The tactical evolution of football, from its creation to today, is fascinating in that it reveals so much about different facets of the modern day game. In ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, Jonathan Wilson analyses the defining moments which shaped the changes in tactical approach, and in doing so reveals the birth of many traits we see across world football now.
The game, in its first fully recognisable form, was developed on British shores. As you would expect, being pioneers of the sport meant that initially England and Scotland were world leaders in both the development and quality of the teams they produced. It is what created the air of invincibility about the English national side in the early days of international competition, especially on home soil where unfavourable conditions were not a problem.
But as is often the case, being the best built a complacency which eventually led to the English bubble being burst with that famous 6-3 victory by Hungary at Wembley in 1953. Whereas in Britain physical strength was admired and tactical ideology dismissed, it provoked a new school of thought and analysis as the game spread across Europe. Indeed some of our greatest thinkers such as Jimmy Hogan had a significantly deeper influence in central Europe than they did on British shores. Whilst we felt it unnecessary to undertake specific training methods and develop the tactical aspects of the game, across Europe a far more intelligent and fluid brand of the game developed. Sound familiar?
Fast forward to the modern day and similar nuances still exist. Whilst the domestic game in England has changed immeasurably over the last 20 years, we still suffer at times from an insular perspective. We are late in adopting new tactical strategies – look at the constant development and adaptation in Italy’s Serie A as an example – and our native players still suffer from the same inflexibilities and technical deficiencies compared to their foreign counterparts. Whilst the Spanish were inventing the tiki-taka style which dominates world football now, the British were still enforcing their rigid and old-fashioned methods of youth development. Changes have been made to the structure of youth football recently, but the feeling we are always playing catch-up has not subsided.
Despite knowing that we are behind our European equivalents in many aspects of the game, we still take a very ‘it’s beneath us’ approach to the Europa League. The Champions League has an obvious draw, which I completely understand, but that does not automatically mean that its sister competition is meaningless. The combination of the desire to compete in the Champions League, plus the often stated belief that the Premier League is the best in the world (a subjective argument, and not one which I necessarily subscribe to) has created a dismissive attitude towards the lesser tournament.
This is partly down to Uefa of course. Their desire to turn everything into a cash cow has led to an unnecessarily drawn out and bloated competition, which undoubtedly puts some teams off when they have a tough domestic calendar to contend with. However the opportunity to learn and develop should override this negative aspect. If there was no potential for our clubs to learn, logical thinking would suggest that they would win it if they really wanted to. However, we know that not to be the truth with both Manchester clubs knocked out of last year’s competition, despite each accumulating a staggering 89 points in our league.
Obviously the idea of changing our attitude towards the Europa League is not really directed at those two clubs since they will both be competing and hoping to advance in the Champions League this year. However, their failures do help highlight the potential to be extracted from taking the competition seriously. Manchester United was thoroughly outclassed by Marcelo Bielsa’a Athletic Bilbao over two legs, and they will have learnt from it. And if one our top sides are capable of being educated from such a game then the same applies for our other teams.
Those who stand to benefit the most from experiencing different styles and playing philosophies are our home-grown players and coaches. The technical shortcomings of British footballers generally (there are exceptions of course) have been well discussed time and time again, most recently in light of the same weaknesses cropping up during Euro 2012. Taking on players proficient in the skills we often lack can only lead to an improvement.
In addition to the players the English coaches, who often complain about being overlooked for the big jobs, do not make the most of the opportunity to learn. Year after year, our clubs enter substandard teams in the competition and subsequently fail to progress. Only Fulham under Roy Hodgson and Middlesbrough under Steve McClaren had a real go at winning it, with most seeing it as a distraction from other priorities. For all the criticism the two of them receive, they are almost unique in that they have proven themselves willing to recognise the importance of development from outside influences.
It is time to learn from lessons in the past and in the present. Although the Champions League is the ultimate prize in European club football, the Europa League is still a valuable tournament. Whilst we have one of the better domestic leagues, it is time to accept that there is still plenty of room for improvement. Chelsea’s humbling by Atlético Madrid was admittedly a bad day at the office, but still provided further evidence of this. A more respectful attitude to a competition in which we have had little success can only be of benefit.