Twenty-two years ago my brother and I bought our first console, the Super Nintendo, and our first game was Super Soccer. There were only eight directions you could run or pass in – no such new-fangled nonsense as step-overs or backheels. The sheer simplicity of the gameplay made the accuracy of passes critical, as there were precious few ways of bypassing opponents. Belgium was rated as the worst team, below Japan and the Republic of Ireland. You could even make matches last 198 minutes long if you so desired (we often did).
How times change. It is near impossible to distinguish between FIFA 16 screens and actual live games, and modern gamers can create visual masterpieces with an on-screen Messi or Neymar every bit as stunning as the real life stars. But the most intriguing aspect of the ancient classic Super Soccer was the plethora of curious tactical formations that we had never laid eyes on before – or at least not on a real pitch.
Playing a sweeper was still in vogue in the aftermath of Italia 90, so naturally 5-3-2 was a popular choice when the brotherly competition got serious. The one true quality that mattered on the game was pace, as all players in each team shared identical characteristics, so having extra cover at the back was always useful, but we needed something more daring. There was the 4-2-4 inspired by Brazil’s glorious 1970 World Cup-winning side, which provided plenty of men going forward but lacked enough bodies in midfield to prevent our virtual games descending into long ball contests. Nothing could beat the ridiculous 2-3-5, though.
Two defenders against five forwards? The score-lines really were cricket scores, and boy it was fun, but it couldn’t possibly work in reality could it? I fantasised about a front five of Hughes, Cantona, Kanchelskis, Giggs and McClair trouncing Paul Parker and Denis Irwin. It certainly fed my boyhood imagination. Maybe this formation had been devised as a training routine to help defenders learn to deal with being outnumbered? Even then it seemed unfair. I just wasn’t prepared for my father to stun me by explaining how it wasn’t just a laugh, but had been the norm for teams for the best part of a century until thirty years earlier.
Could Manchester United really have won their first European Cup with only two defenders just 24 years earlier? Supporters from the sixties might have asked how Spain managed to rule the world without a striker. Anyone trying to keep track of Ajax and the Dutch national side at the height of Total Football must have wondered if they had any tactical training at all, such was their fluidity. A brief look back at some of the more popular tactical movements in footballing history and one can see one common thread: their success came from their originality. They shocked and amazed people, but eventually their lifespan petered out as counter measures were developed to nullify them.
The element of surprise that springs from innovation is essential to gain success in today’s game. Playing against a sweeper? Drop a striker deeper to draw man-markers out of position. Opposition wide men getting forward too easily? Make your wingers work harder to isolate their full-backs. Strike partnership causing havoc in your defence? Flood the midfield to cut off their supply. Fight fire with fire. Gone are the days of number 3 belonging exclusively to a left full-back; nowadays, you’re as likely to see it on the shirt of Asamoah Gyan as that of Ashley Cole.
In fact shirt numbers have become so obsolete as a method of identifying a player’s role that it probably won’t be long before we see three digits on players’ backs. It already happens in America’s NFL – touchline officials routinely wear three numbers on their black and white pinstriped outfits. This is just a drop in the ocean of modern tactical warfare, but to truly understand how we have arrived at having such a smorgasbord of chalkboard eccentricities, we need to go back to a time when Britannia really did rule the waves. Or so we thought.
Proudly defending an unbeaten home record against international sides from outside the British Isles, England could have been forgiven for thinking they set the benchmark in world football in the early 1950s. Two full-backs holding the fort, a centre-half dictating play from a deep position, two half-backs providing the engine room, two out-and-out wingers hugging the touchline, two inside forwards supporting the battering ram of a centre-forward; this had been the recipe for success for decades, so why would they change it for the visit of a team lead by a chubby army major?
That night in 1953 at Wembley when the Magical Magyars of Ferenc Puskás, Nándor Hidegkuti and Sándor Kocsis humiliated the Three Lions of Billy Wright, Stanley Mattthews and Alf Ramsey was the rudest of awakenings. It was also a sign of things to come with the previously unheard of withdrawal of Hidegkuti from the forward line in what was perhaps the first example of a ‘false nine’. That a system as rigid as the W-M, devised by Arsenal and Huddersfield manager Herbert Chapman in the 1920s, had survived so long was a surprise. That English teams persevered with it for about a decade after the embarrassing annihilation by ‘The Galloping Major’ and co. is astonishing.
Simply by upsetting the status quo, Hungary managed to flummox a proud national side in their own back yard in front of more than 100,000 fans. Defenders were not used to straying beyond the halfway line, and especially not to follow a man who didn’t drop anchor in any one given area of the pitch. It is a romantic idea to imagine that the decision to drop between the defence and midfield was born purely through instinct, but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story. Ironically, it was an Englishman, Jimmy Hogan, who brought the ideals of close passing and interchangeable positions to the Hungarians, via the cultured coffee houses of pre-war Vienna.
Hogan had been brought up on ‘the Scottish game’ of attractive, intricate passing, and realised way before his time that this was the future, not route one blood and thunder. He left the country to find employment on the continent before the First World War broke out, and found himself in demand amongst the footballing intelligentsia of Central Europe – this was where football was discussed as poetry, not as a method of improving moral fibre. Such was his influence that Hungarians to this day point to Hogan as the father of their most glorious era.
Former national team manager Gusztáv Sebes said: “When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.” And yet he remains a peripheral figure in the coaching history on these shores.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, then, when Vincent del Bosque named a line-up at Euro 2012 with six midfielders and no strikers. Why play a striker just because the opposition expect it? His moustache barely twitched as his players passed their way through to claim their third consecutive major international trophy.
What Spain did was bold. Inverting logic can either go badly wrong or spectacularly right, but in fact all they did was look at the players they had at their disposal, assessed their strengths, and set themselves up to maximise the potential of those key assets. It made no sense to focus attacks around a muscly target man when they didn’t have one, so they didn’t.
As bold as it was, however, it didn’t last long. Trying to out-pass the masters of possession is like riding into the valley of death: admirable, but doomed. So instead, teams decided to go the opposite way and let them have possession in front of a compact midfield, and then strike with deadly speed and precision. Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile epitomised this magnificently in Brazil with a stunning 2-0 victory, despite having only 37 percent possession, fewer shots on target and fewer corners than the reigning European champions. In less than a decade, tiki-taka was born, thrived, and then was brutally murdered by counter-attacking ruthlessness.
The global stage of the World Cup is an unforgiving environment for exposed footballing philosophies. Lower down the food chain, the innovations become even more bizarre. In the Russian Second Division, players rarely stay at a club much longer than a year, and pre-season only lasts six weeks, so managers have a frustrating task on their hands to build a side in their image.
Konstantin Galkin inherited an FC Tyumen squad full of ball playing midfielders but short on genuine wide men last summer, so he set the side up in a loose 4-2-3-1-cum-4-5-1 formation that accommodated his best players. The problem he faced was his midfield getting caught out of position when they were still adapting to this new-found freedom, especially in front of his full-backs. So instead of panicking and dropping the whole team deeper, he converted right winger Andrei Pavlenko into a full-back, where his pace and comfort on the ball helped shackle opposing forwards, and moved Alexei Shlyapkin forward into midfield, where his better tackling and greater composure ensured opposition full-backs couldn’t support their teammates as he pressed high up the pitch.
Was Shlyapkin becoming an attacking full-back or a defensive winger? It is hard to say, except that his role stabilised the balance of the team, and led to promotion, and a Manager of the Year award for Galkin. Even at university intramural level, usually the haven of hungover kick-abouts, similar setups breed success. Mutts Nutts were battling relegation from Division Two of the Leeds University league system, until Adam McKenzie was simply given the position of ‘right’ – his pace and stamina meant there was no need to rigidly assign someone in front of or behind him, and it allowed one extra man in the middle.
Perhaps the greatest exponent of unorthodox wing play is Dirk Kuyt. He has garnered respect throughout his career for his phenomenal work rate and hassling of opponents, but it should be remembered that he wasn’t always a water-carrying wide man. Before his move to Liverpool, he was an out-and-out striker in his home country, scoring 71 times in 101 matches for Feyenoord, and he finished as the Eredivisie top scorer in 2005 with 29 league goals. At the World Cup in Brazil, however, he was utilised by Louis van Gaal as a left wing-back; this may have appeared a strange move at first glance, but van Gaal knew that his qualities as a battler would help nullify the threat of Chile’s lightning counter attacks.
So what next? Perhaps we will start seeing asymmetrical formations with only one winger who roves from flank to flank, or a midfield that will rotate across the pitch so that man marking becomes impossible. Diego Costa may well be one of the last of a dying breed – a classic number 9 – but many managers will not be bold enough just yet to trust the technical abilities of their players to manage without a fixed focal point in attack.
Fluid versatility is becoming more and more essential in today’s game. Super Soccer may have been an archaic representation of football in one sense, but the amorphous nature of teams on the game was prophetic in its depiction of modern tactics. Rigid individual roles are beginning to fade away as managers add more and more strings to their bows.
If most people had to choose a face to represent the modern game, it would probably be Cristiano Ronaldo’s – perhaps it would be more fitting if that face belonged to a blonde fisherman’s son from Katwijk aan Zee.
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint