Despite being prefaced by a World Cup that was characterised by stodgy, unadventurous football and which produced the lowest goals-per-game ratio (2.27) since the notoriously defensive 1990 tournament (2.21), the 2010-11 European football season was generally a positive one for teams that sought to keep the ball on the deck and play an expansive game. Football Further examines some of the tactical trends that have emerged in the continent’s major leagues over the last 10 months.
1. Keepers with good feet
The recent retirement of Manchester United’s Edwin van der Sar has drawn attention to the value of goalkeepers who can set attacking moves in motion by distributing the ball in an intelligent and enterprising fashion. In a masterful piece for the Financial Times last week, David Winner explained how van der Sar’s coach at Ajax, Louis van Gaal, made a priority of developing his ability with the ball: “Van Gaal… had something more sophisticated in mind: to turn van der Sar into the first ‘sweeper-keeper’, the pivot of his new, high-speed ‘circulation football’ (which became, among other things, the precursor to the current Barcelona style).”
With teams better organised defensively than ever before and attacking players more and more adept at pressing opposition defenders, a goalkeeper who passes the ball well can be a priceless commodity. Victor Valdés provided a superb recent example in the second leg of Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. With the score 0-0 early in the second half, Valdés used a goal-kick to play a one-two with Gerard Piqué – positioned near the right-hand corner flag – that lured Real’s attacking players up the pitch. Upon receiving the return ball from Piqué, Valdés curled a risky but perfectly executed first-time pass to Dani Alves on the right flank, taking five opposition players out of the game and setting up a counter-attack. Seconds later the ball was in the net, and Barca were on the brink of the final.
2. Wingers lose their wings
As documented with customarily forensic detail by Zonal Marking, certain wingers at European clubs have enjoyed a new lease of life after being redeployed in roving central positions. Ashley Young was given licence to organise the Aston Villa attack from a free, central role, Marseille’s Mathieu Valbuena – habitually a right-sided attacking midfielder – found himself used as a conventional number 10 and even as a ‘false nine’ on occasion, and Udinese’s push for Champions League qualification was given an unexpected shot in the arm by Francesco Guidolin’s decision to convert Chile winger Alexis Sánchez into a high-octane central playmaker.
The redeployment of wide players in central areas allows coaches to solve a common problem: how do you maintain a compact midfield without sacrificing width on both flanks? With a ‘central winger’ granted the freedom to take up positions on both flanks, there is no need for wide players on both sides of the pitch and therefore an extra man can be used to add ballast to the centre of midfield.
3. Full-backs in unlikely places
Football Further featured two articles on full-backs this season. The first posited that full-backs who are asked to play as attacking wide midfielders thrive due to the fact they are able to combine the natural athleticism of a wide player with the defensive discipline of a trained defender, while the second speculated that ‘inside-out’ full-backs playing on the ‘wrong’ side of the pitch were finding space to attack in the opposition third because modern teams tend not to be set up to defend against full-backs who cut inside from the flanks.
Jonathan Wilson makes a convincing case that the full-back has become one of the key attacking components in top-level football, and one only has to look at the interest generated by players such as Benfica’s Fábio Coentrão to appreciate how glamorous a position it now is. Able to dominate an entire flank on his own, the multi-faceted modern full-back possesses a blend of pace, stamina, defensive rigour and attacking endeavour that makes him the archetype of the 21st-century footballer.
4. Is 5’7″ is the new 6’0″?
In fitting tribute to the success enjoy by Spain’s pint-sized schemers at the World Cup, small, technical players have hogged the limelight in all of Europe’s major leagues. Shinji Kagawa (5’8″) and Mario Götze (5’7″) both played key roles in Borussia Dortmund’s title success, the former scoring eight goals in 18 league games before injury struck at the Asian Cup, the latter earning comparisons with Lionel Messi for bewitching defences with his probing dribbles and solo goals.
In France, Eden Hazard (5’7″) was named Ligue 1 player of the year for inspiring Lille to their first league title since 1954, while Marvin Martin (5’7″) ran away with the Trophée du meilleur passeur after setting up no less than 17 goals for his Sochaux team-mates. Manchester City newcomer David Silva (5’7″) astonished Premier League audiences with his touch and awareness, with Jack Wilshere (5’7″) and Luka Modrić (5’7″) pouring further scorn on the notion that physically unprepossessing players are ill-equipped to handle the rough and tumble of the English game.
It was of course Barcelona, however, who struck the most resounding blows for the small but perfectly formed brigade. Messi, Pedro, Xavi and Andres Iniésta are all 5’7″ or under, but after a third straight La Liga title and a second Champions League crown in three years, no-one in football looks down on them.
5. The single-striker system is king
The formations adopted by this season’s Champions League semi-finalists confirmed that single-striker systems have become a prerequisite to success in Europe’s elite club competition. The popularity of the 4-3-1-2 formation with a central trequartista continues to endure in Serie A, but in general the modern trend is for lone forwards supplemented by a band of attacking midfielders. Occasionally that single striker will be a ‘false nine’, such as Messi or Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, but more often than not he is a conventional number nine, deployed to hold the ball up in the opposition half and polish off chances in the penalty area.
Increasingly, this division of labour means that more well-rounded strikers are drifting towards the wings. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona’s David Villa and Luis Suárez of Liverpool - three of the stand-out attackers at the World Cup – have all been deployed as left-sided forwards at club level, making use of their ability to come inside and shoot at goal with their stronger right feet. As the voting for the inaugural FIFA Ballon d’Or confirmed, the versatile forward has well and truly usurped the goal-getting striker in the glamour stakes.