Friday 31 July 2015

How Barça’s Treble Will Change the History of Football Tactics

Before turning the page on the 2014/2015 season, let’s have a look at the learning and implications for football tactics of Barça’s treble. At least as significant as the move away from tiki-taka is the adoption of a three-forward format, Barça’s so-called trident (with both moves obviously not being unrelated). In this post, I seek to highlight why, from an evolutionary perspective, the importance of FC Barcelona having managed to win everything with such a system can hardly be overestimated.

Source: financialexpress.com

In what is widely considered the most authoritative book on the history of football formations, in Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson brilliantly describes the history of formations as a process in which the pyramid became inverted, i.e. a move from an all-out attacking 2-3-5 in the game's early days to a much more cautious sole-striker formation. In particular following FC Barcelona’s tiki-taka success under Guardiola and Spain’s victory at Euro 2012, some observers as well as coaches, notably Carlos Alberto Parreira, prophesied the winning formation of the future even to be the 4-6-0 – perhaps a final evolutionary step.

Did Luis Enrique, with his trident, then defy the laws of football tactics’ natural evolution? The answer is no. In an attempt to make sense of their environment, people naturally tend to look for patterns and cause-and-effect relationships, also where none exist. As football is a social undertaking, made by men’s thinking and acting, there is no “natural" evolution of which the future can easily be predicted or inferred from what came before. Most analysis is thus ex-post sense-making and assuming current tendencies will amplify in the future. Matthew Whitehouse’s recent book Universality: The Blueprint for Soccer’s New Era reads as a prime example hereof: enlightening in explaining the past; very unlikely to have any predictive power. Luis Enrique did not escape from any inevitable evolutionary path but, rather, realized that – as in any human endeavor – there was an active choice to be made.

For signs of just how powerful and self-fulfilling a formation’s success can be, we need not look far: with Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema, Real Madrid have a trident of their own. Furthermore, the most promising formation for Atlético, notorious for their defensive pressing through a 4-4-2, in the upcoming season, seems to combine Jackson Martínez (center), Griezmann and Ferreira Carrasco (both wide) – and it probably won’t take Simeone long to figure out just that.

Source: laacib.net

So, apart from there not being any pre-defined, inescapable evolution in football formations, what is the take-away of Barça’s treble this time? Get three excellent forwards and success will take care of itself? Not quite.
  1. There’s no one formation that beats the others (which is obviously not the same as saying that all formations are equally good or that formations don’t matter). A team’s best formation depends on the players you have at your disposal. In case you don’t have three – relative – star attackers, there’s as little point in playing with a trident as there is in not fielding all three when you have got them.
  2. Provided you have the quality forwards, attacking in numbers can be very effective, especially when playing against a team with a non-adaptive system that does not account for facing numerous attackers. Belgium – Argentina, to which I dedicated the first post in this blog, being a case in point. As much as people like to analyze and philosophize about the beautiful game, you get three points only when you score more goals than the opponent, so scoring goals is a prerequisite to winning.
Whether the “trident” will take the rest of Europe by storm remains to be seen. What already seems certain is that Barça’s recent treble success on the back of its trident has silenced prophesies of there being no more room for strikers in the football of the future. We may now also better understand why it makes little sense to believe in some kind of determinism when it comes to the future of football tactics. In Whitehouse’s words,

Football’s future will be defined thanks to the visionaries and risk takers who seek to try new things and experiment with the game. This is how anything evolves, change through trial and error.