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Tactics: Where next?
If you read The Mixer, Michael Cox’s tactical history of the Premier League (and you definitely should – although it will probably make you desperately nostalgic), the one macro conclusion you can draw from it is this:
The most successful team of each generation was that which inverted the tactical norm.
What I mean by this is that at any given moment in the league there was an “accepted” way to play – the tactical norm – which one team would proceed to come along and “undo” with a tactical approach that voided it. This approach would then become the norm itself until it was usurped by another norm, and so it would go.
For instance, in the early days of the Premier League you had quite direct football with the classic “little and large” strike partnership up front. The primary innovation that subverted this was United’s introduction of Cantona as an “off-the-striker” technical player. For a period of time United were the only team to be employing this effectively, and in turn it made the team play more technically, and the opposition struggled against it. The fact they weren’t playing against it week-in-week-out left them ill-prepped. By and by however the likes of Bergkamp appeared and the aberration became the norm. Another example was the rise and fall of controlled possession football. This at its peak neutered direct attacking football (think Jose’s Chelsea versus early 2000s Man United, or peak Van Gaal), but was then undone by frantic high pressing popularised by Guardiola, which has now become the tactical norm.
What is fascinating about this constantly evolving cycle is that it shows definitively that there is no “right way to play”, or even, frankly, such thing as a tactically astute manager. What would be more accurate would be to say that, like a stopped clock being right twice a day, a manager’s particular style may inadvertently be the “breaker” that allows them to succeed temporarily until the league catches up – at which point they will lose their advantage. This is why more or less no managers are successful for more than a 10 year cycle – they’re more the right man at the right time (see Wilkinson, Wenger, Mourinho, Ranieri, etc.). The exception as ever is probably Ferguson, as he managed to create multiple successful sides which were tactically different – he had no fixed conception of the “right way to play”, which was the secret to his longevity.
With this in mind, it’s worth speculating on what the next tactical evolution will be.
To answer this question you need first to establish the current norm – which I’d say is the high press – and then ask what would counter this. My suggestion would be a style of play that is extremely direct and has a lot of width, as this would exploit teams which push up the pitch. The closest example of this in the game at the moment is probably Klopp’s Liverpool. Although they press a lot too, their tactical advantage over the likes of City comes from how quickly they get the ball forward and playing on the last man.
Whether Klopp does this on purpose or it’s just a happy accident one can’t say – but I would expect the next 5-10 years to see a massive resurgence of Robben-style wingers, and a decline in influence of dainty technical players like David Silva. I think it’s not for nothing that Liverpool improved after Coutinho left – Mane is a much more “next gen” player if this theory is correct.
What’s quite funny/tragic about this is how United (my team) are consistently one step behind the tactical evolution – they hired possession managers (LVG, Jose) in the age of pressing, and now I guarantee they’ll hire a pressing manager (please please please not Poch!!) just as we’re getting ready to leave that era.
Any other visions of how you would set up a next generation tactical approach would be interesting to hear.
Landlords and Serfs
Rory Smith’s NY Times piece on Arsenal’s ousted shareholders (yesterday’s Mediawatch recommended reading) was a sobering read. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Kroenke’s journey to sole owner was the inevitability of it – my only surprise was that people seemed to be surprised. To my mind from the moment Arsenal (and this applies to any club) floated on the stock market sole ownership was the logical conclusion.
We live in a world where wealth has polarized. Where the richest 8 men own 50% of the world’s wealth. In terms of haves and have nots we’re heading back to pre-French Revolution society. The difference being that today’s ruling classes enjoy the smokescreen of democracy and a supine media to shield them from the threat of the guillotine.
They’re the landlords, we’re the serfs. They’re the kings, we’re the peasants. And serfs and peasants don’t get to own football clubs. Not without the blessing of the landlords and kings at any rate. With ownership everywhere being concentrated among an ever smaller super elite why should we expect football clubs to be any different?
Conor (Serf) Malone, Donegal
Keep the blackout!
It’s really disappointing to see all these mails calling for an end to the blackout. I suppose I may have had the same opinion a couple of years ago but as I now have a season ticket to non-league Dulwich Hamlet I can see the damage it would do at that level.
We are in a fairly well documented situation which is leaving us in severe financial problems. The recent friendly against Crystal Palace gave us much needed income after going out of the FA Cup too early to receive any prize money. Match-day income is the life blood for non-league clubs and with an attendance of between 1000 and 1500 each game, take a couple of hundred people away from that and you’re losing a significant sum. If you end the blackout then you will see some of these clubs go to the wall. You may not care about these small non-league clubs but a lot of people do and football’s supposed to be for everyone, not just the 20 corporations in the Premier League.
There’s been talk of sending money down the leagues from this but where do you draw the line? Only giving to football league clubs? What about the conference? Ok, they can have some as well but then what about the league below? There’s always going to be someone that misses out.
I do have a Premier League club I support but I’ve got so bored and disillusioned with the money, moaning, shitting on the fans and hype that I’ve really moved away from it these days. I read about it far more than I actually watch it just to pass the time at work. Going to non-league games regularly has been the most I’ve enjoyed football in years, I’d encourage everyone to go to their local team. The quality might not be there but all the teams actually try and win each week and it’s honestly a far more enjoyable experience than the Premier League bullshit train. Please don’t ruin it.
…The arguments about sharing the extra money generated by showing games at Saturday at 3pm doesn’t take into account that it will also potentially affect hundreds of non-league teams.
Even if they did, the argument seems to be that people are happy to jeapordise the futures of all the small teams in the country because they honestly don’t think there’s enough football on TV. I’m not sure I buy any part of that argument.
David Taylor, Brighton and Lewes Fan
Thought I’d have another crack at the Wine Bottle team. This has been helped by the ever trusty crystal ball.
GK: Allison (2023/23)
Conceding a Premier League record low 14 goals, this was the finest of Allison’s 9 years at the club. Surely Liverpool’s all time greatest keeper.
RB: Trent Alexander-Arnold (2025/26)
What other year could it be? A historic year, where he not only captained Liverpool to the treble, but also lifted the World Cup with England. A true Liverpool legend.
CB: Joe Gomez (2021/22)
We all remember “the Gomez Final”. 2 goals, 2 clearances off the line and just an immense defensive display in a 2-1 win over Zidane’s Manchester United in the FA cup final.
CB: Virgil Van Dijk (2021/22)
Picking him more for his international form. A colossus for the Dutch team, who lifted the World Cup in Qatar with 4 straight 1-0 wins in the knockout round. Played his part alongside Gomez in the Gomez final.
LB: Andy Robertson (2022/23)
A stunning 30 yard strike helped Liverpool retain the Champion’s League, and get some revenge, against a Sergio Ramos managed Real Madrid. While Madrid’s 3 red cards added to their downfall, Robertson was immense. 9 goals for the season from left back makes this his best year for Liverpool by some distance. Also helped Scotland win a game of football for the first time since 2018.
CM: Alex Oxlade Chamberlain (2019/20)
Some doubted that Chamberlain could come back from a serious knee injury, but this was surely his finest year in a Liverpool shirt. The attacking impetus in a Liverpool team that finally won the league title and a catalyst for the England team that won Euro 2020 at Wembley.
CM: Fabinho (2021/22)
It might have taken 4 years for years for Fabinho’s first league start for Liverpool, but after it came. he never looked back. Dominant in midfield and allowed the holy trinity of attacking talent to do their thing.
CM: James Milner (2029/30)
Those who ever doubted him now look very silly. A man who just got better with age and at the age of 44 became the oldest winner of the Ballon d’Or.
LW: Divock Origi (2024/25)
Some wrote him off, but after 7 seasons out on loan he finally came good. Just shows what a little patience can bring.
CF: Harry Wilson (2026/27)
A Premier league record 17 goals scored in one season from direct free kicks. Immense.
RW: Mo Salah (2017/18)
He’s never going to beat that year is he?
Manager: Jurgen Klopp (2018-2026)
You can’t argue with 5 league titles, 3 FA cups and 3 Champions League trophies can you?
Mike, LFC, London (You can tell I ran out of steam towards the end)
Draw no comfort
Although I was firmly in the ‘Mourinho out’ camp a few weeks back, I’ve mellowed somewhat recently, partly through apathy and partly through having written this season off in my head anyway (after 8 games FFS). Also I don’t think that getting another coach in at this stage is going to magically turn things around, there is more than just Mourinho at the club that need to look closely in the mirror and take some responsibility.
Having said that, I’m now looking at this weekend game and praying that we don’t park the bus and get a damp 0-0 or 1-1 draw that doesn’t answer any questions. I would actually rather get tonked (what a word, doesn’t get used often enough IMO) by Chelsea and get rid of Mourinho, if that is what the club wants to do, or beat them and maybe see the season start to turn round, even just a little bit.
Having read the Five Big Questions, I couldn’t agree more, Mourinho has to grow a pair and start playing our game instead of playing the game to nullify the opponents. I always thought, when Mourinho was first in charge of Chelsea, that he would play for a draw or try to nick a narrow win against the rest of the top four (back then) and then go all out and bully the smaller teams. That would usually be enough to win the league but not anymore! If Mourinho tries to man mark Hazard, play a deep defensive midfielder in Matic or Fellaini and insist that Pogba, Martial and Rashford track back then I fear for the result, but not for Mourinho.
So I suppose, for me, this is Mourinho’s last chance saloon and by 3pm on Saturday, they could be calling last orders. I doubt anyone will be jumping up to buy him a drink if Chelsea destroy us.
Paul, Man Utd
I saw that wonderfully odd stat about Klopp never having beaten a team in 18th, and thought ‘here we go again’.
However, as we play in the evening, Cardiff or Newcastle will hopefully have displaced them.
Come on, Rafa.
Dom (alternatively we could not rely on others and beat a poor team for once) Littleford
Peter and love
I’ve written in a couple of times about how much I enjoy Peter Goldstein’s articles so, at the risk of seeming repetitive, I’ll just say that I really enjoyed his article on Bournemouth and their transformation under Eddie Howe. I always feel more informed after reading his pieces, and really enjoy his writing style.