Jonathan Wilson’s oft-quoted tactical bible, Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, documents the shift in tactical emphasis from attack to defence in the 130-year history of the game as we know it.
Whereas teams originally set out in 2-3-5 systems that prioritised attack above everything else, a steadily growing awareness of the need to deny your opponents space prompted a gradual defensive evolution that has led to the 4-2-3-1 and various 4-5-1 hybrids becoming the current formations du jour.
With space in the attacking third of the pitch disappearing apace, pundits have begun to predict that the next phase of the pyramid’s inversion will see defensive players assuming more and more attacking responsibility in order to capitalise on the fact that they are often the only players on the pitch (apart from the goalkeepers) with time on the ball and space to run into.
Manchester City’s Carling Cup semi-final first leg victory over Manchester United on Tuesday night provided an interesting case in point.
With emotions in the stadium running high, and a second leg to come, both sides deployed conservative 4-5-1 formations that each contained three largely defensive central midfielders, two wide players and a solitary central forward. The resulting congestion in the centre of the pitch allowed little room for manoeuvre in advanced areas and two players who readily took advantage were United left-back Patrice Evra and City right-back Micah Richards.
Evra has long been an attacking outlet for United, but late in the second half at Eastlands, with United 2-1 down and chasing the game, he was the catalyst for almost all of their attacks – brazenly darting into City territory on the left flank, committing opposition defenders and thus creating space for his team-mates in attack. Rafael did not impose himself as much on the opposite flank, but he remains probably the most attacking right-back ever to play for the club.
“I have been getting forward a little more,” said Evra, a winger in his youth, earlier this season. “We always like to play with attacking full-backs but maybe this season we will see more of the left and right-backs in the final third.”
Richards’ emerging role in the City team is even more interesting. The rise of the attacking full-back in recent years has already been documented, but Richards belongs to a breed of player whose re-birth is being forecast as a direct response to the 4-2-3-1: the attacking centre-back.
Typically used as a right-back by both Sven-Göran Eriksson and Mark Hughes at City, Richards has been restored to central defence – his preferred position – by Roberto Mancini and given a clear brief to get forward. He scored a fine goal in the 4-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers after a breathtaking run from deep and although deployed at full-back against United he showed a similar willingness to cross the halfway line and penetrate United’s midfield, whilst also posing a constant threat from set-pieces.
“It was one of the best goals I’ve scored,” said Richards of his strike against Blackburn. “I saw the space and I just kept running, played it into Benji [Benjani Mwaruwari] and then got the rebound when it came back off the post. We’re always told to follow the ball up and I just got lucky this time.”
Shortly after Christmas, Rangers’ Algerian international centre-back Madjid Bougherra scored a memorable goal following a similarly audacious run. His side may have been 6-1 to the good against a well-beaten Dundee United team at the time, but his willingness to exploit the space ahead of him showed just how devastating an attacking central defender can be when given licence to run from deep. Strikers do not track them, defensive midfielders are already occupied and in a few strides they find themselves bearing down on their counterparts in the opposition defence.
Richards will likely relinquish his current role when Kolo Touré returns from the Africa Cup of Nations and Bougherra is unlikely to score as good a goal again in his life, but the signs are there. The inversion of the pyramid continues.