Where football will go next

The tactical development of football is almost as diverse and compelling as the game itself. Over just the past decade we’ve seen the fall and fall of the classic Number 10 and the meteoric rise of attacking full backs and deep-lying forwards and football scarcely resembles the one created in Cambridge 160 years ago. There is literally infinite ways that football could ‘mutate’ but what are the likely ways in which we could see the changes?

Fullbacks have undergone massive changes to their role in recent years, having moved from being wide centre-backs to being creative, attacking forces in their own right. We have even seen them deployed in their traditional form alongside the newer, Dani Alves-style of fullback, as a balancing mechanism to achieve wonderful synergy in defence. The role that the Brazilian plays at Barcelona is much-documented so I won’t babble on about that but the resurgence of a conservative, narrow full-back is one of much more interest.

Dani Alves: the latest of the Brazilian wing-backs

Centre-backs are often played in this way in conjunction with, or to quell an attacking fullback on the other side of the pitch. Barcelona are perhaps, for once, not the best example here since Eric Abidal is hardly the most defensive fullback in the world, but he does provide a defensive solidity to balance out the ridiculously attacking movement of Alves. As the team moves forward to start a move, the centre-backs and Abidal tuck in deep to make a brilliantly immovable back three, with the addition of Busquets dropping in between Pique and Puyol at times. This methodical ‘shuffle’ allows Alves to push forward and just as importantly, stay forward as his presence is hardly missed. On the off chance that the midfield or attack lose the ball, Alves is covered by up to four players at the back. His pace allows Busquets to return to his position and they can return to shape ready to press very quickly.

So what ways could the fullback evolve? Realistically, not many. Barring the emergence of a completely new, cutting-edge shape, the full back will not take on a completely new role, but it is possible, even probable, that we are likely to see the narrow, deep form paired across the pitch with a gung-ho attacking force, and they could potentially kill one another off, in the way that defensive midfielders made classic Number 10s extinct and as a result, ended their own existence. We could see defensive fullbacks consistently pitting their wits against their attacking counterparts and when one becomes the hunter, the other will become the prey. When the prey disappears, so will the hunter and we could see a whole new age for fullbacks as managers mastermind the next move.

The midfield has arguably always been the battlefield in football. Even in the darkest days of the English game, even when the combined tactical knowledge in the country was that of a potato, it was acknowledged that the midfield was vital for victory.

Xavi, Busquets, Messi: three of the most high-profile La Masia graduates

With the success of Spain and Barcelona in the latter part of the 2000s, it has become even more a subject of discussion. Unsurprisingly there seems to be an understanding that “more men in midfield= win” but it is the evolution of the role of midfielders in the modern game that has brought the likes of Xavi and Iniesta to the forefront.

Passing is even more essential than ever before, supported by the improvement of playing surfaces around the world, and the need to compete with the possession-focussed football developed in Spain and South America has driven English clubs to turn their attention to midfield. Three-man midfields are now all the rage. With this, we’ve waved farewell to the 4-4-2 and ushered in the age of the 4-5-1 variants, not a massive change on paper but systematically an absolutely huge step forward for football.

With the rise of the three-man midfield, we’ve watched passers jump on its back to the top. Everyone has to be a good passer in midfield now, it is simply not acceptable to sit in front of the defence, or ‘get stuck in’. Destroyers have to pass, creators have to pass and runners have to pass. The days of Paddy Vieira versus Roy Keane are gone- both decent passers, but by all means not suited to today’s game, just 8 years after they were around their peaks.

Vieira: thing of the past?

The midfield remains the battlefield, but in a much less literal sense than ever before. In the days of the Vieira-Keane battles, it would have been an almost unforeseeable prospect that nearly 10 years on in 2011, Ryan Giggs would be pulling strings in the centre of midfield in a Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea and that the winners of that competition, Barcelona, would have an average height of just 177cm (5ft 10), that figure even skewed massively by the uncharacteristic height of Gerard Pique (192cm, 6 ft 4).

The midfield is no longer a place to have a good old scrap, it’s where you’ll find the most intelligent, the quickest thinking, and the best anticipators in the game.

The ‘scrap’ is not a physical one anymore. It, like the game generally, is so heavily focused on technique and mentality that it is nearly unrecognisable from just decades before. Here, the possible changes are slightly more clear cut but even so, if my predictions were right, I wouldn’t be a student, I’d be Alex Ferguson’s successor, wouldn’t I?

Defensive attacking midfielders. “Um, what?” I hear you mumble at the back. An oxymoron indeed, but a very realistic proposition for world football. I’ve talked about passing and its role today but throughout the tactical development of football, we’ve seen roles established and shortly after, counters to roles. All successful styles get caught up with eventually and brought down and the logical thought process to stop deep lying playmakers like Xavi is to mark him.

Playmakers revolve around space. Without it they are just an extra leg that you have to drag along and as, yes, you guessed it, the classic Number 10 died from a position just in front of the opposition defence, playmakers were forced to withdraw themselves to just in front of their own defence to find space. Attacking midfielders rarely operate in that space anymore because there’s no space there, but if we stop ourselves from seeing attacking midfielders as purely creative forces, there is a very obvious solution there.

Why can’t we employ a midfielder in that space that a deep lying playmaker operates in and mark him out of the game? These kind of players are rarely quick, and if the marker has a half a brain cell, he should find himself with an easy task. The only way the Xavis and Pirlos of the world can go then to find space is wide, and that is surely an unattractive prospect for them. Park Ji Sung is already used in a similar way to this against teams like Chelsea to nullify the threat of Essien or Mikel and I’m fairly certain that we could see this become a pattern of today’s game.

Beckenbauer: the Kaiser's influence lives on

Now that we’ve tackled that, what about the flipside- attacking defensive midfielders? I mentioned earlier the wealth of space in front of defences for deep lying playmakers. These intelligent passers use space to spray the ball across the place as they can see the pitch laid out in front of them but a much more dynamic variant of the defensive midfielder could evolve in the next decade- one that can cover vast amounts of space in a match a la Beckenbauer. A player that can shuttle around the pitch at ease and cover a multitude of areas would be game changing, and this is a quality already displayed by Ramires at Chelsea, to great effect.

Ramires: midfielder of the future?

The Brazilian has scored two already this season and although he hasn’t always been played in an attacking DM style, he has demonstrated the power of energy. Runners from deep are always troublesome to defences as the movement is hard to gauge and track if there is a great deal of movement and quick tempo play from the attackers.

Thanks for reading this, the first ever article on Push Them Wide. We hope you are excited by what we have to offer and keep on following the blog.

3 comments on “Where football will go next

  1. Hello, I realise this comes with some delaym but… nice read, and nice blog.

    I have been thinking, for a while now, about two possible evolutions of football tactics.
    One in the very short term: the return of 2 forwards. This is already happening in Italy (and the consequence is the return of 3-men defenses – Napoli, Juventus, even the National team in some instances), and if it is true that Italy is where usually tactics changes occur, I think we will see more and more 2-men offenses throughout Europe. It’s a cycle after all.

    A longer term one is… Advancing CBs. Yeah that’s right. CBs who can play the ball well, and while the team is in possession, advance to the midfield in order to support the midfield battle and give more freedom to actual midfielders to attack. They will be covered by FBs getting narrow. What do you think? Fanta-football?

    • Thanks for a brilliant reply, it’s really nice to receive insightful comments like that!

      I definitely agree with the 2 striker idea but it could easily go the other way. 2 strikers thrived for so long because they were not outnumbered by centre-backs and teams might react to flexible defences that try and outnumber their strikers by playing a 4-6-0 or 4-3-3. It will definitely be interesting to see how the rise of 2 strikers will affect defences and the cycle.

      I can see attacking CBs working! We could allow wingers to push on to much farther up the pitch, perhaps as support strikers, and the centre midfielders spreading wide to cover the space and the CBs pushing up into this. Definitely.

  2. i use toby alderwield as advancing CB, he could push to midfield position and spread a good pass. things work well except he got intercepted in midfield position, this could lead to devastating counter attack. but after all, risky play is fun right? 🙂

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