Jed Davies is a football coach and analyst. His work can be found across various books, magazines and websites. After being forced to retire early as a player due to injury, Jed fell in love with the tactical side of the game. As a coach, he has learnt from some of the best across the UK and Spain.
An interesting point that has to be mentioned here is that Jed Davies and his blog was an inspiration to us and our Tactical Analysis category. His content remains a benchmark for us as we strive to further improve this site.
Jed Davies is also soon publishing a book “The Tiki Taka Handbook”. He has researched and interviewed various coaches to compile this book that aims to provide football coaches and managers a source for coaching, training & tactical plans.
This concept of ‘form follows process’ really came out from a non-football related discussion; the type of conversation where your mind begins to wander elsewhere (and typically to football!). The extremely popular and celebrated architect, Mick Pearce, has gone about his career designing buildings that attempt to adapt to the environment he designs for and has recently ‘declared war’ on the popular design approach of ‘form follows function’ in architecture. So put short, Pearce believes architecture should be designed around the processes rather than functions – a building that adapts for the occupants within, rather than the occupants becoming the agent of change.
My belief is that football tactics should looks towards this way of thinking as inspiration. It is this train of thought that would look to adapt a tactical approach and/or formation rather than look to change player profile (subbing a player). You might argue that at the elite end of football we already see this – but in reality, how many managers would completely adapt the way they play to confront issues put forward by an opposition? I would argue that in today’s game, Manchester United are the most successful at adapting their approach and have had the biggest influence on helping me find my own approach as a coach.
Since Michels and Cruyff, Dutch football and analysts have really led the way as ‘professors of the game’ and in the book ‘Dutch Soccer Secrets’, the author outlines four moments of the game that have led me to conclude that the processes are as follows:
My argument is that football formations and tactics should be designed around each of these processes – no “play the ball over the top to our fast striker” as a functional output to overcome the opposition. This really is something we see at grassroots football all around the world – team tactics dominated around the ability of one or two specific functions with no real attempt to address the four processes.
So a formation that looks to follow the processes of the game isn’t 1-4-3-3, 1-3-4-3 or anything of the sort; but instead a set of positional reference points that looks to deal with each specific process. An example of this is seen clearly at Barcelona if you were to analyse the way they play – is their formation really one you can label as 4-3-3? They’ll have a structure or system which they play in and it is these four changes that make up what I call an ‘ecosystem of football’ (the forms for each process and their relationships)
If we consider only the ball circulation process for a moment and come back to Manchester United, they are the one team that really does have options to change EVERYTHING to overcome a different opposition. Barcelona will continue to play through ‘zone 14’ (the area right outside the opposition’s 18-yard box) and traditionally, many will think of Manchester United as a team that looks to create 1 vs. 1 scenario’s on the wings and dominate teams as “kings of the crossing method” as Liverpool coach Chris Davies put it to me. But this season, Manchester United have Kagawa and Rooney who can change Manchester United’s approach in a heart beat – instead of looking to play through the flanks, Manchester United will play through zone 14 (it is for these reasons that I believe Sir Alex Ferguson rested Rooney against Real Madrid and played wingers instead) – a tactical solution (the best team in each specific scenario) rather than picking the best eleven players available – when will the England national team get this right?
Football is all about how you can control the game and it is for this reason that many look to the Barcelona way as the ultimate method of controlling your own fate – something that Brendan Rodgers will die by. But sometimes, controlling a game doesn’t require you to have the ball; instead you can control the opposition by allowing them to have possession and force them into areas you want them to play. By doing just this, you have taken the opposition out of their defensive shape and you can really look to break through the lines that way.
So the processes of football are more than just the four I mentioned earlier, but the conditions of the game itself. Guardiola was the one coach who nailed this way of thinking on the head – he’d spend the first ten to fifteen minutes watching the opposition (and only the opposition) and then (if need be) change everything to overcome any problems they’d face – it was said to me that he spends days before a game writing notes about what problems they could face and then how he could solve each one, providing him with flexibility and a set of ‘forms’ that follows the processes of the game. I say ‘form’ because it refers to more than just formation but the attitude of play too (through zone 14 or down the wings – a simplified view).
Through ‘form follows process’ in football you arrive at the same conclusion that my friend Mick Pearce arrived at in architectural design: a system that is the agent of change, rather than the persons within it. A way of ‘perfect football’ with an adaptive structure.
Football tactics do seem to come full circle but I would argue that 4-4-2 has not disappeared. In fact, watch most teams in the Premier League and you may notice that when the team do not have possession, they often slip into a 4-4-2 (or variation of 4-4-2) formation. The 4-4-2 formation for me isn’t about strikers, it’s about the wingers and the ability to defend well in two lines of four.
The attitude to crossing is something I have spoken in great lengths with to Liverpool coaches and generally speaking the attitude towards crossing has continually changed over the last thirty years; if we analyse the general statistics, we may arrive at the conclusion that crossing is ineffective (although research carried out a few decades ago may arrive at a different conclusion altogether). A good winger today may have a 25% success rate with his cross and from the receiving player, only about one in two (if he is a particular good striker) are on target and not all of those shots go in. If we look at Liverpool of 2011/12 we can find a team that religiously crossed the ball (31.4 crosses per game) and ended up with a record low of one goal every 421 crosses! So as Liverpool’s main method of creation (remember that they signed Carroll and Downing for this method of play!) they’d score one goal this way every fourteen games!
I think in that season (2011/12) it was something like 80 crosses per goal throughout the league and an average of 22 crosses per team per game. But with these general statistics, Barcelona and Rodgers will see only the amount of times they gave the ball back to the opposition! From their point of view, why would they gift the opposition a chance to counter attack when they can continue to control the game with the ball?
Now this isn’t to write off crossing as a way of assisting goals, but clearly to rely on this method alone and with no option to change is pure stupidity. Crossing works best when on the counter attack (to get in behind the opposition) and from winning the 1 vs. 1 scenario and getting to the bye-line and with some sets of players, this may be the best method to implement.
So it’s this problem we’ve arrived at that leads to managers deciding they can no longer put so much emphasis on the two wingers; and if we aren’t crossing anymore, we don’t need two players in the box waiting! It would be far more effective to have more players helping the build-up play and thus, one striker has been the preferred method for most top class teams in Europe over the last decade. Most teams that have players who may have been traditional wingers twenty years ago, now play with inverted wingers and look to break inside this way.
It isn’t these changes alone that have led to the formation changes, but I believe that they have played significant roles in the preference of playing one striker and three in behind. There are of course, teams that do well by crossing and will continue to play this way – Croatia under Bilic are a great example of this with Jelavic and Mandzukic up front and a large number of crosses coming in.
These claims are often from people who have only watched Barcelona against Bayern Munich recently and I find it incredibly frustrating to listen to. Its hard to believe that just because a team has failed, that their whole way of playing and philosophy is to blame. They were extremely unlucky against Chelsea in the CL semi-finals last season and did not play well against Bayern this season – but none of that is to blame their way of playing. Against Chelsea, they could have replayed that game ten times and Barcelona may have won nine of them and Chelsea only once. That’s the beauty of football – even with the dominance of a side (Hungary and Holland in the past) in a knock out competition, anything is possible.
If we are to measure the success of a way of playing purely on the performance of a knock-out competition, analysts need to have a good long hard look at themselves. Put Chelsea of last season in a league with Barcelona of last season and come to your own conclusion – which method of play would win the league?
I think Guardiola had the ability to slightly ‘edit’ his way of playing to overcome problems and perhaps Vilanova (while a world-class coach) doesn’t have the same ability as a manager. To suggest that Barcelona didn’t have a plan B would be narrow minded in my opinion – a Barcelona coach went into great depths with me about how they would introduce a second deeper midfielder to help build up play out from the back if they were struggling or how they would look to use a different method of pressing at different points of the game (full, half or false pressing) to control the opposition as appropriate. Perhaps, Barcelona are rigid in their ways of thinking about how to get the ball into the back of the net (from within the 18-yard box) but if we analyse how many goals are scored from outside the 18-yard box generally, we’d likely find that over 80% of goals are scored from within this area – so why not look to play the ball into these areas from the ‘danger zones’ outside of the box?
I have seen Rodgers experiment this season more than he’d like to have. For a short while he looked to tackle the problems of players not having the ability to not get caught out on the counter attack by playing with a 5-4-1 formation when without the ball (and something more typical with the ball). Liverpool really struggled in the transitions this season (the 6 seconds after winning or losing the ball) and getting back into the defensive block or going into the attacking formation. Put short, Liverpool really have had a hard time at finding their own ‘ecosystem of play’.
I know that Rodgers will tell you that if he has the ball for 65% of the game, he can concentrate on his own team’s control and strengths rather than that of the opponents but clearly in a fast paced Premier League, things are a little different to the slower but more technical Spanish La Liga. I think Rodgers is yet to find the Liverpool adapted way of playing but we have to remember that it isn’t realistic for Rodgers to simply get rid of a whole squad and rebuild. It isn’t even a case of getting rid of the worst players but the wrong players – players that may not be suited to the role they are expected to play with the ball (and in each of the processes). I am not going to single out any players, but I think the problem at Liverpool this season isn’t quality but consistency. This may suggest one of two things:
In truth, it’s likely to be a combination of both. For me, it isn’t the method of football that is to blame, but the inability to tackle each of the problems above.
I am particularly intrigued by this scenario. I know that Guardiola is a student of the game and appreciates all different ways of playing – he even wanted to play in the Premier League towards the end of his career. I actually believe Guardiola won’t try to mimic what he did at Barcelona but look to further what Bayern already do – which in truth, actually isn’t too far from the Barcelona method. Bayern dominate possession but treat the final third slightly different to how Barcelona do and I think that this is the challenge for Pep.
Before Guardiola became manager of Barcelona he spent a few years analysing and learning from other managers: Bielsa, Juan Manuel Lillo and Ferguson are three named. Each of those three managers has a unique style of management and view on tactics. Guardiola was keen to learn the strengths and weaknesses of all ways of playing football and this suggests he is open minded enough to find a system that suits the players he has available to him. Guardiola will know that the Bundesliga is something of a middle ground between the Premier League (with its pace) and La Liga (with its technical levels) and I do feel any approach he takes will reflect this.
We have to remember that Guardiola didn’t invent the Barcelona way, he simply looked to improve it and he did just that. They scored more goals, conceded fewer and won just about everything possible. The current Bayern Munich way of playing is pretty much as successful as it could be right now. Guardiola will look to continue with this and look to introduce Gotze and other new players into the current fold.
In my opinion, Guardiola will look to bring more German players into the team and look towards Cruyff’s opinion of ‘domestic majority’ – a team should largely consist of players from its immediate vicinity and any player from outside of this should be better than what is available in this area. Cruyff actually turned down a number of transfers to Barcelona in the nineties from Holland (Van der Sar, Bergkamp and many others) that he could have signed. He spoke a lot about wanting to have not just an all-Spanish Barcelona but an all-academy Barcelona.
Since Cruyff is the biggest influence on Guardiola’s method of management, I would expect the likes of Emre Can and Mitchell Weiser to become part of the Bayern squad over the next season or so. I believe the ‘footballing reasons’ Guardiola took the Bayern job was because of this idea and the challenge of taking a team that is already great and creating a legendary era of Bayern domination (sound familiar?)