams then adopted this style of soccer that Catenaccio became synonymous with Italian football in the 1960s.

Counter moves: The tactic began to see a decline in the 1970s when more offensive strategies countered their moves.

In 1972, Herrero’s Inter Milan lost 2-0 to Ajax in the European Cup finals with the total football strategy. Ajax hammered Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan 6-0 in the European Super Cup finals the following year.

Herrera complained that teams that copied his system only focused on the defense instead of the counterattack. Italy started to find ways of improving their attack strategy to complement the strong defense.

This Is Soccer

In this life, a man can change wives, political parties or religions but he cannot change his favorite soccer team.

— -Eduardo Hughes Galeano

6. Total Football

Total football is perhaps the most respected tactical innovation. It changed football by exposing the limitations of the man-marking technique.

It is based on the idea that any football field was flexible and could be altered by the team playing on it.

Why It's Called Total Football

Total football is largely based on adaptability. There are no fixed positions leading to the fluid movement and constant circulation of players with the exception of the goalkeeper. This makes it a game of total football and not positions or defense or offense but all these elements blended together to make a good game.

How It Works

A player who moves out of his position is replaced by his teammate. Team players can consecutively play as defenders, attackers and midfielders. Only the goalkeeper retains his position.

The success of this tactic depends on how fast each player can quickly switch positions on the pitch. One crucial requirement is to have players who can comfortably play multiple positions.

When It Was First Used

In the 1970s, Ajax played in the revolutionary style and achieved home wins for two consecutive seasons. They also attained four titles in 1972 namely; the European Cup, KNVB Cup, Intercontinental Cup and the Netherlands National League.

The Rise of Total Football

Jack Reynolds who served as the manager for Ajax, set the foundation for total football. Gustav Sebes who was the coach for the Hungarian national team would, later on, develop the tactic in the 1950s.

Former Ajax team player Rinus Michels would popularize total football. He was familiar with what worked and what did not with the tactic under Reynolds. Rinus tweaked total football and introduced the great forward Johan Cruyff. Cruyff knew how to use his technical ability and intelligence on the pitch to exploit the weakness that saw him become a total football legend.

Why It Was Successful

Total football experienced huge success with Michels and Cyruff as Ajax won 8 Fredivisie titles, 3 European Cups and an Intercontinental Cup. It also Netherlands well into the World Cup finals in 1974.

Counter moves: During the 1974 World Cup final, the total football tactic started to get stifled in the second half of the match. The impressive man-marking skills of Berti Vogts and the ability to gain control in the midfield by West Germany led the Dutch to concede a 2-1 loss.

Teams such as Atletico, Leicester and Barcelona discovered that opponents had forgotten how to make counter moves to old-fashioned tactics. They used it to their advantage and found success. However, when it comes to tactics, there is always the nagging question of what will be the next tactical innovation


Titus Maxwell on June 03, 2019:

I really like this piece. But I thought 'tiki taka'is among them suppose?