A Historical Review of Soccer Tactics

About Soccer

Great Historical Narrative. Shortsighted Prognostication

In their YouTube video WHY the development of football tactics is over the folks at DW Kick Off give a beautifully detailed chronology of the evolution of team tactics, starting with the first international soccer game ever in 1872 – where England used the 1-1-8 formation versus Scotland’s 2-2-6 formation. Game score was 0-0.

Image of 1-1-8v2-2-6 formation

They go on to breakdown each of the dominant formations as soccer tactics evolved from

  • Extreme offensive pressing and counter-pressing to
  • Emphasis on ball possession and circulation to
  • Extremely defensive tactics to
  • A combination of the old tactics, requiring every team to master every tactic and then seek refinements in their application

Watch the video below. Then read on afterwards to see the highlights described on a timeline and complemented with tactically-centered reference videos that explain how each tactic revolutionized soccer and show how the tactics are applied to perfection.

Chronology of Historical Revolutions in Soccer

From 1872 to the 1960s we see the dominance of extreme offensive tactics. The chronology goes as follows:

  • A few years after 1872: England adopts the Pyramid or 2-3-5 formation
  • 1930s: Arsenal dominates with the WM or 3-2-2-3 formation
  • 1930s – 1953: Pyramid and WM are the norm for 1st few world cups
  • 1953: Hungary moves the center forward back on its 2-3-5 formation. Thus transforming the Pyramid, 2-3-5, to a 2-3-1-4; creating the first false 9 position, and beating England 6-3 in the process.

In the 60s we see extreme defensive tactics take center stage.

  • 1960s: First introduced by Karl Rappan in the 1930s, Catenaccio didn’t gain traction until the Italians reintroduced it. Catenaccio (aka The Chain), which means “door-bolt” in Italian, is zone defense that, when executed properly, can put as many as five defenders on the offensive player receiving the ball at the same time. Inter Milan dominated the sixties with this tactic. See the best explanation of Catenaccio in the video below.
Although described as a defensive tactic this video clarifies how Catenaccio was much more than that.
  • 1970s: Say hello to Total Futbol or the 4-3-3 formation. Each player can play any position, but the formation must be maintained by the team at all times. It is used by Holland most consistently and effectively. Watch Holland in action using the Total Football tactic in the video below..
  • 1980s: The 4-3-3 formation is complemented with Ugly Defensive Football which puts emphasis on heavy man to man coverage of all play makers. Used most successfully by Germany and Argetina.

  • Late 80s – Present: Arrigo Sacchi (aka The 4-4-2), named after the famous AC Milan coach, introduces a flat back 4 and uses an aggressive offside trap, while keeping the distances between the three lines compact. This tactic went contrary to what most Italian clubs were using at the time, Catenaccio. More focused on offense than defense, this tactic places heavy emphasis on ball possession. Hence, the need for keeping the space between the lines compact. This tactic revolutionized Italian soccer. For most clubs, it’s still the standard today.

What’s Happening Right Now Right Now?

What we are seeing today is investment in tactical refinements. Pepe Guardiola has led a mini-revolution refining the Tiki-Taka. This possession based offensive tactic looks like a 2-3-5 with a false 9 that creates a tremendous number of short passing lanes. Call it the extreme version of theTiki-Taka.

Because the 2-3-5 is a high risk tactic that can leave your defensive line vulnerable to counter-attack, it can only win championships if you possess the most elite of fullbacks capable of closing long defensive gaps quickly. Hence the rise of the expensive super-back.

The long ball, with an emphasis on cross-field diagonal passes, has made a comeback as well.

Another blast from the past is La Pausa. Used masterfully by Pele in the 60s, and part of Messi’s bag of tricks today, a highly skilled and quick dribbler will stop his sprint mid-stream. This causes the defender to make a split-second stop long enough to have to reset and re-guess what the offensive player’s next move.

Last, we have the stopped ball plays. If you’re as old as I am, you’ve noticed that corner kicks and free kicks have become scientific and artistic beyond anything you could have envisioned 20 years ago. They are beautiful and accurate, and each one matters, as many critical games in recent history have been decided by dead ball plays. This is not by accident. It is yet another example of teams searching for any refinement they can make to gain the upper hand over a competitor. Watch NTX’s 50 Insane Free Kicks in Football 2019 below.

Outside of tactical refinements of already existing tactics, there’s not much left to discover. This is where the story ends for the DW Kick Off writers. However, it doesn’t end there for the soccer world. A new hero is born – the goalie.

A New Real Technical Tactical Revolution is Emerging

How do you add another offensive player to your team? Involve the goalie!!

At first I thought this article from THE18 was a gag article, but it isn’t. It breaks down the way Manuel Neuer, superstar goalie from Bayern Munich, made the difference in their Champions League game victory over Tottenham. And so the wingback keeper position is born. Click the image below to learn more about what he did in the game, and drafts the template for the next revolution in soccer tactics.

The soccer world still has new tricks up its sleeve, and there is yet more room for this beautiful game to grow. Thank goodness!!!

Article on Manuel Neuer’s, a goalie, new role

What’s Next in The Evolution of Soccer Tactics?

This concludes A Historical Review of Soccer Tactics. All of the videos featured in this article can be found on my growing YouTube playlist, Soccer Wisdom. The YouTube Embed below gives you access to that playlist.

Thank you to the folks at DW Kick Off! for providing the inspiration that pushed me to learn more and more about the history of the revolutions that have changed the game forever.

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