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Mathias Sammer - The man who turned ambling out of the defensive line into an artform

Tactically, the game of football is cyclical and, by now, there’s nothing really new in the game.  It’s all just bringing back old tactics with a cherry on top. This is why top clubs spend a truckload of cash every year on sports science departments and, in some leagues, are so focused on pace and power.  The creativity of the team has moved.  We seldom see the classic tippy-tappy football focused on a central playmaker.  Even Luka Modric is shunted out wide.  When the athletic side of the game becomes overpowering, this can also change tactics.

However, there’s always some tactic that’s just around the corner, waiting to be rediscovered.  A favoured book of mine is “Brilliant Orange” by David Winner, a study of Dutch football that argues that Dutch football is a mirror of their society.  The Dutch see a football pitch as a space and so their football is about how best to use that space.  Total Football was about limiting the space of the opposition whilst creating space for yourself.  And space is why we get such tactical evolutions.

After ambling out of defence and passing the ball to Steffen Freund a lot, Matthias Sammer became the poster boy of a generation.   Lazy central midfielders and flimsy, ball-playing centre backs all fancied themselves as the new Sammer, acting as a roaming sweeper who initiates attacks as well as performing emergency defensive duties.  Of course, this was in no way a new thing.  Klaus Augenthaler had done the same job previously, but this time, it caught the tactical zeitgeist and many followed the German way.  Rio Ferdinand started as a sweeper for Harry Redknapp and it was fairly surprising to see how David O’Leary adapted his game to that of a standard centre back when he went to Leeds.  Basically, in the mid-to-late 90’s, the space was considered to be in front of a sweeper and teams started to play that way.  The creativity in the team was moved there.

Now, it’s attacking full-backs and defensive forwards.   Variations of the 4-3-3 or the 4-5-1 are the formations du jour.   If you play a 4-4-2 and press high up the pitch, the full back has all the space.   Once players consistently have space, playing a certain way becomes fashionable and then countering that tactic becomes all-important.  Attacking full backs will command decent sums of money and countries that seem to produce these players see even the most average players snapped up.  It’s not a new thing to use the space that the full backs have to set up attacks and use other players to peg back the opposition full backs; it has been around for some time.  Morten Olsen looked like a crazy man in the 90s when he started playing 4-2-3-1 with Jostein Flo on the right wing for Norway but the proof was in the pudding.  Stig Inge Bjornebye had the time and space at left back to pick out diagonal passes to Flo, who dominated full backs and created chances for his teammates.  They called it the Flo Pass and Flo also succeeded in pegging his opposite number back.  It was ugly, it was anti-football but it worked.

If you told a fan of an English club in 1997 at the height of 3-5-2 that the 4-3-3 and its variants, then a relic of the 70s, would have not only made a comeback but be one of the main formation used in the top flight, you would have got some disbelieving looks.  Back fours were dead; it was three centre backs and wing backs that pointed to the future.  Are defensive wide forwards and lone strikers the future?   Probably not.  In ten years they might be as antiquated as wingbacks are now.  Creativity goes where the space goes.  Tactics change to put the creativity where the space is and to stifle the creativity of the opposition, players just adapt.

Tactically, the game of football is cyclical and, by now, there’s nothing really new in the game. It’s all just bringing back old tactics with a cherry on top. This is why top clubs spend a truckload of cash every year on sports science departments and, in some leagues, are so focused on pace and power. The creativity of the team has moved. We seldom see the classic tippy-tappy football focused on a central playmaker. Even Luka Modric is shunted out wide. When the athletic side of the game becomes overpowering, this can also change tactics.

However, there’s always some tactic that’s just around the corner, waiting to be rediscovered. A favoured book of mine is “Brilliant Orange” by David Winner, a study of Dutch football that argues that Dutch football is a mirror of their society. The Dutch see a football pitch as a space and so their football is about how best to use that space. Total Football was about limiting the space of the opposition whilst creating space for yourself. And space is why we get such tactical evolutions.

After ambling out of defence and passing the ball to Steffen Freund a lot, Matthias Sammer became the poster boy of a generation. Lazy central midfielders and flimsy, ball-playing centre backs all fancied themselves as the new Sammer, acting as a roaming sweeper who initiates attacks as well as performing emergency defensive duties. Of course, this was in no way a new thing. Klaus Augenthaler had done the same job previously, but this time, it caught the tactical zeitgeist and many followed the German way. Rio Ferdinand started as a sweeper for Harry Redknapp and it was fairly surprising to see how David O’Leary adapted his game to that of a standard centre back when he went to Leeds. Basically, in the mid-to-late 90’s, the space was considered to be in front of a sweeper and teams started to play that way. The creativity in the team was moved there.

Now, it’s attacking full-backs and defensive forwards. Variations of the 4-3-3 or the 4-5-1 are the formations du jour. If you play a 4-4-2 and press high up the pitch, the full back has all the space. Once players consistently have space, playing a certain way becomes fashionable and then countering that tactic becomes all-important. Attacking full backs will command decent sums of money and countries that seem to produce these players see even the most average players snapped up. It’s not a new thing to use the space that the full backs have to set up attacks and use other players to peg back the opposition full backs; it has been around for some time. Morten Olsen looked like a crazy man in the 90s when he started playing 4-2-3-1 with Jostein Flo on the right wing for Norway but the proof was in the pudding. Stig Inge Bjornebye had the time and space at left back to pick out diagonal passes to Flo, who dominated full backs and created chances for his teammates. They called it the Flo Pass and Flo also succeeded in pegging his opposite number back. It was ugly, it was anti-football but it worked.

If you told a fan of an English club in 1997 at the height of 3-5-2 that the 4-3-3 and its variants, then a relic of the 70s, would have not only made a comeback but be one of the main formation used in the top flight, you would have got some disbelieving looks. Back fours were dead; it was three centre backs and wing backs that pointed to the future. Are defensive wide forwards and lone strikers the future? Probably not. In ten years they might be as antiquated as wingbacks are now. Creativity goes where the space goes. Tactics change to put the creativity where the space is and to stifle the creativity of the opposition, players just adapt.

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Written by Michael Farrow

September 22, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Football

Tagged with ,

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